Earlier this week I was in a small group from my church in a discussion of the Ascension. The focus of the meeting was a podcast in which someone said that the meaning of this great event was that for the first time humanity had “access” to God; also for the first time humanity and divinity were joined, as it were. I had some trouble with both these premises and made the mistake of saying so. Abraham, Moses, the prophets, and just a few million Jews for a few thousand years were all praying for nothing? The conversations between Moses and God were all a lie? I don’t think the Ascension marked the first time humanity had access to God. Moreover, were humanity and divinity not joined at the conception of our Lord? The podcaster was euphoric, and the group clearly wanted to share in that euphoria. I felt bad for giving voice to my reservations. (Not the first time that’s happened.)
This morning I read some email download that declared the Ascension marked the first time humanity entered Heaven. That made more sense. I thought that was probably what the podcaster meant but it was not what he said. Words matter.
But then I had to wonder why it had to “make sense.” Faith and Reason, the phrase so sacred that it’s written most often in Latin as Fides et Ratio, is used in apologetics probably more frequently than any other. It’s a reference point in argumentation on behalf of Christianity. C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity remains the 20th century little masterpiece of Christian apologetics and it’s based entirely on Reason. We know that Faith and Reason are not mutually exclusive, that they are totally compatible. Lewis makes Reason serve Faith. Where we Christians intellectually and spiritually err is in attempting to make divine Faith serve human Reason.
Today is not only the solemnity of the Ascension; it’s also the feast of St. Felix, a 16th century illiterate shepherd. Consider St. Catherine of Siena, a doctor of the Church, who was illiterate. And, if you will, consider those primitive Christians who handle rattlesnakes and moccasins as an expression of their faith. They are very rarely bitten. Last but not least, there is St. Thomas Aquinas, that giant intellect, who said after his encounter with the Lord, “All my words are straw.” Yet those words of straw have served human Reason in the centuries since then to a still-undetermined extent. Indeed, the Summa Theologica will serve us as long as we exist here.
God gave us intellect and we are therefore under holy obligation to use it. I’m sorry for the “buzzkill” of my objections to the podcaster’s euphoria. Yet, the downplay of Jewish faith to a status of meaninglessness is not just untrue, but abhorrently so. And if the Ascension is the first time humanity is joined to divinity, I don’t know what we are to do with the Conception, the Virgin birth, and therefore everything that follows—including the Ascension.
Words are indeed made of straw, but they can be immeasurably powerful. They can be the architecture of intellectual faith as in the Summa, but they can also be the source of centuries of injustice and persecution.
They can create a buzz; they can also be a buzzkill.