MADISON - On a sunny Saturday morning, a second-floor room at St. Paul Inside the Walls: the Catholic Center for Evangelization buzzes with lively debate and discussion. Sitting with desks in a semi-circle, a group of nine interested people tackles difficult and heady questions of theology and philosophy, such as "Can we ever know truth?" and "Is having faith reasonable?"
Locked in intense conversation, this diverse group - populated by faithful believers, fallen-away Catholics, new faithful, agnostics and atheists- keeps each other on his or her toes intellectually speaking. During the two-hour session, part of St. Paul's "Reasons to Believe" debate and discussion series, they challenge each other on various theological and philosophical points as well as the facilitator, Father Derek Anderson.
"We [Catholics] have faith in the Trinity, because God has revealed it," said Father Anderson, a priest of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT) and the new diocesan vicar for catechesis. During the Dec. 17 session, the third in the series, Father Anderson noted that "St. Thomas Aquinas [a notable Catholic theologian] had great confidence in human reason - that God has given every human person the natural light of reason. We can come to know God exists through the visible world around us."
In the midst of his PowerPoint slide presentation that kicked off the session, Father Anderson found the discussion veering into other areas of thought - from the morality of past times, back to St. Thomas Aquinas and then to Taoist philosophy. Some of the skeptics - and faithful, playing the "Devil's Advocate" - challenged some of the priest's assertions, among them that we can know God exists from reason alone.
Father Anderson countered by noting that, although we cannot see God, many Catholics do believe in miracles. These supernatural events are meant to inspire and lead us to faith in those things we cannot see. Take for example, "doubting" St. Thomas, who believed that Jesus rose from the dead only after he could place his fingers in the holes of the Savior's crucified hands.
"Thomas said to Jesus, 'My Lord and my God.' That was a profession of faith. Thomas believed Jesus was God after experiencing the miracle of the resurrection. Not everyone who saw or listened to Jesus believed he was God, faith was required for that. But in Thomas we see that miracles are meant to lead us to a profession of faith," Father Anderson said. "Miracles cannot be explained by science, because they go beyond the limitations of scientific knowledge. But it's not illogical or unreasonable to believe in miracles," the priest said.
Still, some of the group's skeptics questioned Father Anderson's assertion that we can actually believe in a God we cannot see. Since October, the priest - who first arrived in the diocese in August - has been meeting monthly for the "Reasons to Believe" series. The group has been blessed with a revolving collection of debaters - like the December group - for deep discussion and some healthy and intellectually rigorous repartee.
"We want to reach out and meet people where they're at. We want to talk about various dimensions of life and faith," said Father Anderson, who came to the Diocese of Paterson from SOLT's House of Study in Rome, where he served as academic dean and his religious community's general secretary. "We want to start a conversation about the reasons we believe and to address modern objections to our faith."
During the sessions, Father Anderson often turns to theological or philosophical text - from such sources as the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" or St. Thomas Aquinas. At the session, he read from "What Faith Is and What It Isn't," an article written by Father Robert Barron, founder of the global ministry, "Word on Fire."
"The decision to accept in trust what God has spoken about Himself is what the Church means by 'faith,' " writes Father Barron, as read by Father Anderson and other group members. "This decision...rests upon and is conditioned by reason, but it presses beyond reason, for it represents the opening of one heart to another. The Catholic Church wants people to use reason as vigorously and energetically as possible - and this very much includes scientific reason. But then it invites them, at the limits of their striving, to listen, to trust, to have faith," Father Barron writes.
The debate and discussion built on the previous session, which raised the issue, "The Question of Truth: Can We Know Anything with Certainty?" There, Father Anderson invited into the discussion his brother, Justin Anderson, Ph.D., assistant professor of Christian ethics at Seton Hall University, South Orange. Among other things, they spoke about what people mean by the word "truth" today, and looked at various contemporary theories of truth - one of which is the classical notion of truth the Church adheres to: we say we have reached truth when the conception in our mind corresponds to the reality outside of us, Father Anderson said.
Following two hours of rigorous debate, one participant, Mary Theresa Conca of St. Cecilia Parish, Rockaway, smiled while exiting the second-floor room at St. Paul's. Also the evangelization center's head of hospitality, Conca noted that, "the sessions give me, a devout Catholic, the tools to understand why I believe what I believe and to explain - and defend it - to others."
"The course also gives me things to think about until the next session. It also gives me some things, so I can plant a seed or place a question [in the hearts and minds of others] for them to think about," Conca said. "There aren't many venues across the country where you can have discussions like this. St. Paul Inside the Walls is a special place."
The "Reasons to Believe" series, scheduled through to May [see dates at right], remains open to everyone. For information about the series or about any other of St. Paul Inside the Walls' programs, call (973) 377-1004 or visit www.insidethewalls.org.