People often say the Bible is a love story between God and humanity. It's a very beautiful, heartfelt analogy. However, what isn't often acknowledged is the fact that if the Bible---and subsequently life itself---is about a romantic relationship with God, then why don't we talk more about how our hearts can be broken by God? Many of us have learned the hard way that romantic love hurts unlike any other kind of love; yet when we think of the love that sustains our relationship with God, rarely do we consider the possibility that God will break our hearts. That's the great test of every loving relationship, though. If we don't open our hearts up to be broken, then it's arguably not love. If it's about romance with God, then---as with every romance---we have to accept the fact that he may cause us to break down in tears. It isn't love if we don't make ourselves that vulnerable.
The Bible mentions several times how faithful God is to us, so when I do think of ways God can and has broken my heart, it is different than the ways in which romantic interests of mine have done so. God breaks hearts by shattering dreams and ambitions, by showing us a plan for our lives we didn't want, by requiring that we try, and try, and try, and ultimately fail. When we think of ways God can bring us to tears, we don't think of him betraying us as being one of those ways. He is a faithful God. So the way we simple humans see it, God is off the hook when it comes to accusations of disloyalty. Those accusations are reserved for the two-faced exes of our lives, not God.
In human relationships, hearts are broken in these ways: betrayal, disloyalty, unfaithfulness, lies being told, false impressions, or some inexplicable reason. If you're basing your faith on the romance-between-God-and-humanity analogy then you have to admit that you are opening yourself up to something just as human as every other romantic relationship.
What if there's stuff about himself God is not revealing to us? What if this stuff includes details that would directly harm our romantic relationship with him? What if God has baggage we don't know about?
Oh, but God would not hide anything like that from us. The Bible says he is faithful, so there's no way that he is in truth unfaithful.
How do you know?
There is an answer to why we know God is faithful, and it's not just "for the Bible tells me so". Yes, part of the answer involves the ways in which God faithfully works in your personal spiritual life and mine, but we should not look at how he does so through the eyes of our personal relationship with him, because that perspective is far too susceptible to partiality. It's too easy for us to think God is answering a prayer if we unconditionally believe that he answers prayers just the way we want him to answer them.
I'm not saying we're fooling ourselves in our longing for love, and just trying to satisfy that longing with a God. What I'm saying is, if we base our idea of God on the analogy of a romantic relationship alone, then what's going to happen when we find out things about God that don't correspond to that reality? Yes, even the romantic relationship analogy puts God in a box, and not everything about God neatly fits into it. When we learn things about God that are not in accord with our theology, or with our idea of romance, will we be open-minded enough to latch onto a deeper truth about God? Will we have the ability and imagination to see God as more, as bigger than even our profound religion? Once mankind's capacity to wonder about the heavens, his existence, time, and other mysteries exceed the capacity of our understanding of God---which is already happening---will our religious scope be wide enough to see and accept the truth?
It won't if it's heavy-laden with emotions. It won't if we focus too much on the heart and not enough on the mind. Christ's sacrifice on the Cross was the most loving thing one can do for someone, for "There is no greater love than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends." But why did Christ die for us, really? Part of it is because he loved us so much, but even an imperfect father can lay down his life for his children. Just as the faithfulness of God isn't contingent upon Scripture, the love of God is not contingent upon Christ's sacrifice. Christ shouldn't have had to die on the Cross to prove his love for us, and in order for us to love him. We ought to love him for the very fact that he is God, and God is love from eternity to eternity. From before the beginning of time, it is his nature to diffuse perfect love---and so from the beginning of time the plan of salvation had been in place through God's perfect will. Had we not sinned, Christ still would have come down to earth to love us and share in our humanity because he wants close union with us; but because we did fall, God---in his perfect love---manifested that love to us through the ultimate sacrifice. It was his nature to do so. This blew my mind when I first heard about it, because it pointed to the infinite goodness of God that transcends human longing. God is so much more than our romantic analogies can explain; the analogies explain just one mere aspect of God. It's a nursery rhyme for us simple humans.
It's time to enter the philosophical and theological, or dare I say intellectual, dimension to the love story between God and humanity. This recognition and appreciation of God's perfection is what makes his love for us so significant to us. We don't get that part of the story with a solely heart-driven faith. If we don't first know who God is, the fact that he loves us doesn't matter so much. Furthermore, if we don't know God as the perfection of love and faithfulness in the philosophical and theological sense, it's easy to see how we can fail to trust him just as we might fail to trust any human who is imperfect in those areas; and this could inhibit our relationship with God.
So why did God send his only Son to die for us? Well, for one thing, he knows how he made us. He made us to desire love, and he knows what love requires. Love requires the ultimate sacrifice. This is the story of Christianity in its rawest emotional sense. People run to crosses, cry before crucifixes and tabernacles, praying "God, you loved me so much, you died for me," and it's beautiful. It really is. I am not denying that. But what do you do when that emotional charge dies off? We're only human, and it will. People walk away from perfectly good relationships everyday, just because they decided they wanted to do something else with their life. They settle down when they notice something more.
So is there more to the Faith? Because for God's sake, I get it. God loves me, but for so many people that doesn't work. We need to engage the mind. Faith and reason, right? Where is that in our ministries and faith programs? I see little snippets of it where the pure genius of our faith is touched upon, but it really just scratches the surface. Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI emphasized the importance of using reason in our faith, but I think we're losing it again. OK, Pope Francis, I got it, we need to get into a relationship with God and understand how much he loves us, and how vulnerable he is willing to be, willing to stoop down to our lowly state and go to the fringes of society and embrace us.That's beautiful love. OK, I got it.
But we are missing a pretty big demographic: those who are thinking, not those who are feeling. This battle between thinking and feeling is a very popular topic, and it has probably been talked about too much in many ways. Rousseau talked about how we need to get in touch with our feelings more, while Kant talked about the need to focus more on the mind. Too much of either is dangerous---it's an ongoing dialogue of the centuries, and I believe the faith is stuck in the middle in a tug of war. Our hearts and our minds both want to claim our faith. We want to say, "Oh, this is so moving. I'm touched so deeply. Who can possibly reach down so deep into my heart and call my name? This must be God." But then you have the mind saying, "You know, we are still discovering things about the human mind. Psychology and neurology are only scratching the surface when it comes to motives and emotions in the human brain. Who knows what can lead us to feel a certain way? It could be a lot of subjective experiences and influences, and none of them are truly an infallible representation of the truth. Strip away all the feelings, strip away whatever it is that is pulling at your heart. Does your faith make sense?"
I will tell you right now, after all of the heartstrings the Faith has pulled in me over the years, I have fought hard to ignore them. Why? Because I want my faith to make sense. That is what it boils down to. At the end of the day when you choose to leave your significant other because, despite how much your heart longs for them, you see through the facts that it's not working out, they're not treating you well, or the relationship is wearing you down, or something; you have to decide this is not where you want to be. A lot of people let the heart win over the mind in those situations because they don't "have the heart" to end the relationship. I don't want my faith in God to be like that.
For my very marriage, I decided to go with the heart. It was not practical. We lived two hours apart. We only saw each other on the weekends. I drive 2 1/2 to 3 hours a day to commute to and from my job. I chose the heart over the mind in my marriage. In a similar way, in many decisions in the Faith I chose the heart over the mind, but I'm at the point where I'm noticing I have to keep a balance. You reach a point where you have to give the mind its due. You have to ask, "Once the fire has burned down, what's left? What truth is left?"
The heart and mind should always work together, but in my experience that's not how it seems to work. I do believe the heart is a good place to start. Just like in marriage, the romance is a good beginning, but you can't build a marriage on romance alone. When you're in the down-to-earth, ugly, nitty-gritty of married life, there are a lot of emotions thrown around. If your marriage is built on emotion, on that heart tug, then what do you do when your heart is tugged in the wrong direction?
So you have to have both. You have to eventually say to yourself, "You know what, marriage is the most practical thing. Marriage is good. It's truthful, it's beautiful, and it's also good. It's the best path I could take." Why is it good? You can say because it's God's plan, but you have to take these lofty concepts and apply them to everyday life. I'm sure every single person who is married knows there are moments in their marriage when even the deepest and most profound truths of the Bible and Theology of the Body just don't work, because so much of it is based on the heart. And we lose sight of the practical reasons why we entered into marriage. Why did you marry her?
"Because I love her!"
Great! So what are you going to do when you can't stand her? There are going to be times when you are very mad at your wife or your husband. What are you going to hold onto then?
You're going to hold onto the fact that marriage is just practical. It works. This is what history has proclaimed. Pope St. John Paul II is known for teaching that society is built upon the family, and "as the family goes, so goes society." This is the practical application of that. There's blood here. There's the sexual union, but so many people in our culture interpret that as a sexual expression; and it's beautiful, it's romantic that God based his whole plan on a romance, and marriage is a symbol of that, so a lot of it makes sense. A lot of times the romance and the practicality of it are intertwined, but that's not always going to be clear. So it's very important to really look at the mundane logical reasons for why marriage is a good thing.
And it's not just marriage. Because marriage is a good symbol of God's relationship with us, I'm using that as an example. But I want to go back to the whole actual relationship with God idea. If we're basing it on the heart tug feeling that he loves me so much that he sent his only son, and the entire Bible is a romance, and even if you look at all of creation, it's a love song---the flowers, the birds and the bees---that's great. And part of that does appeal to a very scientific, empirical side of us, because we see the truth of that in nature. There's definitely an infusion of heart and reason here. I'm not saying there isn't. I'm just saying there's too much heart and not enough mind. Even though the heart tug was the starting point, even though the romance was the tug that brought me in, even though God wooed me, that's not enough. Even in a human romantic relationship, after you woo the girl you have to prove to be faithful, and if the guy eventually proves to be unfaithful the girl is going to leave him, and rightly so---unless she's weak and "doesn't have the heart" to do so.
Maybe that's what happens to many people who remain merely cultural Catholics, or become born again and never venture deeper. They get stuck in the feeling and they are afraid that if they go deeper and search for deeper truth that they will lose that feeling, and they'll come face to face with the reality that the things they thought were true about the faith are not true. Maybe they fear that they'll find out it's not true, just like a guy or girl may fear facing the fact that their significant other has been unfaithful. So they remain in darkness.
I want the proof, through my senses, not through what I've been taught in some nice packaged up faith system, but through what's in front of me. Is that asking too much?
That is why I'm Catholic, because God does that through the Catholic Faith. I may still be on a journey mingled with doubts, but I am still Catholic because it is most practical. It may not be so practical in the way it is shared in contemporary Western society, but the true Catholic Faith is deafening in its practicality. It is mind-blowing how much it makes sense. If you threw me in the woods of the world without any background, I'm confident that I would find the Catholic Faith to be the truth. That's about more than any love story that you could tell through the Bible, or through Pope St. John Paul II's talks, because I see how the truth and the love story taught through the Faith have been applied throughout the world. I see the fruits of that reality, and I'm immersed in it. Even where the Church does not have much of an influence, I see Catholic teaching just resonating from the forest, out of the sky. It's just there. It all makes perfect sense to me.
I'm not saying other worldviews shouldn't make any sense to other people. If they do, that's great. But I do believe that mine makes more sense, and if there's a better religion out there the human race has not been exposed to it.
Many Catholics don't even ever get the heart tug. They just kind of fall in line. But in those cases, most of the time, they didn't have the heart or the mind engaged in their faith. What I'm getting at here is just don't shun the mind. I do hear every here and there, almost behind the scenes, influential Catholics saying we need to dive deeper into the Faith and give the faithful something more to chew on. It's in response to the over-simplification of the Faith. You can simplify the complex. That's a sign of a good teacher, absolutely. But what about those who want to go deeper? Are we neglecting them?
We say we want to reach the uninvolved Catholics, and we have to do that by reaching out to their hearts. Um, OK. What else? Then what? So many times we get them with a beautiful story, or song, but they don't stay. That's like fast food. That's like candy. That's like paper in the fire. It doesn't burn deep enough. They're longing for more, and we have nothing to give them.
They say "You can't reach the masses if you're too intellectual." I don't believe that. I'm not an intellectual, yet I want more intellectual stuff to solidify my faith. Especially because geek culture is becoming so popular, I really think it's high tide for us to start appealing to the mind more. Look at Star Wars, comics, new video games, Middle-Earth stories. People are growing more and more attracted to these fantasy worlds because they know deep inside how they teach them deeper truth. Many truths, which would be otherwise dismissed, gain passage to the mind through myth. When a writer or movie director causes his readers or viewers to gain interest in his or her fantasy world, they're getting at something very human; it's their cry for home, a nostalgic song, a longing for heaven manifested through story. It's there in the true, good, and beautiful myth or fantasy. I'm not talking about sexual fantasies---I'm talking about pure fantasies that awaken our longing for something more. Dungeons and Dragons, Star Trek, and Harry Potter---to name a few---are complex fantasies; and I think they really touch upon something profound in the human spirit.
Once people understand that God loves them, and understand all the ways, what's going to sustain the relationship? I have to admit, I do sincerely love my wife, but sometimes I fail to connect with her on a deeper level, and that causes a strain on our marriage. I'm sure many others have experienced the same. What happens when that's the case in our relationship with God? Once we know the love story, we have to---in a sense---find a way to relate to God through common interests, as we do with best friends with whom we can talk to for hours about our favorite book, or movie, or sports team. God wants to have that kind of relationship with us, too.
Stories are very important in this regard. Once someone is interested in a story, they want to absorb as much as they can about the story. They want to know more about the setting, the back stories of the characters, what happened before and what happened after. Once you get people interested in the story, you can introduce complex ideas through the story. You can intertwine plot lines, you can provide layers to the story like geography, history, and customs. There's so much we can do.
But so often we're just like, "Oh, we don't want to overwhelm people with all these complex, minute details." Layer it, then. Give them a beautiful story on the surface that has compelling characters, an intriguing plot, a suspenseful climax, and a powerful ending; then offer something that goes deeper if they're interested. Or it could be a song, or a presentation, or a lecture. Give them something that's superficially beautiful, yes, but if they want to go deeper, give them layers. One of those layers, after giving a good talk---for instance---could be a book that really dives into the subject of the talk. I don't know how many times I've heard a great, profound talk, and wanted to learn more on the topic from the speaker but couldn't find anything. Sometimes it's just lack of time or resources that causes this, but sometimes people just don't think it's worthwhile. Hogwash. It definitely is. In fact, even after the book, further reading on the subject could be provided. If a certain topic is influencing my life in a positive way, it deserves that much time and effort.
That's just one thing off the top of my head, and I'm not even an intellectual. Think of what truly intelligent and clever people could come up with. Yes, this has been done in the past, but not enough. We live in a very superficial, media-saturated, fast-food-diet-for-the-mind culture. Literature can take on its own reality, but we've become so dependent on visual and audio resources, good literature has been lost in the shuffle. I believe this is the result of a heart-focused outreach. We're looking to provide people with touching sound bytes that move them emotionally, and neglect their need for some form of intellectual engagement. After all, who wants to study like they're back in school?
I do! I do! And I'm confident that I'm not the only passionate, serious lifelong learner.
I've always believed in the power of story, and maybe that's what it all comes down to. We have to get the story right. So often we try to teach the story. We need to find a way to tell the story. We need to provide characters with whom people connect, etc. Simply put, we need to get more cultural. A culture is defined by its stories perhaps more than anything else. We need more novels, more movies, that proclaim the Faith in a creative way. Especially with millennials, we don't want to be talked at. We don't want the secondary encounter with truth. We want the primary encounter with God, as Jeff Cavins has said. We want the real thing. I think one of the ways to offer that primary encounter is through stories, because stories offer every dimension of life, not just the learning experience. Some of the greatest evangelizing tools in the history of the Church have been stories; novels, plays, and more recently movies.
Maybe that's what I'm getting at through all of this, because a story is a profound, classic, timeless model to use to convey truth, but a story does not teach. We need art to evangelize, and that's not the direction we're going. A good story is the perfect balance of heart and mind engagement, so we need more of them.