September 23, 2016

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Viewing the big picture, with the ‘facts,’ from several angles

Cynthia DewesWe once had a neighbor, who was not the brightest bulb in the socket, who asked us if we thought our having two handicapped kids was some kind of punishment from God. He wasn’t being mean. He just wondered why a couple of normal, nice people had such a thing happen to them.

Naturally, we were shocked and a bit angry. I had never heard of this theory, although I learned later that it was a kind of Old Testament idea still held by some people. It was one of those human explanations invented by ignorant people to account for disasters in life, a literal interpretation of an abstract concept.

In fact, over time we understood that having such children was a great blessing, not only to us and our family, but also to our neighbors, schoolmates and friends. Peter and Andy taught all of us the importance of love, patience, perseverance, and faith, which bring joy.

This brings me to something I saw written recently in an article: “We’re challenging traditional notions of faith.” What struck me first was the word “notions,” which tells you what the writer thinks of religious faith. In his mind, apparently, faith is just one fleeting idea on our radar, to be replaced at any time with a better one.

This is a bit like the ongoing “conflict” noted by some between scientific and religious beliefs. Literalists tend to ignore or not recognize intrinsic mystery when they see it in a factual event. They can understand and describe the workings of things like chlorophyll and human reproduction, but the original creation behind such things seems to be lost on them.

Each side of the question often feels rather sorry for the other. The writer who thinks religious faith is just a notion seems to think believers are pathetic, if not naive or a bit dimwitted. And those who believe in God think the others aren’t too bright because they don’t seem able to appreciate the bountiful divine graces poured out on them daily. Each faction thinks the other is not seeing the big picture.

So let’s consider what we think are the facts. Believers see God’s hand behind everything in life: the way nature works, including human nature, among other things. They believe God has given us free will to make choices, which also allows for failure or bad results. It’s up to us.

The more literal folks are a bit fatalistic. If that’s what the scientifically proven system leads to, that’s the result. No real choice here, no option to choose a different way. And certainly no reason to operate from an altruistic motive, rather than one that is merely efficient.

Now, we can’t go against the facts of nature. We can’t try to live and work upside down, or breathe in others’ coughs and sneezes with no concern. On the other hand, if we’re convinced scientifically that animals do not feel pain as we do, we still don’t have a right to be cruel or inconsiderate of them. Or, if the fact is that humans can subsist on bread and water alone, that does not give us the right to deny them more substantial, nourishing food.

Facts is facts, as some popular sage once said. Literal facts allow us to know more about our world. And mysterious religious facts allow us to be joyful in it. We’re so blessed to have both.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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