As we approach Pope Benedict XVI’s Year of Faith, it may be helpful to look at what faith is. We use the word all the time, but what do we mean by it?
Faith, says famous atheist Richard Dawkins, means believing something in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of the evidence. Certainly there are people, including some believers, who agree. “Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to” we’re told in the classic Christmas movie Miracle on 34th Street. That’s not far from Dawkins’s description.
Most Christians, and certainly Catholics, would see things differently. According to Vatican I, faith is
the supernatural virtue whereby, inspired and assisted by the grace of God, we believe that what God has revealed is true, not because of the intrinsic truth of the contents as recognized by the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God himself who reveals, who can neither be deceived nor deceive (Dei Filius, ch. 3).
Vatican II describes faith as the obedience "to be given to God who reveals, an obedience by which man commits his whole self freely to God, offering the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals” and freely assenting to the truth revealed by him (Dei Verbum 5). The Catechism of the Catholic Church echoes these statements: “By faith, man completely submits his intellect and his will to God. With his whole being man gives his assent to God the revealer” (CCC 143).
Believing something and someone
Notice two basic elements: believing something and believing someone. Faith, in this sense, involves a kind of “personal relationship.” As the Catechism puts it, paraphrasing St. Thomas Aquinas: “’To believe has thus a twofold reference: to the person and to the truth: to the truth, by trust in the person who bears witness to it” (CCC 177).
Those two elements—believing somethingand believing someone—exist in our everyday, nonreligious faith. For instance, my son in Kuwait describes Army life in a letter. He recounts the ins and outs, his daily tasks, and the general environment. I could, of course, determine the accuracy of some things he tells me by going to Kuwait, but much I have to take on faith.
The basic, everyday sense of believing differs from another sense of the term. Often the phrase “I believe so” is meant as a less-than-certain affirmation. Here believe contrasts in a certain way with know. “You may believe it, but I know it.”
When I believe my son, though, I am not necessarily less confident about what he says than I am about what I know, so believing doesn’t necessarily entail being less confident than when we know. When we declare “I believe it!” or “I don’t believe it!” often we have no doubt.
Believing, then, rests on the testimony and therefore the credibility of another. But religious faith, at least as Catholicism understands it, involves much more. God is the testifier, and much of what he testifies to—what he reveals—isn’t like what my son tells me about Kuwait. What God reveals is, generally speaking, beyond human experience. I can reasonably affirm it only because it is God who tells me about it.
What’s more, religious faith requires divine help—grace. Hence Vatican I’s reference to faith as “inspired and assisted by the grace of God” and Vatican II’s statement:
Before this faith can be exercised, man must have the grace of God to move and assist him; he must have the interior helps of the Holy Spirit, who moves the heart and converts it to God, who opens the eyes of the mind and “makes it easy for all to accept and believe the truth (Dei Verbum 5; cf. CCC 153).
Faith and evidence
Does faith believe without evidence, even in the teeth of evidence? The answer may seem to be yes. I don’t believe God is triune as a result of having direct evidence of it. Indeed, one might think the available evidence is against it. How can God be three and yet one? Surely, we may think, this is a case of believing without evidence, even in the face of evidence.
To be sure, the truths of revelation—with a notable exception to be discussed—are beyond human reason to prove. As such we can’t know them to be true, in the full sense of the word know. Aquinas insisted that it is one thing to know—when we know, we sort of see the truth of the matter—and it’s another thing to believe. Believing, as we said, affirms something on the testimony of another.
Still, the believer has a kind of evidence. When, for example, I ask a physicist to explain general relativity or quantum mechanics, much of what he says I have to take on faith. Even so, I have all sorts of reasons to believe him. Assuming I have chosen my physicist wisely, I have solid reasons to trust what he says, and my reasons rest on evidence—not direct evidence of the truth of what he says, but evidence of the expertise with which he says it.
Similarly, the Christian has no direct evidence of, for instance, the Trinity. But he still has evidence that what Christianity claims to be a revelation is, in fact, from God. He can look to history, miracles, and other signs that God has revealed himself. Theologians speak of “motives of credibility,” which involve reasonable grounds for thinking God has revealed something, even though we can’t see directly the truth of what God has revealed (cf. CCC 156).
Those who claim that faith means believing without evidence overlook the role evidence plays in the believer’s judgment that God has spoken. Faith, at least according to the Catholic understanding (which is shared by many Protestants), is not blind faith, any more than my faith is blind when I accept as true the word of the physicist on the seemingly impossible realities of general relativity or quantum mechanics.
Belief in the teeth of the evidence
What, then, of the charge Christians believe the doctrine of the Trinity in the teeth of the evidence? Here the “evidence” is the evidence of reason, which holds that God (or anything or anyone else) can’t be three and one at the same time and in the same sense.
The key phrase is at the same time and in the same sense. Christianity says that in the one God there are three Persons. Or more precisely, there are three Persons who possess the one divine nature. Christianity doesn’t claim there are three Persons in one Person or three Gods in one God. The Trinity involves mystery but it is not the mystery of how three equals one, which is not a mystery but a contradiction.
We have, after all, some notion of the distinction between what someone is and can do (nature) and who someone is (person). We know that those are two distinct realities. Thus, the Trinity involves no contradiction, since the “three-ness” of God refers to the Persons (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) and the “oneness” of God refers to the divine nature. Persons are not the same as nature. Thus, Christians don’t believe in the Trinity “in the teeth of evidence” of reason.
What is the exception to the idea that the truths of revelation are beyond rational proof? The exception comes down to distinguishing a truth of revelation as such, from what may be a matter of revelation for particular people but not necessarily for all people.
Something can be a matter of faith for me but not one for you. I don’t see why a fundamental particle called a quark is so and therefore have to take it on faith. A quantum physicist, on the other hand, sees why it is so. For him, it’s a matter of knowing, not believing.
God’s existence is the classic example of something not per se a matter of faith but which may be for certain people. According to Romans 1:19-20, people can know God exists through creation: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.”
Vatican I states, “Holy Mother Church holds and teaches that God, the beginning and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the things that were created through the natural light of human reason” (Dei Filius, ch. 2; cf. CCC 31-35, 286).
Faith and knowledge
As we have seen, knowing isn’t the same as believing, even though both can involve assent with certainty. Those who know God exists don’t, in the same sense and in the same way, believe God exists.
Still, while in principle people can know and not believe God exists, not everyone does. Some people refuse to look at the evidence or follow the arguments. Others are preoccupied and don’t take the time. Still others find the arguments for God difficult to follow and affirm God’s existence on faith. And so on.
So while God’s existence may be a matter of faith for some people, for others it is a matter of knowledge. Yet some people may object that their faith in God enables them to know him and indeed to know him better than any evidence or argument. They might question or outright reject the idea that those who believe don’t “know” God.
Here two things must be said. First, as Thomas Aquinas notes, we sometimes use “knowledge” to mean any action of the mind in which we assent to something, even when we do so on the word of another. In this sense, we may glean “knowledge” both through faith and through knowing as such, or, in other words, through seeing, understanding, or reasoning to the truth.
A generic term for “truth to which we assent” would help here, so could reserve “knowledge” for the truth seen by reason. But we don’t have such a word. Thus, we may speak of “knowing” God through faith, understanding that the “knowledge” through faith is different from “knowledge” in the strict sense of know.
A personal relationship
The second point concerns difference senses of believe. There is a kind of believing in which we affirm something about God without much regard for the God about whom we affirm. Faith inevitably involves a personal relationship between the believer and the one believed.
But the personal relationship I have with the physicist (to return to an earlier example) who tells me about quantum mechanics is different from the personal relationship I have with my son, who tells me about his life in Kuwait. Both involve taking someone’s word, but the relationship with my son is far more personal .
One may believe all sorts of things about God, without those beliefs meaning much in one’s life. This is what Newman called “notional assent.” Yes, if the faith by which one affirms those things is genuine faith, then the Holy Spirit is at work. But this doesn’t mean such faith necessarily reflects a deep relationship with the God who reveals.
In his book The Christian Faith, Henri de Lubac distinguished what he called “simple belief” from faith. “Simple belief” believes certain things about God; faith, though, believes in God, in the sense of having confidence in him, trusting him, even loving him. De Lubac meant by faith what the scholastics called formed faith or faith formed by charity. This is St. Paul’s “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6) and “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26). Faith can exist without love of God, but it is what Aquinas called “dead faith,” a term based on James 2:17 and 26.
De Lubac echoed St. Augustine, who distinguished (1) believing that God exists, (2) believing certain other things about God, and (3) believing in God or having faith in God, in the sense of surrendering one’s whole self over to him. The last is believing,or faith in the full sense of the term.
How does one acquire faith?
On the human side, the will and the mind are both involved in acquiring faith. The will must be open to the truth of faith, and the mind must perceive the signs of God’s truth. In other words, we must be open to the evidence that God has spoken.
On the divine side, the Holy Spirit inclines the will to move the mind to say “yes” so that what began as signs of God’s truth winds up as confidence in God’s word. The Spirit moves the heart to surrender the whole man to God’s revelation, which includes trust and at least the beginning of love of God.
Why do two people looking at the same signs respond differently? One answer is freedom. I remain free to reject the signs of God’s word and thus I don’t believe, even if I see I ought to believe. (This is one more thing I see I ought to do but I don’t.) One man, then, may see the divine signs and yet choose not to believe, while another sees them and chooses to believe.
But mystery remains. Some people seem willing to believe and yet they don’t. Do they deceive us and perhaps themselves? Has God not given them the grace of faith? The Bible says that God “wills all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4).
The Catholic Church teaches that God gives all men sufficient grace to be saved. Why, then, do some people seem to desire faith but yet still they don’t believe? Will they one day receive the gift they seem to seek?
Is faith all or nothing? Do we either have it or we don’t? We speak of “great faith” or “little faith.” But can faith have degrees? Aquinas says we can believe God’s word implicitly or explicitly. For example, a first-century Christian believer may not have explicitly believed Jesus possessed two natures, one human and one divine. Nevertheless, such a belief is implicit in holding Jesus to be a real human being and yet also divine. One way to grow in faith, then, says Aquinas, is to come believe explicitly what previously one only implicitly believed. This happens mainly through study.
We can also believe God more deeply by becoming ever more committed to God and his word. Jesus chided some of his disciples for being men of “little faith” (Matt. 8:26). They believed God but they were willing to relinquish their commitment to him in the face of obstacles or challenge. When Jesus enabled Peter to walk on water, at first he believed. But then he allowed his thinking to be dominated by fear of the waves rather than by faith in God, and he began to sink (Matt. 14:22-23).
We can pray for greater faith. When temptations not to trust God’s word arise, we can resist them by relying on God’s help or studying the faith more deeply. In this way, faith is a virtue like other virtues. We strengthen it by repeated actions.
A supernatural virtue
Of course, since faith in this sense is a supernatural virtue—that is, a habit of action beyond created nature and given by God himself—we must depend on divine help to grow in faith. Still, God desires us to grow in faith and therefore makes his grace available for us to do so.
Here we come to the heart of faith—the whom of faith and not simply the what. Faith is a fundamental receptivity to God, and a basic giving oneself to God, in the act of receiving God in his word. The believer, therefore, wants confidence that it is God to whom we surrender when we believe.
Thus, the believer asks questions. Indeed, the person of mature faith must ask questions. Not the questions of the skeptic or a jealous and suspicious lover, but those of the faithful, passionate lover who longs to know the beloved ever more. “Is that you, dear?”