Rationalism and Materialism
In the world to-day there are two specious classes of men who are opposed to Jesus Christ and to Christianity. They are called specious because they appear under the banner of enlightenment. They take their stand as thinkers and scientists, and in this form they make a strong appeal to persons who respect reason above all other endowments. Reason is our most valued endowment, and we should hold it in the highest consideration. Jesus Christ Himself so regarded it.
No scientist or philosopher in all history regarded reason as highly as Christ. No philosopher made such a strong appeal to it as did He. He told the Jews plainly to reject Him and His doctrine if He did not give them the best of reasons for their believing in Him. Do not believe me, He said, because I say a thing, but because I substantiate it. If you do not believe me, at least believe the works which I do. You can see and verify them. They speak for me.
You see, He gave an actual demonstration of His proposition as a mathematician does in a class-room. It is as if a man were to tell a native of South America that ether waves existed and could be controlled by human contrivances so as to send a message around the world. If the hearer denied or doubted, the speaker would forthwith send a message and demonstrate the truth of his statement.
So Jesus Christ did. When the Jews doubted His divinity and His mission, He said to them: I declare myself the true Son of God, the Messias. You hesitate to believe me. Indeed I know how wonderful my claims are, I realize your difficulty, I know how you regard the Almighty, and for this reason I am prepared to meet your difficulties. To demonstrate my statements, I consequently manifest the power which only God can exercise. Believe my works, they give testimony of me. Before your eyes you see men who were born blind now seeing as well as yourselves, you behold the leper cleansed, the cripple made whole, yea, there walk among you men who were dead and whom you were carrying out to burial and whom I by a word called back to life. These my works give testimony of me.
Is there any scientist or philosopher in the world who could show greater respect for reason than Jesus Christ! But once He gives His credentials, He speaks with authority. To listen to and believe one who is divine is not the surrendering of reason, but its' most noble exercise.
See how learned men listen to Edison and Marconi and accept wonderful things from them merely on their word for it. Do people consider that as unreasonable? Not at all. Yet a greater one than Edison, a millionfold greater, speaks, and rationalists say that it is unreasonable to believe Him. Scientists do not regulate our morals, Christ does; that is the difference.
In our discussions on the spirituality and immortality of the soul, we showed how untenable is the position of materialists. We shall now proceed to demonstrate that the rationalists, the worshippers of human reason, form but a specious cult, their mind and reason being swayed not by evidence, but by passion, in one form or another. Their principle is to submit everything to reason, and to reject whatever they do not understand. As they are unable to comprehend some of the teachings of Jesus Christ, they refuse to accept His religion.
It is true that, as rational beings, we should submit things to investigation and refuse to admit them if they are against reason. God gave us our intellects for that very purpose. But the doctrine of Jesus Christ, which is undoubtedly above our comprehension, above our reason, is not opposed to reason. We do not accept it because we understand it, but because we know that He who declares it can not proclaim anything but the truth.
The most intelligent people act in a like manner every day. After they make sure by reasonable inquiry that a person is competent and trustworthy, they accept from him many things that they do not understand. It is thus we act with physicians, chemists, electricians, engineers, etc. But, you will say, if we do not understand, we know that those we trust understand, and we could, also, if we applied our minds to the matter. Very true. What I wish to emphasize is that in point of fact we take many vital things on the word of another in whom we trust, simply because of our confidence in his integrity and knowledge.
Now I ask you if Jesus Christ, who is divine truth, is not worthy of our trust? Can we doubt His integrity or knowledge? Is it not, then, the highest use of our reason to conclude that He who gave it to us can be trusted absolutely?
Reason all you wish about the divinity of Christ, but once that is admitted it is most reasonable to believe every word He utters. If He, out of His goodness or to give us the opportunity of exercising faith in Him, reveals things to us that our reason never could excogitate, it is our loving duty to accept the revelation. If what He reveals mystifies us, it is only what we should expect when we contemplate divinity.
See how many natural things mystify us. Who can understand the law of gravitation? Who knows the nature of electricity? An ordinary student knows how to produce electricity and can utilize it, but all the scientists together cannot tell us what electricity is. The greatest minds among them have exercised their ingenuity for years, but all they can do is to theorize; they have nothing certain to tell us of its nature.
And if we cannot understand nature, should we be amazed that we do not understand nature's God? Do rationalists reject gravitation and electricity, etc., because they cannot understand their nature? Why, then, should they reject the religion of Jesus Christ because they cannot understand its sublime truths? If the religion of Christ did not require man to shape his life by it, no one would reject it.
Take the matter of Jesus Christ, for example. Those opposed to the Christian religion, if they are logical and consistent, are obliged to admit that if He is God what He says is true. How, then, do they avoid it? They either deny that He is God, or affirm that He did not mean just what He said. In carrying out their purpose, they act differently in His case from what they do in any other. In any court of law, if a man's character is proved upright and his mind is sound, he is believed.
All the world agrees that Christ's character is the most perfect in the history of the human race, and that His mind is the loftiest and sanest of which we have record. Why, then, is He not accorded the same rational acceptance that is given others?
They call themselves rationalists, when in the very exercise of reason they act unreasonably. Yet they regard with pity the poor believers! There would be no rationalism if Christ did not demand along with belief also practice.
In conclusion, I should like a rationalist to consider the following points. It is historically certain that Jesus Christ changed the face of the earth. He found the great Roman Empire pagan; He made it Christian. This was accomplished by means which were, humanly considered, absolutely inadequate. Christ was poor, His apostles were poor, His followers were poor. He had no army, no influential associates, no prestige, no human inducements. On the other hand, His religion was opposed to all that flatters human nature. It inculcated the loftiest virtue, the sternest morality, and demanded the greatest self-sacrifice. For three hundred years imprisonment, exile, and death threatened the recruit to Christianity, yet it spread rapidly over the then known world.
How such a religion ever got a foothold in the world is as great a mystery as the Trinity. If you are looking for miracles, there is one. Well could St. Augustine exclaim: "The establishment of the Catholic Church without miracles is a greater miracle than any recorded in Scripture. But if in its establishment there were miracles, you must acknowledge its divinity." Hence, with or without miracles, the Catholic Church stands forth a divine creation.
The Catholic Church, then, is divine. Is it any wonder that Catholics love it and live for it and, if need be, die for it? We know what we have; we do not merely opine. And realizing that our Church is divine, we listen to her as to Christ. If in the course of her history she has had human failings, we know that although she is divine, she is also human, and that Christ prepared us for scandals. But, above all, we know that, weak though she may be in her human element, she is supported by God Himself and guaranteed by Him to be a messenger of Truth always.
Her frailties make her sympathize with her children, and also give God an opportunity of showing that by the weak things of this world He confounds the strong. The weaker she is in herself, the more divine she proves herself to be. For during twenty centuries, all the power of the world has been employed against her only to leave her stronger after each struggle. All the passions of corrupt human nature have risen up against her, only to find her ever championing virtue and triumphing over evil.
This spectacle in the world is indeed a miracle. It is religion's reply to the challenge of unbelief. It is reason's answer to rationalists.
Adapted from God and Myself, An Inquiry into the True Religion (1917)
by Fr. Martin J. Scott, S.J.