The Pew Research Center’s “Religious Landscape Study” has made it clear that the number of faithful Catholics in the United States is shrinking. The study focusses on the U.S., but it is safe to say that a similar pattern can be seen throughout the whole Western world today. It has become increasingly difficult to deny that Catholics are faltering with their mission to make disciples of all nations, and this downward trend (now decades old) does not appear to be ending any time soon. The data coming out of this particular study points to several troubling facts. For example, 1) very few people are becoming Catholic, 2) even many who say they are Catholic do not actually believe what the Church teaches, 3) many Catholics are leaving the Church, and 4) many more are thinking about leaving. The Church is visibly hurting. We have all seen the empty pews and felt the culture shifting under our feet. The Confession lines are short, and the list of complaints is long. People no longer assent to the propositions of faith. Tragically, the Gospel is being rejected by more people every day.
This is a clear problem, and we need to respond to the situation by seeking a solution. The purpose of this article is to dispense with one particular response to what people are now calling the “crisis in the Church.” How we decide to move forward as faithful Catholics matters a great deal. We do not want to swing and miss, fail in our duty reverse the trend, or aggravate the problem further.
Some have suggested that the solution to the Church’s woes in the modern world is to bear down on philosophical formation. After all, people are metaphysically confused! The Enlightenment mindset, which worshipped reason as man’s only star and compass, has ultimately resulted in a world full of materialists. People today tend not believe in anything they cannot see or feel. To their minds, the physical world is the only thing that is real. As a result, the scientific method is considered by many to be the only possible way to gather reliable knowledge of the truth. The people who think this way have no conception of God, spirit, the soul, substance, form, or the hierarchy of Being. As a result, they do not believe in God, Christ, or the Church.
Observing this fact, some have suggested that if we clean up these errors, make a strong rational case for a Thomistic-Aristotelian conception of the world, and outline the metaphysical underpinnings of the Church’s teachings, we will see things trend back in the direction of faith. These Catholics propose robust metaphysical training and a philosophical apologetic as the solution to the Church’s struggles in modern American culture. Perhaps this strategy will get us back on track!
Or… perhaps… it will only make the problem worse.
There are some compelling reasons to believe that a similar method of evangelization is what got us into this mess in the first place, and we go down that road again at our peril.
One thing we must agree on before we can even begin to dialogue about paths forward is that the most essential doctrines proposed to us for belief by the Church cannot be reached by natural reason. The mystery that lives at the heart of Christianity, the Holy Trinity, is a mystery merely revealed to us. We cannot prove the Holy Trinity with natural reason, and it is the Holy Trinity more than anything else that we want people to accept. That is why we call Christian acceptance “belief” or “faith” instead of “knowledge.” We who no longer walk with God in Eden cannot so easily regain an intimate knowledge of him. There is nowhere for us to meet him face to face in nature—only distantly and with confusion. We look around in a panic, hoping to catch some glimpse, but “clouds and thick darkness are round about him” (Ps 97:2). Our first parents who knew God as their friend chose to offend and betray him. They rejected the blessings he bestowed, and as a result, they were cast out of the place where they so directly enjoyed his company. Now, somewhat mysteriously, as their children, we suffer the same fate, and we cannot know our God any better than a banished peasant can know his king.
With great difficulty, some of us can naturally come to know that there is a God who is a good and powerful ruler of the universe. We can know him and even love him somewhat abstractly as the first principle of all things, but we cannot know and love him as he really is, for his own sake. True charity will remain impossible for us until we can shake his hand, learn his name, hear the sound of his voice, and see those actions that most reveal his character. We have lost this great gift because of our treachery. On our own, we have no way of truly coming to know God, so we have no way of truly loving him. As St. Thomas puts it, “the knowledge of God by means of any created similitude is not the vision of His essence. Hence it is impossible for the soul of man in this life to see the essence of God” (I, q. 12, a. 11). This terrible fact, so unwelcome in its consequences, is undeniable to anyone who makes a careful study of human history. Void of charity, the human heart turns to those things that drag it down into the meaningless noise of the world. Our history takes on a tragic character, full of death and defeat. We have lost our guide, and it is evident in our conduct.
Most Catholics still accept the need for revelation. They will acknowledge that the Holy Trinity is a revealed mystery, and philosophy cannot access it, but they still uphold philosophy as the solution to the lack of faith we see in the world today. They argue that philosophy helps us assent to matters of faith. It clears a path by removing natural obstacles that interfere with belief. Therefore, by forming minds with good philosophy, we will prepare them to receive the faith, and it will no longer be so difficult for them to convert. Instead of preaching the content of faith we should preach the preambles of faith. Once people know by way of reason that God exists, they will be more likely to believe that he became man in the person of Jesus Christ.
So the argument goes, and in response, we will level four objections.
The first objection to this approach is that philosophical formation is not necessary for the assent to revealed truth. As such, it will always be a secondary candidate, rather than a primary candidate, for any lack of faith we find in the world. The greatest philosophers will all need revelation, and the greatest saints may not need philosophy. Philosophical formation is helpful, but if people are not assenting to divine revelation, the most likely cause is always going to be that they are not truly hearing the Word of God. Wherever we see a lack of faith in the world, we should first look to whether or not the Word of God is being properly communicated. There is a tendency in the Church today to think that everyone should be Catholic because it is the most reasonable choice, and if everyone heard the right arguments, they would be Catholic too. This apologetic usually follows four steps that look something like this: 1) You prove God exists with Aquinas’s five ways, 2) you prove Jesus was God with C.S. Lewis’s liar-lunatic-Lord argument, 3) you prove Jesus founded the Catholic Church with Mt 16:18, and 4) you prove the Catholic Church today is the Church Jesus founded with a historical analysis of apostolic succession in the writings of the Church Fathers. The contemporary assumption is that, if the evangelist has done his job right and followed this formula, then the audience should be Catholic at this point. Of course, there is a place for this line of argument in the Church. It shows that faith is not unreasonable, and at very least, it is a good defense. However, if the goal is to gain members to the faith, we need to think with the mind of Scripture, and we need to focus on what God has revealed. The only definitive proof in this line of argument comes in step one, with Aquinas’s five ways. Even if Aquinas’s argument is accepted, it is still a far cry from the person of Christ giving us access to the Holy Trinity. As our situation today proves, there is little evidence to suggest this modern apologetic has actually been persuasive to people, and we should not be surprised! The Gospel is not an argument; it is a narrative that reveals a person. Jesus was not a philosopher; he was a prophet. We can try to water the vine with philosophy, but if we are not careful, we might end up drowning it instead.
The second objection is that bad philosophy can only be a serious obstacle for those who engage seriously in philosophical thinking. If someone is only weakly of the opinion that God does not exist because it is the cultural norm in his community, it is hard to imagine this preventing him from coming to believe in God when he is met with the full force of the Gospel. This seems to be the state of most self-professed atheists today, especially among young people. Even those who have deeply rooted atheistic convictions might still overcome such obstacles by the awesome power of the Word of God, and how much more so the vast throngs of young men and women who have never thought very seriously about anything in their lives. Christians certainly ought to practice and teach rigorous philosophy, but it will never be enough to inspire faith, and for many common people, it is not of central importance. Therefore, we must not let philosophy replace revelation in our efforts to show God to the world.
The third objection is that good philosophy is impossible on a large scale without revelation. The problem here is that, after the fall of Adam and Eve, every human being is born with a clouded intellect. This means that, as Plato argued so long ago, the true philosopher is hard to come by. We are not as clever as we think we are, and the vast majority of human beings live their lives far outside of those privileged conditions which can adequately cultivate honest philosophical speculation. We are either too busy putting food on the table, killing our neighbors in war, or anxiously preparing for the future to engage in rigorous philosophical thought. There will always be exceptions to this general rule, but the exceptions will be nothing but frustrated as they watch their peers tarnish tradition, trying helplessly to drag them from the cave. The bottom line is that, even if philosophical formation proved to be a tremendous help in bringing people to Christian faith, there is no escaping the fact that this can never be a sustainable long-term strategy apart from the primacy of divine revelation. Indeed, revelation shelters metaphysics. It guides our thoughts and keeps us safe from all the snares and pitfalls which characterize western academia now more than ever before. The Church converted the world to Christ’s Gospel, and academia flourished. The world has forgotten Christ’s Gospel, and academia crumbles before our very eyes. Therefore, we must not let philosophy replace revelation in our efforts to show God to the world.
The fourth and final objection is that human nature has not changed. It is true that, since the time of the early Church, the cultural backdrops and societal structures have shifted a great deal. The world looks different today than it did 2,000 years ago. However, human beings themselves still look very much the same. Therefore, it is arguable that the prospects for evangelization are no more problematic today than when the Gospel was first preached by the early Church’s simple missionaries. We live in a philosophically confused world because fallen human beings are bad at reasoning. It is not clear that the philosophical errors which grip the world today are any worse than the ones which gripped the world in the first centuries. To think of those ancient people as simple barbarians and to think of ourselves as sophisticated men of science is mere historical snobbery. If a simple, passionate telling of the story worked so well back then, there is little reason to believe it could not work similarly now. Therefore, we must not let philosophy replace revelation in our efforts to show God to the world.
For all these reasons, we should consign philosophy to its proper place and focus on the Gospel when preaching the Gospel. Arguing rarely gets us anywhere, and this is even more true when we argue about matters that are inaccessible to natural reason. As St. Paul asks in his letter to the Corinthians, “where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor 1:20). In other words, divine revelation flips the whole realm of nature on its head, such that now the last are first and the weak are strong. With the coming of Christ, human beings are now capable of a higher level of wisdom than ever before, but instead of striving for it with our intellects, we merely receive it as something freely given. The wisdom that was once reserved for a privileged few is now accessible to the masses because “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23). In a world obsessed with arguing, perhaps we should all read more carefully what St. Paul, one of history’s greatest preachers, has to say about his methods.
When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (1 Cor 2:1-5).
The bottom line? Our obsession with natural reason and philosophical arguments is part of the problem instead of a solution to the problem. We have lost touch with the story at the heart of it all—the person of Christ who gives meaning to it all. Philosophy is the handmaid, and we have made it the queen. We need to focus on beauty, narrative, and mystery. This is what people are hungry for. We have heard all the rest of it so many times before, drilled into our heads for decades. We are tired of it. We want a taste of something different, something beyond us, and something which is given as a gift instead of something we feel like we need to earn. We are not that good at earning things, and those humble enough to admit that fact know they need a savior, a Gospel, an unmerited gift.
We need to stop preaching Aristotle and start preaching Christ. Any confusion we have about the distinction between these two will cripple all our apostolic efforts.