16th Week OT (M)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, Univ of Dallas
I spend most of my year living in Rome with 80 or so friars from all over the world. Though most of the brothers speak some intelligible version of English, the language of the priory is Italian. For example, notices of community events posted on the bulletin board are in Italian. Out on the streets of Rome, unsurprisingly, billboards and store signs are all written in Italian. So are street signs. So, if you want to navigate the city, you will need to know just enough Italian to get around. The whole point of signs is to inform, direct, and warn their readers. Whatever the purpose of signs in general or any sign in particular, signs are only able to do their jobs if those who need the signs can read them. For example, about 99% of the notices posted on the community bulletin board in my Roman priory are useless to me. This is not the fault of the notices. For all but the most practical, simplest purposes, I am illiterate in Italian. Just so, those heckling Jesus for a sign to confirm his identity and power are illiterate as well. While I can't read Italian, they can't read the signs of the Messiah's ministry among them. My deficiency is due to age, laziness, and general disinterestedness. Theirs seems to be a more profound lacking. Jesus says that those wanting signs of his identity are illiterate because they are “evil and unfaithful.” The lesson is here? Don't ask for signs you can't or won't read.
If you pay any attention at all to skeptical or atheistic objections to religious belief, you will notice that the principal demand made by our intellectual opponents is the demand for evidence. Evidence of God's existence. Evidence of an afterlife, miracles, the existence of angels, etc. Basically, what they are asking for is some sort of material sign from God that something of what we believe as Christians is true. Most of them claim that they will become believers when the stars align in the sky to spell out the message, “God exists.” They should get credit for being open to the possibility that God exists. However, not all atheists are so open-minded. The Canadian atheist and philosopher, Kai Neilsen, for example, has this to say about such miraculous evidence, “We are no better off with the stars in the heavens spelling out GOD EXISTS that with their spelling out PROCRASTINATION DRINKS MELANCHOLY. We know that something has shaken our world, but we know not what. . .”* He goes to say that such an unusual event might be “big trick or some some mass delusion.” In other words, there's likely little chance that Prof. Neilsen can be taught to read the signs of God's presence in His creation. But if he could be taught divine literacy, how would he go about learning it?
What Jesus makes painfully clear in his reply to those clamoring for a sign of his identity is that so long as they persist as an “evil and unfaithful generation,” no sign will tell them what they want to know. For Jesus to demand of them goodness and faithfulness before he gives a sign seems like question-begging or special pleading. They must believe and then the signs will be legible. Faith informs, makes possible, renders intelligible all the signs one needs to believe. This is exactly backwards for unbelievers. But that's the power of Jesus' demand. Believing in him on the basis of material evidence requires nothing more than intellectual assent, saying yes to a well-evidenced argument. That's knowledge not faith. Few of us—if any of us—are raring to die in defense of a proposition; suffer torture, persecution, and death to attain a conclusion properly deduced in a valid syllogism. Our relationship with the God through Christ in the Spirit is fundamentally a relationship between Father and child, Maker and made. This is not the sort of relationship that comes about as a result of evidence, proof, and deduction. When you ask a friend for proof of his or her love, you admit that their love is secondary to your need for evidence, thus providing evidence that you do not love.
First, you love; then you read all the signs through that love. Without this initial commitment, this primary allegiance, all signs of love shown to you will be illegible, and you will be as illiterate as the clamoring crowd and our friend, Prof. Neilsen.
*Taliaferro, Charles. Evidence and Faith: Philosophy and Religion since the Seventeenth Century, 345.
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