You Cannot Love a God You Do Not Understand

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Column by Doctor James Merrick

Over a decade as an Anglican minister taught me the truth of what St. Augustine (354-430AD) said long ago: you cannot love what you do not know. I entered the Catholic Church because I found it difficult to fulfill my vocation to help parishioners grow in love for God without the Catechism. You can preach God’s love till the cows come home, but if God’s love is not defined, if you can’t tell people what it demands and looks like concretely, then people find it hard to believe and reciprocate beyond some fleeting feel good vibes. An almost decade teaching college students and a year teaching freshmen and sophomore high school students at St. Joseph’s in Boalsburg has only reinforced the conviction. Teenagers struggle to love God because they don’t “get it.”

They don’t know, for example, how the Bible, so archaic, clunky, and bizarre, is true and divine. Or, how the Mass, so awkward and ordinary, is a moment when we join the heavenly chorus of Angels and Archangels. They puzzle over why the Eucharist isn’t cannibalism, how the claims of faith are valid if they are not scientifically verifiable, or how the human body can be both the special creation of an intelligent God and an evolution from cosmic accidents, unintelligent forces, and impersonal code. They find it difficult to square the exclusive claims of Catholicism with their daily interactions with good Muslims, Jews, Protestants or atheists. They worry that Catholic morality is regressive or irrelevant or triggering. And they haven’t a clue what saying Jesus is “consubstantial” with the Father or “begotten, not made” means, as they recite the Creed.

We can’t blame teenagers for failing to take their faith seriously when we don’t give them a serious faith. If we avoid the controversial topics or complex dogmas, they’ll know that we’re not really sure of what we’re proclaiming. No matter how familiar you are with Mass, if you don’t understand it you will feel like an outsider or hypocrite. No matter how many times you hear that God loves you, if you can’t interpret the signs He gives, His love will never seem true or real. And while we adults have a greater appreciation of the ways in which things aren’t always as they appear, we should worry about how long we can endure a faith that is intellectually suspended or stunted.

Without knowledge, we can’t go very far. Not only will we stall out prematurely, we will be rather dissatisfied and listless. As luminaries like St. Thomas Aquinas observed, human beings don’t simply wish to survive, they desire to comprehend. We hunger for knowledge and it brings with it a spiritual satisfaction like a delicious feast. This is especially true with God, for our very nature is to image of God. How can we reach our potential or be confident in who we are, if we don’t know the one whom we are designed to resemble? St. Augustine again: Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.

I would argue that knowledge is among the things most crucial for the Church’s future evangelization and formation. This is not only because as the Church experiences more turbulence and trial only the convinced will hang on. It is also because we live in a society that is wandering in the wilderness of information overload and personal identity crises. Paradoxically, our so-called information age is an age of profound confusion. Though more people are educated and knowledge is both more abundant and more accessible than at any previous time, our common philosophy is relativism, our journalism is opinion, and our politics are advanced by prejudice and power not reason. Political campaigns begin two years in advance yet we seldom get statements longer than a tweet or an argument that is more sophisticated than a protest chant or rallying cheer. We have the growing awareness that today you can juke the stats and studies to make a case for any position. One day you read an article that says coffee causes cancer and the next you can find one that says the exact opposite. Consequently, we no longer talk about “the Truth” only “your truth” and “my truth.”

Amidst these deeply uncertain and transient times, both young people and their parents are looking for durable truths and unshakable identities to sustain them. This is what the Church offers through her time-tested Tradition and timeless identification with Jesus Christ. There are already signs that the mind of the Church is beckoning younger members. Look at the conversions of atheists like Leah Libresco and Jennifer Fulwiler or those of the contributors to the recent book, Mind, Heart, and Soul: Intellectuals and the Path to Rome. I would also mention the growing and young audience of Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire ministry and the rapid expansion of the Thomistic Institute, which hosts public lectures at secular universities on complicated philosophical questions like creation and evolution or the relationship between the soul and the brain.

What I’m trying to do as a high school theology teacher is what we are all called to do: pass on the Catholic faith to the next generation so that they can become lovers of God. But it’s difficult to do this if we aren’t sure how to respond to their questions. I hope you’ll join me in this monthly column as we consider questions we all have and the answers our faith provides.

Dr. James R. A. Merrick teaches theology at St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Boalsburg, PA and is part of the diocesan faculty in the Diaconate and Lay Ministry programs. Previously, he was a Scholar-in-Residence at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, served as an Anglican minister in the US and UK, and taught at St. Francis University, Grand Canyon University, and Franciscan University of Steubenville.