[This is the second in a series of posts. Here all the posts in order: 1. Is faith circular? 2. Everyday faith. 3 How faith begins. 4. What revelation really is. 5. What is supernatural about faith? 6. Faith and love.]
As I begin to think about the supernatural virtue of faith, it is important to remember that we have a lot of experience with natural, everyday faith. We encounter it every time we assent to something on the authority of a friend or someone else we view as reliable. So we should pause to consider what foundation there may be for grace in our normal experience of belief. A speaker makes a claim and we believe the claim on the speaker’s authority. Why?
There are always two elements in this experience. The second element is that we believe what is said because of who is saying it. But the first is, you might say, a discovery of the speaker’s true identity. In the case of an expert, we might try to verify for ourselves that this person truly has the expertise in question and that this person has no reason to distort the facts. In the case of a friend, we have to move from knowing how this person appears to how this person really is: Is he in fact as honest as he seems? Does he in fact keep my best interests in mind? Is he truly to be counted as my friend?
And with regard to this first element of believe, the element of true identity, we always have to make a decision. It is hard to know that the expert in front of me has no reason whatsoever to distort the facts; even if he seems to have nothing to gain, maybe there is some advantage to him that is not apparent to me. And it is even harder to know that a friend is truly a friend: it usually takes a long time to know someone well enough to testify to his character, and when we reach that point it is not through argument but through an accumulation of experiences and probabilities. At some point, though, we decide that we will trust this person as a friend.
This decision is truly a decision: it cannot be demonstrated in a philosophically rigorous way that this person actually has the character he seems to have, and even then it could not be demonstrated in a philosophically rigorous way that this person is acting in character in this instant. So granted the apparent speaker, I have to make a decision about the speaker behind the appearances. This is sometimes experienced in a dramatic way when a man deliberates about whether to propose marriage to the woman he loves: they know each other well, and he thinks she loves him, and he is almost ready to stake the rest of his life on whether she is what she seems and whether she loves as he think—but in the end he has to stop reasoning and arguing with himself and simply make a decision.
This is so because a human person’s true “face” is invisible. There is the outward face I show to the world, with its grin even when I am unhappy, its polite gaze even when I want to be somewhere else, its adornment meant to help me fit in. There is also the real “me,” my true face, which I carefully protect and share only with those who gain my trust. The whole world can see my outward, physical face; only a select group is allowed into some knowledge my interior life. And even this group, my closest friends, can only conjecture about my true face; a common frustration, even for someone with close friends, is that “no one understands me.” The “I” in that statement is an inner person invisible both to the eye and to the mind.
Yet at the same time, human beings are by nature social: a human life is made up of a fabric of relationships with other human beings. The fact that I cannot directly know my friend’s inner life does not make it unreasonable to believe that he is a certain kind of person. On the contrary, the probability that this person is really my friend can be so very high in fact that I would act immorally, sinning against my own humanity, if I denied him my trust. Even though it cannot be demonstrated with rigor, the probability of his trustworthiness can reach a point that it would be willful, obstinate, to deny it. A man seems to speak unkindly to his wife, and suddenly she is tempted to think that he does not have her best interests in mind, that he does not truly in this moment love her. Although such a thing may be remotely possible, the wife may actually sin by giving in to the thought. Every day, a married person has to get up and make a decision to trust her or his spouse: it never becomes something demonstrated in the past and done with. And this constant decision in favor of trust is the basis of the social life our nature requires.
This question of a friend’s true identity stands at the center of our original question. In my next post, I’ll take a look at how grace builds on everyday belief in the case of supernatural faith.