Thursday, July 03, 2008

St. Thomas the Apostle - July 3, 2008

The Incredulity of St. Thomas (Carravaggio). Click Image to Enlarge.

The point of today’s feast is large in that it is totally in keeping with the mind of Benedict XVI: God has disappeared from view.

1) It fits with Charles Taylor’s basic statement in his new “A Secular Age.”

“(W)hereas the political organization of all pre-modern societies was in some way connected to, based on, guaranteed by some faith in, or adherence to God, or some notion of ultimate reality, the modern Western state is free from this connection. … Religion or its absence is largely a private matter. The political society is seen as that of believers (of all stripes) and non-believers alike.

“Put another way, in our ‘secular’ societies, you can engage fully in politics without ever encountering God, that is, coming to a point where the crucial importance of the God of Abraham for this whole enterprise is brought home forcefully and unmistakably. The few moments of vestigial ritual or prayer barely constitute such an encounter today, but this would have been inescapable in earlier centuries in Christendom.”

Further on he remarks:

“Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives. And this will also likely mean that at least in certain milieux, it may be hard to sustain one’s faith. There will be people who feel bound to give it up, even though they mourn its loss.”

2) Benedict XVI paraphrased in his “New Evangelization” of the year 2000 the thought of J.B. Metz: “The true problem of our times is the ‘Crisis of God,’ the absence of God, disguised by an empty religiosity. Theology must go back to being truly theo-logy, speaking about and with God. Metz is right: the ‘unum necessarium’ to man is God. Everything changes, whether God exists or not. Unfortunately – we Christians also often live as if God did not exist (‘Si Deus non daretur’). We live according to the slogan: God does not exist, and if he exists, he does not belong.[3]

The large point is that God cannot be seen. It is John 1, 18 that insists that “No one has at any time seen God.” God is simply invisible. He is not to be perceived by sight. And the reason for this is the purely relational character of the divine Persons. Sight can only perceive individual material beings, and the thought that is engendered by that sight is conceptual since it is derived by abstraction from sensible internal images. And, on the basis of that, we can know that God exists and induce and deduce from the abstract thought about Him, but we cannot “experience” Him that way.

However, “The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has revealed him” (Jn. 1, 18). The divine Person of the Son, who is Himself pure relation to the Father, cannot be known as pure relation by sight. But the humanity of the Son can be “seen” and if we enter into the likeness of the relationality that the Son is to the Father, we can “experience” Him in ourselves and become conscious of His Persona. And then, reflecting on that, we can “objectify” aspects of that consciousness and form concepts that we can communicate verbally.

This whole topic of the doubt of Thomas is the doubt that is present in all of us. John Henry Newman parades the context of Thomas before us to see how good and fine he was: “He was no coldhearted follower of his Lord, as…when he expressed a desire to share danger, and to suffer with Him. When Christ was setting out for Judaea to raise Lazarus from the dead, the disciples said, ‘Master, the Jews of late sought to stone Thee, and goest Thou thither again?’ When He remained in His intention, Thomas said to the rest, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with Him.’ This journey ended, as His Apostles foreboded, in their Lord’s death; they indeed escaped, but it was at the instance of Thomas that they hazarded their lives with Him.

“St.Thomas then loved his master, as became an Apostle, and was devoted to His service; but when He saw Him crucified, his faith failed for a season with that of the rest. At the same time we need not deny that his especial doubts of Christ’s resurrection were not altogether owing to circumstances, but in a measure arose from some faulty state of mind.”[4]

Again Newman: “When Christ said He was going to His Father, and by way which they all knew, Thomas interposed with an argument: ‘Lord, we know not whither Thou goest, and how can we know the way? That is, we do not see heaven, or the God of heaven, how can we know the way thither? He seems to have required some sensible insight into the unseen state, some infallible sign from heaven, a ladder of Angels like Jacob’s, which would remove anxiety by showing him the end of the journey at the time he set out. Some such secrete craving after certainty beset him.”[5]

3) Benedict’s Insight: What is that secret craving after certainty? In 1964, Joseph Ratzinger preached the following in Cologne: “Being a Christian means having love… If love is enough, why do we have your [the theologians] dogma? Why do we have faith, which is forever competing with science? Is it not really true, then, what lieral scholars have said, that Christiantiy has been corrupted by the fact that instead of talking with Christ about God the Father and being like brothers to each other, people have constructed a doctrine of Christ; by the fact that people, instead of leading others to mutual service, have invented an intolerant dogma; by the fact that instead of urging people to love, they have demanded belief and made being a Christian depend on a confession faith?”

Why? Ratzinger states a crucial insight: “Being a Christian means having love; it means achieving the Copernican revolution in our existence, by which we cease to make ourselves the center of the universe, with everyone else revolving around us… Who among us would not have to admit that even in the acts of kindness he practices toward others, there is still an element of selfishness, something of self-satisfaction and looking back at ourselves? Who among us would not have to admit that he is more or less living in the pre-Copernican illusion and looking at other people, seeing them as real, only in their relationship to our own selves? Thus, the sublime and liberating message of love, as being the sole and sufficient content of Christianity, can also become something very demanding….”

Faith is stretching what I am capable of seeing and holding with the certitude that depends on me in preference to what another tells me. What I can sense and conceptualize with certainty is a very narrow parcel of reality, and it is not without the distortion that is built into my perception and my cogitative powers. Notice the figure of Thomas in the most perceptive painting of Caravaggio inspecting the wound in the side of Christ with wrinkled forehead, squinting eye, the calloused and insensitive hands of a fisherman, the finger guided by Jesus into the wound in His side, straining to see for himself and give himself certitude. It is not faith precisely because the self is at the center as the protagonist of certitude. And he is not blessed – yet. He will have to go out of himself, abandon the tower of himself as criterion. Newman says: “What the Apostle says of Abraham is a description of all true faith; it goes out not knowing whither it goes. It does no crave or bargain to see the end of the journey; it does not argue with St. Thomas, in the days of his ignorance, ‘we know not whither, and how can we know the way?’ it is persuaded that it has quite enough light to walk by, far more than sinful man has a right to expect, if it sees one step in advance; and it leaves all knowledge of the country over which it is journeying to Him who calls it on.”

Notice that faith comes from hearing, not from seeing. When I see, it is I who am agent of the intellectual content and certainty of that knowing, and it is precisely the divine Personality that cannot be seen. The exact same situation obtains in the case of John the Baptist. He preached mightily, expected the sensible flourishing of the Kingdom of God, was cast into prison for the forthrightness and radicality of his announcement of the presence of the God-man in history… And nothing happened that could be recorded by a sensation looking for the anticipated fireworks! Ratzinger concluded the point that coincides with the entire teaching of the Kingdom of God as found in “Jesus of Nazareth” 46-63): “This was probably the final task set the Baptist as he lay in prison: to become blessed by this unquestioning acceptance of God’s obscure will; to reach the point of asking no further for external, visible, unequivocal clarity, but, instead, of discovering God precisely in the darkness of this world and of his own life, and thus becoming profoundly blessed. In point of fact, we cannot see God as we see an apple tree of a neon sign, that is, in a purely external way that requires no interior commitment. We can see him only by becoming like him, by reaching the level of reality on which God exists; in other words, by being liberated from what is anti-divine: the quest for pleasure, enjoyment, possessions, gain, or, in a word, from ourselves. In the final analysis it is usually the self that stands between us and God. We can see God only if we turn around, stop looking for him as we might look for street signs and dollar bills, and begin looking away from the visible to the invisible….

“The Christian of our day, too, can be shown no other way to friendship [with God than the way of ceasing to look for external clarity and beginning to turn from the visible to the invisible and thus truly finding the Lord who is the real foundation and support of our existence. Only when we act in this manner does another and doubtless the greatest saying of the Baptist reveal its full significance: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’ (Jn. 3, 30). We will know God to the extent that we are set free from ourselves” [Ratzinger, Dogma and Preaching, Franciscan Herald Press (1985) 76-77]

This undoubtedly was done by Thomas in his interior – not with the certitude of sense or intellect, but with the certitude that comes from self surrender – in order to say: “My Lord and my God” (Jn. 20, 26), This Lord and this God cannot be “known” with sense and abstracting intellect but with Love. Who knows God? Only God knows God.

[1] Charles Taylor, “A Secular Age,” The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (2007) 1.
[2] Ibid. 3.
[3] A conference given by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, during the Jubilee of catechists in the year 2000.
[4] John Henry Newman, “Faith Without Sight,” Plain and Parochial Sermons II, 2 Ignatius (1987) 234-235.
[5] Ibid. 235.
[6] J. Ratzinger, “Why Do We Need Faith?” What It Means to Be a Christian Ignatius (2006) 72-73.
[7] John Henry Newman, “Faith Without Sight” op. cit 239.

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