Wednesday, June 20, 2012

pizza and natural theology

I’m taking a 3-week course at Notre Dame on Christian Doctrine. In our first class together, Dr. Cavadini pointed to a key difference between Catholics and Protestants. It has to do with the answer to this question:

How much can we know about God without the help of Scripture?

The fancy name for this is “Natural Theology” (theology is ‘the study of God’ and by ‘natural’ we mean ‘without divine intervention’). In short, Catholics tend to be more optimistic than Protestants about how well Natural Theology works (or at least about its potential). Some Protestants reject it completely. Before I lay out the differences, an illustration may help.

Imagine you arrive home from work one day and find a pizza on your kitchen counter. You are thrilled, because you are hungry after a long day of work, but you are also puzzled because you live alone (if you don’t, just pretend) and you have no idea who brought you pizza. You look around for clues, but see nothing. The kitchen is clean, as if no one has been there, but when you open the oven you notice it is still very hot. Whoever left the pizza cooked it in your kitchen and did a very good job cleaning up! You take a closer look at the pizza. It has your favorite toppings! Whoever made it knows you well, and their sense of timing is exquisite. It’s hot and ready. How did they know when you would be home? Then you notice something else—this is no frozen pizza. It has a homemade crust, hand-tossed by the looks of it, with sauce carefully spread and lots of gooey cheese, but none of it spilling over onto the pizza pan. Whoever made this pizza was an artist! 

You decide that they evidently wanted you to eat it, so you grab a couple of slices and sit down to eat. While eating, you keep thinking about who it could have been. You have a growing list of words that you could use to describe this person, but no name and no face, just a big question mark. You have that warm and tingly feeling, knowing that you are loved, but you can’t get the question mark out of your mind. You just have to figure out who it was!

So far, the story illustrates Natural Theology. You have been using the powers of human reason to figure out the identity of the pizza-maker. You are certain that the pizza didn’t show up by chance. It was intentional, and someone did it. You’ve figured out certain qualities of that person: he or she is loving, kind, careful, conscientious, timely, creative, and thoughtful. But you still don’t know who it is. Dr. Cavadini follows early Christian writers (Justin Martyr, Origen and Augustine) who point to Socrates as the ideal example of someone engaged in the search for truth using human reason, that is, Natural Theology. Socrates is open and proceeds from one question to another to see what he can discover, but the quest is never-ending. At the end of Natural Theology there is some certainty, but also still a big question mark. Who made this pizza for me?

Imagine, then, that you finish eating, put the leftover pizza in some Tupperware, and head to the fridge. When you get there you find a note on the door that you missed earlier. It reads:

Hi hon!
I hope you liked the pizza! Sorry I couldn’t stay to eat it with you. I had a dinner appointment with friends, but I wanted you to know that I love you.
Love, Mom 
(p.s. just because)
Suddenly it all makes sense. Mom has a key to your house. Why didn’t you think of that before? She knows your favorite toppings and what time you get off work. You were right: she really is loving, kind, careful, conscientious, timely, creative, and thoughtful. Now you have a person to link with that list, and now the knowledge you gained without the note contributes to a stronger relationship with someone in particular: your mom.

The note on the fridge is like Scripture (revelation). In Scripture God reveals to us his name and his intentions for us. Natural Theology only gets us so far. If we’re thinking well, we can figure out a lot of things about God, but we still can’t really enter into a relationship with him until we know who he is. A Catholic would say that Natural Theology gives us certainty, but not completeness. You were certain that someone made you pizza. You knew a number of things to be true about that person, but you didn’t have complete knowledge. You didn’t know who made it or why. After you read the note, those things became clear.

Natural theology prepares us for revelation. And though God gave all of us the gift of reason (§159*), the proper use of it is up to us. Catholics do not think that this faculty is totally damaged by sin. It has the potential of working properly, though without revelation it never works perfectly. If in our quest for God we are truly open to him and don’t close off the search prematurely, then we will attain understanding. This knowledge can be certain (under the right conditions), but not exhaustive (§46–47). Many (most?) versions of Protestant theology have little place for Natural Theology. The Reformed doctrine of 'total depravity,' for example, sees our reason as totally corrupted by the Fall, unreliable and guaranteed to lead us astray. But on one thing Protestants and Catholics agree. Both groups believe we won’t have saving knowledge of God until we encounter special revelation (i.e. the Bible). In spite of the value they place on Natural Theology, then, Catholics still recognize that our reason can only get us so far. We cannot know God fully or intimately without revelation. We can think about pizza all day and never know who to thank for it.
Hopefully this vignette has given you a (pizza-flavored) taste of what I'm learning at Notre Dame. My goal for this course is to understand more clearly what Catholics believe from their perspective. Too often we rely on caricatures of each other's believes without really stopping to listen. Our assignments for the class are to re-explain parts of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) to a particular audience, and I picked YOU! If there are particular areas of Catholic Doctrine that you would like me to write about, leave a comment and I'll see if I can work it into an assignment. Thanks for learning along with me!

*section numbers in parentheses refer to the relevant section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church


  1. I'm excited to read more about what you're learning at Notre Dame. The drawback of being a historian is that most of what I know of the Catholic Church is from studying the 16th century. If it fits in your assignment, I'd especially like to know the current beliefs about Purgatory and if the doctrine has changed much post-Trent. (First time commenter and recent BITH-women alumna!)

  2. Hi, Katrina!
    Great to hear from you! I'll put purgatory on my list. I'm wondering about that, too. Dr. Cavadini has a running joke that for every minute he goes overtime in class he has to spend another week in purgatory listening to himself talk. That may well be the most useful approach to purgatory that I've heard yet! :)

  3. A Catholic friend and I were talking about prayers to Saints once, and she finally said, "Oh! I get it! You don't talk to dead people!"

    For her, asking saints to pray for her is just the same as asking her friends here on earth to pray for her.

    I'd like to know if that's a good way to describe how Catholics view the Saints and their prayers, and how they see their relationship to them, Mary and God. If I remember right, there's veneration, worship, and then a third term they use and each has very specific boundaries, but I don't understand them.

  4. Thanks, Laura. I'll add this to my list. We did talk about veneration this morning, and how it's different than worship, but I'm going to save the topic for next week when we'll spend more time on Mary and icons.
    Stay tuned!

  5. Really enjoyed the past, Carmen, especially since my BITH studies have focused a good bit on natural theology/revelation. I'm glad to hear you're discussing Mary next week; I'll be interested to hear more about how Catholics view praying to her. It's a special interest of mine as I've spent 20 years portraying her (even in a few Catholic churches) and I get LOTS of questions.