It all begins with Jesus. To discover Catholicism — that is, what we believe — one must discover him. But how? So common is the mere idea of Jesus that even in post-faith cultures almost everyone has at least some faint notion of him. Consider the innumerable portrayals of Jesus in art, literature and film. Yet, how is Jesus discovered as the object of belief and worship for billions of people, and not just the cultural artifact?
One can, of course, discern philosophically the God of Jesus Christ. St. Paul hinted at it, that God was evident even to pagans by the witness of nature through “invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity” (Rom 1:19-20). Later, St. Thomas Aquinas talked about knowing God via both nature and grace. Belief in Jesus, God’s Son, comes by way of the latter, by “another science, inspired by God,” he said, “beyond the philosophical disciplines” (Summa Theologiae 1.1).
Ultimately, of course, philosophy seeks theology as nature seeks grace. What we can know of God by our own lights isn’t all we’re created to know, which is the tense, restless miracle of our nature. We are created to know and love God, but we can’t do it on our own. Hence, we are always searching.
Which is why all that we believe about Jesus, we believe God himself revealed. In the end, God finds us more than we find him. Which also, if what we ultimately say about Jesus is true, is the only possible way: that an eternal, immaterial, and invisible God would have to reveal himself, render himself findable, doing so in a way we can bear it. The fathers of the Church, like St. Athanasius, said we could only begin to comprehend God from understandable paradeigmata and eikonas, paradigms and images, because, of course, we’re finite creatures and God is an infinite Creator (Against the Arians 2.32). After all, we are, St. Augustine said, talking about divine wisdom and human beings (The Trinity 1.23). Only God can make himself fully known.
That’s why we need Scripture. Just as God, in Jesus, was seen in human flesh, the Second Vatican Council taught, so too the words of God must be expressed in human words in order to be understood (Dei Verbum, No. 13). Again, because without God’s own accessible revelation, we’d be able only to demonstrate God’s existence by cause and effect, as St. Thomas Aquinas taught, a philosophically described Deity “which everyone names God” (Summa Theologiae 2.2-3).
Yet the preceding philosophy, though quite important, doesn’t, acutely matter. What matters is what it suggests, that Catholic belief in Jesus is, to use a Pauline phrase, in “accordance with scripture” (1 Cor 15:3-4). Now, what Paul meant by this phrase is that the proper way to understand Jesus is to understand him biblically, particularly within the web of meaning provided by Hebrew Scriptures.
Such is how Jesus explained himself. Beginning with “Moses and all the prophets,” Luke wrote, “he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the scriptures” (Lk 24:27). For example, in Acts Peter talked about Jesus in light of Dt 18:15. Jesus, Peter claimed, was the foretold prophet-like-Moses whom everyone was to follow (Acts 2:22-23). Jesus is presented in Mosaic terms repeatedly in the Gospels. In John’s Gospel, Jesus even said, “if you had believed Moses, you would have believed me” (Jn 5:46). This is what we initially mean by saying that what we believe about Jesus is “according to scripture.” Yet Christians also take this phrase to apply to all canonical writings. And so, to encounter Jesus most authentically is to encounter him in the literature of the New Testament too.
Hence, what we believe begins with Scripture. To explore Catholicism, one must explore Scripture. Which shouldn’t be frightening. Sometimes we scare ourselves off reading the Bible, thinking it only for scholars or priests. But that’s not true. The Bible is for everyone. All we need do is begin reading the Bible like any other book. It really is that simple. Perhaps read it together with a few friends, or read the scriptures the Church is reading day by day or Sunday by Sunday in its liturgies. The goal in reading the Bible is not to become a scholar or some expert. Rather, it’s simply to know the story, to allow oneself to get swept up by the narrative as with any good book. It’s just that reading this story can give way to a mystical experience, an encounter, a relationship. When reading Scripture — and especially reading and encountering Scripture within Church’s liturgy or within prayer — something different from ordinary reading happens.
What happens is we find another. Or, better, we’re found by another. That is, to put it plainly, we encounter Christ; he encounters us. In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov the monk Zosima illustrates the simplicity and the mystery of this reality. All a priest needs to do, Zosima says, is “open the Book” and read it to his people. There is “no need for him to spout wisdom, to give himself airs.” He need only read plainly to them the stories of Scripture. That will be enough. In the end, Zosima says, the heart will “understand everything!” It really is that simple. And it’s with the Bible — your own copy, on your shelf or in your nightstand — that anyone can begin to explore the Catholic faith.
At the end of his apostolic exhortation on the word of God in the life and mission of the Church, Pope Benedict XVI talked about “a new hearing of God’s word” (“Verbum Domini,” No. 122). That, really, is the best way to begin — or, for some, to begin again. Because what we Catholics believe begins with Scripture and the scriptural Christ. All we believe — our theology, our dogma — is rooted biblically. So, if you want to know Jesus, if you want to know what we believe, begin there, the Bible. Seek Jesus there. For as St. Jerome famously said at the beginning of his “Commentary on Isaiah,” “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” And so, immerse yourself in Scripture. Because there is no such thing as Catholicism without it.
Father Joshua J. Whitfield is pastor of St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and author of “The Crisis of Bad Preaching” (Ave Maria Press, $17.95) and other books. Read more from the series here.