In Praise of Credulity

St. Thomas Aquinas was once tricked by his fellow students who cried out, “Look! A flying ox!” Thomas dutifully went to the window to look and his peers all laughed at him heartily. Thomas’ reply (and one of the many reasons he’s a saint): “I thought it more likely that an ox would fly than a Dominican would lie.”

I think of that story as I read a piece on the Blessed Virgin Mary allegedly appearing in Egypt that came out on the Spirit Daily site some months back. Dunno if it’s a real apparition or not, but the headline got me thinking.

You see, I’m always rather leery of stuff on Spirit Daily since it’s a site that I tend to think of as Credulity Daily. But, I’m also not altogether convinced that this speaks very well of me.

I live in an age where making fun of the credulous is as easy as falling off a log, particularly when the credulity is directed at things having the savor of Christianity its Catholic expressions. To be sure, the people who are often doing the laughing—such as Bill Maher—have, when the subject is not religion, fathomless oceans of credulity on other matters. But still, from Bayside visionaries to Br. Polyester’s Miracle Revival Prayer Cloths to Oral Roberts’ excited claims of a 900 Foot Tall Jesus demanding cash, it’s not hard to develop a pretty thick armor plating against the more or less steady stream of claims of the Wondrous that emerge from the ranks of Christians. And, of course, there is always a steady stream of village atheists and skeptics ready to debunk the bulk of this as the mixture of bushwah, lies, hyperactive imagination, and mental illness that it often is. In a related vein, of course, are the believing Christians and Vatican investigator types who possess no agenda of religion-debunking, but who simply want to know if a given claim is on the level. In the midst of this general mood of skepticism, my ego is big enough that I am particularly sensitive to the thought of being laughed at because I was taken in. So are the egos of an awful lot of other people. So I am much more susceptible to being skeptical than I am to being credulous.

Yes, granted: Spirit Daily may see Mary appearing all over the place where the rest of us see water stains on freeway underpasses. They are often wrong in their zeal to believe that God is busying himself with all manner of signs and wonders done for the benefit of plaid-wearers in Bugtussle, OK who see miracles where the rest of us see a grilled cheese sandwich. Duly noted. Haw haw. Boy, are they dumb. Let’s all ritually denounce them and pat ourselves on the back for being so smart and skeptical. Nobody took me in. I’m safe! However, despite the boasts of the Brights, that’s not always such a bright thing to boast. Because, of course, the thing about the hyper-credulous is that sometimes, like Luna Lovegood, they are right and there really are nargles.

Which means that if I keep that up and make it my Life Ethos, I will be rather deprived. Because if skepticism becomes my creed then I’m numbered with the people who laughed at the children at Fatima, who scoffed at St. Bernadette, who explained that Pentecost was due to an excess of wine, who called the voice of God the mere rumble of thunder and who had the handy dandy explanation that the Resurrection was faked by the apostles. I’m wise as a serpent. Yay me. But serpents aren’t really all that much to write home about. And simple skeptical explanations are sometimes more simple-minded than the most credulous person who ever lived.

See, the thing is, sometimes God shows up. Indeed sometimes God actually does something extra wondrous. By “extra wondrous” I mean that, while I consider “holding the entire field of reality in being nanosecond by nanosecond for 13 billion years” to be wondrous enough for my tastes, it is also the case that now and then, at moments of His choosing, He throws a little something more into the mix by, say, sending angels to announce things like “Unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a savior who is Christ the Lord.”

When He does that, He tends to do it, not so much for the benefit of plump and self-satisfied college boy skeptical suburbanites like me, but for shepherds, parking lot attendants and members of the lower eschelons who lack my tedious fear of looking unsophisticated. He does it for the benefit of the meek and lowly: people whose taste for Dick’s Drive In Gut Bombs keeps them from foregoing food they like in favor of the Right Food eaten by the Right Sort of People. He does it for the benefit of people who do the decent thing because they never understood that stuff their brother-in-law preached to them from his graduate philosophy class about being Beyond Good and Evil before he ditched the wife and kids. He does it for the benefit of people who never forgot what their mother told them about how God was in heaven and looking out for them. He does it for the benefit of people who say their prayers at night, and think you should not speak ill of the dead, and who don’t enjoy wry, sarcastic laughter at the expense of GEDs. He does it for the benefit of people who watch corny Frank Capra movies and resolve to be better because of it, despite critics who sneer at them for being sentimentalists. He does it for the benefit of people who don’t use scare quotes to say words like Truth or Holy. He does it for the benefit of people who, when they see something wonderful, think first of God and not of how to dissect the wonder and kill it. In short, God shows Himself to the Faithful, whom the world routinely sneers at as the credulous, the foolish, and the suckers.

Our age, which tends to prize . being excessively wise as a serpent over being excessively innocent as a dove is not really smarter for it. It’s just more closed to the possibility that God might, in fact, show up. That’s not a virtue. It’s just cynicism and cowardice about being laughed at as a fool. The guys at Spirit Daily are willing to risk being laughed at a hundred times for being wrong because they know that if they are right on the hundred and first time, it will have been worth it. And they know that sooner or later they are bound to be right because God has, at Bethlehem and Calvary and the Holy Sepulchre (among other places), already shown up in a big way and promised to show up again where two or three are gathered in His Name. So though my personality type makes me tend toward leeriness, my intellect says, “So what if they’re a bit too inclined to believe in miracles over at Spirit Daily? It doesn’t hurt anybody.” The shepherds of Bethlehem seem to be none the worse for wear, though they probably credited all sorts of urban legends, nursery stories and Tales of the Unexplained as true when it was all just thunder or a thing that went bump in the night. Nonetheless, when God showed up it was to the “low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor 1:28-29). If Mary is turning up in Egypt, it wouldn’t be the first, or even the second time. I don’t know that she is, mind you, and I’ll bide by the Church’s judgment in the matter. But in the meantime, I will strive to avoid excesses of doubt just as much as I think others need to avoid excesses of credulity. You never know when some shepherd is going to show up saying “We have seen the Lord Jesus!” and you can’t afford to be snobby when he does. It might make you miss Christmas!

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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog and regularly blogs for National Catholic Register. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.

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