What is supernatural about faith?

[This is the fifth in a series of posts about faith.  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.]

In this series of posts about faith, I have several times pointed out how supernatural faith is analogous to natural belief.  Now I want to approach it from the other direction and ask how supernatural faith differs from natural belief.  The question is harder than it seems at first.

Supernatural faith is not different because it demands certitude about something that reason can only know with probability.  As we have seen, everyday belief can do the same thing, to the extent that I may act immorally—I may sin—if I refuse to believe my friend’s word or the word of a legitimate authority on a subject.  Wavering may be unacceptable.

Nor is supernatural faith different because it requires that we accept the existence of a speaker we cannot see.  Everyday belief requires something similar:  it involves a decision in favor of the true existence of a friend, whose interior “face” we never see.  As St. Augustine says in chapter 121 of his Enchiridion, “We love God now by faith, then we shall love him through sight.  Now we love even our neighbor by faith; for we who are ourselves mortal know not the hearts of mortal men.”  Although we never see God’s true face until we enter the beatific vision, that vision will not simply be the first time we have seen the true face of the divinity:  it will be the first time we have ever seen the true face of anyone at all!

In the end, it seems to me that supernatural faith differs from natural belief because it is a response to a supernatural person.  It is not a human identity that I must affirm, but the identity of God:  not God as he can be known through philosophical argument, but God as he is knowable only by his gift of opening to us his inner life.  Since we are by nature social, we are by nature adequate to the task of “knowing” other human persons, that is, of making the necessary decision in favor of their true identity; we are rightly adjusted to that object.  But the interior identity of God stands above all our natural resources for response.

As a result, faith in God does not just happen to get the assistance of grace, the way a physicist struggling to understand quantum mechanics might happen to receive supernatural assistance.  The act of faith in God by its very nature requires the help of grace.  We could not respond adequately to the revelation of God’s interior life without supernatural resources.  In fact, we could not even know that there is such a thing as an adequate response had not God revealed that, too.

Implicit in this conclusion is that faith itself is a mystery, because faith turns out to be an act defined by a mystery.  Just as “self-defense” cannot be understood apart from “aggression,” and “obedience” cannot be understood apart from “authority,” so “faith” cannot be understood apart “the inner life of God”—which is mysterious to us.  Natural belief is defined in terms of the inner life of another human person; because I am a human person myself and have my own inner life, I can grasp at least in a general way the object and nature of natural belief.  But a faith defined by the truly mysterious divine Thou is ultimately mysterious itself.  Only in the beatific vision, when faith is no longer needed, will faith be understood.

St. Thomas’s introduction to the theological virtues is helpful on this point.  Explaining how the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity are distinct from all natural virtues, he says:  Obiectum autem theologicarum virtutum est ipse Deus, qui est ultimus rerum finis, prout nostrae rationis cognitionem excedit (ST 2.1.63, 2 corp).  All the theological virtues have the same object, namely God; and this is not God as knowable by the philosophers, but God considered precisely inasmuch as he is the ultimate end in a way that exceeds our reason’s knowledge.  So when St. Thomas later says that the formal object of faith is the First Truth (ST 2.2.1) he means God revealed as Truth, just as when he says that charity is based on the communication of God’s happiness to us (ST 2.23.1) he means that happiness which has been revealed to us as the eternal processions of the Trinity.  The formal object of faith is the same self-giving God that is the object of charity.

In my next post, I want to pick up this connection between faith and charity to make one last comment on the nature of faith.  So far I have talked about how it begins, but I have not yet spoken of how it matures.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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