What revelation really is

[This is the fourth 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 way to define the supernatural act of faith is to say thing it is the mind’s adequate response to revelation.  Just as self-defense is a response to an aggressor’s attack, and obedience is a response to an authority’s command, so faith is defined by God’s act of revelation.  To round out my discussion of faith, then, I would like to devote a few words to revelation.

Revelation is by its very notion something that comes to us from outside the order of nature.  If it came from within the order of nature then it would simply be another natural thing that we could reason about, like the animals and the trees and the mountains.  The very fact that God has revealed anything at all is already a fact that we couldn’t know just from the natural world.  Both the contents and the fact of revelation are news to nature.

As a result, the moment we become aware that revelation has happened, we know something about God’s interior life that we could not have known naturally:  we know that he wanted to say whatever he said.  And for the point I’m trying to make, it almost doesn’t matter what he said:  he could say something trivial, like “Ants have twelve toes,” but it would still be something beyond the order of nature for us to know that God wants us here, in this moment, to know that ants have twelve toes, and he wants it enough to speak it to us about it directly.  That’s not just something about ants:  it’s something about God.

So every revelation brings with it a special knowledge about God’s interior life, just by the fact of being revelation.  But this is a wonderful thing!  Taken to its extreme, to know the interior life of God beyond what is naturally knowable is the life of heaven; it is the beatific vision; it is a share in God’s own interior life.  Any revelation at all, therefore, even before we consider its content, is a small portion of the life of heaven.  It is a gift God gives us, a gift not only of new information but of himself.  To put it another way, following Aristotle’s dictum that the slenderest knowledge of the highest things is better than the greatest knowledge of lower things, any divine revelation whatsoever, no matter what its content, is more precious than any other knowledge we could have.

This likeness between revelation and heaven is increased when we realize that the content of revelation is going to fit with the nature of revelation.  That is to say, given what revelation is by its nature, then of course the content will not ultimately be about something trivial but about God’s interior life.  In this regard, one could say that the doctrine of the Trinity is that content of revelation which most clearly displays the notion of revelation itself, with the revelation of the Cross of Christ right behind it.

If revelation is by its nature God’s self-gift to his creatures, and if faith is the adequate response to revelation, then the very notion of faith will be that it is the mind’s adequate response to God’s approach of love.  In my next post, I want to unpack this conclusion further.

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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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St. Dionysius the Areopagite

October 3

The commemoration of Saint Dionysius the Areopogite, who embraced the Christ preached by blessed Paul the Apostle at the Areopogus and was made the first Athenian bishop.


May Holy Mary and all the saints intercede to the Lord for us, that we may merit to be helped and saved by him who lives and reigns for ever and ever.

V. Precious in the sight of the Lord

R. Is the death of his holy ones.

V. May the Lord bless us, protect us from all evil, and bring us to everlasting life.  And may the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in pace.

R. Amen

[To learn about praying this and other Martyrology entries, see this page.]

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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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