The Christian community at Colossa had been founded by Epaphras, one of St. Paul's disciples, but false teachers soon arose, who attempted to mislead the Christians. Like the socialists of the present day, they maintained that no one ought in his religious opinions or in his life to be influenced by the Divine revelation of Christianity, but by the dictates of human reason or by philosophy. St Paul was at this time undergoing his first imprisonment in Rome, and, on hearing the state of affairs at Colossa, he determined to write to the Colossians, to warn them most emphatically against these false doctrines. I have taken as my text one of the many beautiful and vigorous passages contained in this epistle: "Beware lest any man cheat you by philosophy and vain deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the elements of the world, and not according to Christ; for in Him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead corporally." That is to say: Beware of human wisdom that is not concerned with revealed truth, for human wisdom is vain, with no firm basis, and revelation comprises i n itself all truth. Human wisdom is deceptive, resulting in error and falsehood more often than in truth, depending upon the judgments of men liable to error, and still at the stage where they need to be instructed like children in the fundamental teaching of religion, whereas this is no longer seemly, now that the world has come to maturity and has been enlightened by Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
The words addressed by the Apostle to the Colossians are equally applicable to you. There are amongst men many who declare that there is no need for a Divine revelation, since the reason of each individual tells him what to believe and what to reject, what to do and what to avoid. They openly say that the doctrines taught by Christ were suited only to the childhood of the human race, and now, when men have attained to self-consciousness and have reached a higher stage of civilization and education, these doctrines ought to be superseded by the light of reason; religion is a matter for the individual in his private life, and churches and public worship are altogether superfluous. It may seem to you strange and incomprehensible that after 1900 years of Christianity there should still be people who refuse to admit its authority, and yet such is the case. You have only to look at one of the works written by modern unbelievers or to come in contact with these men in everyday life, and you will soon find that statements, such as I have mentioned, are made quite openly. They are put forward even from the pulpit in many churches professing to be Christian, though not Catholic, and this, too, is one of the signs of the times, to which I must draw your attention. Today I wish to discuss (1) the weakness and untrustworthiness of human reason, and (2) the benefits of Christian revelation. Let us begin by invoking the assistance of the Holy Spirit of God.
1. Human reason is a precious gift bestowed on us by God, and we can not be thankful enough for it . By its aid men have accomplished many great, glorious and admirable works; the most useful inventions, the most exquisite works of art, the treasures of science and learning and the innumerable things that contribute so much to the comfort, welfare and prosperity of mankind are all the result of human reason. It can reach up and calculate the magnitude, course and distance of the stars in heaven, and it can also descend into the depths and investigate the hidden secrets of the earth. It can control the waters of the ocean and subjugate the forces of lightning, steam and wind. It searches out the cause and action of things, and makes all creation serviceable to men.
Yet, however great may be the achievements of human reason, we must beware of idolizing it and of shutting our eyes to its limitations. There are indeed many things which it is capable of investigating and establishing, but there are still more which it is powerless to examine or test. As soon as reason passes from what is earthly and finite to what is eternal and Divine, its strength fails, its insight is obscured, its judgment is shaken, and it becomes involved in a web of difficulties that it can not solve. Man is finite and unable to know fully the Infinite God, who dwells in unapproachable splendor. The vast, inexplicable, all-embracing Being, who first created, and still preserves and governs the world, is invisible to our eyes, intangible to our hands; none of our senses can perceive Him. We see His works, but He who designed them remains hidden from us. That there is a God is made known by our reason, felt by our heart, acknowledged by our conscience and proclaimed by all the wonders of the universe. "Ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee, and the birds of the air, and they shall tell thee; speak to the earth, and it shall answer thee, and the fishes of the sea shall tell. Who is ignorant that the hand of the Lord hath made all these things?" (Job xll, 7-9). "That which is known of God is manifest in them, for God hath manifested it unto them," says St. Paul, "for the invisible things of Him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, His eternal power also and Divinity, so that they are inexcusable" (Rom. i , 19, 20). "Only the fool hath said in his heart: There is no God.'"
If, however, we go further and try to find out what God is, where He dwells, why He created us and in what relation we stand towards Him, reason either is silent or suggests only hypotheses. King Croesus once asked the famous philosopher, Thales, what the Deity was. Thales begged for a day in which to consider the matter. At the end of that time Croesus repeated his question, and Thales asked for a further delay of two days. When these were over, and the same question was again propounded to him, he begged for four days, then for eight, then for sixteen, and so on. At last the king; grew impatient and wanted to know why he thus delayed giving an answer, so Thales replied: "Marvel not, O great king, that I am so long in answering your question. It is too vast for my feeble intellect. The more I ask myself what God is, the more do I perceive my own inability to give an adequate answer. Fresh difficulties continually present themselves, and the further I carry my investigations, the greater becomes my lack of comprehension."
We have here an explicit acknowledgment, made by one of the greatest philosophers of antiquity, that human reason is too weak and powerless to probe the depths of the Godhead. Thales' words are in complete harmony with those of the prophet Isaias: "Verily thou art a hidden God, the God of Israel," and with St. Paul's exclamation: "How incomprehensible are His judgments and how unsearchable His ways! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? Or who hath been His counsellor?" (Rom. x i , 33, 34). You need only read the history of the human race to be convinced that the reason of man is weak, blind, untrustworthy and apt to make innumerable mistakes. Have not men at various times believed the most absurd and foolish things? The pagans worshipped not only sun, moon and stars, but also dead persons notorious for their outrageous vices, and Divine honors have been paid to brute beasts, and lifeless stones and images. The early Germans regarded the oak as a sacred tree and thought the rustling of its branches betokened the presence of some Deity. Men often fashioned for themselves gods of wood or stone, and i n their honor temples were built and altars set up, upon which not only animals, but even human beings were offered in sacrifice. Mothers often slew their children, hoping thus to appease the anger of some offended god. O, what terrible mistakes have been made by the intellect of man!
Not only individuals or isolated nations have blundered, but all the nations of antiquity went astray, with the exception of the Jews, and this state of error was not a passing phase, lasting a few years only, but it continued during 4,000 years, until the coming of Jesus Christ. Even the most highly civilized races, whose intellect had been very perfectly developed, fell into the most deplorable mistakes. As long as the world lasts the writings of the Greeks and Romans will be considered models of style, and it is a difficult matter for the most brilliant scholars at the present day even to approach them; they need not hope to surpass them. If, therefore, the human intellect was ever capable of evolving a rational religion, it must have been amongst these people. And yet their religion was a mass of folly and inconsistency, when it was not actually vicious. In proof of this statement, I need only remind you of the hundreds of gods whom they worshipped, whilst at the same time they ascribed the most shameful actions to these gods, or performed such actions in their honor.
There were, of course, amongst these pagans some wise men with greater insight, who perceived the absurdity of idolatry and abhorred the vices prevalent in their time, but they too often made mistakes, did not agree with one another, and were always in a state of uncertainty. The most enlightened among them realized their own ignorance, and those who were honest confessed that it was impossible for men to arrive at certainty and truth, unless God Himself spoke and instructed them. But some one may say that he is willing to grant Divinely given instruction to have been necessary for the ancients, who were still at a low stage of civilization, yet, at the present time, when everyone is enlightened and educated, such instruction can no longer be needed. In reply, let me ask whether the enlightened scholars of the present day can be compared with the Greeks and Romans. Is the human reason now less liable to error than it was 4,000 years ago? Is there less folly and senseless behavior now than there was of old? No one can read the history of our own times without seeing that even men of vigorous intellect often fall a prey to lamentable errors. The writings of modern philosophers show them to be involved in a bewildering confusion of opinions, and each one accuses the other of being mistaken, each is eager to demolish the other's theory, and no one is able to discover in his own intellect any firm foundation or certainty.
How could it be otherwise? Ever since Adam's fall there has been inherent in the human race a kind of corruption that paralyzes the faculties of our souls. Our understanding is clouded by sensuality, and borne down and thwarted by our passions and worldly interests, whenever it attempts to soar aloft, and to rise to the light of truth.
If our own reason fails us, whither can we turn for a certain trustworthy answer to all the questions suggested by our thirst for truth? Who can solve our difficulties and give peace to our hearts? Who can teach us to know God in His essence and perfections? Who can tell us whence evil originates, and how shall we be preserved from despondency and despair, when it weighs us down with its burden? Who can instruct us as to the reason of our creation and our final end? Is man, like the beasts, destined to toil and labor during his brief span of life simply in order to supply his bodily needs, and then, when at last he rests in the grave, is everything at an end for him? Have all his interests, joys, sorrows, memories and hopes perished with him? Who can assure us of the forgiveness of sins, when, like Cain, burdened with guilt, we wander in despair? Who can lift for us the dark veil separating this world from the next? We long for answers to these and many other questions; we want certainty, and if our own reason fails to supply it, how should that of other mortals give us what we desire? What man is infallible and free from the influence of his passions? No matter whither we turn, we must be afraid of falling into the hands of one who is either deceived or a deceiver. Those who trust the wise men of this world are themselves blind, at the mercy of blind guides; and we know that when one blind man leads another, both will probably fall into the pit. Where, then, can we find help? Where shall we discover an infallible teacher, able to dispel the darkness of our minds, to solve our difficulties, to support our weakness, and to answer those questions, which, as long as they remain unanswered, leave us no peace or happiness?
2. Bless the Lord, O ye people, and praise His mercy without end; He hath sent forth His spirit and renewed the face of the earth! He could not behold with indifference the countless errors of mankind, and none but God Himself was able to teach us aright what we ought to know about God and our relation to Him, since "the things which are of God no man knoweth, but the Spirit of God; no one knoweth the Father but the Son, and he to whom it shall please the Son to reveal Him." Consider how God first loved us, and gave us His only-begotten Son. The Word that in the beginning was with God, and that was God, was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory. He was the light of men, the light shining in the darkness, the true light, which enlightened every man that cometh into this world; and to as many as received Him, He gave power to be made the sons of God (John I ) . The darkness of ignorance was thenceforth removed, for the light, the Sun of Righteousness, had dispelled it; Jesus Christ, the Son of God, blessed for evermore, appeared upon earth, and all obscurity vanished when the Divine Master came down from heaven, speaking the truth and being Himself the way, the truth and the life. For three years He went up and down Judaea, teaching in the towns and villages, in the fields and on the sea, in synagogues and houses, wherever there were people willing to listen to Him. He sent His Apostles forth into all the world to preach the Gospel, the good tidings of the Kingdom of God, and He gave them at Pentecost the Holy Ghost to teach them the truth and to comfort, counsel and sanctify them, promising that He should remain with them and their successors to the end of the world. Christ founded the infallible Church, which, being guided, governed and protected by Him and the Holy Ghost, was to keep His doctrine pure and unalloyed for ever and make it known to men, as well as administer the Holy Sacraments, the channels of grace. This Church is, as St. Paul says, "the pillar and ground of the truth" ( I. Tim. iii , 15).
We can dispense with Moses and the prophets; we need not have recourse to philosophers and ask them to deliberate, to lay down hypotheses and deduce conclusions. We understand now the nature of God, for His voice has gone forth to the ends of the earth, and from His own lips we have learned all truth. It has been revealed to us that our soul is not liable to death, that our hopes do not perish when we die, that a better home than the grave awaits us. We are quite certain as to our destiny, and as to the ways and means of attaining it. We have no doubt regarding our fate, the value of our joys and the significance of our troubles. We now know more of God than our reason could tell us; we know Him as our Father, ready to guide, console and reward us; we know that Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son, became Man, in order to redeem us and bring us to eternal happiness; we know whither to betake ourselves when our conscience is burdened with sin, and where to obtain pardon; we know that the Holy Ghost enlightens, comforts, strengthens and sanctifies us. A Christian possesses assurance and knowledge on the points where the wisdom of our ancestors so often went astray, and a Catholic child can tell us more about God and the destiny of man than the greatest of the Greek philosophers could have done.
Is it not true that "He that is mighty hath done great things to us?" and may we not apply to ourselves the words addressed by our Saviour to His disciples: "Blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear. For amen, I say to you, many prophets and just men have desired to see the things that you see, and have not seen them; and to hear the things that you hear, and have not heard them" (Matt, xiii, 16).
All these blessings are secured to us in the greatest abundance by Christianity, which you all profess, and which affords you so much happiness that it is impossible for you to understand what evil spirit can have taken possession of those who reject it , trample it under foot and venture to substitute for it their own reason as the sole teacher of truth and lawgiver. Christianity has for nearly 1900 years been extolled by countless millions as the light of the world, and regarded as the only anchor in time of tempest; it has stood firm, and proved its truth and Divine origin, in spite of all the attacks of scholars and the most cruel persecutions on the part of the world; and yet now men dare to assail her. I will tell you what impels them to do so. It is not that they are convinced that the doctrines of Christianity are untenable, for they have often no convictions of any kind, but it is pride that prevents them from obeying Christ, and it is sensuality, intolerant of the yoke that His Commandments would lay upon them.
(a) Because the greatness and glory of Jesus Christ are offensive to their pride, they heap insults and scorn upon Him who for Igloo years has been the object of reverent worship of mankind, whose Cross they have embraced with love and veneration as their sole token of salvation and whose Name overshadows all human fame. As long as He is great, they are nothing; as long as He is the Teacher of the world, they, with all their boasted wisdom, are but pupils; as long as He rules the world they are His subjects, and this they refuse to be. They will not accept anything that they are required to believe, and so, setting up their own reason as supreme, they fall down and worship it . A man dominated by pride has no God but self, and hence the socialists maintain religion to be the private concern of the individual; hence, too, men boast nowadays of despising religion, and the denial and rejection of Christianity is considered the mark of an enlightened intellect. Any foolish, ignorant speaker can now win a cheap reputation by railing against what he calls the obscurantism and spiritual constraint and tyranny of the papacy. There is a certain pleasure in being known as a free-thinker, and many a person, who would otherwise never become in any way conspicuous, can not resist the temptation to win fame in this manner.
(b) Self-indulgence and sensuality also cause men to rebel against the yoke of Christ. "Men," says St. Augustine, "love truths that attract, but they hate the truth that amends." Christianity is the truth that aims at amending mankind. People want to have and enjoy all that their unbridled fancy suggests, but Christianity interposes her veto, and condemns luxury, drunkenness, envy, avarice, fraud, guile and malice, in short it abominates all evil inclinations, habits and passions, all sins and vices, and praises those only who are pure in heart. The socialists and others like them can not endure this, for they wish to be left free to act and think as they choose. Hence they shut their eyes, lest they should see the light, and stop their ears, lest they should hear the precepts, warnings and threats of Christianity. When the voice of conscience is utterly stifled by their sins and enormities, they speak of Christianity as a superstition, of conscience as a delusion, of virtue as folly, of obedience as slavery, and then by means of their reason, corrupted as it is by their self-love and passions, they devise for themselves a religion that sanctions all their wildest extravagances and sets no limits upon their evil desires. "The sensual man," says St. Paul, "percieveth not the things that are of the Spirit of God, for it is foolishness to him, and he can not understand it " (I. Cor. ii, 4). Two never-do-wells were once talking about religion, and after they had both told several abominable stories regarding it, one said to the other: That's enough; after all what is the good of our stupid doubts? We should have more faith if we were not such rascals. A very true remark, worthy of careful consideration! No one recognizes the truth of Christianity who is unwilling to act according to its laws; and nothing strengthens our faith so much as living in conformity with it. This is why Christ said to the Jews: "My doctrine is not mine, but His that sent Me; if any man will do the will of Him (the Father), he shall know the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of Myself" (John vii, 16, 17).
After what has been said, need I give you any further warning against those who put human intellect in the place of Divinely revealed religion? You are aware that there are men corrupted in mind, who are destitute of the truth; to them may be applied our Lord's words: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; because you shut the kingdom of heaven against men, for you yourselves do not enter in, and those that are going in, you suffer not to enter" (Matt, xxiii, 13). If such people had honestly examined themselves and discovered their own weakness and misery, they would never have been puffed up with pride and imagined that intellect alone was sufficient and required no assistance from God in order to understand what is Divine.
If , however, we too are to realize what the royal prophet meant when he said: "In Thy light, O God, we shall see light" (Ps. xxxv, 10); if we are to recognize the truth, we must henceforth not rely merely on our own intellect or take counsel of men like ourselves, but we must be enlightened by the Divine light that shines in the Church of Jesus Christ, and submit our intellect in obedience to Him, for "God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble" (James iv, 6 ) . In all humility let us hear and follow Him who is the way, the truth and the light, since those that follow Him, walk not in darkness, but shall have the light of life (John viii, 12). Then we shall be safe from error and deception, for we shall know the truth, and the truth shall make us free (John viii, 32); for the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth (Rom. i , 16).
Source: The Signs of the Times - A Course of Lenten Sermons, Imprimatur 1915