Our Faith's Foundation

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4/18/2008

When I was growing up, I sometimes visited an elderly gentleman who lived on our street. He had the largest house in the neighborhood and owned interesting cars. He knew that I was thinking about becoming a priest and tried to talk me out of it because he was uncertain whether or not God even existed. Ironically, my neighbor wanted to talk about religion even though he really did not believe in God. All I wanted to do was see his cars and all the nifty tools and gadgets he owned.

My neighbor was the first of many people I have encountered who either do not believe in God or remain uncertain about his existence. Even more common today are people who live as though God does not exist or matter. As a member of the Lord’s “sales team,” I have learned to view these encounter as opportunities for evangelization.They present themselves all the time — in airports and on airplanes; at dinners and meetings; in spontaneous conversations; and in my daily correspondence. Little did I know that my boyhood neighbor was getting me ready for a lifetime of advocating belief in God.

Refuting the 'New Atheism' Back to Top

The first line of the Nicene Creed, which we recite at Sunday Mass, is: “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen.” This sentence affirms one’s personal belief joined to the Church’s communal belief in the existence of God. It is the most fundamental affirmation of all, key to all that the Church believes and teaches. It is also fundamental to how we look at our own lives, the society in which we live, and the world itself. My column this month and next will focus on that first sentence of the Creed, and the basis for these reflections is sections 36-65 of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

If God did not exist, both human life and creation would lose their transcendent meaning. The world and those who dwell in it could no longer be seen as reflecting the goodness of an all-powerful God who is above and beyond the created universe. In addition, we would not have a destiny beyond our present experience.

In my February 2008 column, I noted that a resurgence of atheism is under way, fueled by authors such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. They do not make new arguments to discredit belief in God; rather, they take advantage of an increasing secular culture to rehash old and shaky arguments. Even sympathetic reviewers sometimes complain about these writers’ shoddy scholarship, lack of logic and use of intemperate language against believers.

In my view, there are two good ways to counter neo-atheism: The first is to live our faith with integrity and love. The second is to deepen our awareness of why the Church, through the centuries, remains deeply and serenely confident in the power of reason, even when unaided by the light of faith, to arrive at the truth that God exists. We can know the existence of God as we reflect on the beauty and order of creation and ponder how our world and the universe itself came to be. We can detect God’s existence in the continual urgings of our conscience to do good and avoid evil, and in the restlessness of our hearts for a fulfillment that nothing in this world can provide. Pope Benedict XVI addresses these fundamental human aspirations that point to God in his encyclical Spe Salvi (On Christian Hope). He asks: “…when does reason truly triumph? When detached from God? When it has become blind to God?” (23). The pope convincingly argues that human reason is truly human when it looks beyond itself. Only then does reason perceive the dangers of godlessness to human dignity.

'I Am Who Am' Back to Top

Most of us, I would venture to say, know God first and foremost because he revealed himself to us and gave us the gift of faith. Enlightened by faith, we more readily see the reasonableness of maintaining God’s existence. Faith does not destroy reason but enables it to look more competently beyond itself. Faith also allows us to hold fast to God as the foundation of our existence and to assent to all he has revealed.

God revealed himself in creation and in the history of salvation. He also revealed himself to his Chosen People as the only true and living God: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone” (Deut 6:4). Again and again the prophets confirmed that there is only one true and living God and reproached the people whenever they fell into idolatry. Jesus also confirmed that there is only one God.

Not only did God reveal to the Israelites that he is the one and only God, he also revealed his name to them. First he was known as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob” (Ex 3:6), indicating how he guided and protected the people of Israel. God also revealed his mysterious name to Moses in the episode of the burning bush — “I AM WHO AM” (YHWH) — reflecting that God is the very fullness of being and indeed remains utterly steadfast, gracious and forgiving in his relationship with the people of Israel. Jesus also applied the mysterious name “I AM” to himself to indicate his divine Sonship (see, for example, Jn 8:28).

In revealing his name to the people of Israel, God did not merely provide information about himself. He revealed “the riches contained in the ineffable mystery of his being” (Compendium, 40). God’s name indicates that he has always existed and will always exist. It tells us that he exists above and beyond the universe and history. It also tells us that he created the world and all that is in it. All created things borrow existence from God; God alone is the fullness of being. Unseen, he is completely spiritual. He is “transcendent, omnipotent, eternal, personal and perfect” (Compendium, 40).

God Is Love Back to Top

God’s name also shows his closeness to his people and his determination to protect and forgive them. As we read the Old Testament, we see a growing awareness, thanks to the Holy Spirit, of how God’s transcendent greatness fits together with his nearness to his people.

The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church sums up God’s attributes by saying “He is truth and love.” Scripture affirms not only that God is truthful (he can never deceive nor be deceived) but that he is the origin of all that is true, wise and good. “God, who alone made heaven and earth, can alone impart true knowledge of every created thing in relationship to himself” (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 216). God’s word is utterly trustworthy when he reveals himself to us, especially through his Son Jesus who came “to testify to the truth” (Jn 18:37).

God also revealed himself as love. He loved the people of Israel with a passionate, spousal love, a love that was fully revealed and fulfilled in Christ. That is why St. Paul in Ephesians speaks of Christ’s nuptial love for the Church: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over to her” (Eph 5:25). Ultimately, in Christ, God was revealed not merely as the doer of loving deeds but as love itself. “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8, 16).

Reflecting on God’s majesty and greatness will deepen our faith. It will also inspire in us a spirit of trust and thanksgiving, especially in times of difficulty. The stronger our faith in God the more willing we are to defend human life and its God-given dignity.

Discussion/Reflection Questions for Council Use Back to Top

1. What significance does faith in God have on how we see the world? What are two ways that believers can refute the claims of the “new atheism”?

2. Bishop Lori notes that Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Spe Salvi, discusses several human experiences that provide rational evidence for the existence of God. What are some of them? Do they ring true? How do revelation and the gift of faith affect our reason?

3. In what ways has God revealed himself to us? What are some of the essential characteristics God has revealed about himself?

4. What does it mean to say that God is “the fullness of being”? How do truth and love relate to God?