Thursday, September 19, 2013

Catholicism is not for Dummies!

Twenty Fifth Ordinary Sunday Year C

A feature article entitled “Religious People Are Less Intelligent than Atheists” appeared online on Yahoo a month ago. According to the research team from the University of Rochester, it was purportedly found in a substantial majority of case studies that there is “a reliable negative relation between intelligence and religiosity.” In layman’s terms, if you are found to be more religious, then you are likely to be less intelligent. They concluded that “intelligent people are more likely to be married and more likely to be successful in life–and this may mean they need religion less.” There you have it: the ingenious conclusion that marriage (not counting the number of divorces that follow thereafter) and success are the incontrovertible measure of intelligence! If you were to buy into any of this atheist propaganda that appears on the Internet you would have no choice but to conclude that Christians are some of the most ignorant, irrational, dishonest, deluded idiots on the planet.  

Catholics tend to receive a more severe beating than the rest of the pack. Both Protestants and atheists often accused Catholicism of being backward and the sworn enemy of science, progress and the genuine pursuit of knowledge. In short if you are a Catholic, you must be a moron. The point made is that something is seriously wrong with these Catholic idiots who believe these nonsensical fairy tales; a God who took the form of a mortal and died on a tree, a dead man rose from the dead, bread and wine changing into something gory and bloody, and finally that obnoxious belief that silly trivial acts of piety can actually shorten your incarceration in Purgatory. Based on the conclusions of the research, Rome (or Vatican City to be exact) is the virtual epicentre of moronitude, since there are so many celibates therein who are engaged in a profitless enterprise that’s doomed for failure! You get the point.

Now Catholics may have founded nearly every major university in Europe, their monasteries may have kept the very skill of literacy alive during the Black Plague and the famines, they may even have invented the press which allowed literacy to become commonplace, but none of that mattered. The general opinion is this: Catholics are stupid, period. I guess it’s not hard to understand why so many people, including Catholics, buy into this kind of stupid propaganda given what we’ve been consistently hearing in the past few weeks: the absolute demand made of disciples to abandon everything and commit themselves fully to Christ – a sort of spiritual kamikaze. Doesn’t this sound crazy? But, then one also detects a certain brilliance that arises from a different set of logical rules – the Logic of grace and Love.

As a crowning cap to this whole collection of seemingly nonsensical counsel or most profound wisdom, depending on which perspective you choose to take, we have the parable of the astute steward. This certainly takes the cake when it comes to the ludicrous. In fact, many Christians find it a source of embarrassment. In this pericope a steward seems to be commended for dishonest behaviour and made an example for Jesus' disciples. Jesus, who literally heads south, seems to have fallen off his rocker!

In this fairly simple, if somewhat unorthodox, parable from Jesus, there is a major reversal of sorts. In most of Jesus’ parables, the main protagonist is either representative of God, Christ, or some other positive character. In this parable, the characters are all wicked – the steward and the man whose possessions he manages are both unsavoury characters. This should alert us to the fact that Jesus is not exhorting us to emulate the behaviour of the characters, but is trying to expound on a larger principle. Certainly, Jesus wants His followers to be just, righteous, magnanimous, and generous, unlike the main protagonist in the parable. But what does this dishonest steward have to offer us as a point of learning? The gospel notes that Jesus commends him for his astuteness, his shrewdness.

The dishonest steward is commended not for mishandling his master's wealth, but for his shrewd provision in averting personal disaster and in securing his future livelihood. The original meaning of "astuteness" is "foresight" – the ability to see ahead and anticipate what’s in store in the future.  An astute person, therefore, is one who grasps a critical situation with resolution, foresight, and the determination to avoid serious loss or disaster. If foresight is the true measure of intelligence, a Christian must be ‘super’ intelligent since his foresight extends beyond this temporal plane, it penetrates the veil of death and catches a glimpse of the eternal vision of glory.  As the dishonest steward responded decisively to the crisis of his dismissal due to his worldly foresight, so disciples are to respond decisively in the face of their own analogous crisis with heavenly foresight. The crisis may come in the form of the brevity and uncertainty of life or the ever-present prospect of death; for others it is the eschatological crisis occasioned by the coming of the kingdom of God in the person and ministry of Jesus.

Jesus is concerned here with something more critical than a financial crisis.  His concern is that we avert spiritual crisis and personal disaster through the exercise of faith, foresight and compassion.  If Christians would only expend as much foresight and energy to spiritual matters which have eternal consequences as much as they do to earthly matters which have temporal consequences, then they would be truly better off, both in this life and in the age to come. St Ambrose provides us with a spiritual wisdom that can only be perceived through the use of heavenly foresight: “The bosoms of the poor, the houses of widows, the mouths of children are the barns which last forever.” In other words, true wealth consists not in what we keep but in what we give away. Real wisdom is acknowledging that worldly happiness and success cannot be the key indicators of a wholesome life, a self fulfilled life but rather as St Ireneaus indicates, “the glory of God is a man fully alive.” Wholesomeness is measured by the extent of how we live our lives for the glory of God, and not for ourselves or for things.

Finally, being astute means recognising that there is no contradiction between faith and reason; in fact ‘faith seeks understanding’ (fides quaerens intellectum). We should, therefore, resist the temptation of dumbing-down the message of Christ, to reduce the gospel to the level of compatibility with the values of the world. Many worldly values will always remain incompatible with that of the gospel. Catholics need to recover the courage to be deeply reflective in our theology, rooted in our catechism, and intellectual in the defence of our faith, rather than giving in to a shallow mushy version of religion and styles of preaching done in the name of that most abused concept of all, ‘pastoral reasons.’  In fact, “the greatest pastoral disaster is the dumbing down of our Catholic faith” (Fr Robert Barron).

I’m tired of hearing the excuse for pitifully shallow catecheses, because it is claimed that our lay Catholics won’t be able to grasp and understand the depth of Catholic theology and teachings, so they always need to be served bite-sized, dumb down versions of the original. I think that’s down right condescending. Often, people fail to understand not because they are obtuse but because they choose not to understand. The issue has less to do with intelligence than with sin which blinds and obscures. Let’s not give an excuse to atheist and Protestants to have another swing at us, especially for our failure to match reason to faith. In an ironic sort of a way, we need to be appreciative of critics and inquirers, and even be thankful to God for them. It is they who throw us the challenge to delve deeper into the treasury of Catholic thought. We come out the wiser.

The online article which I cited at the beginning claims that believers in God are less intelligent than non-believers. Perhaps no empirical research will be able to show this, but personal experiences of many will lay testimony to the fact that the most intelligent thing an intelligent human being can do is to turn to God, not away from him. The faith and lives of the heroes and heroines in both scriptures and the history of our Church testify to this. On the other hand, human history is full of evidence that secular humanist ideologies, socio-economic projects and other human experiments have failed to provide the ‘final solution’ to man’s troubles. Only God can do that. It is rightly said that wise men still seek Him, wiser men find Him, and the wisest come to worship Him. Yes, Catholicism is not for dummies!

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