Intellectus quaerens fidem.
Becoming an Adult Christian: a Personal Memoir

As my parents were not especially religious, what I came to believe as a teenager was less what they had passed on to me than the result of my own reading and reflecting over several years, roughly from the age of fifteen to eighteen. However this process has never stopped, because truth of course is never seized at a particular moment, and just as for the church, also for each individual understanding of the truth is always evolving and deepening.

Strangeness of the Gospel
New Testament When I was fifteen years old, living in Vancouver, I began to read the New Testament for the first time. My initial impression was one of bewilderment, for two reasons. First, beginning as I did with the Gospel of Matthew, it all seemed very strange, with the references to so many things I didn't understand (Scribes, Pharisees, Son of Man, etc.). It didn't take me long to do a bit of elementary reading, such as an Encylopaedia Britannica article, and to find out that Jesus' central message about the Kingdom of God or Heaven had nothing to do with dying and going to heaven, as I had always supposed. That initial impression of strangeness left me with the conviction that Biblicism, or the protestant principle of "sola scriptura" (that the Bible is clear in its meaning and the only source of religious understanding and faith) was wanting, for the simple reason that the meaning of the words of the Bible is by no means self-evident, and reading the Bible requires both an understanding of the very different culture from which it comes and a consideration of how the text of the Bible has interacted with questions of men and women in the Christian community throughout history (i.e., "tradition"). So I was oriented towards a sympathy for Catholicism, the historic faith of the Irish side of my family, from the time of my first encounter with the Bible.

The Gospel and the establishment
The second source of my bewilderment was that I had come to the New Testament, at the age of fifteen, with the false preconception that it would be a kind of charter for the established order, with all the rules on what we were supposed to do and not do to please those in authority. I was therefore astonished to find Jesus constantly challenging the establishment (like the Scribes and the Pharisees), condemning the rich and powerful ("Woe to you that are rich"), rejecting those who exercise power over others ("You know that the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you"); overturning the bankers' tables in the Temple, and so on, and then finally being executed as a threat to both the established religion and the state.

I was surprised as well to find, both in the teaching of Jesus and in the letters of Paul, encouragement to live by a radical ethic of love rather than by a set of predetermined rules ("The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath"; "On these two commandments [of love] depend all the law and the prophets"; as well as the whole Pauline idea that we are not justified by works of the law and that love is more important than even faith: "Faith, hope, love abide; but the greatest of these is love," etc.). I thus understood that in such matters as respecting the rights of homosexuals, Christians must give absolute priority to love over any preconceived dogmatic considerations.

Biblical and theological readings
A few years later, when I was now at university, my understanding of the teaching of Jesus and his significance for a believer became clearer after a friend recommended to me New Testament scholar Norman Perrin's book Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus. Using the most rigorous norms of historical research, Perrin's book dispelled for me some of the strangeness I had experienced on first reading the gospels, and elucidated for me the meaning of Jesus' Kingdom of God as the activity of God as king, and how this was manifested especially in Jesus' breaking down of social class in the table fellowship at the very centre of his ministry.

At the time I began my studies in languages and history at the University of British Columbia, I also started to read some of the well-known theologians of the twentieth century, both Catholic and Protestant. At the time they were often discussed in the student Christian groups I associated with, such as the (Catholic) Newman Club and the Student Christian Movement: for example, the Lutherans Paul Tillich and Rudolph Bultmann and the Catholics Karl Rahner and Hans Küng. The first three had engaged a Christian dialogue with German existentialist philosophy, especially that of Martin Heidegger. I attended a weekly study group at the home of the Anglican chaplain, Father Alan Jackson, where we shared a potluck supper and over the course of a year discussed the Systematic Theology of Paul Tillich. I found that Tillich had articulated much better than I could the view of the relationship between the Bible and its readers which had informed my own initial reactions. On the first page of his three-volume work, he wrote: "in its biblistic-evangelical form [Tillich is referring here to the 'Biblicism' I mentioned above], the theological truth of yesterday is defended as an unchangeable message against the theological truth of today and tomorrow ... It elevates something finite and transitory to infinite and eternal validity."

Paul Tillich I saw Tillich's notion of God as the "ground of being", and his insistence that it is a serious misunderstanding to see God as a being existing alongside other beings, to be consistent with the classical Catholic doctrine of God articulated in the thirteenth century by St. Thomas Aquinas, the doctrine of God not as a being, but as esse ipsum, as being itself. The ancient tradition of Christian mystical theology, for example in the fifth century Greek mystic Dionysius the Areopagite, had observed that if, in our human language, we must say that God "exists", we must equally say that God "does not exist". God is thus conceived as that which gives being, the reason why there is anything and not nothing, rather than simply a form of infinitely superior intelligence. This concept of God puts to rest any claims that biological evolution, or any other scientific fact, has any relevance whatsoever to the question of the existence of God.

The New Testament and Mythology
Around the same time I came across Rudolph Bultmann's essay "New Testament and Mythology (or "The mythological element in the New Testament"). Bultmann was known as the most prominent New Testament scholar of the century, an expert on the source analysis of the gospels and author of the exhaustive, two-volume Theology of the New Testament. On first reading I found his essay "New Testament and Mythology" unsettling, even if it was written by a scholar who was a believer and who knew the New Testament inside out. Superficially, Bultmann seemed to be dismissing Christian doctrines that I had come to believe as untenable myths. But I soon realized that for Bultmann the terms "myth" and "mythology" were not negative and dismissive, but neutral and descriptive.

Bultmann I had at this time some undergraduate student friends who were studying philosophy, and who would challenge me to articulate exactly what I meant when I would refer to these doctrines. In discussion with them I came to realize that religious language was of a different order than the language of science, and that, for example, no neuroscientist would be able to examine someone's brain and determine that the person was "divine". So I came to understand that religious statements were statements of value, rather than empirical observations of the type a scientist would make, and that these statements of value were expressed in a symbolic language that naturally varied from culture to culture. I found the analogy of a flag instructive. Physically a flag is simply a piece of cloth, but in the symbolic order it is endowed with a value, which is no less real than an empirical or scientific reality, and which transcends the physical composition of the flag.

This realization made Bultmann's analysis much less threatening. He argued convincingly that the "three-storied" world of the New Testament, with its heaven in the sky, its miracles, its spirits wandering around earth, and other such features that are no part of our experience, was simply the conceptual framework in which the authors of the New Testament had to express themselves, and is in no way the essence of the Christian message. "Can Christian preaching", Bultmann asked, "expect modern man to accept the mythical view of the world as true? To do so would be both senseless and impossible. It would be senseless, because there is nothing specifically Christian in the mythical view of the world as such [and] impossible, because no man can adopt a view of the world by his own volition -- it is already determined for him by his place in history." Rather, for Bultmann, the Christian message should be understood in terms of our concrete existence in the world ("existentially"), of which he gives a number of examples in this and other essays.

French literature and tolerance
In my first year of university I studied French literature and made the acquaintance of Renaissance (16th century), Classical (17th century) and Enlightenment (18th century) Catholic writers like Montaigne, Descartes, and Montesquieu, who had come to understand the cultural relativity of the symbolic language which expressed religious truth. Even as a child I had realized that if I had been brought up in a different culture I would have different ideas, and especially different symbolic points of reference. These writers impressed upon me the importance of not assuming that religious symbols are the best just because they are mine, and that the complement of my own faith had to be respect for that of others.

For example, reading Montesquieu's Lettres persanes (1721), the imaginary correspondence of Iranians visiting Paris and observing the "strange" customs and religion of the French (this is written by a Catholic Frenchman!), I found the character Uzbek describing different religious practices (Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu) and concluding that whatever religion one accepts, it teaches that God loves all human beings, and that what pleases God, irrespective of our religious practices and symbols, is for us also to love all human beings "en exerçant envers eux tous les devoirs de la charité et de l'humanité."

The Church as the human race
Encountering the writings of the Jesuit Karl Rahner, generally recognized as the most important Catholic theologian of the century, also helped me to refine my ideas during my years at the University of British Columbia. My thought was particularly influenced by his essay "The Future Reality of Christian Life" (1967), where Rahner envisaged a future society that will not be a Christian society, but rather one where the "future Christian will be living as a member of the little flock in an immeasurably vast world of non-Christians." Asking "How in such circumstances is he to think of his Church?", Rahner replies: "He will be able to do it only if he views the Church as the sacrament of the salvation of the world."

Karl Rahner The Church, then, is not comprised of those who boast that "we are saved," but rather proclaims to humanity (in taking up St. Paul's theme that salvation is not for a particular people, but for all): "you are saved." Rahner's ideas were later reflected in the wording of the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church, which, quoting the Second Vatican Council of the nineteen sixties, affirms that "To the Church, in different ways belong ... the Catholic faithful, others who believe in Christ, and finally all mankind" (paragraph 836).

So the different pieces in my understanding of what it meant to be a Catholic Christian were coming together during my first years of university.

During these years, the long and horrible war in Viet Nam was still going on, and I found unbearable news of the daily atrocities where American aircraft bombed poor farming villages and dropped napalm on their inhabitants. Today, the war in Iraq, with its many tens of thousands of civilian victims and the razing of entire cities like Fallujah, and the offensive war of occupation in Afghanistan, where NATO forces have knowingly killed thousands of innocent civilians with their bombing and shelling, cause me the same anxiety.

The Gospel of the Prince of Peace
Already in high school, when I was first reading the Gospel, I grasped that Christ's commandment "Love one another" could not possibly mean "Bomb one another to a pulp," and that it was not just to Peter that Christ had said: "Put your sword back into its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Matthew 26:52). In my well-worn copy of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, I had underlined the sentences where the bishops of the Church proclaimed that the modern development of "scientific weapons" required "an evaluation of war with an entirely new attitude," and specifically that warfare which results in "the destruction of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation." I came to believe that this era is no time for compromise with evil power, and that Christians should return to the practice of the first three centuries of the Church, when they simply refused military service.

My reflection on Christian freedom confirmed this conclusion. I realized that the moral freedom of a Christian was totally obliterated if he or she surrendered to some other person (or to the state) the right to determine if they must lie, steal, torture, or kill.

My attraction to the Catholic Church was fortified by the courageous resistance against war by a number of American priests, nuns, and monks (like Thomas Merton), especially the Jesuit Daniel Berrigan and his brother Philip.

The different gifts of the Spirit
So there is the story of how I came to develop my formative understanding of what I believe as a Catholic Christian, but, as I said at the beginning, my beliefs are by no means some kind of closed system, and I am always learning. When I was a little older, Pope John Paul II's 1981 encyclical letter on human work and against market capitalist (or Soviet-style state capitalist) "economism," Laborem exercens, and his 1998 encyclical on faith and reason, Fides et ratio, for example, both had for me many helpful insights.

For me Christian faith, however important it is for the inner spirit and personal relations, has always meant as well an engagement with real life and the real world. I have stated publicly at the university that right now the real world is facing three major crises: the environmental crisis, the permanent state of war, and devastating worldwide poverty. My personal faith engagement thus means -- even if, remembering what I read in Karl Rahner years ago, I do not necessarily announce my faith motivation -- at least partly, responding to these human crises.

St. Paul has emphasized the many different gifts and contributions of Christians, and I do not of course believe that the kind of engagement I am speaking of here is necessary for every Christian, just as I would never say that my particular understanding of the Gospel message is more complete or more important than those of others. I am speaking only of my own path. On the contrary, the engagement of many others seems much more important than my own.

James MacLean

Other essays by James MacLean