In the American culture, it is common to run across those who claim that people of “faith” are irrational, silly, and that Christianity is a mere fable. To the standard by which they define faith, they are sort of accurate (we should be able to give a rational account for our beliefs 1 Pt 3:15). However, as Catholics, we should not hold to such banter. Usually when I ask people what faith is, this is the answer that I receive, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). This is entirely correct and if you want to stop reading now, it is fine, but some elucidation can only add to the “text book” definition of what we state when we say we are people of “faith."
“Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him.” CCC 153. So, we see here that faith is a “gift”.Faith is a gift from God, and in that gift, we are moved to assent to what God has revealed to us. Now, we have come to the point that I think is the separation from most who use the term “faith.” I want to prelude this with a question, “Is faith blind?”Are we Christian’s trapped inside the Platonic cave of Christianity, and refuse to get out? I often hear atheists accuse Christians of such. They hear the textbook definition (…conviction of things not seen..”), and they move to how silly people of “faith” are. We cannot see it. We never know, it could be made up. If we can’t see it, and it’s made up, then it’s a fallacy. I was speaking with one the other day and he kept reiterating how Christians believe in “fables,” and how illogical Christians are. This is the logic that he was using, even if he didn’t know it. This is false! We are not in the cave!
Back to the main point;<i> is faith simply a movement of our inner self, without any clear idea with what we are assenting to? If this is so, then “faith” is an opinion. Believe it or not, I bet if I were to ask the average Christian, the average Catholic, they would basically agree to this statement in one way or another. Just talk to the average person about God. Most will begin with what God did for them, and how they know it is God. (I’m not downplaying conversion stories. I actually think they’re great.) But, there’s more objectivity to it.
As persons endowed with an intellect, we shouldn’t stop here. If we continue to read the Catechism, we will find that paragraphs 154 and 155 make VERY clear that although faith is primarily a movement of the grace of the Holy Spirit, IT IS A HUMAN MOVEMENT! I was teaching this other night in a class and one of the persons raised their hand and asked, “Did I hear you right? Did you just say that we do something in faith, we participate in it?” My answer was YES! WE PARTICIPATE IN FAITH!
CCC 154 "Believing is possible only by grace and the interior helps of the Holy Spirit. But it is no less true that believing is an authentically human act."
In other words, in faith, we participate in God moving us to understand in His way. Our participation is ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY and it involves two faculties of the soul. In the Catechism, terminology from philosophy is used to explain this and show exactly what the act of faith consists of and how it differs from science, OPINION, and doubt. The Catechism uses a quote from one of my favorite philosophers and theologians, Thomas Aquinas, to explain faith. If you do not know, Thomas is credited with a complete synthesis of Christian faith, often using Aristotelian philosophy.
“Believing is an act of the intellect assenting to the divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace.” (ST II-II, 2, 9)
This is a great definition of faith. As opposed to mere opinion, or mere doubt, we truly assent to propositions. These propositions are connected to the understanding of a person. We can affirm and deny certain things about God because of the act of believing. There is content. It isn’t just warm, fuzzy feelings and euphoric expressions you get when someone speaks of God. It isn’t that “retreater’s high” when they have a “spiritual encounter.” It is more than that! (Again, I’m not downplaying these, but there’s more to faith than feelings. Feelings come and go, God doesn’t.) Following this, FAITH IS LIKE SCIENCE. Why? Because it has to do with a firmness of assent, with an object at its end.
I think an example of how we assent in everyday knowledge might help:
Has anyone ever heard of E=MC2? I have heard of it. I bet if you let me talk for about one minute on the subject, you would think that I know something about it. But, after that, you would laugh at me and realize that I know very little about the subject. I do know that it has something to do with the theory of relativity. I do know that a brilliant man by the name of Albert Einstein has something to do with it. I know that it is true. Well, how do I know that it is true? Because I firmly assent to what the consensus of the scientific community tells me about it. Now, at some point, I could drop this theology and philosophy thing and go study what this means. I might, after much study, be able to challenge it, and say that it is not the best (that would be a miracle!!! ) But, the moment I challenge it, I am no longer assenting to it. Before I studied it, I assented to what the consensus of the scientific community has told me.
See, UNLIKE HUMAN SCIENCE, faith is the only kind of knowledge that’s motivated by the will. BUT, IT ISN’T JUST SHUTTING MY EYES AND GRITTING MY TEETH and “willing” to believe, as some Catholics hold. It isn’t just the “I think I can, I think I can…” attitude. I have seen Catholics play this out in a number of ways. They almost seem bitter. “Yes, I do this, because I have to…” There is way more to it than that! NO! The will, which is ordered to the greatest good, (see Summa Contra Gentiles, Book 3) and thereby moved by love. The will is moved to the person, who is God. By the union and trust of Him, who is perfect love (1 Jn 4) and who never deceives nor can be deceived, the person assents to the propositions of faith, motivated by grace.
So, faith is like human science in that it has propositions. It is like philosophy, because it has syllogisms, etc. It is certain clear knowledge. But, it is not like human science because it has at its end God, and it plunges us into His inner depths. Therefore we can only understand what these propositions are about if God Himself reveals them to us.
Faith is, “by no means a blind impulse of the mind.” (CCC156).The mind is involved! It is not just an expression of wishful thinking! But “Faith is certain” (CCC157)! It clarifies our understanding of the inner mysteries of God Himself. However, because it has God at its center, we never truly arise at full understanding! It is as if all the sciences leave you to a point and you still want more, the prince of sciences: Theology. But, even the study of the “sacred science” (Aquinas) leaves you to want more! It’s like you can never arise fully at the end of the quest for knowledge, unless you arrive at the Beatific Vision (but that’s another post).
In faith, discourse, discovery, and assent all run together. In other human knowledge, assent puts an end to investigation. Why? Because we clearly see, touch, smell and therefore understand what we try to discover. I see the tree. I can touch the car. I can touch my computer. This is not so in faith. Faith is a divine knowledge and thus our assent to it doesn’t put an end to our investigation. Rather, it stimulates our investigation even more! But, we play a part of it. The intellect and will interact in the movement, motivated by grace, to the focus of love, and that is God Himself. So, what is faith? It is a willful assent, motivated by grace, to what has been handed down to me. Which leaves the open question of an objective entity to provide such knowledge, as Catholics we believe this is the oldest institution in the world…the Catholic Church.
Just because there are problems understanding, that is ours, not Gods. In the words of Bl. John Henry Newman, “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” (Apologia Pro Vita Sua)
We are now in “Year of Faith” so I thought it would be appropriate to approach the subject in a number of ways from our faith perspective. I want to hopefully begin a series of what faith is in the next few weeks. Namely, I will explain St. Thomas, Augustine, and John Henry Newman’s idea’s on the subject. In doing so I wanted to began with a textual analysis of what “faith” is from the Catechism. I will hopefully bring the others in weeks to come.