Windows to the Infinite
by Rev. Jerry J. Pokorsky
Reprinted by permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Mark wrote to explain Christ
to the new Gentile converts.
On that day, as evening drew on, Jesus said to his disciples: "Let us cross to the other side." Leaving the crowd, they took Jesus with them in the boat just as he was. And other boats were with him. A violent squall came up and waves were breaking over the boat, so that it was already filling up. Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a cushion. They woke him and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" He woke up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Quiet! Be still!" The wind ceased and there was great calm. Then he asked them, "Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?" They were filled with great awe and said to one another, "Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?"
The word “dogma” has fallen on hard times. If we consider the rapidly emerging “new morality” of contemporary culture, it seems its only commandment would read, “Thou shalt not be dogmatic.” In seminaries “Professors of Dogmatic Theology” have been replaced with “Professors of Systematic Theology” (at least in public). And recently a European clergyman of rank warned that priests should not “throw books of dogma” at people (even though our libraries are largely bereft of such books, confined as they are to dusty used-book stores).
But a dogma really is quite harmless. It is nothing other than a carefully crafted statement of truth, something like “Warning: Smoking is dangerous for your health.” (Perhaps it would help to add, “… but we don’t want to sound dogmatic.”) Nevertheless, there is a kernel of truth in anti-dogmatic dogmatism because God’s truth can be revealed to us in many forms.
It is dogmatic that God is “Creator” and there is nothing evil in creation. But in the first book of the Bible, the sacred writer uses a beautiful form of poetry rather than dogmatic statements to reveal the creative majesty of God. The account of creation proceeds litany-like: God creates the light and day, darkness and night, morning, sky, dry ground, water, vegetation and so on. Each act of creation is followed with a kind of liturgical response affirming a profound truth about the nature of creation: “And He saw that it was good.”
It is dogmatic — at least from a catechetical point of view — that there are four types of prayer: adoration, contrition, thanksgiving and supplication (ACTS). The 150 psalms provide a practical treasure chest on how to pray ACTS. Indeed, the whole Bible should be considered a handbook on how to pray, but it can require a good deal of effort to make sense of the passages. In the Book of Genesis, there is a perplexing account of Jacob wrestling with an angel, representing God Himself. “When the man saw that he (the angel) could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, ‘Let me go, for it is daybreak.’ But Jacob replied, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me’” (Gen 32 ff.). What could possibly be the meaning of God allowing a man to wrestle with Him?
The Catholic novelist Walker Percy places the wrestling match within the context of the urgency of modern times and how man is allowed to pray without being disrespectful: “The only answer I can give is that I asked for it, in fact demanded it. I took it as an intolerable state of affairs to have found myself in this life and in this age, which is a disaster by any calculation, without demanding a gift commensurate with the offense. So I demanded it.” In Percy’s interpretation, the story of Jacob permits us to approach God with prayers of petition with passion and even desperation (in contrast to the often soporific “Prayers of the Faithful” after the Creed on Sunday).
It is dogmatic that Jesus is divine, true God and true man. But Christ did not teach His followers the Nicene Creed (it would be 300 years before He would teach us the Creed through His church in the midst of controversy). His gradual self-revelation discloses His loving patience with us and our limits in grasping His sublime and saving truths. So, He is born of a humble Virgin, grows up in obscurity and begins His public ministry with a phrase borrowed from His precursor, “Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand.”
In the Gospel this Sunday the apostles find themselves in a boat with Christ asleep, and a violent squall comes up threatening to swamp the boat. Christ rebukes the wind, “Quiet! Be still! … the wind ceased and there was great calm.” The apostles were filled with great awe and wondered, “Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?”
In a subsequent seafaring event with Jesus, there would be sufficient evidence to form a conclusion.
After the miraculous multiplication of the loaves, Christ appears to the apostles on the Sea of Galilee, this time walking on the water. To the Semitic mind this is profound. Only God has authority over the dangerous and life-giving sea (see Psalm 104). This revelation of Himself is a conferral of dignity on His followers because — as the model teacher He is — He allows them to “connect the dots” themselves in freedom and in their own time under His loving tutelage. Hence, shortly thereafter, St. Matthew reports that Peter is the first to witness to the divinity of the Lord when he proclaims, “Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16).
God uses the beauty of poetry, metaphors, instructive stories (sometimes like charming children’s books with thought-provoking life lessons) and so many other devices appealing to the human psyche to reveal His saving truths. The divine pedagogy is truly wonderful to behold. We are God’s handiwork, and God respects the multiplicity of ways we grasp truth. Is there room for dogmas? Yes, if we understand a dogma to be an illuminating “aha” moment.
A dogma is the fruit of days or weeks or centuries of prayer and reflection, and we finally get it — or the church gets it on our behalf: God creates; God loves; God is three Persons in One; God forgives. There is no good reason to be ashamed of Catholic “dogma.” With the proper attitude and with all humility perhaps we Catholics might rediscover the dogmas and doctrines of our faith and develop the confidence to join the great Flannery O’Connor in appreciating them as the gifts they really are: windows to the infinite.
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