A few days ago, I was approached by a relative hoping to dissuade me from my Catholic faith. The disclaimer “I don’t mean to offend you, but … ” was followed by a litany of links to YouTube sermons from the rigidly anti-Catholic, fundamentalist preacher, John MacArthur. My relative’s admirable sympathy for the peril of my soul did not mean he shied away from putting the matter severely. Catholicism, he asserted, is pagan, idolatrous, and heretical.
Is Faith Purer When It Is Uninformed?
Unfortunately, the severity of the charges was not matched by sincerity in defense. He refused to read the articles I sent and to listen to the videos I linked. Not only did he lack a fair and accurate understanding of the Catholic Faith, but he was not interested in gaining one. Rather than responding to my questions and the evidence I presented, the response was that I did not accept the preachments of MacArthur because I had “studied too much.” I couldn’t accept the “truth” because my faith had been weakened by “imbibing” Roman Catholic books and scholarship. My advanced degrees in theology were a liability to my faith, not an asset. If only I had just read the Bible and not read books and asked questions, then I would be, like him, a devotee of John MacArthur, not the pope. This was not the first time I have been told faith is purest when it is uneducated.
Apart from being offended by the way my education and studies were cavalierly dismissed, I was baffled by how it never occurred to him that he started the conversation sending me YouTube videos of someone he presumably thought was an expert. While telling me to be suspicious of my teachers and to reject the authority of the pope, he asked me to imbibe the judgments of his favorite preacher. While telling me not to listen to the teachings of the Church and determinations of scholars, he was admonishing me to read an English Bible that was given to us by the Church and translated by scholars.
What made this all the more confounding was that he had undertaken extensive education to become a medical doctor. So I asked: Why, if healing and caring for the human body requires extensive academic training and expertise, should we then expect that novice knowledge is best when we consider the salvation of the human soul and the knowledge of the Creator of all things? Again, there was no reply.
The Real-Life Consequences of Being Anti-Intellect
Admittedly I was not able to give him the best and most charitable of responses because, as our conversation was happening, I was distraught at the revelation that a longtime friend was on the verge of leaving his wife and children. A brilliant and accomplished philosopher, he had grown disinterested in the Christian faith in part because the advocates with which he was familiar had often scorned human learning and thought. Why endure an uninteresting and dissatisfying union on the advice of fools who pride themselves on their lack of study?
There are real life consequences to the refusal of some Christians to think about and defend their faith intellectually. How many Christians excuse their lax morality or piety by the consolation that religion is guesswork? How many people stagnate in their sanctification because they think they have learned it all or that there isn’t much to know in the first place? How many priests fail to catechize or preach to their flocks because they aren’t confident in what the Church teaches? How many potential converts are turned off by anti-intellectualism?
True Faith Seeks Understanding
The democratization of religion through the Protestant Reformation and, especially, the Great Awakenings has led many Christians to believe that the uninitiated are the likeliest to have true faith. Ignorance is a virtue when it comes to religion, it seems. The simpler your faith, the less informed by professors and priests, the more authentic and genuine it is. Faith is much more about self-esteem than doctrine, right? When it comes to faith and morality, we are better served by amateurs not experts, right? We should prefer our best guess and strongest feeling over the consistent teachings of the Church throughout history, right?
We need to throw this sentimentality into the rubbish bin. It is destructive and false. There is no good reason for this prejudice and there are many reasons against it. While faith is by no means reducible to knowledge, it is stimulated, encouraged, and deepened by such. Let’s look at some reasons why we should think about our faith.
1. Knowledge Helps Liberate Us from Sin
The Catechism teaches that the original sin of Adam and Eve deprived the human soul of God’s original gift of holiness and justice and, consequently, the wounded human nature is “subject to ignorance” (CCC 405). The supervisor of my doctoral dissertation, the late John Webster, eloquently elaborates how sin disrupts the proper functioning of our minds:
“The performance of our intellectual nature is distorted by the fall. The depravity of the intellect is not such that our intellectual nature is wholly destroyed … But in the wake of the fall, our intellect is no longer well-directed; it no longer moves swiftly to its goal, but is dissipated … Indeed, the human mind, because of its darkness, cannot hold to the right path, but wanders through various errors and stumbles repeatedly … “John Webster, What Makes Theology Theological, 26
We should be careful, then, to discipline our minds so that they can overcome their disability.
Over and over in the Scriptures, sin is depicted as a darkening and deception of the human mind. The Lord through the prophet Jeremiah tells us:
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt, who can understand it?”Jeremiah 17:9
Our Savior Jesus Christ echoed this when he said:
“Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.”Matthew 15:19
St. Paul tells us that sin subjects our reasoning to futility and darkens our minds (Romans 1:21; Ephesians 4:17-19). St. John the Evangelist depicts Jesus as the “true light that enlightens the world” (John 1:6). The Evangelist got this notion from Jesus who declares of himself:
“The light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.”John 3:19
If our hearts are deceptive, it would be foolish to trust them when it comes to our faith. What we are obliged to do is “be transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Romans 12:2). This we can do by “taking every thought captive to Christ” (2 Corinthians 12:5). Thus the Catechism reminds us of our duty to form and educate our consciences so we make true and rational judgments:
“Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings.”CCC 1783
One of the ways we can overcome sin, then, is by knowledge of the truth. Indeed, our Lord Jesus Christ exhorts us:
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free”John 8:31-32
The more truth we know, the better we are able to assess our circumstances and follow the Lord, the more capable our minds will be to perceive goodness and discern the deceptions of evil. Study is not optional; it is essential for our full participation in the gift of new life from the Holy Spirit.
2. God Is Wise and His Children Cherish His Wisdom
One of the things I cannot make sense of is why people who spend so much time everyday investigating their finances, investments, retirement plans, purchases, exercise routines, diets, and many other temporal goods think you can learn everything you need to know about the eternal God in your youth CCD class or ten-minute homilies. If all these other things are so complicated, requiring careful discernment, why think that the Creator of everything is so simple? The only answers I can come up with are sloth and sin—we prefer giving our energy and attention to the discovery of earthly things, because we are confident in our abilities, and we resist studying the ineffable God for fear of being dumbfounded.
Sometimes people who say that study is contrary to faith console themselves with Jesus’ statement that we must become like children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 18:3). This, they say, shows that when it comes to faith naivety is better than studiousness. But Jesus is not holding up children as an example because of their ignorance or gullibility, which are never heralded as admirable traits in Scripture, especially since evil is so deceptive. Rather it is the inquisitiveness and humility of children that Jesus admires. Children are always asking why. They desire understanding and are humble enough to inquire. It is the way children are desperate to learn and understand that is exemplary.
Scripture abounds in the admonishment that God is wise and his children delight in his wisdom. Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel asserts that “the Lord is a God of knowledge” (1 Samuel 2:3). Psalm 147:5 says God’s “understanding is beyond measure.” St. Paul speaks of “the depth of the riches and wisdom of God” (Romans 11:33). He then quotes from the prophet Isaiah:
“Who has directed the Spirit of the LORD, or as his counselor has instructed him? Whom did he consult for his enlightenment, and who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?”Isaiah 40:13-14
It is the wicked who “say, ‘The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive’” (Psalm 94:7).
Precisely because God is all-wise or omniscient, the Scriptures encourage us to apply ourselves in meditating upon God’s revelation. The very first Psalm begins:
“Blessed is the man, who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers, but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.”Psalm 1:1-2
The longest Psalm and longest chapter in the Bible is Psalm 119, which repeatedly praises the wisdom of God in his commandments and precepts, urging worshippers to meditation on them. “God is Truth itself,” says the Catechism, and so “one can abandon oneself in full trust to the truth and faithfulness of his word in all things” (CCC 215).
How could we expect to know by ignorance and foolishness a God whose very nature is knowing? Do we think the God of truth and wisdom prefers ignorant and foolish children? Surely to grow as a child of an all-knowing Father is to grow in wisdom through diligent study.
3. The Intellect Is the Highest Faculty of the Soul
In our day, we tend to think we should follow our feelings, not our thoughts; our hearts, not our minds. The ancient motto “Know thyself,” which prioritized knowledge over feeling has been replaced with “be true to yourself” which prioritizes feeling over knowledge.
But the traditional view of the human person is that the intellect is the supreme faculty of the soul and a human person functions properly when the intellect informs the will and disciplines the passions. We are truest to ourselves when we live in accordance with our reason.
Recently, I was speaking to a Protestant mother who was considering sending her daughter to the Catholic high school at which I teach. Her concern was that her daughter’s spirituality might stagnate since she doesn’t find the formality of the Mass very uplifting and she doesn’t understand it. I assured her that at the beginning of every year we take time to explain the Mass, and that with this knowledge her daughter could engage our weekly worship, even if she couldn’t receive the Eucharist. I gave the example that when we begin by asking for mercy, we are putting ourselves in the shoes of those like the prophet Isaiah whose reaction to being in God’s presence was to cry out for mercy. She then remarked, “Oh, I guess if you understand it, you could actually follow along.”
This is what knowledge does—it enables us knowing beings. Knowledge helps us act and decide more fully. It removes fear. It makes us more capable. Knowledge fulfills our faith. Precisely because the intellect is our highest faculty, knowledge personalizes our faith. Because we can understand the reason for our actions and beliefs, they can be more fully embedded in ourselves.
For a decade, I was an Anglican minister. I prioritized catechesis and teaching in my ministry. A major reason why I left this behind was because I felt that remaining Anglican inhibited this vocation. Many Anglicans have stopped catechizing out of embarrassment over Christian doctrine. This lack of catechesis has absolutely zapped the devotion and confidence of the laity. People who aren’t sure of what they believe don’t prioritize church attendance or spiritual growth. People who aren’t growing spiritually become contentious and divisive. People who aren’t sure of what they believe don’t feel confident in sharing it with others. People who are embarrassed about their faith find it easier to make excuses for their waning devotional life or moral failures.
I encourage you to see study as vital for holiness and faith and to resist the temptation to think that when it comes to religion, that ignorance is a hallmark. Perhaps as you are considering what discipline to add during Lent, you could consider adding study.
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Dr. James R. A. Merrick is a lecturer at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Senior Fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and a theology and Latin teacher at St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania. Dr. Merrick is also on the faculty for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown’s Lay Ecclesial and Diaconal Formation program. Previously he was scholar-in-residence at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. Before entering the Church with his wife and children, he was an Anglican priest and college theology professor in the United States and in the United Kingdom. Follow Dr. Merrick on Twitter: @JamesRAMerrick.