Jason’s Questions: #5 How Do We Respond to Islam and the Effort to Re-Define Marriage?

**Before anything, I’d ask everyone to be praying for Nikki.  She’s battling a nasty flu bug, which is the reason you’re all being subjected to yet another post from me instead of her.  She’ll be back soon.**

I know the title of this post might, at least at first, sound a bit out of place, but this actually became a significant issue for me in my journey to the Catholic Church.  Stick with me through what’s going to be a bit longer post, and I’ll try to explain why.

I’m going to start in what might seem a strange place:  the absence of lots of Bible citations in my posts to date.  If you’ve been reading along, you may be thinking to yourself:  “All of this sounds reasonable enough on its face, but where are the Bible references?  Is Jason suggesting that what the Bible says on all this doesn’t matter?”  I know I’d have been asking that if I’d been reading these posts a few years back, and it’s absolutely a fair question.

As an initial matter, I’ll admit I’m assuming a fair amount of Biblical knowledge on the part of anyone reading what Nikki and I have to say.  As a consequence, I haven’t felt the need to provide a lot of chapter and verse references.  More fundamentally, though, is that what I’ve been attempting to do in my posts is to explain why I have come to accept Catholicism as a whole, including the Catholic position on disputed issues of Biblical interpretation, and Bible verses only go so far in accomplishing this task.  This is because one of my fundamental conclusions about the Bible is that it is not an unambiguous book.  To contend otherwise (at least to me) is to assume that folks who disagree with me on what it means are either stupid or evil.  I don’t assume that for one minute.  But, without any mutually agreed-upon referee to settle our interpretation differences, I don’t think hurtling Bible verses at each other is, at least for the most part, a very useful exercise.  As a consequence, rather than getting into a big fight over what the Bible means, I’ve tried to refer readers to other resources that address the important issues of Biblical interpretation on which some of my posts have touched.

Because of all this, over the course of the last several posts, I’ve been setting forth a case for Catholicism based largely on what I believe are simply logical deductions from the premises upon which Catholics and Protestants agree, such as the goodness and lovingkindness of God, His Triune nature, the doctrine of the Incarnation, the divine inspiration of Scripture, the notion that God is worthy of our worship, the truth that it’s not easy to get to Heaven, and the need for grace in the life of the Christian.  While I believe with all my heart that Scripture (or, to put it another way, “faith”) supports and is consistent with the conclusions I’ve reached, I believe just as strongly that “reason” also supports them.

This reliance on both faith and reason in discerning Truth is absolutely vital to everything I’ve been saying and to understanding Catholicism.  This is important because I freely acknowledge:  (1) that there are Catholic doctrines that are not set forth explicitly in Scripture; and (2) that it took the Church centuries to articulate certain of these doctrines.  Some have suggested to me that these two facts alone suffice to support the conclusion that Catholicism is untrue.  I’ve given this argument a lot of consideration, and I don’t think it works for a few reasons.

With respect to whether a doctrine must be “explicitly” set forth in Scripture before a Christian accepts it, we’re back to the problem of the Trinity which I’ve mentioned a couple of times already in prior posts.  That doctrine–that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the three co-equal, co-eternal, consubstantial Persons of the single Godhead–is nowhere explicitly stated in Scripture.  The Bible also doesn’t explicitly set forth the doctrine of the Incarnation–that is, that Jesus Christ was both fully human and fully divine.  And there were plenty of smart folks in the first few centuries after Christ who vigorously contested what both Protestants and Catholics now consider to be the orthodox understandings of these doctrines.  What’s more, in defending these doctrines now, I don’t think most Protestants would contend it’s improper to use arguments based on reason, rather than simply quoting Bible verses.  Every sermon I’ve ever heard discussing these doctrines (or any other subject for that matter) has gone beyond the mere text of Scripture.  And, any time a preacher does that, he’s using “reason” and not just “faith.”

As an example of what I’m talking about, I’m going to quote Chesterton’s defense of the doctrine of the Trinity, as against the Muslim view of God (which we’ll come back to later), in Orthodoxy:

If we take any other doctrine that has been called old-fashioned we shall find the case the same.  It is the same, for instance, in the deep matter of the Trinity. . . .  The complex God of the Athanasian Creed may be an enigma for the intellect; but He is far less likely to gather the mystery and cruelty of a Sultan than the lonely god of Omar or Mahomet.  The god who is a mere awful unity is not only a king but an Eastern king.  The HEART of humanity, especially of European humanity, is certainly much more satisfied by the strange hints and symbols that gather round the Trinitarian idea, the image of a council at which mercy pleads as well as justice, the conception of a sort of liberty and variety existing even in the inmost chamber of the world.  For Western religion has always felt keenly the idea “it is not well for man to be alone.” . . . If this love of a living complexity be our test, it is certainly healthier to have the Trinitarian religion than the Unitarian.  For to us Trinitarians (if I may say it with reverence)–to us God Himself is a society.  It is indeed a fathomless mystery of theology, and even if I were theologian enough to deal with it directly, it would not be relevant to do so here.  Suffice it to say here that this triple enigma is as comforting as wine and open as an English fireside; that this thing that bewilders the intellect utterly quiets the heart:  but out of the desert, from the dry places and the dreadful suns, come the cruel children of the lonely God; the real Unitarians who with scimitar in hand have laid waste the world.  For it is not well for God to be alone.

Did you catch what Chesterton did?  He quoted just one Bible verse, Genesis 2:18, and then, on the basis of that one verse, put together what I consider to be the most masterful defense of the Trinity I’ve ever read.  But, of course, if we adopt a strict “Bible alone” approach, one could easily argue that Genesis 2:18 has absolutely nothing to do with the Trinity, and Chesterton is just engaging in a rhetorical flight of fancy.  So, which is it?  And, remember, the same question can be asked of every sermon preached every Sunday in every pulpit in the world.

The answer, I think, is that we all recognize Chesterton’s argument, although not airtight, is perfectly reasonable, once you accept his premises, and also is perfectly consistent with Scripture (although not explicitly stated there).  In recognizing this, we’re all bouncing his assertions against our conception of what makes an argument “good.”  We do the same thing when we hear a sermon (or, for that matter, our kid’s argument for why he should get to see that PG-13 movie).  At bottom, we all believe that there is such a thing as a “good argument” and such a thing as a “bad argument.”  And, in making the determination as to whether a particular argument fits into one category or the other, we’re not using “Scripture alone” but rather are resorting to “reason.”

This is exactly the process the Church has used, over time, in the development of doctrine.  The difference for the Catholic and the Protestant, though, is that the process in the Catholic Church is a refereed one, where there’s a final answer as to what is and isn’t a “good” argument, when such an answer is necessary.  This takes us back to the other objection to Catholicism I mentioned above:  the mere fact that Catholic doctrine has developed over time.[1]  On this one, though, it’s just a fact of history that doctrines critical to both Catholics and Protestants, like the Trinity and the Incarnation, took time to be refined and definitively stated.  This doesn’t, in and of itself, render them suspect, though, does it?  Also, why would we draw the line on the development of doctrine just after the time these particular doctrines were finally articulated, in about the fourth or fifth century?  Did something happen then to prevent the Church from continuing to delve deeper into its Deposit of Faith in an effort to ever more clearly articulate the truths of our religion?  Also, there is the simple fact that God didn’t stop time when Jesus ascended back into Heaven.  Given this, there were certain to be doctrinal disputes that would arise among His followers over time, and it would be unclear who was right because they’d be arguing about, among other things, ambiguous passages in the Bible.

This is where “faith” comes roaring back in like a lion.  As I’ve already suggested a few times, one of my bedrock convictions is that God is a God of love and mercy.  Because of this, and because He knew there would be all kinds of doctrinal disputes among Christ’s followers, doesn’t it make more sense to accept as an article of faith that God would leave us with an authoritative way of determining whether a doctrinal argument was a good or bad one if the need arose?  Without this kind of authority, we’d have no way of finding our way through the minefields that the human mind, uninformed by faith, can create.

Also, just think of the implications of denying the possibility of determining with finality the “goodness” or “badness” of arguments advanced on the most important issues of faith–such as the nature of the Godhead.  If we can’t make final determinations regarding whether arguments on this most important of all subjects are good or bad, why should we think we can determine whether any other arguments, on less important topics, are good or bad?  This is why Chesterton said:

The creeds and the crusades, the hierarchies and the horrible persecutions were not organized, as is ignorantly said, for the suppression of reason.  They were organized for the difficult defence of reason.  Man, by a blind instinct, knew that if once things were wildly questioned, reason could be questioned first.  The authority of priests to absolve, the authority of popes to define the authority, even of inquisitors to terrify:  these were all only dark defences erected round one central authority, more undemonstrable, more supernatural than all–the authority of a man to think.  We know now that this is so; we have no excuse for not knowing it.  For we can hear skepticism crashing through the old ring of authorities, and at the same moment we can see reason swaying upon her throne.  In so far as religion is gone, reason is going.  For they are both of the same primary and authoritative kind.  They are both methods of proof which cannot themselves be proved.  And in the act of destroying the idea of Divine authority we have largely destroyed the idea of that human authority by which we do a long-division sum.  With a long and sustained tug we have attempted to pull the mitre off pontifical man; and his head has come off with it.

Now, by this point you may be asking, why am I making such a big deal about all this, and what does it have to do with our response to Islam and the effort to re-define marriage?  Let’s start with Islam.  On this, I’d suggest the following.  First, if we accept the argument that certain Catholic doctrines can be rejected, simply because they aren’t explicitly set forth in Scripture and took time to develop, then we are, in essence, rejecting any role for reason in understanding our faith past a certain point.  That, in my opinion, is a very dangerous position to be in because we can then only explain our doctrinal stances (or at least some subset of them) by saying, “God said so.”  That’s a big problem because:  (1) it makes talking to a non-Christian very difficult (why should they accept “God said so” as a reason to believe something?); and (2) it turns God at some point into a mere despot, issuing divine decrees by pure fiat without regard to His own nature and without regard to whether it’s consistent with what He’s done before.

I could talk at length on both of these last two issues I’ve identified, but I’m going to primarily confine myself here to the second one.  Turning God into a mere despot is a rejection of the Christian doctrine and the consistent message of Scripture that God is good.  When we say “God is good,” we are implying that He has a certain nature that He cannot violate.  No matter what He does, it must be good.  What He does may at times be difficult to comprehend, and there will be things about Him we will never understand in this lifetime–but the Christian answer to why God does something or says something is never “just because He wanted to.”  This is what allows Catholic doctrine to develop over time by the application of reason to the revelation in Scripture and to the previously-established doctrines of the Church.  And this is precisely what distinguishes Christianity from Islam because Islam’s whole view of God is that He is free to do whatever He wants and is not constrained by anything He’s done in the past.  To the Muslim, murder is wrong, simply because “God says so,” and God could change His mind tomorrow and make murder OK.[2]  Christians don’t believe that.

As a Catholic, I feel I’m on firmer ground in standing up to the challenge Islam presents to our culture today because Catholicism never discards reason in the search for Truth, as it seems to me Protestantism does when it rejects certain Catholic doctrines simply because they aren’t explicitly in the Bible and/or took time to develop.  And, if we’re going to win the war of ideas with Islam, it’s going to be on the basis that Christianity accounts for the use of reason in a way Islam doesn’t.  This was the whole point of the Pope’s Regensburg lecture on reason that got him into so much hot water a few years back.

Now, what about the effort to re-define marriage?  I think the issue here is largely the same.  The only way we can engage a culture that disagrees with us on the divine inspiration of the Bible is to make arguments that don’t rely solely on Scripture.  On the marriage issue, I think we’ve got to acknowledge that the Bible does not unambiguously state that homosexual conduct is a sin.  Indeed, large numbers of self-identifying Christians assert that the Bible doesn’t teach this.  Now, don’t get me wrong:  I strongly believe that those folks are wrong in their interpretation of the Bible, but that’s not my point here.  My point here is simply that, if we’re going to win this issue in the culture, citing the Bible isn’t going to win it for us.  We’re going to have to make arguments from reason, and Catholicism provides (as I’ve suggested above) a much firmer basis upon which we can do that (in my opinion) than Protestantism.[3]

Here’s my bottom line:  faith and reason go hand in hand, and we can’t abandon either one of them in the search for Truth or in our engagement with fellow Christians, Muslims, secularists, or anyone else.  As Pope Blessed John Paul II put it in Fides et Ratio:  “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of the truth.”  And God made us to soar.

[1]               What I’m suggesting here is that the truth of a doctrine isn’t determined by when it is articulated, but by whether it is logically and reasonably related to Scripture and the already-articulated doctrines of the Faith.  For more on this topic, I highly recommend Prof. William Marshner’s talk “The Mistake About Theology” from the 2010 conference of the American Chesterton Society, available here.

[2]               If you’d like to understand further the full implications of Islam’s rejection of reason, I highly recommend The Closing of the Muslim Mind by Robert Reilly.  His talks on this subject for the Institute of Catholic Culture are also excellent.  They’re available for free here.

[3]               Nikki or I will get into the details of the Church’s teaching on sexuality in other posts.

This entry was posted in Faith and Reason, G.K. Chesterton, Interpretation of Scripture, Islam, Jason, Trinity. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Jason’s Questions: #5 How Do We Respond to Islam and the Effort to Re-Define Marriage?

  1. Hmm… when I read the title of this post, I thought that responding to Islam and redefining marriage were going to be tied together by an exhortation to not re-define marriage and have more babies so we can defeat Islam… how wrong I was 🙂

    Great post!


  2. Thomas says:

    My favorite of your posts so far, Jason. While it can be argued, perhaps, that abandoning God does not necessarily result in abandoning Truth (but only perhaps), in the short span of history since Chesterton it has certainly worked out that way.

  3. Jason says:

    Thanks for your comments! They’re a great encouragement.

  4. mereed says:

    I enjoyed your post. As I read it, it occurred to me that the implied scripture supporting your argument is this one: For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.- Hebrews 4:12 Like you and Chesterton, there are things I am trying to work out. During that process, I have done as Lewis suggested: that once I have accepted the basics of the faith, or a given creed (as Chesterton asserts) I’ll allow my faith to pillar me through my wait for the explications of the details. The above scripture is one of those waiting gifts. It answers what we should use when giving a defense of God: should it be reason or passion or possibly just leave things as they are and let the living word do its work. It is a scripture to hang your hat on in these times where the Bible and scripture citation are being questioned and excluded. The reason for that needs to be examined, and if done so thoroughly, I feel confident it will lead us back to Hebrews 4:12. Once having accepted this, I have come to rest that Bible will be questioned and is supposed to be questioned…increasingly so as time marches forward. That is the process by which we are allowed to see some layer of souls and spirits, including our own, being “penetrated” and “judged” as to our thoughts and intentions. Each day my wonder is restored under great assault that this “living word” has been written in such a way that those given only to reason are exposed, and those given only to mysticism are exposed, and those who wish only to undermine and disrupt what is good are exposed, and those whose hearts want to see God are exposed and do find Him in His fullness of personality. It will go on this way until the end. For those who preach Jesus as “the way, the truth and the life” by the grace of God, this is a resting place of strength and an encouragement.

    • Jason says:

      Thank you for the kind words! Your comments remind me that it is a great comfort that God has promised that His word will not return void. God bless!!

  5. Pingback: If You Want a “Christian Worldview,” Read Chesterton and Become a Catholic | The Roman Road

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