…Weren’t we just bandying concepts, forming intellectual structures that were fascinating, but in the end, didn’t really matter? Wasn’t Christianity a mere mass of ideas, existing somewhere in a cloud of speculation, but having no link whatsoever with the life we lead? If it’s so real–as indeed, we believed it was–why was it complicated?…
Some years ago I went to a restaurant in the Philippines to meet some friends, including one of my former professors. There, I had a discussion with two friends from different Christian groups, on everything from the canon (the list of books) of Scripture to the doctrine of Purgatory. It was a lively exchange, since we disagreed on many important points, but a friendly one, and it was quite fascinating. Others in the group heard our discussion, and when we were already speaking alone, my best friend asked me what the point of the exchange was. Weren’t we just bandying concepts, forming intellectual structures that were fascinating, but in the end, didn’t really matter? Wasn’t Christianity a mere mass of ideas, existing somewhere in a cloud of speculation, but having no link whatsoever with the life we lead? If it’s so real–as indeed, we believed it was–why was it complicated? At least, that’s how I understood her questions–her actual words (alas for my memory!) were, I think, somewhat different.
Now, she raised some very good questions. Why indeed do we engage in these complicated debates about doctrine? Or for that matter, why do we delve into doctrine in the first place? Most fundamentally, why does Christianity matter at all? I hope more philosophical readers will forgive me if I avoid high-falutin’ language, for the basic issues, after all, are a matter of “pre-analytical thought-experience of connatural phenomena” (see how badly it sounds to go abstract?), i.e., common sense. Thus:
The Cosmic Ouch
“If it’s so real,” she had asked, “why is it so complicated?” My friend’s question was based on the assumption– in a way, quite justified– that if something is real, it must necessarily be simple, and that complications, where they exist, are tangential additions made by the overly inquisitive. Like I think I answered, I agree that what is real is necessarily simple. The dog that barked at me while I walked home was colored white; the water I’m about to drink is distilled. In other words, what is real is; and however we bandy whatever words we may think of, Ouch, the dog bit me! And that is real.
On the other hand, reality is, at one and the same time, the very opposite of simple. Take that bloody dog and its biting me. If you think about it, the event of biting was a confluence of a seemingly infinite number of real things. (I prefer ‘real things’. ‘Facts’ doesn’t quite hack it.) The dog had fur, claws, and unfortunately for me, teeth; its lungs were putting oxygen into its system, which oxygen was being supplied–along with enzymes, salts, etc.– throughout the dog’s body by a bloodstream pumped by its heart. Some of these things could also be said of the spiritual fellow-mammal it bit. Going to him, we would notice that he (I) had what some call a flight-or-flight response: his pulse quickened; he began to pant (slightly– I was not, I must say, panicked) so that more oxygen would be available should he suddenly exert his muscles to fight or run; and he looked around for avenues of escape.
Let’s extend it ad nauseam: Both biter and “bitee” were on a pavement made up of asphalt, laid on a layer of gravel that itself was placed on a previously flattened piece of ground by a construction company whose workers never knew the inter-species drama they would help cause. Both were breathing air made up of nitrogen and oxygen, along with carbon dioxide, some inert gases, and an unhealthy amount of carbon monoxide from the cars that were being driven by people on the way to families or friends oblivious of my dark plight; and the man, as he learned quite acutely, was capable of feeling pain. I could say a lot more, how my nutrition comes from a food-web that includes plants, animals, and processed tuna; how we were both illumined by the same moon that reflects solar light generated by a gigantic thermonuclear blast; et cetera. And, all these things, all that reality, was in some way part of the simple and all too real event of an aggressive dog sinking its teeth into my leg. The universe– how right the poet was!–is in a flower; I know, for it was there in the bite.
Unfortunately, our minds are not equal to the task of comprehending reality. We cannot, in one vast sweep, perceive all that is real, with all the interconnections and ramifications of everything that exists, in a single mental glance. Our thinking cannot go beyond understanding bits and pieces of reality at a given time. “I was bitten by the dog.” The statement implicitly contains all the facts connected to the event, but explicitly, all that it contains are three words denoting three concepts– the substantive ones of ‘I’ and ‘dog’, and the verb ‘to bite’. If we try to be think explicitly about everything connected to the statements–“I whose nerve cells connected through axons and dendrites generated an impulse through the sodium-potassium pump initiated by a reaction of my pain receptors in the left lower part of my calf whose skin layers of dermis and epidermis are easily injured and were injured, causing the blood vessels…”– we would go mad. Thus, any attempt at comprehending reality in all its complexity will always run into the little snag that our minds just don’t have the space for it.
This doesn’t make understanding impossible, but it does make it complicated. “The leaves are green.” As we saw earlier, while this may be true, the statement is but a tiny piece of all reality. Thus, to comprehend more, what our minds have to do is to engage in what the Scholastics called ratio or step-by-step thinking (as opposed to intellectus or immediate knowledge of basic truth). Mentally, we connect “the leaves are green” with “the leaves are on the oak branch” and “it is spring” and “the light that is reflected by the leaves has the frequency we call green”, ad infinitum. In other words, we mentally pierce all these little facts, using a string we call ‘being’, making a garland that begins to look like that vast complicated thing called reality. Some people make a system with those garlands; the Greeks who did it called their garlands ‘philosophy’.
I think that explains something I noticed when I first tried to write a summary of Christian teaching. (I should explain here that I have a habit, which amuses some of my friends–“You are weird,” a friend once said–, of making long, detailed outlines of essays I want to make– few of which, I’m afraid, I’ve even begun to write.) So I tried to make an outline of my planned summary of the Christian Faith, wanting to make the discussions follow a logically neat structure, beginning with basic ideas that serve as foundations for dependent truths, culminating in a stirring conclusion that affirmed Faith and moved its reader to Hope and Love. Somewhere at the beginning, though, I realized that I couldn’t talk about faith without discussing grace (since it is by grace that we believe), nor grace without the Church (through which the communion of grace is shared). But I couldn’t talk about the Church without talking of Christ (the Church being the Body of Christ) nor of Christ without God (for Christ is truly God and truly Man). And how do we know God? Through faith.
And that’s just the start of Christian teaching. It gets even harder when you go into its other truths. The Sacraments, Scripture, holiness, the Communion of Saints, the Blessed Mother, prayer, love of God and neighbor– every part of the Faith, every truth, every precept is implicitly part of every other, and you just cannot fully understand one thing without understanding everything else. To adapt an expression from Scripture, all is indeed in all. Dear Reader, you cannot imagine how frustrating that was to a control freak like me; but time and life came to teach me that this phenomenon I saw as an annoyance was, in fact, the key to the mystery, as Hopkins knew well so many years ago.
I think it was St. Thomas who said it, that our faith does not end in the articles of the creed, but in the realities they express. (In other words, when we say “we believe in one God”, we don’t believe in the words but in God Himself, “eternal, immortal, invisible”, terrible in majesty, beautiful in love.) And the frustrating complexity of Christian teaching, the reason I had attempt five times to outline the Faith, was due to one simple thing I never really forgot but somehow placed in the background: that this, all this, is real. And reality is not something you can neatly organize into an orderly synthesis, with little facts pigeonholed into cozy compartments and derivative truths marching in after the more basic. Reality is a storm coming from the ocean, an avalanche rolling from the peak. It is the water that quenches, the air that is breathed, the sun that warms, the stars that beckon. It is the rain and the thunder, the clouds and the sea; it is the rose that blooms in the field, the dewdrop that falls from the leaf. It is the baby that smiles, the friends that embrace, the spouses that love. And, I realize, it is the manger that lay among cattle, the bloodied Cross that stood on a hill, the tomb that was empty. This, all this, is reality.