My teenage niece wanted to study religious education in high school but was discouraged by her dad, who said it did not carry much weight, like science. My unbelieving brother-in-law chipped in, saying there was no point in studying something if you don’t know whether that something even exists. How can I help her?
We can begin by saying that your brother-in-law is right as regards the pointlessness of studying something we don’t know exists.
There are not any books that I know of, or university courses for that matter, on unicorns, centaurs or mermaids.
Those who don’t believe in these mythical beings don’t waste their time writing books about them, even to debunk their existence.
But there are many books and university courses on God, because every civilisation that has ever existed has believed in some form of supreme being and has had some form of religion.
Even atheists can’t ignore the question and have written an abundance of books on it, both to defend their own position and to try to prove that there is no God.
As we know, there is a God. If there were not, this universe would not exist, with its marvellous complexity, harmony and beauty.
And we, atheists included, could not even discuss the existence of God if we did not have a rational, spiritual intelligence that did not come from the evolution of matter, but rather from the rational, intelligent pure spirit who is the very God atheists deny.
What is more, since God is the very beginning and end of the universe, the study of God and religion is the most weighty of all subjects.
It is the foundation of every other subject, including science. Having studied science in university, I am not biased.
What do we gain by studying God and religion? To begin with, we gain a deep sense of the meaning and purpose of life. If we were just a castoff of evolution, our life would have no meaning.
But since we were created in the image and likeness of a loving God, who calls us to eternal life with him, our life is charged with meaning.
And the more we come to know about our faith, the more firm it becomes.
St Augustine gave us the well-known phrase fides quaerens intellectum – faith seeking understanding – which expresses the desire of anyone with faith to come to know more about it.
With this study, we come to know why we believe what we believe, so that our faith rests on a firm foundation that can withstand the challenges life brings, and even the doubts others may raise.
Where a person with a more simple faith will be more easily persuaded by a non-believer, a person with more understanding will be able to defend the faith against these attacks.
Also, we come to have a deeper appreciation of the faith, of its wonders and mystery.
Someone with no theoretical knowledge of music will be able to enjoy the music of Mozart, but one who has studied music theory and composition will have a much deeper appreciation of it. It is the same with the faith.
This deeper appreciation leads, in turn, to a deeper spiritual life, to a greater love for God. It is easier to pray and give thanks to God for all his gifts, if we understand them better.
Our love for the Blessed Trinity, Jesus Christ, the Eucharist, the Church, Our Lady, is deepened when we know more about these truths, just as our love for a human person is deepened when we know the person better.
Finally, the more we understand our faith, the more eager and able we will be to share it with others.
Pope Benedict is inviting the Church in this Year of Faith to engage in the New Evangelisation, to explain the faith to others so as to draw them closer to God. A person who has studied the faith and loves it more is in a better position to do this.
For this reason, the Pope invites the whole Church “to rediscover and study the fundamental content of the faith that receives its systematic and organic synthesis in the Catechism of the Catholic Church” (Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei, 11).
The Pope sums it up: “Evidently, knowledge of the content of the faith is essential for giving one’s own assent; that is to say, for adhering fully with intellect and will to what the Church proposes. Knowledge of faith opens a door into the fullness of the saving mystery of God” (ibid 10).