Many of my close friends are irreligious, and sometimes have a hard time completely comprehending why I decided to become religious, much less Christian, much less a Roman Catholic. Unfortunately, it is often difficult for me to answer them. It might be easier to list the reasons that don’t influence me into Christianity than the ones that do. “Why wouldn’t I be Catholic?” would be perhaps a better question than “Why would I be?”
I hope, though, through this blog and these sorts of posts, at least begin to explain why I have found myself irrevocably drawn to Rome, to that faith derived from a First Century Nazarene who claimed to be the Son of God, and God besides.
G K Chesterton, one of my favourite authors, summarizes, in Orthodoxy a brief summary of modern philosophical and religious thought. Two figures he refers to are the German atheist, anti-theist philosopher Nietzsche and the Russian philosopher and writer Lev Tolstoy, who was decidedly Christian, though a more liberal and anarchic one. He might be made akin to say, the Anabaptists or Anglicans of our times.
Chesterton compares these two men to St. Jean D’Arc, Joan of Arc. He writes that:
“Joan of Arc was not stuck at the cross-roads, either by rejecting all the paths like Tolstoy, or by accepting them all like Nietzsche. She chose a path, and went down it like a thunderbolt. Yet Joan, when I came to think of her, had in her all that was true either in Tolstoy or Nietzsche, all that was even tolerable in either of them.
I thought of all that is noble in Tolstoy, the pleasure in plain things, especially in plain pity, the actualities of the earth, the reverence for the poor, the dignity of the bowed back. Joan of Arc had all that and with this great addition, that she endured poverty as well as admiring it; whereas Tolstoy is only a typical aristocrat trying to find out its secret.
And then I thought of all that was brave and proud and pathetic in poor Nietzsche, and his mutiny against the emptiness and timidity of our time. I thought of his cry for the ecstatic equilibrium of danger, his hunger for the rush of great horses, his cry to arms. Well, Joan of Arc had all that, and again with this difference, that she did not praise fighting, but fought. We know that she was not afraid of an army, while Nietzsche, for all we know, was afraid of a cow.
Tolstoy only praised the peasant; she was the peasant. Nietzsche only praised the warrior; she was the warrior. She beat them both at their own antagonistic ideals; she was more gentle than the one, more violent than the other. Yet she was a perfectly practical person who did something, while they are wild speculators who do nothing.
It was impossible that the thought should not cross my mind that she and her faith had perhaps some secret of moral unity and utility that has been lost.”
A meaty passage, and much could be said about it. But for now, I’d like to focus on how Chesterton notes that Joan walks between the philosophies of Tolstoy and those of Nietzsche. She embodies all of what is useful in both of them, and none of what is not useful. “She was more gentle than the one [Tolstoy] and more violent than the other [Nietzsche].”
Indeed, it is that “middleness,” noted by Chesterton and embodied by St. Joan, that draws me strongly to Christianity on an intellectual level. Most of the philosophies of the world view man as either inherently evil or inherently good. Only Christianity is at once both aware of the Imago Dei, and the Fall; man bears the image of God, so is capable of great goodness, but is also fallen, and so is capable of great evil. Other philosophies and individuals have most assuredly noted this duality of man, but only Christianity fully explains a rational basis for it.
The Marxist spits venomously that the rich are evil and greedy, while the Randian says that it is the poor who are. The Christian, however, if he is doing it right, recognizes sloth and envy in both of them, and, even moreso, in himself.
This is just one example of Christianity walking the middle path. There are fragments of truth on either side; most assuredly there are robber barons just as there are slovenly welfare recipients. But either side overemphasises one aspect of the truth, and, in doing so, loses the whole thing.
Indeed, that is how much heresy begins.
Also, consider, specifically, Catholicism. From the Reformation to about the 1920s, the Catholic Church was considered by many to be lax, pagan, and lawless. However, when the world became more lax, pagan, and lawless, the Church then fell under accusations of being puritanical and tyrannical. The Puritan world spurned the Church for being Pagan; the Pagan world spurns it for being too Puritan.
Many of the ancient gnostic sects once saw matter as inherently evil, and believed that there were two gods; one who created spirit and the heavens; a Good God. And one who created flesh and matter, an evil god.
Nowadays, the modern world seems to abhor anything that cannot be empirically proven (IE, anything that isn’t matter), and elevates “matter” to too high of a state. We eliminate unborn children on the grounds that we can’t “give them what they need”, erroneously forgetting that even the poorest Westerner lives greater than 90% of the human population ever has. Our material concerns outweigh our spiritual ones. We think it better to destroy the poor and the sick and the injured than see them suffer any discomfort. Our society is terrified of material discomfort.
(It’s actually really frightening from a geopolitical perspective. Consider how quickly Americans gave up many of their freedoms after 3 000 people were killed in a terrorist attack. I would not discount the tragedy and the loss of life, but the likelihood that 9/11 would happen again was low, and, indeed, the deaths themselves, on a purely mathematical level, were negligible.)
Only Christianity walks the threadbare line between gnosticism and materialism. It at simultaneously proclaims the sanctity of the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit and the eternal truth of the immortal soul. Catholicism acknowledges that Jesus is at the right hand of God, but that He is also present in the Eucharist.
These are just a few examples that I thought of today while working. I’m sure I will think of more, though.