Assent vs Belief

Something occurred recently that provided me a better understanding of the difference between converts and so-called “cradle” Catholics.

It was during a meeting of older parishioners, those groups commonly called by names like “Senior Catholics” or “Golden Agers” or “Young At Heart,” etc., groups where you might expect to hear laments of lost traditions. A woman in her eighties who serves as a Eucharistic minister bemoaned her observations of young people who, she said, “…don’t believe. I mean, they really don’t believe that it’s the real body and blood ….” I mentioned that they don’t really have to believe, what they have to do is assent to believe; that coming to believe, or to know, is actually a grace, not a criterion or some measure of their faith.

My comment didn’t do anything to make me more popular in the group, and I get it now that the purpose was to criticize, or just to mourn the lost traditional “have-to’s” that constituted the Catholic faith education of their youth. Nothing wrong with that. And it might be well argued that such is the privilege of the elderly. (I’m not totally sure I go along with that argument, however, since oppositional obstinacy is no more a privilege of the elderly than it is of the young—who can be just as stubbornly opinionated. I think it’s more characteristic of personality than it is of age.)

But it brings out something not much attended: the nature of grace, for one, and for another, the meaning of assent. I remember as a Southern Baptist child, being drilled repeatedly in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” This was the criterion of faith, followed by the warning that if you don’t believe, you’re condemned. Well, I tried. I tried hard. I didn’t want to go to hell for not believing. Somewhere, sometime, I gave it up. I couldn’t help what I believed or didn’t believe. Slowly and silently, I faced the truth that I would go to hell, and even more silently, grew angry with a God who would condemn me to hell for something I couldn’t help.

Fast forward many decades: Learning the difference between assent and dissent, and learning the nature of grace. Faith as belief is a grace. We can’t earn it, gain it, no matter how hard we might pursue it. It is a grace, not an achievement. Grace comes from God, not from us. However, we can’t receive the gift unless we assent to it; i.e., unless we are willing to believe. Those who dissent are unwilling to believe, and therefore not open to receive the gift of faith. What is up to us is not whether to believe or not believe, but whether to be willing to believe.

The vast majority of those in communion lines assent to believe that what they will receive is the true body of Christ; thus they are able to say Amen when the priest says to each of them The Body of Christ. They may not fully believe, but they are willing to believe. And that’s enough. It’s all God asks of us. Sometimes they may have something like an experience of peace when they consume the body of Christ, and it’s a peace that is valid.

There are others who dissent, who are not willing to believe, their minds are made up, and their decision is final. It is they who, as St Paul says, “eat and drink their way to condemnation.” It is a blasphemy. And that’s the reason non-Catholics are not invited to consume the Holy Eucharist, not because they’re somehow excluded from the church (their exclusion is their own choice), but because, if they eat the body of Christ in dissent, in an unwillingness to believe, they condemn themselves. In their own interest of spiritual integrity, it is better to abstain.

We can’t help what we believe, but we can be open to belief—or not. Frankly, I think all the millions of Catholics who have gone to their graves after a lifetime of always being willing to believe and never having received the grace of fully believing may well be the greatest saints in heaven. It’s us hard-core types for whom grace was an absolute necessity who will be very blessed indeed just to get a seat somewhere in the back rows of that great assembly.

Morgan Freeman’s The Story of God

I’ve just finished what is commonly called a “Netflix binge,” which means I watched an entire series of shows. The Story of God had a two-season tenure with some nine episodes in all. I was surprised to enjoy it. I had expected something like the kind of show I saw several years ago during the height of the “historical Jesus” interest. I still remember the superior attitude of the narrator and his remark at the conclusion: “As near as anyone can tell, Jesus of Nazareth was an itinerant preacher, the son of a Judean stone-cutter,” followed by a smile of benevolent tolerance: “If he was more than that for some, well, that’s a matter of faith.” The condescension was profoundly offensive.

Narrated by Morgan Freeman, each episode of The Story of God dealt with a theological/philosophical topic: the problem of suffering, life after death, heaven and hell, good and evil, and so on. Freeman visits various faiths for explications of these topics by traveling to locations associated with those faiths: Egypt, Israel, New Orleans, Rome, India, New York, Mecca, Africa, Australia, as well as his native Mississippi. He is respectful and interested, and expresses his own opinion from time to time. No particular faith is dealt with at any length, only insofar as the topic addressed for that episode. For what it is, it is very well done.

As democratic as the series is, it nevertheless provides an overarching thesis, overtly stated intermittently and conclusively: Our differences do not divide us but unite us. It was definitely “global fare,” and likely very gratifying for those who don’t align themselves with any religion but claim to be “spiritual.” His last episode was an interview with a woman who had an after-death experience and described it as “pure love”; she acknowledged no religious affiliation. Freeman agreed with her statement that God is simply love.

I enjoyed it, and found (almost) nothing arguable in the entire series. Except for that conclusive thesis. It’s all the same, it’s all love, and that’s all that matters anyhow. As consoling as that sounds, it’s a little problematic. Not because I believe there’s only one true faith, but because of something else: If there is no sin, there is no mercy, no forgiveness, and if there’s no chosen faith, there is no feeling of belonging to a community where your own beliefs are shared by others—i.e., no culture, and ultimately no real community. The thesis is an articulation of John Lennon’s famous “Imagine” reality: no country, no religion, no heaven, no hell, etc., just people living in peace together. The idea that people would live together in peace if we just eradicated religions and countries is a fantasy. People who seek differences as a cause for war and violence will only find other differences to justify their actions. It’s the illogic that says we can eliminate racism by eliminating races, or we can eliminate sexism by eliminating the sexes. In other words, we can eliminate intolerance by eliminating those things that require tolerance—that is, anything or anyone different from us. We don’t have to tolerate difference if we just eliminate difference.

I am reminded of an incident in an undergrad literary survey course when a professor authoritatively pronounced, “So you see that there are no answers!” After a moment of silence, a student tentatively raised his hand: “Well, it doesn’t seem like there are no answers, sir. It seems like there are a whole lot of them. You just have to choose one. That’s the hard part. Kind of like choosing one girl when there are so many. But it turns out pretty quick that if you don’t choose one of them, you don’t get any of them.”