For years I held that the stories of Christian martyrs and their persecutions were historical facts and thus to be accepted without question. However, I recently found an article on a new book by Notre Dame scholar Candida Moss, which calls the historicity of these stories into doubt. Moss is interviewed in the article.
Something that Moss said--just a simple statement--stood out to me, and in many ways defines the direction that my spiritual growth has taken me most recently. Moss says, "We... have an obligation to get our facts straight, however painful that might be." Sometimes it turns out that we make a discovery in our lives that goes against everything we ever held to be true. How do we handle it when that happens?
First, a maxim I have learned to live by is that we have nothing to fear in discovering and accepting truth. This holds even when what we discover seems to strike at the heart of what we believe and value. Jesus taught that his disciples would know the truth and the truth would free them. From the viewpoint of faith there is certainly nothing to fear in learning truth. Mine has become a religion of seeking and learning truth regardless of the cost. Truth has that kind of value.
Knowing truth helps us to be aware of when we are being manipulated for some purpose, and it exposes the dangers of falling for such manipulation. In searching for truth it is not that we are merely relying on facts without examining the subjective depth of truth claims, but that we allow the facts to speak to us from as many different variables of experience as possible. However, the subjective truth we experience has to be weighed against whatever the evidence that exists tells us.
Throughout my life I have found that belief often has to be adjusted, but doing so does not necessarily involve a loss in faith. Actually, the opposite tends to hold true more often, at least in my experience. Sometimes it is the case that the adjustment--the eye-opening experience--is what faith actually requires in order to continue to grow and be healthy. Any time our beliefs become such that we refuse to adjust them when truth calls for it, then those beliefs bear more the character of idols.
The case of martyrdom and persecution that I examine in tonight's reflection is a great example. Recently, over many months in the past year, I have heard the claim that the Church--the US Church in particular--is undergoing a time of great persecution. I have heard from the pulpit that we should not be surprised to see Christian bishops shed their blood in a year's time. From the first time I heard the claim of persecution I knew that something was wrong. I asked, "Where is the violence and the bloodshed against the Church right now? It may exist somewhere in the world but not here: not in the US Catholic Church." Moss aptly points out in her interview that we do a certain wrong to those who actually suffer persecution when we misuse it for our own purposes.
All true believers, and all seekers of truth, owe it to themselves to question those claims--both recent and historical--that have somehow gained a place of being beyond inquiry or doubt. What may be our outcome is a purified personal belief that better helps us see ourselves as a part of a plurality of religious truth where persecution on account of one's religion will scarcely be tolerated.
The journey of truth continues along the path: it never really involves loss. Truth is always a gain, and if it does involve exchanging some aspect of our personal belief--even if it is painful as Moss says--we have to treat it as an obligation. This only amounts to spiritual growth.