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The necessity of dogma, revelation and miracles

Dogma, the question of what we can know and what is real, is essential to religion. We can’t commit ourselves to what is nonexistent or utterly unknowable. We need God because we lack something, and what we lack must be supplied by something not ourselves. The God we need is therefore one who is real, who transcends us, and whom we know in some definite way. If God is not real, not knowable, or only a personification of our ideals, he can’t give us anything we don’t have already and so is useless to us.

For definite knowledge of a God who transcends us neither myth nor philosophy is enough. We need a God who reveals himself, one whose revelation is not a theory or an image but a fact. A transcendent God can be known only by his own action, and thus as a person who does things. Hence the concreteness of Catholic belief and its embodiment in a story of divine acts whose truth is more than symbolic: God revealed himself at a particular time and place in the form of a particular man who did and said surprising things, who suffered, died and was raised bodily from the dead, and who set up a concrete way for his effective presence in the world to continue.

A problem with the story for us today is that it’s hard for us to understand how God and his presence in the world could be a fact. The reason is philosophical: people today believe that facts and values have no essential connection. Facts are for science, values are what we choose to make of things. Facts are therefore thought to be essentially dead. As a result, “God as a fact” suggests to many people “God as a Big Alarming Thing somewhere.” Hence the widespread conviction that those who reject subjectivism in religion in favor of more objective traditional understandings are frightening violence-prone “fundamentalists.”

To the contrary, however, it is basic to Christianity that fact and value cannot be separated. When God made the world and called it good the goodness wasn’t an add-on, it was part of the basic nature of things. When God became flesh, he truly became flesh just as you and I are flesh, and his bodily presence among men became as concrete a this-worldly fact as Julius Caesar’s. Nor, once God’s personhood is accepted, is God-who-manifests-himself-in-the-flesh an impossible contradiction. If God is a person, then “God is factually real and does concrete things” is no more overly-literal or absurd than “my wife is factually real and does concrete things.”

Which brings us to miracles. What makes a person is practical transcendence of scientific law. To explain personality fully is to explain it away. Modern natural science leaves value out of consideration. It follows that if fact and value are inextricably connected, as Christianity proposes, then modern natural science cannot fully describe even fact. If it could, then good, evil and the person would become optional interpretations added on to things, and thus mere prejudices rather than realities. The tendency to rationalize Christianity on modern scientific lines, to deny miracles and the historical truth of the Gospels, to make science sovereign, is thus deeply at odds with the Christian outlook. If there are no miracles there is no revelation, God is not a person, the Gospels do not reveal his actions, and Christianity is comprehensively false.