The story is told that when at a dinner party it was suggested to Flannery O’Connor, American novelist, essayist, and devout Catholic, that the Eucharist was merely a symbol, she was so taken aback by what to her was a scandalous insinuation that she replied, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”
Well, I’m not Catholic and do not share O’Connor’s view on what my tradition calls, “the Lord’s Supper.” But I do admire her answer. O’Connor doesn’t say, “Well, even if it isn’t real, I still feel better about myself for having taken it.” She doesn’t say, “Well, even if it isn’t true, we still all feel closer to one another as a ‘community of faith.’” No. O’Connor has no use for therapeutic religion, and neither do I. O’Connor boldly proclaims (paraphrasing): “If what my faith or church or holy book teaches me is not true, then I have no use for it, I have no need of it, and will gladly walk away from it.” I wholeheartedly agree. And the Bible presents matters just this way. It does not present its teachings as the ideas of a man which one may revise according to passing fancies; on the contrary, the Bible assumes such a God, such a world, and such a doctrine—all of which it takes for granted and for which it demands acceptance. It allows one to say, “I won’t accept this,” with consequences forthcoming. It does NOT allow one to compromise, equivocate, or make excuses for what it says. And I personally have more respect for the former than I do for the latter.
I am not a Christian because that faith helps me to get along in life. I am not a Christian because going to church, praying, and serving others fills my life with meaning and purpose. I am a Christian because I believe that the Christian faith is true and accurately describes the world around me, things visible and invisible. It makes sense. And if it were not true, not real, I would gladly walk away from the Christian faith as simple integrity would require. O’Connor and I will differ on precisely what the Christian faith teaches on some points, but we will not end our debate with some equivocal, “Well, we’re saying the same thing just in different ways” or “Well, in the end it really doesn’t matter” or “Six of one and half a dozen of the other.” No. One of us will convince the other, or we will shake hands, bless one another, and then walk away, each convinced of the rightness of his and her own belief.
No doubt, there will be those who will say that I must have a weak faith; after all, if I cannot accept ambivalence, uncertainty, contradiction, and just plain muddles—well then, how much is my faith really worth? These have chosen to define faith as a cloud of unknowing encompassed by doubt. And no wonder. Such a definition allows them to quibble over every command while choosing what agrees with their own sensibilities. The Bible and the Christian faith are then effectively neutered (neutering is a contemporary craze, you know) offering, not specific commands to be obeyed and doctrines to be believed, but vague principles which one may choose to live by—like “love” or “justice”—which are then filled with one’s personal definition of those terms. Regardless of our differences, both O’Connor and I stand against such bastardizing of the Christian faith.
This is how much truth means to me. I demand that that which I call my faith and which defines what I believe about eternal matters is not just some worldview, philosophy, manner of life, self-help strategy, or political ideology. No. I demand that that which I call my faith, that which I believe which touches the most important things in my life and in this world—I demand above all else that that faith be true. This is not the same as saying that faith be without mystery; the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation are mysteries revealed in Sacred Scripture of which though one may never reach the bottom yet are capable of being understood. But I still demand that these mysteries be true and not metaphors or literary/cultural/religious constructions. In short, faith must have content or it is just placing one’s faith in faith—an empty and meaningless exercise which seems to satisfy millions.
Over the next several days, I will write four essays on four matters which the Christian faith teaches that MUST be true or else I cannot and will not accept it. Oh, there are far more than four, but I will limit myself to these. My purpose is not to argue with Flannery O’Connor; I respect her for demanding that what her church teaches be true though I may disagree with her on the precise content of that truth. My purpose is to illustrate with only four examples of contemporary concern that the Christian faith: 1) is a religion with a doctrinal content revealed in Scripture, a general consensus of which has been taught throughout Church history; and, 2) is not some amorphous, undefined, self-help or social justice strategy that offers suggestions on how to make one happy or the world a better place.