omnibus omnia

Why does doctrine matter? part 2 of 2

In Bible, Catholicism, Christianity, Church, Culture, Debate, Faith, God, Jesus, Logic, Opinion, Personal, Philosophy, Religion, Spirituality, Theology, Thomism, Thoughts on October 8, 2007 at 00:39

…We were living 2,000 years after the Apostles, in a land thousands of miles from the land they trod. My best friend’s other question was in point: what’s the point? 

(Continued from Part 1

God Matters

But, there’s real, and there’s real. During the theological discussion my friend heard us make, I remember arguing that the canon (the list of books) of the Old Testament should be based on the Septuagint (the Greek compilation), since the Apostles, when they wrote the New Testament, used the Septuagint and quoted from it. My friends responded that Christ never quoted the Deutero-Canonicals (the Old Testament books excluded by the Jewish list, which my friends called the “Apocrypha”), to which I replied that this was weak negative evidence compared to the positive proof of the Apostles; and besides, if I don’t quote certain books in Scripture, does it mean I don’t believe in them? And on and on. We were eating in a restaurant, as I said earlier; my professor was supposed to attend a television debate after dinner; and we were soon to go our separate ways. We were living 2,000 years after the Apostles, in a land thousands of miles from the land they trod. My best friend’s other question was in point: what’s the point?

The question could be rephrased in any number of ways. Is it worth arguing over? Or in William James’ phrase, is it (that issue, that controversy) a hot question? It boils down, in the end, to relevance. Now, something can be relevant in two ways, objectively and subjectively. Something is objectively relevant to someone if it somehow affects him/her, if it gives her or deprives him of something. Were someone to steal my shirt with the flower design (a gift I can’t throw away but dread to wear), I would be affected by the thief’s act, since I lost the shirt. On the other hand, if I don’t like the shirt (and I don’t), and if I don’t really want to keep it (and I so don’t), then the theft would not affect me subjectively. I would worry about the security of my locker, maybe, but the shirt? Would I try to recall if it was 50% cotton, or if it came from Macy’s or Divisoria (the main downtown Manila market)? No. Knowing myself, I’d probably think, oh, it’s that shirt, then forget about it.

Subjective relevance then, hinges on our desires, our inclinations, our choices. If John chooses to marry Marsha, it won’t matter to him that Jane doesn’t want him. He loves Marsha, it’s her and her choice that matters. In short, subjective relevance hinges on love. If I love (in the sense of ‘like’) my shirt, then losing it matters; and if I love (as in ‘like’) a subject, I will spend hours reading books on it, traveling to where I can learn more, asking, and learning, and asking more to learn more. If I love a person (whether romantically or in friendship), then her welfare, her experiences, how she thinks of me, her family and friends all matter–not because they will make me love her less or more, but because they mean much to her, or because knowing them means knowing her more, or, quite simply, because she means a lot to me. 

In an objective sense, then, Christians believe that the teachings of their Faith–or more precisely, the reality behind those teachings–are relevant to their lives, and to the lives of all other human beings. They (we) believe that God created us from nothing to be with Him, that at the very core of our nature there exists a need beyond measure that only God can fill. We believe that at the beginning of our history we cut ourselves off from God, and so God became Man in Christ to bring us back to His embrace, and that only in Christ can we return to God. We believe too that if we accept God in Christ, then we will be fulfilled and happy for the rest of eternity; but if we reject Him, then we will be empty and in torment forever.

That may be why some Christians think so much about these truths and agonize about how to apply them (some Christians–others just accept and live them, and that too may be a good path), because they matter. Being with God and knowing how to be with Him goes to the very heart of human existence; their truth transcends all other truth; and the consequences are eternal. Thus did Christianity become a missionary religion, because for us, when we preach we are sounding an alarm, warning of a danger infinitely terrible, and telling of a Savior in Whom we can hope. Compared to that, all other matters are irrelevant, all vanity: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

As to subjective relevance: While Christians believe that there is a need deep in our natures that God and only God can fill, thing is, we don’t always notice it, which is quite understandable: if it is a need, it’s really not something you can see but something you can feel. And feeling, as we know, is dependent on a lot of things. We may be infected with the flu, and its symptoms may be emerging, but if we just had a good meal–which, for me, would be lasagna and chicken and pizza laden with hot sauce, with coke and cake and ice cream (oink)–and are happy in the company of family or friends, we wouldn’t really notice, will we? Only when we are alone in our room, sipping coffee or reading or typing on a keyboard, do we get that vague sick feeling, that malaise, like that which proclaims the onset of disease.

To take another example, I remember how sad I felt when one of my closest friends in college left a few years ago for another country, back when I was still in law school. To use Colleen McCullough’s phrase, it was like a spiritual amputation; the pain, for me, was real. And yet I didn’t always feel it. Whenever I went to law school and studied thousands of pages of court cases, whenever I was around other friends, I was okay. But when I went back to our old haunts, to the cafes where we talked philosophy and history, to the corridors where we walked, wondering what movie to watch, I felt the void that I never knew existed till then. And I realized that, while I would and eventually did feel better, I would never really be the same.

Little wonder, then, if even Christians don’t notice their need for God all the time. The need is constant, unchanging; but the noticing is almost a mood thing–almost, that is, because its mood-ness is only apparent. The need is, rather, something underneath our moods, a deep current that flows without interruption beneath the waves of feeling and thought; and I think that if we dive deep enough, if we go below every emotion and every mood, we’ll feel it, sometimes as a haunting emptiness, sometimes as a blinding void. It’s there when we get something we’ve long dreamt of and worked for, and we realize that somehow we’re not as happy as we thought we’d be. It’s there in our moments of love, when the rapture ends, as it always will, and there remains that vague sense of discontent. It’s there when, having trusted without reserve, we find our faith betrayed by those we most love and respect. And it’s there when, having lost spouse, kin, or friend, our tears are spent, and all that’s left is an emptiness that cannot weep, as we wonder why a bond so deep would end so completely.

Whatever and however we feel, we will meet that seemingly indefinable longing; and even as our inmost heart craves for a love that fulfills once and forever, we will find every love a presage of loss, a sign of the emptiness we’ve never seen and always known. And as we glimpse the abyss that looketh back, infinite void yearning for eternal Being, deep calling to Deep, our dreams empty, our loves lost to death, or worse, to life, we will know our need. But Someone else will; and I think the whole point of Christian teaching is to let us know that; to tell us that as we die to hope, to love, or to life itself, Someone dies with us; that at that moment, when the universe is darkest, when nothing means anything, when we are, amidst everything, alone, a bloodied hand will reach down from a Cross, and a Body broken with pain will carry ours, and a Voice, soft with suffering, will reply: “Even if these forget, I will never forget you.” Deep calls to Deep; and somewhere within us, with the memory of ancient love and ancient loss, the void at last will know: “my Lord and my God!”


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