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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Seeing is Believing

tell me, I pray you, your friend's will towards you by what eyes do you see? For no will can be seen by the eyes of the body. ....St Augustine of Hippo
The idea that one must only believe what can be seen is an argument that has entranced philosophers and theologians for ages. The modern day debate between 'science' and 'religion' is but an extension of this ancient struggle.
The question becomes whether those of us who can and do rely upon both our senses and our faith are sane or foolishly holding to fairy tales that offer us comfort on a cold and lonely night.
One of the reasons I love to read St Augustine is that he is a Rhetorician and not just a Theologian. He came up from the same type of sorrow I experienced: drunkeness, promiscuity, hatred of all that is good, suspicion of anyone who seemed happy - most importantly, to me, is he lived a life that just broke his mother's heart over and over again. Yet, through the grace of God and the power of her prayers, St Augustine came to believe before his mother, St Monica, left this earthly plane. I have no doubt that her powerful intercession as a citizen of The New Jerusalem gave her son the strength to stand strong against the Arian Heresy. I have no doubt that her continued love for this wayward and headstrong child helped him to become one of the greatest men the Christian world has ever produced.
Recently I have had to tackle his arguments against those of his time who maintained that one cannot expect a reasonable, sane human being to believe something they can't see. The softly strong argument he builds against this assertion are so logical, so easily understood that it boggles my mind to think we are still having these same arguments today. Unless I can see it, taste it and smell it - unless I can hold 'its' solid form in my two tiny hands - then I will refuse to believe it.
And yet every day we take on faith that which was taught to us by men and women who walked this path before us. We each have, to a certain extent, an earthly authority upon which we have hooked our wagons. If their star falls, we fall as well. The teacher that taught us the ditty "in 14 hundred and 92, Columbus sailed the ocean blue" handed to us knowledge we take on faith.
Sure, we can point to documents and writings, eye-witness accounts of the frantic activity surrounding that fateful voyage but we have no way of really verifying any of that stuff. Basically, we take the information on faith. We believe what happened because someone in authority told it to us.
Last Thanksgiving I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine named Pink Cloud. She was telling me that because she is a descendant of indigenous Americans she views the United States Government's 'feast day' of Thanksgiving as a less than happy day. I understand her feelings.
But I asked her if she knew the whole story behind the young man who offered the pilgrims help that particularly bad winter. Of course, she did not - few Americans do. She took it for granted that he was acting out of the beliefs of his culture - the old fallacy of the 'Noble Savage' still has a very strong hold on us - and that his good deed had eventually resulted in betrayal.
I can't dispute the betrayal part - the treatment of aborigional peoples by invaders has never been pretty. What I told her did change her way of thinking about that fateful ecounter.
The young man who offered comfort and goods to starving pilgrims had suffered as a slave in Europe. His freedom had been purchased by Franciscan monks - the same order as Father Serra - who made it their mission for many years to try and free slaves the only way that seemed to matter to those who owned them; money. The young man had lived with the Franciscans for many years, evenutally accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and being baptised into the Catholic Church. He had returned to his native land, determined to live the Franciscan Way and one of the opportunities presented him to do just that was to try and help the starving colony in Plymouth.
She did not believe me. I gave her references. She looked for herself. Pink Cloud conceeded that she had not known the whole story and had taken, on faith, that what she had been taught (in American public schools and an American university) had been lacking.
"The basic facts were there", she said. "What was missing was the color, the nuance that made the entire episode real".
St. Augustine maintains that it can be quite logical to believe that which we cannot see. Like Pink Cloud, I have a tendency to be a nuts and bolts kind of girl. Let me see it. Show me. You'd think I was from Missouri sometimes, the way I approach life.
But without my ability to believe and 'see' with something other than the 'eyes of the body' my life would be without color or music.
Recently someone asserted that I believed certain things about myself, right after telling me I had no right to tell him how he was feeling. I am pretty sure the guy didn't mean to be funny, but I had to laugh out loud. For only someone with the determination to hate that which he cannot control would make such an claim. "Your words make you sound like this"....."Don't tell me how I am feeling".
I made the decision 17 years ago that I was not going to dumb-down for anyone any more, nor was I going to pretend to be something I am not. I am not a stupid, uneducated, silly-minded woman incapable of research, incapable of writing university level papers, incapable of asking questions and finding answers. I am never ashamed to admit I am ignorant of some things - I have no idea how an internal combustion engine works and I am a lousy speller - and I will never stop asking questions of those who may have the answers I seek (like a mechanic, or my sobriety sister who is an Linguistics professor). However, if someone engages me in a discussion and puts forth a weak argument I would hope that they would WANT me to answer their claims or assertions, just as I would want them to answer mine. Unfortunately, in my life so far, I have only met one person who actually engages in discussions without going after me personally - my cousin, Trace.
But then again - we are family. And we are just so darn smart.
St. Monica, pray for me. And thank you for praying for your son.

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