Friday, March 03, 2006

Questions About the Faith

This last week I got emails from two friends making theological inquiries. I thought I'd post my responses. Comments and suggestions welcomed. Here's the first installment.

"How plausible is it that those who are living a life of faith in Christ and love for others are missing out on 'special graces'?"

[Trent Dougherty] How plausible is it that non-Christians those are living a life of love, service, and devotion to their fellow human beings are missing out on special graces? I think they do receive grace and blessing for their efforts, but I also think it would be very well of them to become Christians of some kind or other. Even if they are "saved" it is something special to worship Christ on Earth, something wonderful and I'm sad that "holy pagans" are missing out on that.

Likewise, I think my non-Catholic Christian brethren receive grace and blessing for their love, service, and devotion to our Savior. But I also think it would be well of them to join the Church and worship Christ in Word and Sacrament. It makes me very sad that they are missing this wonderful experience. I *love* being Catholic and could not live without the Sacraments, I wish that everyone would experience it.

"What is the content of these special graces?"

[Trent Dougherty] That's a matter of some subtlety, but it is not something the absence of which can keep one from profound communion with God. It is a source of sustaining Grace drawing the communicant with a rightly disposed will closer to Christ. Experientially, I *know* (if I know anything) that I am being fed spiritually in a way that makes me more able to follow Christ as I ought. This is something I did not have when I was not Catholic and I lament that I did not accept it sooner even though I was "saved" at that time. I know you know there's more to being a Christian than being "saved". That thought is one of the seeds that flowered in my Catholic garden.

"How can Jesus' body be multiply located (or that it have so many parts)? If the bread is changed in substance but not in accidents, are there ANY properties (such as causal powers, dispositional properties, anything) by which one can discern that the bread really is Jesus flesh? If not, then in what sense IS IT Jesus' flesh?"

[Trent Dougherty] A full answer to that will have to wait (probably 'til the New Jerusalem!), but I think there are some preliminary considerations that are, for now, more important than a direct answer. Do you believe that e=mc2? Do you even know what that means? I won't belabor the point with examples, but they are legion: often we are not in a position *either* to doubt or understand a statement. Now, on the face of it, that's an odd position to be in: it is not epistemically responsible to withhold assent but we can't even understand—or at least not very well—the statement we are compelled to assent to.

What we do in such cases is to believe that such-and-such a *sentence* expresses a true *proposition*. If I heard my German friend declare in a resounding voice "Der schnee ist weiss" even if I didn't realize that that sentence expresses the same proposition that the English sentence "The snow is white" expresses, I'd still believe that it expresses a true proposition. I have very little idea at all what proposition is expressed by the sentence "e=mc2". However, I believe that that whatever proposition it expresses is a true one.

So I don't understand the doctrine of transubstantiation very well--though I once thought I did (I put that in the past tense not because I think what I thought was false, but rather because I forgot most of what I thought. At one time I was quite well-versed in the Thomistic metaphysics of transubstantiation and at that time I thought it made sense). This is nothing more or less than the admission that there are others who no more than we do and whom we should trust in matters in which we are comparatively ignorant. So I will continue to try to understand the doctrine, but as I do so, I will say "credo ut intelligiam" (I believe in order to understand).


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