Saturday, April 14, 2012

You have to believe in order to see

Second Sunday of Easter Year B

When you are invited by a group of medical students to speak on the topic ‘Why do we need religion?,’ which is what happened to me last week, you know you are in trouble. I imagined a lecture room full of Richard Dawkins, skeptics and hard-core atheists, who shared a common belief that religion is dangerous, a force for evil, the ‘root of all evil’ as Professor Dawkins puts it. However, my fears were unfounded and they proved to be an extremely tame crowd.

Many attacks on religion are based on the belief there is no spiritual dimension to reality. The religious goal is unobtainable, based on a false view of reality, and illusory. To make matters worse, thinkers like Richard Dawkins hold that, while materialism is based on painstaking research and rational thought, religious views are based on ‘blind faith,’ some sort of leap in the dark, and so are plainly irrational and unthinking.

There is a particular view of the history of philosophy (at least of European philosophy) that has almost become standard, but which is a misleading myth. It goes like this. Everybody used to accept in an uncritical way the proofs of God presented by the Church – arguments like the first cause argument (the universe which can be explained as a web of cause and effects all traced back to a First Cause, which in itself is not the effect of any other cause) or arguments from design (the intricate design in the universe shows that there must be an intelligent designer). The myth continues that all these weak propositions were debunked by the modern philosopher, Immanuel Kant. After that, belief in God had no rational basis and had to become a rationally unjustifiable leap of faith.

This view of the history of philosophy is skewed in a number of ways. First of all, the Church never proposed that by just starting only with observable facts of the physical world, anyone could demonstrate that there has to be an intelligent first cause or designer outside the known universe. That would make God little more than an inference from observed facts. God is no better than the Big Bang Theory. There would not be a need for the Bible or even Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. The Church, however, has always insisted on the need for revelation – God communicates himself in order that people may come to know him.

Secondly, it is also a misreading of the works of Emmanuel Kant that he came to disproof faith in God and in the spiritual world. His whole critical philosophy, in fact, was written as an attempt to set faith on a firm intellectual foundation, not to offer it as an alternative to intellectual thought. A central part of Kant’s philosophy was the attempt to show that reason alone leads to unavoidable contradictions when it tries to take observed reality as the true reality, as ‘reality-in-itself.’ For him, faith – faith in God, in moral freedom, and in the possibility of moral fulfillment – is supremely reasonable. It is not a leap in the dark. It is the use of reason beyond the limits of empirical verification.

Kant pointed out that before we can speak about good and bad, right and wrong, we have to belief in the following principle: that a person should do good and avoid evil. That is the premise of morality. Unless, one accepted this proposition, there would be no basis for goodness or badness, or for morality. It might sound obvious that we should do good and avoid evil, but that basic principle does involve a leap of faith. A mere observation of material reality will not lead you to this conclusion. You simple have to accept that principle, or in our religious terms, you just have to believe … and get on with it.

People who seem to laud the superiority of science over religion must also come to acknowledge that scientific research also involves a leap of faith. Science begins with at least an implicit belief that the universe is knowable and rational. Can we empirically prove this – that the universe is indeed knowable and rational? No, we can’t. We just have to believe it.

Thus, ultimately the proposition that ‘seeing is believing’ is untenable unless it is founded on some belief – for example, that we can come to trust and believe the world revealed by our senses, that it is not merely the figment of our imagination. The person of Thomas in today’s gospel, best personifies this principle. Jesus, however, will present an alternative to this worldview. Jesus at the end of the gospel will present a new beatitude, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” In other words, you have to believe in order to see.

Today, we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday and on the occasion of this special Feast day, we would like to remember the man responsible for dedicating the Second Sunday of Easter to the Divine Mercy – Blessed Pope John Paul II. This venerable Pope epitomizes the theme of this Sunday’s gospel – Believing is Seeing. The association of Blessed John Paul and this Feast Day is more than just one of coincidence; he and St Faustina, the seer who first wrote about the Divine Mercy, are both Polish. In the year Great Jubilee Year of 2000, the Blessed Pope established this Sunday as Divine Mercy Sunday. On the same date, he canonized the Polish nun, St Faustina.

His deep devotion to the Divine Mercy would not just be characteristic of his entire life but would also mark him in death. He died, one would say by coincidence but many would attest to Divine providence, on the Vigil of the Divine Mercy, April 2, 2005. Last year, on Divine Mercy Sunday, Pope Benedict beatified his predecessor, another step to his canonisation. So, here you have it, a fitting tribute in life, in death and in glorification, to the man who could rightly be called ‘The Apostle of Mercy.’

Blessed John Paul lived through the horrors of World War II where humanity descended to its worst possible expression. On a scale never before seen, millions died, not just on the battle fields but in those horrid concentration camps that made systematic murder of men, women and children more effective, along the lines of mass production assembly lines. The venerable Pope studied in the seminary under these horrible circumstances and witnessed fellow seminarians, lecturers, priests being taken away and summarily executed. For all purposes, one would not be able to see reason or even the presence of a compassionate God in all of these experiences. These horrors beg the question: “Where is God in all this?” As Pope Benedict observed, people saw “the horrors of human history, especially of the most recent human history, as an irrefutable pretext for denying the existence of a good God.”

But against this impossible tide of skepticism and disbelief, Blessed John Paul was not merely able to hold the torch of faith throughout this period, but because of his firm believe in the merciful providence of God, continued to see the power of mercy at work in the midst of persons who have even begun to doubt their own humanity. With the end of the Second World War, the cruel face of Facism was replaced by the atheist regime of Communist totalitarianism. The anti-religion regime tried to crush the Church and its members under the weight of oppressive laws. But, Blessed John Paul continued to place his hope and faith in the mercy of God, in the belief that God will never abandon his people, and finally, it would be mercy that would have the final victory. Against a materialistic philosophy that viewed human in terms of economics, Blessed John Paul presented a different vision. It is a vision that recognized humanity as deeply flawed, sinful in fact. But his vision also draws us to this truth, a truth that cannot be proven just merely by empirical means, but one which is clear to those who have faith, it is the truth that we are not abandoned. God offers us something infinitely greater than our human cruelty. God offers us his mercy.

Many historians who have studied the fall of the communist bloc, will not be able to discount the role of the Polish Pope who continued to inspire his people and the world throughout the era of the subjugation of Eastern Europe and Russia under the yoke of communism. This Sunday, we see the Pope’s greatest weapon against this massive nuclear superpower. It was not condemnation; it was not political power, nor was it economic power and surely not through the show of nuclear armaments. The pope’s greatest weapon was the Divine Mercy.

Fifty years ago, no one living under the shadow of the sickle and hammer would have believed that there could be day they could taste the very air of freedom. They would scoff at your suggestion and perhaps add, “Seeing is believing.” But seeing what has taken place in these last few years, should be able to shake the confidence of skeptics in the impregnability of their skepticism and pessimism. But one man refused to stop believing even when others saw no reason to believe. And today, it is this man who can attest to the Truth of his beliefs rather than the skeptics who held otherwise.

There are times and perhaps we are living in such times where we are weighed down by what we perceive with our senses. We see a no-win situation in our political climate and many have lost hope in the ability of our country’s leaders to remedy its ills. There are those who find that it is no longer possible to live with their spouses given the history of troubles, fights, infidelities and abuse. Some who have been hurt by the gossip, rumour mongering, slander and selfishness of others, may see no other way but to isolate themselves from the source of pain. But it the midst of all these troubles, the Risen Christ appears behind the closed doors, presenting us an answer. Peace comes not with the absence of trouble or conflict but with the possibility of forgiveness. Peace comes with the ability to believe. Peace comes when we choose to see through the eyes of faith. Blessed John Paul believed in the Divine Mercy of his God, and he saw beyond the rubble, the chaos, the destruction, the hopelessness of his times, the cruelty and brokenness of humanity – He believed beyond seeing, and for that, he saw the sun rising long before the end of the long dark night of doubt.

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