The universal call to theology?

Today a friend asked me about the distinction between philosophy and theology. In the course of responding, I said what I have said before on this blog, namely that theology is what happens when faith gets to follow its own impulses. He then asked me, reasonably enough, whether it is not important to distinguish between faith and theology.

Yes, I said, of course it is: you can’t be saved without faith, but you can be saved without “doing theology.” Similarly, everyone is capable of faith, but not everyone is capable of becoming a theologian.

But one must be careful about drawing these lines too sharply. Trying to distinguish between theology and faith is a lot like trying to distinguish between the religious life and the universal call to holiness: Continue reading “The universal call to theology?”

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Faith and love

[This is the sixth 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 the previous post, I mentioned that the object of faith and the object of charity are the same thing, namely “the ultimate end, insofar as he exceeds the knowledge of our reason,” as St. Thomas puts it.  In this final reflection, I want to point out how this affects what we mean by the word “faith”.

The movement of will that first moves the mind to believe revelation is not a movement of charity.  The supernatural love of God which is charity can’t happen without knowledge of the self-giving God of revelation, and that God is known only through faith.  In the third post of this series I listed a few things that might incline the will to that first decision in favor of revelation, but none of those motivating factors can be the God who will only be known through the decision of faith.

But once that decision has been made, and the God of revelation becomes known precisely as he who gives himself to us and calls for our response—once that decision has been made, the normal thing would be for love to spring up right away.  Faith is the mind’s adequate response to revelation, and love is the will’s adequate response to revelation; even though the will moves the mind to make its adequate response, the will’s own adequate response happens as a second step.

The point is worth repeating:  the will is involved in getting the mind to respond rightly to revelation, but the will’s own right response comes after the mind’s.

The consequence of this tangled situation is that the will’s right response to revelation immediately changes the way that the mind’s own response is working.  The mind may first have entrusted itself to God’s authority out of fear, or out of a vague desire for a better life, or out of some other motivation, but as soon as the will desires God as our supernaturally revealed goal then this new love becomes the driving force behind faith.  Love becomes the way the will moves the mind to belief.

If this did not happen, then something would be wrong.  Faith is not the mind moving on its own but the mind being moved by the will, so a lack in the will’s right response to revelation is really an imperfection in the mind’s response as well.  Faith without love is still faith, but it is lacking something essential to it, something bound up in its very notion as the right response to revelation.

This is why the Catholic tradition says that faith without charity is “unformed” faith.  The form of a thing is its nature, its essence or notion, and there is something lacking in the notion of that mind-will composite act we call faith if the “will” part is not responding rightly to the situation.  It is not just that love is one of the “forms” that faith can have, but that love is the “form” that faith must have to be itself fully.

The punchline is this.  If we say the word “faith” without any qualifying adjective or clarifying context, then we are speaking about the faith that works through love.  That’s the default version, the simple meaning of the word, and that is the way Scripture most often speaks of it.  A “faith” separated from love is “faith” in a real but secondary sense.

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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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How faith begins

[This is the third 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 the theological virtue of faith, I began by asking how we come to believe that God is revealing and whether this is something we hold by faith.  Then I looked at some aspects of everyday, natural belief to see what basis nature might provide for grace.  In this post, I want to look directly at the supernatural virtue of faith and trace its beginning.

While natural belief always includes an element of discovering the speaker’s true identity, in the case of supernatural faith this element is quite explicit.  A created agent—a prophet, a priest, an organization, an apparition—makes a claim to this effect:  “I do not speak on my own behalf but on behalf of one who has authority over you, and this is the message, etc.”  Here the need to discover the true identity of the source of the message is out in the open, and the claim in fact is that the first source of the message is some person other than the human person, organization, or apparition one can see.  In other words, part of revelation’s claim is the claim to be revelation.

The searcher’s mind responds first, and if all goes well the response will be something like this:  “This claim has been made, and there is good evidence for the claim.  If true, the claim would give me something I need, and in fact if the claim is not true then I can’t get that thing I need.  So the question is urgent.  I need to say whether the claim is true or false.”  That is as far as the searcher’s mind can go on its own:  this is a well-supported claim about something urgent for me personally.  But because the evidence is not demonstrative, the mind cannot settle the issue without a decision, and decisions are the domain of the will.

At this point the searcher’s will can respond to the claim in various ways.  It might respond by delaying, despite the urgency of the question; it might decide in the negative, despite the credibility of the claim, whether through fear or through egoism; or the will might respond in favor of the claim.  A missionary or a pastor needs an intimate familiarity with the dynamics of delay and denial, because these are the road blocks he needs to surmount.  For our purposes, only the last response is interesting, the response that leads to faith.  In this case, the searcher’s will moves the intellect to assent to the claim.

Because the claim is “I do not speak for myself,” something very important happens when the decision is made in favor of the claim:  at that very moment, the speaker of the claim changes in the searcher’s eyes.  In virtue of the fact that will moves the mind to say, “This claim is true,” the speaker ceases to be the created agent and begins to be the authority on behalf of whom it spoke.  So long as the searcher hesitated, considering the claim, the speaker remained for him merely a creature; but by the very fact of the searcher’s assent, the speaker is divine.  “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1Thes 2:13).

Now, if this assent were only a movement of the mind, then two steps would be needed:  (a) this authority exists and (b) I submit to it.  The mind having realized that the authority exists, the will would have to fall into line as a subsequent response.  But because the final movement of the mind is provided by the will, it follows that the one movement of assent is simultaneously on the intellect’s part a conclusion that the authority exists and on the will’s part a decision to submit to it, since the will could not will in favor of such a thing without desiring to submit to it.  When I do not want to submit to an authority, then its existence chafes at me, and I wish it would go away; on the other hand, an authority which I will to exist is one that has my submission already.

To sum up, three things happen at the moment of the decision of faith:  (a) the speaker changes from a creature to God; (b) the intellect decides in favor of the claim that this authority exists; (c) the will submits to the authority.  And yet these are not three movements in sequence but one reality, one movement, seen from various angles.  The assent to the authority’s existence is on the mind’s part a conclusion that the authority exists and on the will’s part a submission to that authority.

This is part of the answer to the question raised in my original post.  Do I fall into a vicious circle if I believe on God’s authority and yet include among the articles of belief the fact that God has spoken?  No, because the mental assent to this fact is the same movement as the volitional submission to God’s authority.  There would be a circle if these two things were separate and one had to come before the other, but there is no moment before faith’s assent when I hold that God’s has spoken, and there is no moment during faith’s assent when I do not submit to God’s authority.

But one could say more about the difference between natural and supernatural faith.  Over the next two posts, I’ll lay out the rest of what I have come to in my own reflections.

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Everyday faith

[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.

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Is faith circular?

[This is the first 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.]

One of the perks of college teaching is that even as you earn a paycheck you get to revisit questions of longstanding personal interest.  This year I am directing a thesis on the virtue of faith for an excellent senior at Wyoming Catholic College.  His questions have pushed me to take up something that first caught my interest when I was his age.

The question is essentially this:  How we can reconcile the fact whatever is believed by faith is believed on the authority of God revealing with the fact that one of the things that we believe by faith is that God exists and reveals.  Does this land us in a vicious circle?  Do we end up believing in God’s existence on his authority, and grounding his authority in his existence?

On the other hand, if we avoid the vicious circle then we seem to land in a different problem:  if the fact that God exists and reveals is not one of the things we believe on God’s authority, then it becomes difficult to find a role for faith at all.  I recall a conversation I had with one of my teachers, a man who later went on to hold an eminent position at my alma mater.  He maintained that we could reason our way with certitude from miracles and other evidence to the fact that the Church is what she claims to be and that God has really spoken through her; we could then conclude with iron-clad logic that, since God cannot lie, all the contents of the Catholic creed are true.  But of course, this leaves everything in the hands of reason and nothing in the hands of faith.  It takes away the very notion of faith.

It was only slowly that I came to my own way of solving the problem, based in large part on the Gospel of John, with additional help from Thomas Aquinas, Ratzinger, and my own experience of faith.  Although I have still to read some classics on the topic—Newman’s Grammar of Assent comes to mind—my student’s persistent questions have finally supplied the impetus to write out my thoughts here in a public forum where others can comment and, yes, criticize.  Stay tuned for the next several posts.

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