Once upon a time I was a teacher in a (more or less) Catholic school, where I was occasionally called upon to teach an introductory theology course to the bright-eyed young men & women of the ninth grade.  Of the roughly 16 students per class there would usually be 2-3 Catholic students whose families attended Mass at least weekly, and a like number of non-Catholic Christians who were regular church goers.  The rest were raised in a secular environment, ranging from occasionally religious to explicitly atheist.  

     I soon found that most of these young people, even many of the regular church attendees, had been so indoctrinated into a materialist way of thinking by teachers, mass media, and society in general that I found it difficult to explain even basic religious ideas.  It was almost like speaking a foreign tongue.  Some of these students were fans of the then-popular “new atheists” (Dawkins, Hitchens, etc.), and most had been affected to some degree by “scientistic” thinking, that it, the idea that scientific explanations were the only serious or valid explanations. I found that I had to get them outside of these narrow ways of understanding reality before they could even begin to understand the purpose of or the need for religious faith.

      Many of my blog posts grew out of discussions with these students, including some republished here (“Has Pascal’s Wager Really Been ‘Debunked’?“, “God’s Existence Isn’t A Dark Matter“).  The post below is another of these, in which I try to get my students to look at the world from a different – ahem – angle:          

What is both seen and unseen?   


“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.

“The Catholic Church is much larger on the inside than it is on the outside.” -G.K. Chesterton

  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, so we must always search for new ways to communicate the experience of faith.  In the “Dark Matter’ post, for instance, I use the cosmological theories of “dark matter” and “dark energy”  as an analogy to answer the common idea that, because we can’t detect God directly using scientific instruments, it’s unreasonable to believe in him.  I point out that 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, the most “reasonable” response is belief (this is Blaise Pascal’s proscription for those who remain unconvinced by the logic of his famous wager).  We can see it in our own lives, where despair and dysfunction give way to joy and productivity; we can see it in large and loving families of believers. We can even see it in the fact that, as measured by consistently higher birthrates, religious societies show greater confidence in the future. Faith works.

     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, Seattle to London (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.

The “great circle” route looks longer on a “flat” mercator projection . . .
. . . but on the gnomonic map, which measures global distances more accurately, we can see that it’s really more direct*

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, scientific knowledge 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.

“Archimedes Moves the World”, the title page of The Mechanic’s Magazine London, 1824

     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.

*images from https://outdoors.stackexchange.com/questions/15424/what-is-the-minimum-knowledge-to-navigate-with-only-a-compass

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