Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Geometry Of Faith

“The Catholic Church,” according to G.K. Chesterton, “is much larger on the inside than it is on the outside.”  Those of us who have been out and now are in (back in, for some of us) know how true it is.  And it stands to reason: as both a worldly and a spiritual entity, the Church cannot be contained within purely physical bounds.

What is both seen and unseen?     

This sounds like sheer nonsense, of course, to those who are formed in a materialist worldview, because they reject a priori the existence of a non-physical reality.  It may be a decided minority who consciously embrace such a worldview, but many, many more unthinkingly see the world in the same way.  Explaining Catholicism and the Catholic Church under these circumstances (except, maybe, in the most zealously orthodox Catholic schools) sometimes feels like trying to converse with someone who speaks a completely different language.
    Instructing the unknowing, however, is one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy (and for some of us, it’s also part of our employment contract), so we must always search for new ways to communicate the experience of faith.  In another post, for instance (“A Dark Matter: 'Proving' God In A Materialistic World"), I discuss the cosmological theories of “dark matter” and “dark energy”  as a way of addressing the common idea that, because we can’t detect God directly using scientific instruments, it’s unreasonable to believe in him.  Scientists believe that 95% of the matter and energy in the universe is completely undetectable, but they are convinced it is there because of its observed effects on things we can detect; likewise, we can be sure of the existence of God, even though he is beyond this world, because of his effect on things (and people) that we are able to see.

The Faith Postulate

     In a similar way, there are things we can know only by experiencing them; the love of God as we experience it in His Church is a prime example.  The outsider will often dismiss this sort of knowledge as requiring an irrational, unsupported belief, since the proof comes after our initial commitment.  We might ask such skeptics to consider geometry as an analogy.  Euclidean Geometry, for instance, starts with the parallel postulate, which requires that parallel lines never meet.  It’s not proven, you simply have to take it as a given.  Once you do, of course, you find that the entire system is consistent, which validates your starting assumptions.  More importantly, you find that when you apply it to the real world, for measuring property lines, for instance, it is absolutely reliable.  Likewise the Catholic Faith: once you “step inside” and see the results in your own life, the most “reasonable” response is belief (this is Blaise Pascal's proscription for those who remain unconvinced by the logic of his famous wager).  From the inside we can also see that Christianity yields truer results on a global scale than other systems of belief (as I explain in “What Would Darwin Do?”).
     All analogies are imperfect, of course, and a skeptic might point out that, while the Catholic Church claims to hold immutable truths, we can change the parallel postulate and still come up with other internally consistent systems of geometry, systems which may not work on a plane, but work perfectly well in other contexts.  In spherical geometry, for instance, parallel lines (which are actually lines of longitude) meet exactly twice, at the poles.  This system is much more accurate than Euclidean geometry for measuring on a globe.  Spherical geometry shows us, for example, that what looks like shortest distance from, say, Chicago to Rome (a straight line from west to east) on a flat map is actually much longer than a route which loops north (or appears to “loop” north) over Greenland. 

United Airlines' graphic showing Chicago to Rome flight path

The Fullness of Truth

     The fact that there are different geometries, however, doesn’t weaken the analogy at all: if anything, it develops it further.  Like Euclidean geometry, which only works on a two-dimensional plane, the scientific worldview is an accurate and quite useful tool for interpreting reality . . . within a certain narrow focus.  It enables us to learn about and work with things that are physical and measurable, but it cannot tell us about things like love, justice, or any other reality that might exist outside of the purely physical realm. Just as a bathroom scale can tell us how much we weigh but can’t tell us our age, it cannot alone tell us anything about things outside of its set boundaries.  The Christian Revelation, on the other hand, reaches beyond the material world and gives us access to a much fuller reality, and once we accept its premises, we can see both its internal consistency and its Truth when applied to our experience.
     Maybe when we look at it in this way, it can help us explain what St. Paul means when he says: “Let no one deceive himself.  If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise.  For the wisdom of this world is folly with God” (1 Corinthians 3:18-19).  He is not rejecting reason, but saying that, to someone who thinks in only two dimensions, three-dimensional reasoning is incomprehensible.  Likewise with Chesterton: those on the outside of the Catholic Church often think they are looking at a plane, while from the inside we can see it in all its three-dimensional fullness.  Finally, one last quote, from one of the greatest of geometricians, Archimedes: "Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world!”  Everything depends on that “place to stand”, and there’s no firmer ground than the Church founded by Jesus Christ.

(This Thursday Throwback was first published 9 March 2015 on the blog Nisi Dominus)


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