Question: : Why must I worship God in church, according to some formal religious system? I am far more inspired by the flowers or the sunrise then by hearing someone preach—and I know people who never go to church but who are much better Christians than those who do. Isn’t that good enough?
Answer: It is possible for man to know of God’s existence without the benefit of divine revelation. Man’s unaided reason should enable him to know right from wrong as we know it in the Commandments God has revealed. And mankind’s enlightened self interest ought to see to it that this Natural Law if followed in practice, even in pagan societies. Society is simply too chaotic to function if people disobey the Natural Law to any great degree. Pagan history has even given us men like Socrates, Aristotle, and Seneca who demonstrated fairly high standards of obedience to the Natural Law for sake of society—no doubt, there are other, less famous, people about whom the same can be said.
It is possible for people to have religious emotions when admiring the beauty of creation. The contentment of sitting by the fire while petting the cat, or walking in an open field on a starry night may well inspire religious feelings. Indeed, the order and beauty of the universe are ways by which man can naturally come to the Creator of that ordered and beautiful creation. Philosophers like Aristotle spoke of the “Pure Intellect” “Perfectly Realized Potential” “the Prime Mover.” Again, even without divine revelation, mankind can know that God exists by viewing His handiwork. The works of His hands are not gods, but point to Him as the God of all:
Even if God could be known only through natural reason—as was the case before He publicly revealed Himself—the mere enjoyment of His creatures by men would not be enough to say that they were worshipping Him. My enjoyment of the beauty of a sunrise may inspire joy in me, but that is still nothing more than a subjective feeling on my part; it is not worship, and gives no honor to the Creator. If my subjective religious feeling is to become worship, I must be further moved to call upon God in prayer: in adoration, in thanksgiving, in expiation, or in petition.
Man is a creature that is “capax-Dei—capable of God,” to use the words of Saint Augustine. He has a spiritual (and therefore immortal) soul that is capable not only of apprehending God, but also of uniting with God in prayer. The existence of the soul is another truth of natural reason. Man is more than the sum of his physical existence.
Does man have a soul? Of course he does! It is not hard to recognize the soul in man, for man is much more than just the material parts; much more than the sum of his molecules, if you will. We know this to be true, for man—like God and the angels—has both intellect and will; that is to say that man is capable of both thinking and of loving.
Among all the creatures of the earth, man is capable of reasoned analysis of the things going on around him, and of discovering ways to control those things or to mitigate their effects. His reasoning power allows him to forge tools, and to build homes, which he keeps warm in winter and cool in summer. Together with others, he forms society for the common good. He is aware of himself as existing and taking part in his world. He can also look down into his own heart, where his conscience dwells, and where he knows the Holy Ghost to reside. He can also look above on a clear winter night, and recognize in that order and beauty the handiwork of God. He is more than the sum of his molecules,
Among all of the creatures on earth, man is capable of willing the way he wants things to be in the world around him. He is capable of desiring such abstract things as joy and truth and justice and freedom. Above all, he is capable of compassion and love. Something far more than just his material being is capable of going our from him to the poor and the sick and the confused. His love for his wife and family and friends is above and beyond his material being. Again, man is more than the sum of his molecules, for his soul, the seat of this reason and love—like God and the angels—goes on forever.
While it is true that mankind can know God through natural means, the reality is that many will make no attempt to do so, or will go off tangents: worshipping a number of gods, adoring idols, or even offering human beings in sacrifice.
Because men are prone to error and laziness—a result of original sin—God determined that it was necessary to publicly reveal the details of the Moral Law, and to tell us something about Himself and the way in which He wants to be worshipped. This removes all uncertainty about what is required of us, and creates an obligation to do what He has requested.
Most of God’s revelation is written down in the collections of books we call the Bible, or Sacred Scripture; some of it comes down to us through Tradition, generally put into writing during, or just shortly after, the Biblical era. Catholics hold this revelation to be infallible, coming to us through divine inspiration and guidance, and codified by the Catholic Church. But it is reasonable for the honest inquirer to ask why he should be expected to place such trust in our claim of the divine origin of revelation.
To begin with, the Sacred writings present an eminently reasonable picture of human existence and the way it ought to be. Society simply doesn’t work very well if it departs too far from the moral principles of the Commandments as elucidated by Jesus Christ. The human condition is significantly worse in a culture where people lie, steal, beat, cheat, and kill one another. It is significantly better when the positive law of the Commandments is obeyed, and when men love God and one another for the sake of God.
But Jesus Christ is more than a philosopher—more than a Confucius or a Buddha explaining how people may live in pace and harmony. Jesus Christ became man in order to restore the good relationship of God and man that was broken with the sin of Adam. He took human form so that He could be among us to show us how to live, but He also gave up His human life in order to defeat the “spiritual death” of sin.
We have a great motive of credibility in the fact that Jesus persisted in His revelation of God’s truth, even with the knowledge that doing so would eventually get Him crucified. He is a most unlikely fraud, for no swindler or con-man engineers his own death as the outcome of his deception!
Much the same can be said for those who followed Him, and for those who wrote about Him in the books of the New Testament. With the single exception of Saint John (who was tortured and exiled for his testimony) all of the Apostles and Evangelists died as a result of their preaching of Jesus’ message. Nor were they alone, for many of the bishops, priests, and laity of the early Church laid down their lives as the price of their witness to the teaching of Jesus Christ. We have the writings of some of them, men like Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Rome, and Polycarp of Smyrna, who may have heard Jesus speak or at least received the personal instruction of the Apostles. We also have the antagonistic testimony of Jewish and Roman writers and officials, which corroborates the accounts of the massive persecution endured by many Christians—a few of whom we know through biographical accounts of the martyrs, but many of whose names are lost to history. If this group of people had set out to falsify the account of Jesus, they certainly would have arranged to obtain a far more favorable outcome for themselves!
Religious feeling, philanthropic activity and the keeping of the natural law are good things in themselves, but they are not enough, for they ignore the spiritual dimension of man and his eternal relationship to God. Without the things demanded by God of man in divine revelation, man is woefully incomplete.
GOOD – GOD = O