The Big Questions

'A university educates the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out towards the truth, and to grasp it.' Blessed John Henry Newman

Who is Jesus?

Of all historical figures, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of a carpenter, has arguably had the greatest impact upon the way in which we live today. His moral teachings are upheld by many, among non-Christians as well as Christians...

How does Jesus change anything for me?

Knowing the historical person of Jesus and the facts of his life is one thing, but how can someone from 2000 years ago change my life today? This is perhaps the critical question of the Christian faith in the twenty-first century...

How are we supposed to live?

It is important to know that Jesus didn’t come to give us rules or make us boring. He came so that we might have “life and have it to the full” (John 10:10). This is a life full of love and fulfilment. In his lifetime, Jesus did however offer his wisdom on so many areas of life...

What is the purpose of the Church?

The Church’s task is to make the Kingdom of God, which has already begun with Jesus, germinate and grow in all nations. Wherever Jesus went, heaven touched earth: the kingdom of God was inaugurated… The Church serves this kingdom of God...'

Who is the Holy Spirit?

Most Christians hold to the idea of a trinitarian God, a God made up of three distinct persons, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is common for Christians to know a lot about the Father and the Son but the Holy Spirit is also very important in the life of the Church...

Why are we supposed to trust the Bible?

You often hear Christians speak of the Bible as the word of God, the place in which he speaks. There’s a lot of theology, but why do we trust these sources? Are they just legends?

How do I Pray?

Pray seems to be a part of all major religions, it appears that every human heart that is spiritually seeking wants to communicate with its creator. This is fundamentally what prayer is, ’turning the heart towards God.’

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Who is Jesus?

 

'Yes I am a king. I was born for this, I came into the world for this: to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.' John 18:37

Of all historical figures, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of a carpenter, has arguably had the greatest impact upon the way in which we live today. His moral teachings are upheld by many, among non-Christians as well as Christians. In the twenty first century however, there is a growing sentiment that Jesus was just another great moral teacher, a really 'nice guy', but history would challenge us to look for more.

Histories beyond the Gospels refer to Jesus as 'a doer of wonderful works' , and a large par of his minitry was seeming to able to do the impossible. healing lifelong illnesses among other miraculous feats. Matthew's gospel describes this phenomenon, saying, 'his fame spread througout Syria, and those who  were suffering from diseases and painful complaints of one kind or another, the possessed, epileptics, teh paralysed, were all brought to him, and he cured them all' (Matthew 4:24).

Reasoning would tell us still more about him. As C.S. Lewis famously  argued: 

'A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic - on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg - or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse... but let us not come with an patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.'  C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Simply put, Jesus can't just be a teacher because of his claim to be the Son of God, something that sets him apart in history. All of his moral teachings come back to this. Whereas, 'most Religious leaders point away from themselves and to God, as we would expect... Jesus, the most humble and self-effacing person who ever lived, in pointing people to God, pointed to himself' (Nicky Gumbel, Questions of Meaning). He made some big claims, all based on himself. He said he was 'the Way, the Truth and the Life,'  and said that, 'no one can come to the Father except through me' (John 14:6). The identity of Jesus is a polarising question, and if he is who he says he is, as Christians believe, then it changes everything.

How does Jesus change anything for me?

 

Knowing the historical person of Jesus and the facts of his life is one thing, but how can someone from 2000 years ago change my life today? This is perhaps the critical question of the Christian faith in the twenty-first century. Well, this is wrapped up in his death and resurrection. Jesus went on to die for his claims and is arguably 'remebered for his death even more than for his life' (Nicky Gumbel, Questions of Meaning). Why is his death such a big deal?

To prove the relevance of Jesus’s death, we kind of have to talk about sin. Sin is not a particularly popular idea, but it is evidenced all around. As St. Paul writes, ‘I cannot understand my own behaviour. I fail to carry out the things I want to do, and I find myself doing the very thing I hate’ (Romans 7:15). There is something timeless to that sentiment, that for all our great human achievements, it seems that as people, we have this self-destructive tendency that is not from God. Christians (and Jesus) call this fault sin. The Hebrew meaning of sin comes from an archery term. Sin was when an archer aimed for the target but missed the mark. So in our own lives sin is when we aim for the target but miss the mark, it is a misdirection of our truest desire. The Christian belief is that sin makes it a lot harder for us to move towards God. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, ‘Sin sets itself against God's love for us and turns our hearts away from it. … Sin is thus "love of oneself even to contempt of God’ (CC 1850 122-124). As it draws us away from God, sin also draws us away from true happiness and fulfilment. Jesus is God’s way of fixing this part of the human condition, especially through his death on the cross.

But why a cross? Crucifixion was and still is one of the most barbaric forms of killing, it was the most dehumanizing and humiliating way to kill someone in the time of Jesus. St. Paul writes that Jesus was, ‘humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross’ (Philippians 2:8). His readers would have understood him better than we do, Paul means that there was no lower to go, no more brutal form of torture. Why on earth did God choose this?

It’s important to say that God the Father did not do this to his son out of anger. At the core of the Christian faith is the statement,

'Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.'

 

Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Cartias Est

‘For God loved the world so much that he gave his only son’

 

(John 3:16).

This means that Our Father, in his great wisdom, had his son offer everything to give us the best opportunity to have a relationship with Him. Later Jesus says this again in stronger terms, stating that ‘a man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13). The cross is our ultimate example of divine love. As the Youth Catechism puts it, ‘Christians believe that human dignity is, in the first place, the result of God’s respect for us. He looks at every person and loves them as though they were the only creature in the world.’[12]

 

But why did it have to be like this? Surely an easier method is for God to just forgive us from the heavens – why even come down? Bishop Robert Barron once said this in answer to that very fair question:

‘God, as it were, had to enter like a warrior into sin so as to break it and conqueror it from the inside. A word of forgiveness blithely offered from a distance is not going to effect what has to be effected.’ Bishop Robert Barron

God chose to prove to us His love through Jesus’ death on the cross; so that we might have a really concrete way to see how far God would go to welcome us into His family. Bishop Barron also talks about how the nature of Jesus, God made man, is the perfect means to fulfil this mission of salvation. ‘Jesus being truly human means he can represent fallen humanity, the fact that he’s truly divine means that he can pay the full price.’[8]

 

But, it is not just in His death that Jesus changes our lives, it is also with His resurrection. St. Paul writes that, ‘When he died, he died, once for all, to sin, so his life now is life with God; and in that way, you too must consider yourselves to be dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 6:10-11).

 

St. Pope John Paul II writes that, ‘In this realm the destructive power of sin is defeated. Indestructible life, revealed in the Resurrection of Christ, “swallows,” so to speak, death. “Where, O death is your victory?” asks the apostle Paul, with his eyes fixed on the Risen Christ (1 Corinthians 15:55)’.[9] As he points out, Jesus’s resurrection is the proof of his teachings on the heavenly destiny of those who try to do God’s will. It is this belief that gives the Christian a fearless approach to death, that Jesus has conquered death too. This is the good news. This is the phenomenon that swept the world then and created the Early Church, and it is the same good news that brings people into his Church today. And, we did nothing to earn it, and never can.

'The salvation which God offers us is the work of his mercy. No human efforts, however good they may be, can enable us to merit so great a gift. God, by his sheer grace, draws us to himself and makes us one with him.’ Pope Francis, Evangelli Gaudium

How are we supposed to live?

 

It is important to know that Jesus didn’t come to give us rules or make us boring. He came so that we might have “life and have it to the full” (John 10:10). This is a life full of love and fulfilment. In his lifetime, Jesus did however offer his wisdom on so many areas of life. We can find his teachings on everything from taxes to divorce, and from poverty to the afterlife. It’s worth saying that none of these issues have gone away and that Jesus’s words remain extremely relevant. In his three years of his ministry and simply by how he lived among his friends, Jesus taught us how to live.

‘In Jesus of Nazareth we encounter the face of God, who came down from his heaven to immerse himself in the human world, in our world, and to teach “the art of living”, the road to happiness; to set us free from sin and make us children of God.’[11]Pope Benedict XVI

So what does this art of living look like? One day, somebody asked Jesus which of the ten commandments was the most important. ‘Jesus replied, ‘This is the first: Listen Israel, the Lord our God is the one Lord and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: You must love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.’

Mark 12:29-31

 

So love of God, neighbour and self. No small feat. However, St. Paul really pushes the point home when he says ‘… if I have a faith in all its fullness, to move mountains, but without love, then I am nothing at all’ (1 Corinthians 13:2). In fact, Jesus goes on to say that this love is how Christians will be known. ‘By this love you have for one another everyone will know that you are my disciples’ (John 13:34).

 

But what does this love look like? How does it manifest itself? Jesus did not live an abstract love, he didn’t just talk the talk. In Scripture, we see him reach out to social outcasts like lepers (Luke 17:11-19) and eat with people that cultural are shunned like the Jewish tax collectors taking from their own people (Luke 19:1-10). He was unafraid to challenge the hypocrisy and the immorality of his time, whilst holding sinners close. As he said in defence of the adulterous woman sentence to be stoned, ‘if there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her’ (John 8:7).

 

This love of the person, as they are, non-perfect and flawed, is the example that Jesus challenges us to follow. That no matter what a person has done in their lives, they have an inherent dignity because they are loved creations of God the Father and we need to respond to that.

‘Yes, we are brought into the higher dignity of the children of God,

the children of God who are the hope of all creation.’[13]

St. Pope John Paul II

Becoming a Christian however, doesn’t mean that all of our problems disappear but they are transformed. Jesus said that we need to also ‘renounce himself, take up his cross and follow’ Jesus (Matthew 17:24). It’s a high bar, but it’s the best kind of challenge.

‘The struggle is the sign of holiness. A saint is a sinner who keeps trying.' Josemaria Escriva

What is the purpose of the Church?

 

‘The Church's task is to make the Kingdom of God, which has already begun with Jesus, germinate and grow in all nations. Wherever Jesus went, heaven touched earth: the Kingdom of God was inaugurated... The Church srves this Kingdom of God.' [15]

This is the core purpose of the Church, to fulfil Jesus’s challenge, to make his kingdom a reality. This means that the faith of the Christian cannot be private to them and Jesus calls this out when he uses the analogy, ‘no one lights a lamp and puts it in some hidden place’ (Luke 11:33). In fact, the word ‘Church’ comes, ‘from the Greek ek-ka-lein, to "call out of"’[16].

To establish the kingdom of God that Jesus talks about so frequently, the Church has to tell people about him and his Gospel. ‘Gospel’ is from the Greek word ‘evangelion’ which just means good news. Salvation is seriously good news. But even before the events of his ministry, Jesus calls his first four apostles saying, ‘”Follow me and I will make you fishers of men”’. An inherent part of following Jesus, even then, was by bringing others to him and into his Church.

 

Importantly, anyone was allowed to enter into this Church. Jesus, before he leaves the disciples after his resurrection, commissions them saying:

'"Go, therefore, make disciples of all the nations; baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you."' (Matt 28:19-20).

In fact, the very word ‘Catholic’ comes from the Greek word ‘katholikos’ meaning universal. As St. Paul says to the Early Church, ‘in the one Spirit we were all baptised, Jews as well as Greeks, slaves as well as citizens’ (1 Corinthians 12:13). In keeping with the way Jesus lived, the Church is not exclusive, it is for anyone who seeks him.

Without Church lingo, at its best, the Church acts like a Hospital, like a University and like the Military.

 

Hospital - It has been said that the Church is not a museum for Saints it is a hospital for the broken. Pope Francis recently phrased this, “The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle.’[17] Put simply we all, both those of faith and of no faith, are broken and need healing and the organisation of the Church is where we come to receive healing from God. One of the fundamental ways in which we experience this healing is in the Sacraments of the Church.

 

University - “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” - Mother Theresa. One of the purposes of the Church is to make you the best version of yourself. This doesn’t mean making you a superstar, but it does mean helping  you grow into a person who loves authentically and abundantly. So in a sense the Church is like a university, one where you learn about yourself, God and others and how to love in each situation you find yourself in.

 

Military - The Military do two things really well, they recognise that 1) each individual has a role in an overall mission 2) they need each other to be able to do anything. Just like soldiers in the military, as part of the Church we each have individual roles that no one else can do like us. St. Paul writes about just this, saying, ‘Just as a human body, though it Is made up of many parts, is a single unit because all these parts, though many, make one body, so it is with Christ’ (1 Corinthians 12:12). The Church is inherently diverse and always has been, and together, the people make up the Body of Christ. However we can’t do it alone. We need friends and support and we need each other to strive towards becoming the best version of ourselves.

‘This treasure, received from the apostles, has been faithfully guarded by their successors. All Christ's faithful are called to hand it on from generation to generation.’[18]

Who is the Holy Spirit?

 

'The power that can make a way out of no way.' [19] Dr Martin Luther King Jr

Most Christians hold to the idea of a trinitarian God, a God made up of three distinct persons, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is common for Christians to know a lot about the Father and the Son but the Holy Spirit is also very important in the life of the Church.

 

C.S. Lewis writes something really great about this third person of the trinity in his book ‘Mere Christianity’. He writes that, ‘God is love’ have no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons’ and that Christians, ‘believe that the living, dynamic activity of love has been going on in God forever and has created everything else.’[20] This something else is the Holy Spirit, the manifestation of the love between the Father and the Son being so strong it is its own person. Lewis uses the analogy of strong friendship groups who, ‘talk about its ‘spirit’ because the individual members, when they are together, do really develop particular ways of talking and behaving ... It is as if a sort of communal personality came into existence.’[21]

 

But how do we see this Spirit, how do we detect him? Lewis too struggled with this and says that it is difficult to see the spirit sometimes because, ‘If you think of the Father as something ‘out there’, in front of you, and of the Son as someone standing at your side … then you have to think of the third Person as something inside you, or behind you.’[22]

 

This idea of the Holy Spirit dwelling in Jesus’s Church goes back again to his own teaching. As he leaves his disciples, he tells them:

‘Still, I must tell you the truth; it is for your own good that I am going because unless I go, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I do go, I will send him to you.’ (John 16:7)

Here, Jesus is actually telling the early Church that it is better for him to leave them, so that the Holy Spirit can lead them! Jesus clearly thought very highly of the Spirit, and entrusts the Church to it. The Catechism says that, ‘when the work which the Father gave the Son to do on earth was accomplished, the Holy Spirit was sent on the day of Pentecost in order that he might continually sanctify the Church.’ (CC: 767). This is what we see gives the Early Church the confidence to stand up to the oppression of the Roman Empire for centuries, it starts with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Clearly, the Spirit is a strong force.

 

So, today the Church is still experiencing the Holy Spirit within it, in many ways and it is this Spirit that we still receive in baptism. It is through this baptism that we become part of the Church and the Kingdom of God. Jesus tells us that, ‘no one can enter into the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit’ (John 3:5).  This is what the Holy Spirit accomplishes in the Church, even today. It is through him, the manifestation of the love of Father and Son, that we are adopted into this familial relationship, and it is this love that still sustains the Church.

‘The spirit you received is not the spirit of slaves bringing fear into your lives again, it is the spirit of sons, and it makes us cry out, ‘Abba, Father!’ (Romans 8:15). ‘And if we are children we are heirs as well: heirs of God and coheirs with Christ, sharing his sufferings so as to share his glory.’ (Romans 8:17).

Why are we supposed to trust the Bible?

 

'To read sacred scripture means to turn to Christ for advice.' St. Francis of Assisi

You often hear Christians speak of the Bible as the word of God, the place in which he speaks. There’s a lot of theology, but why do we trust these sources? Are they just legends? C.S. Lewis, as a literary historian, had a lot to say about that after his conversion.

 

‘Now, as a literary historian, I am perfectly convinced that whatever else the Gospels are they are not legends. I have read a great deal of legend and I am quite clear that they are not the same sort of thing. … Most of the life of Jesus is totally unknown to us, as is the life of anyone else who lived at that time, and no people building up a legend would allow that to be so. … there is no conversation that I know of in ancient literature like the Fourth Gospel. There is nothing, even in modern literature, until about a hundred years ago when the realistic novel came into existence.’[23]

 

Someone who wrote extensively on the question of scriptural reliability was the biblical scholar F.F. Bruce. After researching the history of The New Testament, he writes that it was, ‘complete, or substantially complete, about AD 100, the majority of the writings being in existence twenty to forty years before this.’[24] This, he says, ‘is encouraging from the historian’s point of view, for the first three Gospels were written at a time when many were alive who could remember the things that Jesus said or did’.[25] This is really important in a discussion of validity, making these documents primary sources.

 

But does it matter whether they are reliable or not? If Christianity is just a moral system it doesn’t, but Christianity is in fact inherently linked to history. Bruce writes this,

''the Christian gospel is not primarily a code of ethics or a metaphysical system; it is first and foremost good news… and this good news is intimately bound up with the historical order… God entered into history.’[26]

Another part of the theory here is called textual criticism. This is a historical science that essentially means, ‘the shorter the time span between the date the manuscript was written and the earliest available copy, the more texts we have, and the higher the quality of existing texts, the less doubt there is about the original.’[27] In the field of textual criticism, there is nothing else anywhere near the New Testament. There are 5,000+ Greek, 10,000 Latin and 9,300 copies of the first gospel manuscripts (written in 40-100 AD), produced over a timespan of 300 years, the earliest coming from 130 AD.[28] Put this next to a text that historians respect, like Caesar’s Gallic Wars, with which there are only 9-10 copies over 950 years, the earliest copy of the original manuscripts (from 58-50 BC) being 900 AD.[29] It’s this sort of study which leads to authority, and gives scholars like Sir Frederic Kenyon to say confidently:

 

‘The interval then between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may now be regarded as finally established.’[30]

 

Knowing this, is great, but the only real way to know whether Christians are right that God can speak to us through the scriptures, is to pick it up and read. 

'The Bible is highly explosive. It works in strange ways and no living man can tell or know how that book, in its journey through the world, has startled the individual soul in ten thousand different places into a new life.' [31]

Stanley Baldwin, Former Prime Minister 

How do I Pray?

 

'Prayer is as necessary as the air, as the blood in our bodies, as anything to keep us alive – to keep us alive to the grace of God.' St. Teresa of Calcutta

Prayer seems to be a part of all major religions, it appears that every human heart that is spiritually seeking wants to communicate with its creator. This is fundamentally what prayer is, ’turning the heart towards God.’[32] So it’s no small thing, in fact, ‘prayer is the most important activity of our lives because it is the main way in which we develop a relationship with our Father in heaven.’[33] The idea of personal relationship with God however, is perhaps more of a Christian emphasis. Thankfully, Jesus’s disciples asked him directly, ‘Lord, teach us how to pray’ (Luke 11:1). This is what he said:

 

‘He said this to them, ‘Say this when you pray: “Father, may your name be held holy, your kingdom come; give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive each one who is in debt to us. And do not put us to the test.”’ (Luke 11:2-4)

Jesus invites us to call God father, and in this conversational way, pray becomes ‘a relationship rather than a ritual.’[34]. When we pray, it is not to some distant, removed force, it is to our father. ‘In fact, the Catechism says that our prayer is often God’s idea first.

 

‘God calls man first. Man may forget his Creator or hide far from his face; he may run after idols or accuse the deity of having abandoned him; yet the living and true God tirelessly calls each person to that mysterious encounter known as prayer.’ (CC 2567)

 

And even in practical ways, Jesus shows us how to pray. He often retreated to mountaintops to pray alone. He tells us, ‘when you pray, go to your private room and, when you have shut your door, pray to your father who is in that secret place’ (Matthew 6:6). This was in part a response to the practise of praying overtly on street corners in the day of Jesus, so of course we can pray outside our room, but the idea that it is a personal practice remains.

 

But what is the purpose of prayer? Importantly, it is not to force God to do the things we want him to do for us. It is true, Jesus does say, ‘ask and it will be given to you’ (Matthew 7:7), but equally, God has a will for our lives, and sometimes this is not what we would want. ‘“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord’’ (Isaiah 55:8). So, in fact, in our search for happiness, prayer is more about his will than ours. As John’s gospel puts it, ‘He must grow greater, I must grow smaller’ (John 3:30).

 

There are many methods of praying within the Catholic Church, the most notable outside of personal prayer are probably the rosary, adoration, meditation, reading scripture, musical worship – prayer can take many forms and came be done at all times. In fact, St. Paul challenges us to, ‘be happy at all times; pray constantly, and for all things give thanks to God’ (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). Mother Teresa once said, ‘you can pray while you work. Work doesn’t stop prayer and prayer doesn’t stop work. It requires only the small raising of the mind to him.’

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