There are many arguments for God’s existence – some very convincing, some less so, some convincing only to the extent to which they correlate with what we already know or presuppose. When we move towards claims for the particular truth of Christianity, there are also historical claims to be contended with – claims which are supported by documents better attested than any in antiquity, and which are increasingly being corroborated by archaeological discoveries and other forms of external evidence.
However, as already alluded to, none of these types of evidence (philosophical or historical, for Theism in general or Christianity in particular) will be conclusive enough for some people. For people of a certain character or disposition, the steps of arguments for God’s existence, perfectly clear in and of themselves, will be subjected to a degree of doubt not thought warranted for arguments of a similar structure, and Christianity’s historical claims will be thought too unsound a foundation for belief, despite their accepting historical claims from other quarters which are far less well supported by evidence. Basically, as long as the conclusion to these arguments is what it is (or rather is who He is), the arguments themselves will not often convince.
Beyond these two primary means of conveying the truth of Christian claims though, there is another means by which we can make them credible to inquirers, and one which, in its own way, is even more compelling than the purely rational or evidentiary approach, appealing as it does to the whole person, not just the reason. The means I am talking about are the true living treasures of the Catholic Church – the saints. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in an address to Communion and Liberation of 2002, whilst still Cardinal and Prefect for the Doctrine for the Congregation of the Faith, put it thus:
‘I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful…
…Then we will have found the beauty of Truth, of the Truth that redeems. Nothing can bring us into close contact with the beauty of Christ himself other than the world of beauty created by faith and the light that shines out from the faces of the saints, through whom his own light becomes visible.’
The essential thing that Pope Benedict is drawing attention to here is the possibility of personal contact with Christ through the lives of the saints and the beauty created throughout the ages by those inspired by faith in Christ; that these means of encountering Our Lord have an immediacy about them which can transform in a way which mere argument cannot. In an age soaked with relativism and beset with an almost endemic skepticism, these can be a much more fruitful way of bringing people face to face with Christ, and for those who are reluctant to meet Him, of breaking down the barriers they put up.
Whilst I agree with our Pope Emeritus’ assessment that faith-inspired Beauty can be a highly effective way of doing this as well, I would like to focus here on the saints, particularly the great variety of ways in which they re-present the transforming grace of Christ in their lives. The abundant diversity of the saints is a lived out expression of the great truth spoken by Our Lord, that ‘whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it’ (Mark 8:35) – the more we give ourselves to Jesus and the things He loves, and the less we order our lives according to our own egos, the more we will truly discover our own selves, and the more all our unique characteristics will come out.
Just as a quick survey to illustrate this, let us consider some figures from Church history – Ignatius of Antioch, with his heroic, almost romantic embracing of martyrdom for Christ’s sake; Francis of Assisi’s seemingly unaccountable joy in poverty, as it brought him closer to Christ; Therese of Lisieux’s embracing of and joy in suffering because it allowed her to love as Christ does; Francis de Sales’ way of presenting the way of the Cross in such gentle terms that he made it sound almost enchanting, and his similarly charming engagement with the Calvinists of his day; the incredible change in the lives of Paul, Augustine and Ignatius of Loyola (whose feast day it is today) in response to the offer of a new and more substantial freedom in Christ.
There are countless more examples that could be given, but the above are some of the most famous, and more pertinently, the most illustrative of the two really compelling things to be found in the lives of the saints – the incredible transformation wrought in their lives, and the unutterable joy they managed to find in situations which the world would consider either intolerable or ridiculous. Saint Francis’ joy in poverty, and Saint Therese’s joy in suffering, are particularly good examples of this – because of the overwhelming shift in their horizons effected by giving themselves fully to Jesus Christ, they were able to really enjoy states of life that others would not even consider themselves able to endure.
It is this complete turning upside down of the way of the world, this re-ordering of priorities, which enables the saints to be truly creative – to do something wholly new with what they receive from the world. As we read in the opening chapter of 1 Corinthians:
‘For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God…
…For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.’
The thing that the Apostles preached, and which the saints spoke with their lives, the ‘word of the cross’, is simply this – that love, true self-giving love, which loses itself that it might find itself, thinking only of what God wills, which is always the good of the other, is stronger than all the worst men can do. And, as Saint Paul tells us, God, knowing that the world was reluctant to know Him through wisdom (through arguments, and the basic intuitions of His existence that we all receive in the passage of life), then chose this path of ‘folly’ to call the world to Him.
This complete giving over of the saints to the love of God, knowing that it can enter into the darkest of situations and still produce hope, even joy, is seen at its most radical in the lives of the martyrs. In another talk given by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, this time during his papacy, he discussed what it is that enables the martyrs to give their lives with such abandon and steadfast hopefulness:
‘If we read the lives of the Martyrs we are amazed at their calmness and courage in confronting suffering and death: God’s power is fully expressed in weakness, in the poverty of those who entrust themselves to him and place their hope in him alone (cf. 2 Cor 12: 9). Yet it is important to stress that God’s grace does not suppress or suffocate the freedom of those who face martyrdom; on the contrary it enriches and exalts them: the Martyr is an exceedingly free person, free as regards power, as regards the world; a free person who in a single, definitive act gives God his whole life, and in a supreme act of faith, hope and charity, abandons himself into the hands of his Creator and Redeemer; he gives up his life in order to be associated totally with the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. In a word, martyrdom is a great act of love in response to God’s immense love.’
from a General Audience at Castel Gandolfo, August 11th 2010.
The martyrs are the most intense example of what it is to follow Christ, showing both what we must be ultimately prepared to give up in doing so, and in the freedom that they thereby receive. They are, as Pope Benedict describes, ‘free as regards power, as regards the world’ because ‘associated totally with the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross…in response to God’s immense love’. It is this freedom from all the conflicting and competing forces in the world that seek our allegiance which gives the saints such abounding joy in whatever situation they find themselves in – because they are not beholden to anyone but God, and in doing so live within a love that knows no limits, they are able to do anything.
It is this freedom to be, and to love being, to not be dependent on circumstance or passing emotions, that is what makes the saints so attractive to us, and opens up to us a window onto the ultimate freedom of Christ. The saints make Him and His promises more real to us, because they live them out and find them enriching of their being. It is this force of attraction that engages our whole person, this sense that something is going in the lives of these people that I cannot reduce to steps in an argument or the details of historical evidence, that makes them so compelling a ‘proof’ – we cannot debate the finer points of the saints, nor analyse them bit by bit; we must face them, and accept them, or not.
Of course there will still be those who do not accept them – they will claim that the saints are mad, or brainwashed, or suchlike. To this I would have to ask the doubter whether they think it feasible that, upon the examining the lives of these people, and seeing their clear purpose and the lucidity of their thought, that such an interpretation is really plausible. Witness Saint Paul for example – is it really credible that the man who wrote such penetrating, and often complex, letters, and who gave his life so totally to the cause of Christ with unflagging singularity of vision, was simply mad? No doubt some will still think so, and we cannot convince everybody. But it seems that a simple diagnosis of madness to account for the saints’ extraordinary lives simply does not properly account for the data.
At the end of the day, we will only understand why the saints lived as they did, and how they found such perfect freedom, if we understand what Saint Paul wrote in his Epistle to the Galatians, that ‘I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’, and the paradoxical truth spoken by Our Lord that it is only in doing this that we will find our true freedom and identity. This cannot be proven by argument, but only by living it, and the lives of the saints are proof of a kind which cannot be broken down or explained away – ultimately, they must be faced up to, or ignored. To do the latter is to miss out on witnessing a living commentary on the greatest love the world has ever known.