Book Break: Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures

CatCoCI don’t remember exactly when I picked up Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures — or why — but it was on my nightstand, unread, for many months until Brendan came home from UMary and mentioned it was one of the good books he read in his Catholic Studies classes this year. Essentially a lecture delivered by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) circa 2005, the book highlights the ways in which Europe’s widespread Christianity served as a foundation for many of the great advances of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, which have paradoxically led to a severing of the Christian roots that made them possible and a grave imbalance between technology and morality, between what we can do and what we should.  Yet even as we stand on the brink of cultural collapse, Cardinal Ratzinger proposes an approach that could restore the moral foundations of Western societies and lead people back to God.

It is a short (115 pages of well-spaced text), but heady, read — unflinching yet hopeful in its outlook, recalling that all things are possible through Christ. Two major ideas touched on in the book stand out to me this morning, each of which I will paraphrase and tackle in somewhat of my own way so as not to spoil the lecture itself.

The first is that we live each day by faith, which is never blind but always rooted in authority of those who have firsthand knowledge of the subject at hand. An example a friend of mine shared some months ago: how many of us know our birth mother? How do we know? None of us can possibly recall the moment of our birth, and few if any of us have incontrovertible photographic evidence of that moment, with faces in focus and the umbilical tether uncut. We could have been adopted or inadvertently switched. But we have faith based on authority: the signed documents, the witness of family members and friends, and in most cases the presence and loving care of our mothers themselves.

Most of us aren’t engineers, yet we trust another’s deep understanding of engineering to get us to and from work safely each day and to perform our work functions. Most of us no longer raise the majority of our food, yet we trust that it is safe to eat. In the same way, while many of us do not claim to have firsthand knowledge of God in person, our faith is based on the authority of those who did (or do): signed documents, the witness of family members and friends, and the loving care of the Creator Himself.

Indeed, without this foundation of so-called irrational faith — this fundamental belief and trust in things outside our own personal experience — everything else, including the science and technology we cling to as “rational,” breaks down.

The second idea worth highlighting is that, as Cardinal Ratzinger puts it, “It is an obvious fact that the rational character of the universe cannot be explained rationally on the basis of something irrational!” If the origins of the universe, the world, and humanity are random, how then can we rely on them to unfold in a rational way and be understandable? If our brains are merely chemicals and electrical impulses particularly suited to our survival, what are reason and choice, and why do they matter?

Cardinal Ratzinger puts forth a compelling picture of the modern culture and offers advice for believers and non-believers alike to rebuild the crumbling foundations of Europe and the West. Brendan found this little book worthwhile, and so did I.

Book Break: Lord of the World

This past spring I ran across an Aleteia blog post relaying that both our current pontiff, Pope Francis, and our Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, have recommended the same novel to the Catholic reading public. The book–Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World–is a dystopian novel about the coming of the Antichrist and the end of the world. So I bought a cheap copy for Kindle and have since devoured it. I could not put it down.

Monsignor Benson was the son of the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury who converted to Catholicism and was ordained a priest. Though he and his work are not as well known today, he was praised in his time by great Catholic writers like Hilaire Belloc, and today by the likes of Joseph Pearce. Pearce has this to say about Lord of the World:

The world depicted in Lord of the World is one where creeping secularism and Godless humanism have triumphed over religion and traditional morality. It is a world where philosophical relativism has triumphed over objectivity; a world where, in the name of tolerance, religious doctrine is not tolerated. It is a world where euthanasia is practiced widely and religion hardly practiced at all. The lord of this nightmare world is a benign-looking politician intent on power in the name of “peace,” and intent on the destruction of religion in the name of “truth.” In such a world, only a small and shrinking Church stands resolutely against the demonic “Lord of the World.”

The novel was written in 1907, but from the world it creates, I would have guessed it had been published after one or both of the World Wars. It does feel prophetic, though I’ve ceased to be surprised by this, given the number of literary classics I’ve read in recent years that seem as though they fit our times. But Benson’s book is short, gripping, dark, terrifying at times–and beautifully represents the challenges of living a Catholic faith in a world with little use for it.

That said, it is a very Catholic book and may not be enjoyed as much by non-Catholics (unless, God willing, they have a heart very much open to learning about the faith). The cheap download for Kindle have numerous typos, but Ave Maria Press has a new edition out for those who prefer print anyway. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

The Seed Is…Me?

I’ve had a handful of conversations lately about our faith formation programs at St. Michael: what we’ve done differently this year, what’s working and what’s not, and what more I wish we’d done. I am tempted to sudden actions and grand gestures at times, and midway through the faith formation year is no exception: I am tempted to blow up what we’re doing in our parish and start over. So many people need to know that God is real, that Christ is present in the church…and I’m stewing over videos, Powerpoints, and the Catechism.
Then a good friend shares this with me, from something he is reading these days. He knows where my head has been lately, and thinks this might be helpful. He’s right.

“Commenting on the Church’s evangelizing efforts, Pope Benedict XVI warned that Catholics today must resist what he calls ‘the temptation of impatience,’ that is, the temptation to insist on ‘immediately finding great success’ and ‘large numbers.’  He says that immediate, massive growth is not God’s way.  ‘For the Kingdom of  God as well as for evangelization, the instrument and vehicle of the Kingdom of God, the parable of the grain of mustard seed, is always valid.’  He goes on to say the new phase of the Church’s evangelizing mission to the secular world will not be ‘immediately attracting the large masses that have distanced themselves from the Church by using new and more refined methods.’  Rather, it will mean ‘to dare, once again and with the humility of the small grain, to leave up to God the when and how it will grow.’”

The quotes from Pope Benedict are from “The New Evangelization:  Building a Civilization of Love,” his address to catechists and religion teachers, Jubilee of Catechists, December 12, 2000.
We talk often of planting seeds in others, not knowing where, when, or whether they will germinate. But Pope Benedict calls me to the humility of the small grain. 
What does that mean?

A seed perseveres through inclement conditions. It bides its time, then when the time and place are right, it germinates: puts roots down and sends visible growth up.
So far so good, I think.
As conditions are favorable, it continues to grow, and God willing, to put forth fruit. The plant itself has little impact on how much fruit results year to year or what becomes of the fruit once it ripens and drops. But it continues to produce, year after year, as long as it is able. 
The seed is me? That’s a thought I hadn’t thought before…

Book Break: In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall

One of the many things I meant to do in the past year was to explore and review several books on the Catholic view of creation and evolution, in order to help parish parents and grandparents answer their questions on the topic and those of their children. My hope was to find a book or two that might be helpful to inquiring minds of all ages.

As usual, I bit off more than I could possibly chew and have completed only one such book. On a positive note, it was excellent.

‘In the Beginning…’ A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall is an edited compilation of four Lenten homilies given by Pope Benedict XVI in 1981, when he was still Joseph Ratzinger, archbishop of Munich and Freising. His goal was to develop a catechesis of Creation for adults. The four homilies build, one upon the other, to present a clear case for what the Genesis accounts of Creation and the Fall mean and why they continue to matter:

  • The first homily, “God the Creator,” lays out the so-called conflict between the Creation account(s) and science, and discusses how and why we interpret scripture the way we do: in the context of Jesus, to whom the entirety of scripture, written over the course of centuries, points.
  • The second homily, “The Meaning of the Biblical Creation Accounts,” addresses the Creation story specifically, the reasonableness of belief in Creation, the ways in which science points to Creation, the sabbath structure and rhythm of Creation — and the emergence of the view that humanity is at conflict with nature.
  • In the third homily, “The Creation of the Human Being,” Pope Benedict focuses on the heart of the matter for many modern Catholics: where humans come from. He explains that Genesis has more to do with who we are (imago Dei, or image of God) than how we got here, then tackles evolutionary theory directly — what it can explain about our existence, and what it can’t.
  • In the fourth homily, “Sin and Salvation,” Pope Benedict discusses the Fall of Adam and Eve, and the plan for salvation, with Christ as the new Adam. In perhaps the most profound explanation for me personally, he clearly lays out why, because we are creatures created by God, obedience to God’s law is not a restriction of freedom (like we often perceive it) — we are made for this, and thrive under God’s law because it’s in our nature!
The entire book is exactly 100 pages, including the Appendix, entitled “The Consequences of Faith in Creation, which reads like a fifth homily on how we got to the point that, since the Renaissance, understanding of and belief in Creation theology has diminished to the point that it is rarely spoken of in modern Catholicism, and why our fundamental “creatureliness” is essential to our future. Pope Benedict’s style is straightforward and clear; he is obviously well-read and -researched on this topic, but makes it accessible to (though not always easy for) the patient reader. The book is less specifically about evolution that I imagined, but rewarding and worth the time. It’s fun to imagine these as homilies, sitting in the pews, wishing someone was writing all this down.