Sunday, December 21, 2008

Dispositions for Faith, by Cardinal Newman

The Fourth Sunday of Advent falls on December 21 this year, which is the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle in the old calendar, and the Gospel reading at Mass is about St. John the Baptist. These things also coincided in 1856, and that inspired Father John Henry Newman (not a cardinal yet) to write a sermon entitled "Dispositions for Faith".

Yes, this post is about a sermon! I've been waiting for months to blog it on this day. But if you're leaving now, be sure to return later. Coming up in the next few days, this blog will feature:

1) A more Catholic-y dessert than any I've posted so far! With the possible exception of the St. Nicholas cookies. But this dessert is definitely more... memorable.
2) And another Catholic dessert, not as explicitly religious but still delicious.
3) A story of how a friend of mine used in-your-face Catholicism to save herself from peril! (Potential peril, anyway.)
4) A report of my doings last night-- I met a girl wearing the most obnoxious Christmas sweater I'd ever seen. You'll be shown the amazing pictorial proof!
5) A Christmas poem. Don't whine, it's only eight short lines.

Okay, Cardinal Newman! So I liked his sermon a great deal when I first read it, because it tackled a problem that had been rattling in the back of my mind for years. I'll try to state the problem.

Some have faith in God and some don't. Of the latter, some are happy not to believe in God, but others of those who don't have faith actually wish they did. I knew a woman, a co-worker, who rejected religion as repugnant to reason, yet she still insisted that she wished she could believe it. She saw the comfort that Catholicism gave to her dying grandmother, and she saw the fear suffered by her atheist grandfather when it was his turn to die.

Of course Christians have always taught that Christianity is fully compatible with reason; it might be suprarational but it's never irrational . However, it's true that no one is brought into the Church by reason alone. Faith is required, and you can't flip a switch and give yourself faith. It comes only as a gift of God: "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast."

Moreover, faith is necessary for salvation: "Without faith it is impossible to please God."

And God wants everyone to be saved: "It is not His will that any should perish but that all should come to salvation."

But evidently God doesn't grant the gift of faith to all. He didn't grant it to my atheist co-worker, nor to many others. So in what sense is salvation really available to all, if you need faith to get it and only God can give faith and He doesn't give faith to everyone?

There seems to be a paradox here. Strict Calvinists settle it and greatly simplify Christian theology by denying that salvation is available to all. They teach that Christ died only for some ("limited atonement", the third of the Five Points) and that some people were essentially created for Hell because they were not predestined by God for Heaven.

That view is repugnant to me, but of course my feelings don't prove it wrong. More to the point, the Bible speaks very clearly throughout of the free choice we have to accept God or reject Him, to please Him or not. By God's grace anyone can be reconciled to Him and rejoice in Him forever; this is not unattainable for anybody and God greatly desires it: "The Spirit and the bride say, 'Come!'... Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life." The limited atonement idea is wrong wrong wrong, and the Council of Trent agreed and anathematized that view.

But that means we're left with the paradox. And it's not just some esoteric fine point of theology to me, because I know there are plenty of people to whom having a relationship with God sounds as strange as having a relationship with the Tooth Fairy, and that's very sad. How is it that some believe and some do not?

Well, Cardinal Newman's take on that is in his sermon; now if you wish, go read it. :)

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