by Matt Nelson | The Christian life demands change, and the toughest kind. It often means turning from the things that come easiest—things that satisfy our natural urges. But the ability to freely choose to say no to our urges and impulses is what makes us distinctly human.
One of the greatest obstacles to becoming a committed Christian is that Christianity is challenging. The task of living a fully God-centered life is no walk in the park, as the lives of the greatest and most fully converted Christians who have ever lived—the saints—will attest. Indeed, Christianity lived to the fullest involves struggle. But is the struggle worth it?
Often the skeptic will see the struggle and be deterred. What he may not see—perhaps a result of self-inflicted spiritual blindness—is the outflow of joy that permeates every saint’s struggle; and if he does see it he will not want it—not because he does not want joy but rather because he does not want joy enough to give up his old ways. But of course, even the most hardened skeptic cannot be considered a total write-off. Indeed some skeptics are eventually compelled to change their mind. This is the hopeful realization that drives evangelization.
The rejection of God today, however, is often not caused primarily by philosophical argument. Usually it is a result of indifferentism towards religion—a result of what Bishop Robert Barron has called the “Meh” culture. The question is: Is this popular religious indifference warranted? Are Christians who toil for the cause of Christ wasting their precious time?
Imagine a friend offered you a free lottery ticket. Would you take it? You’ve got nothing to lose—it’s free! Too busy? Oh, but if you win—you win millions. You’ve got nothing to lose and millions to gain, so why not take the ticket? Of course you’d take it.
The great mathematician Blaise Pascal, in his Pensees, saw a similar scenario regarding faith in Jesus Christ. He concluded that the struggle to believe was worth it. He saw that if you believe in Christ—or at least die trying—you will gain everything as God promised. But if you choose to say no without trying—if you choose to say “Meh”—you lose will everything. Dr. Peter Kreeft unpacks Pascal’s Wager in his essay “Argument from Pascal’s Wager”:
If God does not exist, it does not matter how you wager, for there is nothing to win after death and nothing to lose after death. But if God does exist, your only chance of winning eternal happiness is to believe, and your only chance of losing it is to refuse to believe. As Pascal says, ‘I should be much more afraid of being mistaken and then finding out that Christianity is true than of being mistaken in believing it to be true.’
The Christian life demands change, and the toughest kind. It often means turning from the things that come easiest—things that satisfy our natural urges. But the ability to freely choose to say no to our urges and impulses is what makes us distinctly human. (This is why we do not lock up dogs and chimpanzees for rape and murder.) To say no—and yes!—at the right time is what makes humans happy. This is true freedom. Christianity is an invitation to actualize the human destiny of everlasting happiness; and through the Church, God has provided the roadmap to get us there.
Christianity is hard because it aims to soften hearts. One of the tough facts of Christianity is that we must face up to the fact that we are fallen. We are often not what we ought to be. G.K. Chesterton writes: “One of the chief uses of religion is that it makes us remember our coming from darkness, the simple fact that we are created” (from The Boston Sunday Post).
What makes Christianity hard is that it reminds us of our imperfections. We are much too prideful to enjoy such a thing—and this, I fear, is where the skeptic checks out. The skeptic robs himself of the opportunity to encounter the Good News. Chesterton famously remarked: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried” (Chapter 5, What’s Wrong with the World).
This is the great modern tragedy arising out of an age of hedonism and “choose your own way” morality. One might call our times the “Age of Self-Sedation.” Instead of pursuing the supernatural high that explodes interiorly from personal union with God (the highest of highs—just read St. John of the Cross or St. Teresa of Avila), the modern man chases sex, drugs, travel, houses, fame, “likes,” retweets, and on goes the list. But it is to no lasting avail.
The Good News is, however, that there is a cure. The cure is Christ. And the cure is administered especially through the sacraments of the Catholic Church. The Church is a “hospital” for sinners: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mk 2:17).
Perhaps the greatest heresy in all of history is the desire to have Jesus without his Body—the Church (Rom 12; 1 Cor 12). But to say “I’ll have Jesus—but hold the Church” is to say “I’ll have some of Jesus, but not all of him.” (See CCC 795.) This is where the Reformers turned a reform into a revolution. They did not reform Jesus Christ’s Church. They discarded an essential part of it—the priesthood—and with the priesthood, the sacraments. They threw out the bottle with the medicine still inside.
Of course, the Church was discarded but not dissolved. Indeed, the Church persists as she always has and will (Matt 16:18), and her doors are as open as they’ve ever been—to all. She continues to rise above the hard tide of secularism, standing firm and holding fast to her moral and doctrinal traditions, which are more than just traditions. They are truths. And it is the Christian’s recognition of these “nonnegotiables” that makes Christianity so demanding in an age of rampant anti-religion and relativism. Indeed, as Chesterton observed, “These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own.”
A Christian who thinks he can be a saint without suffering in this world is mistaken. This begs the question: “Who would choose such an unhappy life?” In God in the Dock, the former atheist C.S. Lewis responded to this question by remarking: “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”
It is true that Christianity does not exist to make us happy. But it does exist to make us joyful. Peter Kreeft, who some believe is the “C.S. Lewis of our times,” makes the following distinction: “Joy is more than happiness, just as happiness is more than pleasure. Pleasure is in the body. Happiness is in the mind and feelings. Joy is deep in the heart” (from Joy).
The Gospel is an invitation to life everlasting from the Everlasting Man—and with life everlasting comes joy everlasting. Christ promises us that “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9). Of course, this offer means nothing if God does not exist. It would mean the Christian labors in vain. At best it would be a nice idea worth spreading to make one feel warm and fuzzy, a safety blanket for the naive. Steven Hawking once proposed that heaven is a “fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” Oxford mathematician John Lennox replied by saying, “Atheism is a fairy story for those afraid of the Light.”
God is not a wishful “projection” of the human mind, as Ludwig Feuerbach and friends have contended. There is far too much external evidence for the existence of God. Thus, theoretical physicist Paul Davies, though not a religious man, has concluded upon analysis of the cosmos: “There is for me powerful evidence that there is something going on behind it all…It seems as though somebody has fine-tuned nature’s numbers to make the Universe…The impression of design is overwhelming” (from The Cosmic Blueprint).
A different kind of projection that is, however, a real issue is the skeptic’s projection of human qualities onto God. Thus, when the critic of Christianity says, “If God really existed he would (or would not) do this or that,” what he really means is, “If I were God, I would (or would not) do this or that.” This might be called the anthropomorphic problem of the problem of evil. Contrarily, the God of Christianity is eternal, immaterial, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present—and yes, all-good and loving. He is not like us in all his perfection but rather wholly other. Therefore, we cannot expect to understand God’s ways absolutely. This is where religious belief comes in—when the human intellect meets its threshold and “informed” faith bursts forward. As a wise English convert to Christianity has reflected: “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”
This does not mean, however, that Christian faith and the works that flow from it are based irrationally on a grand metaphysical guess about the unseen. Christianity hinges on the person of Jesus, and virtually all New Testament experts today, including the critics, agree that Jesus certainly existed. To add to the testimony of his existence, ancient texts such as the Babylonian Talmud record Jesus to be a worker of wondrous deeds. We have more reliable historical information about Jesus than almost any other major figure in antiquity. (Unfortunately, it is often overlooked that the New Testament writings are also valuable ancient historical texts.)
Furthermore, the miracle claims of Christianity abound and continue to survive rigorous scientific scrutiny. Recognized by researchers are new developments with the Shroud of Turin; naturally inexplicable events like a dancing sun in Fatima confirmed by secular newspapers and hundreds of eyewitnesses; the “bread” of the Eucharist mysteriously changing to uncorrupting human flesh (like in Lanciano, Italy); the incorrupt bodies of deceased saints (like St. Bernadette); and countless records of miraculous cures and healings, such as those in Lourdes, France. This sheds some light on why Christians are so willing to suffer for their faith: they know with their heart, as well as their head, that Jesus is who he claimed to be. And through miraculous events such as these, God has given believers (and unbelievers) a little help.
It must be noted, however, that in Christianity, the heart has a certain primacy over the head; for God judges hearts, not heads. Faith is largely a matter of the heart—indeed, its surrendering, even breaking. This is why C.S. Lewis described Tolkien’s “fundamentally religious and Catholic work” The Lord of the Rings in the following way: “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart”(from “Review of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings”).
But the choice to be Christian is as much a decision to follow one’s head as a decision to follow one’s heart. Faith stands on the shoulder of reason as we “logic things out” in order to approach (and accept) the mysteries of faith. But religious faith is not opposed to reason. Reason leads to faith. As St. John Paul the Great has confirmed for us: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” (Fides et Ratio).
The thriving Christian life is an all-encompassing effort of the whole person, body and spirit. St. Irenaeus has suggested that “the glory of God is man fully alive.” This is why saints are the best argument for the truth of Christianity. Their lives testify that following one’s heart can be difficult—and so can following arguments where they lead. Indeed, their lives of holy perseverance reveal that sincere heart work and head work are hard work. But no struggle is more essential to human flourishing than the struggle of the people of God. The saints and their impact on the world have demonstrated this decisively.
I’ll leave you with the words of one of the most influential saints in all of history, St. John Paul II: “I plead with you! Never, ever give up on hope, never doubt, never tire, and never become discouraged. Be not afraid.”