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Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Quite Useless

You would think that anyone who was raised in Chicago with a name like Wachowski would likely know something about the Catholic Faith. After all, Chicago has a larger Polish Catholic population than Warsaw. Sadly, the Wachowski brothers are living examples of a phenomenon the Pope described in his very first encyclical, On Catechesis in Our Time.

You may not be familiar with the Wachowski name, but you almost certainly know their work: Larry and Andy are the brothers who wrote and directed the Matrix movies, along with the accompanying anime shorts which comprise the Animatrix, and the video game, Enter the Matrix. This movie series is one of the top-grossing films of all time; The Matrix was the first film ever to sell more than a million DVDs.

The Matrix movies have an enormous appeal for much the same reason The X Files did: they encourage people to think about mystery and hidden meanings. The convoluted Matrix plots are layered with hidden symbols, secret connections. However, while the way the symbols are used betray the Wachowskis' Catholic education, both the connections between symbols and the dialogue between the characters demonstrate that the Wachowskis never got beyond a grade-school understanding of the Faith.

The media makes a point of emphasizing how brilliant the Wachowski brothers are and the media is absolutely correct. The Wachowski brothers have clearly read a lot of intellectually stimulating books and have used what they read in an innovative and visually exciting way. However, it is just as clear that most of those books weren’t Catholic, that is, most of the concepts are not as logically coherent as one might hope. As a result, what is visually brilliant is logically flawed.

Take, for example, one short speech given by Morpheus, a major character whose early role somewhat resembles that of John the Baptist. He tells Neo, the hero, “Faith is not a matter of reasonability. I do not believe things with my mind. I believe them with my heart… in my gut. You are the sixth and the last. You are the One.” While this is a popular understanding of faith, and certainly the kind of thing one sees in many theology and philosophy books, it is a caricature, not the real thing.

Faith is not an emotion. It may have emotion as a consequence, but faith is not a feeling. Faith is a hard-headed look at the facts. Faith is a cold-sober, objective analysis of reality. Contrary to Morpheus’ misperception, faith is absolutely a matter of reasonability and of logic. It is always fact-based.

Consider a real world example: assume that you have just traveled to your friend’s house in another city. You offer to drive to the store to pick up a bottle of wine and a loaf of bread, but when you get to your car, you find it won’t start. So, you ask your friend where you should have it towed in order to get it repaired, who is a good mechanic in this town? He tells you. As soon as you decide to accept and act on the information he provides, you have demonstrated faith. Let’s see why.

You have faith that the mechanic he directs you to is, in fact, a good mechanic, capable of repairing your car. This faith is not an emotion: it is based on your past experience with your friend, your knowledge that he is reliable and he has never consciously steered you wrong in the past. After all, he is your friend, not your enemy.

Your faith is fact-based, you believe first with your mind, only after with your gut. If the mechanic ends up charging you an exorbitant fee and not fixing your car correctly, your faith in your friend, that is, your past experience with him, the facts of your previous relationship, will tell you that this failure is not your friend’s fault. He did not intend this failure, rather, the injustice was committed by someone who was beyond his influence.

But let’s assume the reverse. Perhaps you know your friend is lousy at differentiating a good mechanic from a bad one. Past experience with his recommendations has demonstrated this. As a result, you don’t have faith in his recommendations: they never panned out before, why should now be any different? In this case, you have faith that whoever he recommends is going to be lousy. You keep this in mind as you page through the phone book. Either way you look at it, faith is about facts.

For a Christian, faith in God, also known as divine faith, is precisely the same thing. It is based on facts: the facts we know from history about God’s interactions with man. We know these facts because we have an historically accurate account of them in a book that is commonly called Scripture. When we study this historically accurate account, we discover that God is reliable. When He tells us He will reward us, He does. When He tells us that, if we keep acting a certain way we will regret it, we find that we do.

The difference between human faith and divine faith lies in the reliability of the facts at hand. Human faith relies on human recollection and recounting of facts. Sadly, we humans sometimes don’t get the facts right, so our hard-headed analysis of those facts, that is, our faith, ends up being mis-placed, wrong. Fortunately, God prevents this error by recounting the facts for us Himself, via Scripture. That way, we know we have a good account of the facts. Our hard-headed analysis of those facts, that is, our faith, will not be misplaced or wrong as long as we don’t make any logical errors in the analysis.

But wait. People do make mistakes in analysis. So, even if we have the facts right, how do we know we haven’t done the analysis wrong? Because one of the historical facts is this: God promises to send us the power to get the analysis right. This power is called grace. God empowers His Church with the grace necessary for a correct analysis of the historical facts. This is the charism of infallibility. The facts are right, the analysis is right. This is divine faith.

Having the facts right and the analysis right leads to an emotion (joy) but the emotion is not faith. It is a consequence of faith. Faith is just a short-hand word for an accurate analysis of accurate facts. Divine faith is the divinely given power to accurately analyze the facts God gives us about Himself.

One logical consequence of this? There is no such thing as blind faith. It’s as ridiculously silly to speak of blind faith as it is to say, “Faith is not a matter of reasonability. I do not believe things with my mind. I believe them with my heart… in my gut...”

The Wachowski brothers, two men who were undoubtedly raised Catholic, wrote the script to The Matrix. They put these nonsensical words into Morpheus’ mouth. Why? Because they never got past a hazy, grade-school level understanding of faith. Instead of studying Catholic faith at an adult level, these two adults walk around trying to live an adult life with an eighth-grade understanding of Catholic concepts. It isn’t a pleasant thing, as I well know. Up through my mid-thirties, I was right there with them. I was a living example of what Pope John Paul II warned of in article 43 of Catechesis in Our Time. For “instruction in the Faith to be effective, it must be permanent. It would be quite useless if it stopped short on the threshold of maturity.”

A lot of time, energy and money was undoubtedly poured into the Wachowski brothers' Catholic education. Unfortunately, their education, like mine and that of many other adult Catholics, stopped short on the threshold of maturity. The Pope’s hard-headed analysis of the facts, his faith, told him what the result had to be.

Without adult education, we can look at all that parochial school instruction and sum it up in two words.

Quite useless.

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