What is Faith?
Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human person soars unto the contemplation of the truth. Such is the good news of this series of our essays. In our last article, we addressed the question of what reason is, and in this article, we address the question of what faith is.
In our last article, we said that reason is something more than science. Reason is the capacity for wisdom, and wisdom is an all-embracing account of reality as a whole in light of the highest end or purpose of things. On this account, in order for human beings to be fully rational, we must be receptive to reality in all of it aspects: the quantifiable and the non-quantifiable, the measurable and the immeasurable, the observable and the non-observable, the tangible and the intangible, and the sensible and the intelligible. The Church’s account of faith begins from this understanding of reason as sapiential. When human reason is open to reality in all of its fullness, then reason questions and searches for Truth with a capital “T”, i.e. the meaning of reality as a whole. When God comes to meet our questioning and searching for Truth, and address His own answers to us, then human beings are confronted with divine revelation and called to faith.
In contemporary popular contexts, faith is understood in a bewildering variety of ways. Sometimes, the word faith is used to talk about a person’s perspective on ultimate questions. At other times the word faith means a bunch of feelings or convictions that one has about things, i.e. one’s deepest values. At other times the word faith is practically synonymous with one’s “philosophy of life.” Or faith can be used to talk about any cause that one really believes in and advocates. Because faith is used in such a vague and general way, it is common to hear people using expressions such as “the Buddhist faith” even though Buddhism is not at all a faith in the Christian sense of the term, and Buddhists (rightly) want to distinguish their religious views from being a faith in the Christian sense.
It was St. Augustine who gave to the Catholic Church an account of what faith is that has become standard up until our own day (his view is presupposed by Vatican I and II, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and St. John Paul II’s encyclical on faith and reason, Fides et Ratio). St. Augustine, following both the New Testament as well as standard word meanings in ancient Greek and Latin, understood faith as believing something on the word of a witness. The New Testament is full of talk of testimony, of testifying, and of bearing witness to the truth of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, grace and presence. Faith is welcoming this testimony, accepting it, and believing it.
St. Augustine realized that when understood as believing something on the word of another’s witness, faith in general is inherently reasonable. All human beings naturally live by faith in other human beings. It is quite impossible for anyone to go through life without any faith at all. For we all take many things on the word of other people, and we cannot but do so. Augustine realized that nearly all of his historical beliefs, including his belief about where he was born and who his father is, were matters of faith. Contemporary epistemologists confirm Augustine’s point, and point out how the majority of our daily beliefs are matters of faith in the sense of trusting someone else’s say-so. How many people can really prove that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen? How many people can really prove that George Washington was the first president of the United States? Most people take it on faith based upon their teacher’s say-so.
Even though faith in other human beings is natural and reasonable, Christian faith is something more than just natural, human faith. The same God who created human beings as rational beings in search of the meaning of reality as a whole, comes to meet the questioning of man by bearing witness to Himself and His plan for the world. God explains Himself to us. How? Through the words of the prophets, the words of Jesus of Nazareth, the words of the Apostles, and the words of the authors of the Scripture. All of these human words contain and communicate the Word of God. Or so Christians believe. Christian faith is a special gift of God to believe all of this testimony “not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God” (1 Thess. 2:13). In brief, faith is welcoming the Word.
How does one receive the gift of faith? The answer has three parts.
First, “faith comes from hearing” (Rom. 10:17). Ever since the days of Jesus, the apostles, and the evangelists, the Church has gradually welcomed, received, and believed their words as the Word of God. The Church has assimilated the person and the message of Jesus, and in turn preaches and proclaims it: Jesus is Lord! The Church goes through history vouching for the truth of this word to all who will listen. What we hear are the words of human beings in the Church setting forth the person and message of Jesus as the Word of God.
Second, as the Church goes about preaching, “God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by the gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will” (Heb. 2:4). God knows of our fear of deception. He knows of our need for confirmatory signs that what we are hearing from the Church is not simply the words or ideas of human beings but is in fact the Word of God. The preaching of the Church is surrounded by and shot through with an abundance of signs and characteristics that distinguish it from all merely natural phenomena. Miracles, healings, and transformed lives are but one type of sign. The Church herself is a sign. The signs, in fact, are so many, so varied, and so numerous that an entire academic discipline is devoted to studying and setting forth the signs, namely, fundamental theology.
Third, “no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). Even though a host of signs confirm the Church’s proclamation as the Word of God, people are not called to believe what they hear because of the signs. Rather, we are called to a free, simple, childlike faith in Jesus as risen Lord and Savior. It is not an inference from signs that moves us to believe what we hear, but an inward touch of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit inclines our hearts to trust God for the truth of what is set forth by the Church. Thanks to the inspiration of the Spirit, we give a simple assent to it all – a simple yes to the whole testimony of the Church without fear of falsehood or error. Signs are there for critical reflection upon our faith, not for the production of it.
The words we hear, the signs we see, and the Spirit’s touch within us, together show each one of us how right it is to believe. St. Augustine, confronting the words of the book of Genesis wondered whether what he was reading was really the Truth. Here is how Augustine describes the touch of the Spirit within him. In his Confessions, Bk. XI, iii (5) he writes:
May I hear and understand how in the beginning you made heaven and earth (Gen. 1:1). Moses wrote this. He wrote this and went his way, passing out of this world from you to you. He is not now before me, but if he were I would clasp him and through you beg him to explain to me the creation. I would concentrate my bodily ears to hear the sounds breaking forth from his mouth. If he spoke Hebrew, he would in vain make an impact on my sense of hearing, for the sounds would not touch my mind at all. If he spoke Latin, I would know what he meant. Yet how would I know whether or not he was telling me the truth? If I did know this, I could not be sure of it from him. Within me, within the lodging of my thinking, there would speak a truth which is neither Hebrew nor Greek nor Latin nor any barbarian tongue and which uses neither mouth nor tongue as instruments and utters no audible syllables. It would say: ‘What he is saying is true’. And I being forthwith assured would say with confidence to the man possessed by you: ‘What you say is true’.
Augustine heard the words of Scripture. The Spirit touching his heart bore witness to the Word of God contained therein. Such is the gift of faith. The gift of faith carries with it the “proof of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1).
When the human being has received by faith God’s testimony to Himself and His plan, the drive to understand the meaning of reality as a whole can come to a new level of fulfillment. For the testimony of God provides answers to the most profound human questions. The question of God’s existence and attributes, the question of God’s providence, the question of evil and suffering and death, the question of the afterlife, the question of personal goodness and worth and the good life, the question of the limits of reason, the question of love and meaning, and many more questions all receive answers in the testimony of God received by faith. Those answers are open to reflection and call for thinking. Faith is pondering those answers with assent, thinking them through, and when such pondering and thinking is carried out systematically the result is theology.
A good and solid theology does not deny the truth of the human sciences, but takes into account all well-established truths from any discipline whatsoever. The Word of God illuminates all such truths in a higher light, in the light of God and His plan for the world. Such is our intention for this series of articles. Our hope is to show that the science of biology and the testimony of God together form a coherent and profound answer to the question of the human being, our life in this world, and the meaning of it all.
— Rev. James Brent, O.P.
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