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Posing an intellectual framework for Catholics
Question of the Day
REASONS TO BELIEVE: HOW TO UNDERSTAND, EXPLAIN, AND DEFEND THE CATHOLIC FAITH
By Scott Hahn
Doubleday, $21.95, 226 pages
REVIEWED BY JEREMY LOTT
St. Justin Martyr, writing in the second century A.D., laid down a useful principle for how to propagate the Christian religion. "Whatever is true is ours," he explained. The approach was, in today's terms, presumptuous, expansionist and surprisingly multicultural. The evangelist need not regard elements of an unfamiliar culture, or even a rival religion, as dross. Rather, non-Christians were on the road to the truth, whether they knew it or not, and the faithful were there along "the way" — one early name for the Christian movement — to help the scales fall from their eyes.
In "Reasons to Believe: How to Understand, Explain, and Defend the Catholic Faith," Scott Hahn shows that St. Justin's pronouncement was in keeping with the thinking of the earliest Christians. What had started out as a messianic movement within Judaism quickly turned outward and adapted to new environments. St. Peter declared gentile food clean, thereby allowing Jewish Christians to break bread with their new non-kosher co-religionists. St. Paul became the "apostle to the gentiles" who would use the Athenians' own polytheistic veneration of idols to argue for the One True Faith.
Mr. Hahn is a theologian at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, a former Calvinist convert to the Church of Rome, a prolific author and a rock star on the Catholic lecture circuit. This book is billed as a work of general apologetics — reasons for the faith. Its arguments are organized into three sections. The first is directed at atheists and agnostics, the second at Protestants and the third at all Christians.
Curious readers might do themselves a great favor by skipping the first eight pages or so, ahead to the section titled "Be Prepared." Mr. Hahn writes that there are occasions when "blind faith" is necessary but those are "usually times of extreme urgency." Normally, you've got to think things through. According to the first letter from St. Peter, Christians should "be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you."
It's a lovely thought but hard to carry out. The Catholic faith offers limited answers while acknowledging mysteries. Sometimes at Mass I get a sense that I am part of something larger — something mystical, I guess. It's difficult to bottle those feeling into words and even more of a pain to argue for them. To say "I feel X" is to invite charges that "I" am deluded. Thankfully, not all arguments for God and religion are so subjective. Mr. Hahn rehearses some of the usual numbers (arguments from design, morality, natural law) and throws in a few twists of his own.
The best lines come out of his classroom experience. In one case, a student challenged him, "If God didn't exist, we'd invent him anyway, and we did. What do you say to that?" Mr. Hahn countered that "if God did exist, we'd invent atheism anyway."
He allowed that we might concoct a vaguely deistic, nonjudgmental deity, but the God the church preaches? Unlikely. The prospect is simply too "terrifying." Consider: "Our God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-holy, and omnipresent. There's no place to run and hide from Him, no place where we might secretly indulge in a favorite vice. We can't even retreat into the dark corners of our minds to fantasize about that vice without God knowing it right away."
Mr. Hahn also plays up the compatibility of faith and reason. In his telling, they are two distinct but necessarily complementary forms of knowledge. Reason can uncover all kinds of secrets, but it cannot tell us why those things are important, or even why the search for knowledge is vital. And faith that excludes reason is prone to all kinds of problems, including heresy and fanaticism.
While addressing unbelievers, Mr. Hahn avoids the common Protestant mistake of quoting the Bible at them as though that should settle the argument. ("No, the Bible is true. See, it says so right here.") When speaking of Protestants, however, he takes great pains to explain to fellow Catholics that it's okay to go verse for verse with our dear "separated brethren." He has to argue thus because the Good Book tends to serve a different function in Catholic and Protestant churches.
He's got a point: Protestants sometimes attack the Mass as "unbiblical," but that's patently false to anyone who has (a) read much of the Bible and (b) attended Catholic worship. The text of the Mass, which good Catholics attend at least once a week, is saturated with Scripture. Many of the short sayings are Bible verses, and the order of service has three readings — one from the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament), one from a Gospel and one from a non-Gospel New Testament book — along with a recitation of a Psalm and the Lord's Prayer.
There are many reasons why Catholics are reluctant to argue with Protestants about Scripture. The largest reason isn't their ignorance of the text as such but their relationship to it. Private Scripture reading by Catholics is encouraged — you can get an indulgence for it — but the public proclamation of the Word is what's important. The people stand when the Gospel is read and cross themselves three times, over their forehead, mouth and heart, out of respect and reverence. There is a sense, mistaken but understandable, that arguing about something so sacred would cheapen it.
Jeremy Lott is a contributing editor to Books & Culture and author of "In Defense of Hypocrisy."
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