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Mysteries in our faith

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I worry that Catholics today are impatient of mysteries, perhaps influenced by too many bad streams in our culture.


There seem to be two basic approaches that we can take to reality and our place within it. These approaches are exclusive, and we need to choose between them. Either (1) we are set on accepting reality only insofar as it is somehow tailored to us, or (2) we accept ourselves only insofar as we are tailored to reality. The first approach is associated with self-centeredness, graspingness, and consumption. The second is related to self-abandonment, gift, and creativity. The first makes increasing demands on others and never quite finds satisfaction. The second makes diminishing demands on oneself and is effectively satisfied even from the start. Let's call these egoism and altruism. These terms aren't the best, but they are available, and, in some ways, they match the distinction I want to make.

This difference of approach is manifested it seems in all areas of life, in matters large and small. Let's take something simple like word use. The striking thing about young children learning a language is that they start using a word or phrase just because those around them do, and they don't figure out what the word means until they're already using it. They abandon themselves in learning language, as if they were jumping off a cliff. They are linguistic base jumpers. This is very "altruistic." On the other hand, consider those Bible translators who say that one shouldn't use words that people don't understand. No one knows what a manger is, so change it to "crib." And so on. Such an approach makes concessions to and even encourages a childish, not childlike, "egoism."

In love, the right way is to will the good of the other -- that person's genuine good, not what you, or that person, or anyone else merely supposes is good, that is, because it is so supposed. Such is altruism, and it requires self-abandonment, clearly. However, if we want for ourselves, and therefore for others too, simply what we take to be good, then we are trapped in egoism, and our relationships must become, as St. John Paul II said, nothing more than a "coincidence of egoisms." These are fragile and break up when circumstances change.

The relativism which is correctly said to pervade our society is simply a generally accepted license not to love anyone truly, not even oneself.

Knowledge behaves like love. All the genuinely creative people who discover things must be "altruistic" toward reality, mercilessly smashing their idols, falsifying their pet theories (the language of Bacon and Popper is correct here), in the conviction that what is there has not yet been truly grasped. I once heard a famous physicist say that in an advanced seminar no one around the table really knows what they are talking about, yet they hope to get closer to it by talking about it together. This is a fundamentally altruistic attitude, in our sense.

The opposite would be someone who will not assent to anything unless it is clear to him. And that kind of rationalism, which is essentially egoistic (because, as Bertrand Russell said, it makes each person a god), has also become common in our society, through the baleful influence of Descartes -- who was in fact so brilliant that the rule, "believe only what is clear to you," might almost have seemed plausible, in just his case. But, as Gilson remarked, although there are many reasons why someone might be a Descartes, there is no reason whatsoever that anyone should be a Cartesian.

In matters of religion, the distinction is verified, too. Protestants have held historically that the rule of faith for a Christian is only what in conscience he can find to be taught in the Bible. Christian truth must be such that it is tailored to the judgment of an individual. Newman called this outlook the principle of "private judgment," but he might have called it "Christian egoism." Christian fellowship based on such a principle must accordingly be fragile and change when circumstances change. Protestants have denied the consequence, believing that the Holy Spirit will assure a coincidence of consciences. But that faith has been proved to be misplaced.

Catholics in contrast accept the teaching authority of the Church, that is, of the bishops in union with the pope. Why isn't that private judgment too, the old objection goes, because a Catholic accepts that authority only so long as his own conscience approves? Because what looks like the same thing, "accepting the authority of the Church" versus "accepting the authority of Scripture," actually signals a change from egoism in doctrine to the altruistic attitude.

Crucial to this change is an ease with mystery. Egoism is "I believe only what I understand." Altruism is "I believe that I may understand" -- and, probably, not.

I worry that Catholics today are impatient of mysteries, perhaps influenced by too many bad streams in our culture. Is that why so many priests in their homilies, it seems, try to translate the parables and teachings of Jesus into mundane psychological reflections, or generic moralizing? It's as though to point out that something is mysterious, that none of us in this Church understands this -- that it's likely the gospel writer himself didn't understand it -- it's as though such things get us nervous.

But there are mysteries in the Christian faith. And, by definition, a follower of the Lord must tailor his thoughts, words, and deeds to them.

- Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Ethics and Social Philosophy in the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America. His book on the gospel of Mark, ''The Memoirs of St. Peter,'' is available from Regnery Gateway.

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