What is Faith?

The Holy Father has proclaimed 2012-2013 to be the Year of Faith. This is quite appropriate, since the act of Faith in general, and the Catholic Faith in particular, are under a very vociferous attack from the proponents of secular humanism and atheism, who deny not only the Catholic Faith, but attack the concept of Faith as being inimical to reason and ultimately an irrational act. Faith and reason, they say, are in true opposition, as because of this religion (which rests on faith) and science (which rests on reason, we are told) are in absolute opposition; to be a proponent of religion is to be against science, and to be scientifically minded is to be hostile to religion. In this post, we will endeavor to show the falsity of this proposition by looking at the act of faith itself and demonstrating that faith and reason are not opposed to one another; in fact, faith is a very reasonable act.

Of course, there is no real opposition between religion and science, because there is no opposition between faith and reason. Catholic theology from Augustine and Thomas onward has always acknowledged that true scientific knowledge can never contradict revelation because both revelation and the laws of science come from the same God, who is Truth and cannot contradict Himself. Any apparent contradictions come from either a misunderstanding of what revelation is teaches or (more often than not) a defect in the conclusions drawn by science; this is especially true in the areas where the boundaries of science must be defined by a system of rightly formed ethics. In the end, there are no true contradictions because God, the source of all knowledge, is True and no untruth can be found in Him.

The atheist, on the other hand, does posit a real opposition between faith and reason, because reason/science concerns itself with what is demonstrable and faith means believing something with no (or insufficient) evidence. If reason is that which we can know by empirical evidence and experience, and faith means believing in something despite lack of or insufficient evidence, then faith is by definition unreasonable, and thus there is a true contradiction between knowledge arrived at via faith and knowledge arrived at via reason.

What can the Catholic respond to the atheist who posits this contradiction? It seems much of the problem here arises from terminology. In many cases, atheists are using a definition of faith different than what Catholics mean by 'faith'; according to the atheist, faith means believing something there is no or insufficient evidence for. This is not the way Catholics understand Faith, nor is it how the word is used even in common secular parlance. As we will show, the definition of faith as believing in something with insufficient or no evidence is a convenient definition thought up by atheists seeking to establish straw man arguments against the act of belief.

What is Faith?

So, what is faith? What does it mean to believe? We have disagreed with the atheist definition of faith as "believing in something with insufficient or no evidence." Therefore, what is a more accurate understanding of the term?

Given that this is a dialogue with an atheism, we shall pursue a more philosophical line of inquiry rather than a theological or biblical one, and therefore will be following basically the outline of Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper in his book Faith, Hope, Love (Ignatius, 1992). Were I pursuing a theological line of reasoning, I would have undoubtedly started with John Paul II's Fides et Ratio, but because we are talking about what we can infer without appealing to Scripture or revelation, I have opted for Pieper's philosophical approach. I like Josef Pieper's reasoning in this subject (and most others) because, like the great philosophers of old, he begins by looking at what men mean when they use the words "belief" or "faith"; not necessarily religious belief, but belief in general - what do we mean when we say we "believe" something?

Let's look first at some popular notions of belief - for some, belief is an emotional conviction (according to David Hume) or a practical certainty about matters that cannot be justified theoretically. Some say belief is the subjectively adequate but objectively inadequate acceptance of something as true. Immanuel Kant said belief is "the acceptance of something as true on objectively insufficient grounds." These definitions, though they may be common usages of the word, are actually improper - not improper because theology deems them so, but improper linguistically, as I will demonstrate.

A first, preliminary (but not exhaustive) definition would be that faith, or the act of belief, is to take a position on the truth of a statement - it means we think a statement true. Both the atheist and the Catholic can agree that to believe means to assert that something is true; it is the considering of something as objectively existent.

But we certainly can't stop there, for there is another point regarding our relation to what we believe in. Do we believe in things we know? It seems that when we use the word "believe" we are referring to something unfamiliar to us, or something that we do not have conclusive, experiential knowledge about. St. Thomas says, "Belief cannot refer to something that one sees...; and what can be proved likewise does not pertain to belief" [1]. So there is an unfamiliarity - I do not "believe" that I am wearing a red sweater right now because I can clearly see that this is so - I know I am wearing a red sweater. I can only said to believe in something that I do not see, like saying, "I believe what my grandpa told me about his experiences in World War II." To have faith in something, therefore, involves assenting to something that we do not know experientially.

The Unqualified Commitment of Faith

Yet here is our next element of belief: what we believe in, we believe in an unqualified manner and without reservation. Some might object to this, for as I pointed out in the beginning, people often improperly use "belief" to mean they do have a reservation, like if someone says, "I believe it to be so," meaning "I'm not sure, but I think so." For some, "believe" is equivalent to "pretend" (i.e., to "make believe").

A word is said to be used in its fullest context when no other word can replace it. So, if I say "I believe it is so" I could just as easily say "I think it is so" or "That's my opinion." We can easily substitute "make believe" for pretend, or "I believe in UFO's" for "I am convinced there are UFO's." In these sentences, "believe" can be replaced with other words, indicating that they are improper, or incomplete, uses of the word "believe." Josef Pieper presents the following story to demonstrate the unqualified nature of belief and the use of the word in its fullest sense:

Suppose you have a brother who went missing in a war and has long been assumed dead. Then suppose you run into a stranger who has just returned from many years of being a prisoner of war and claims that he your brother alive in a prison camp. Let's say his story matches up with what you know of your brother and there is an internal consistency to his story. However, in this case there is no way to factually check up on his story and especially upon the decisive factor - whether or not your brother is still alive. You are thus confronted with a decision: am I to believe or not believe the man's story? Am I to believe him or not? Here there is no word that is better used than "believe."

Two things: first, one who believes deals not only with a given matter or proposition for belief, but with a given person. When we say we believe things, we really mean we believe what someone has told us about these things, since (as we have said above), believe concerns itself with things we have no experiential knowledge of.

Second, and going back to our earlier train of thought, belief in the proper sense requires unqualified assent and unconditional acceptance of the truth of something. Suppose in the story above, you were to tell the stranger that his story intrigues you, but that since you don't have any means of checking the facts you can't be sure; you ought to be prepared for him to break in and say, "In other words, you don't believe me?" You might say, "Oh yes, I have full confidence in you, but of course I cannot be completely certain," the stranger might insist that you do not really believe him, and he would be right. To say "I believe you but I'm not quite certain" is nonsense. I either believe my grandpa's account of World War II or I disbelieve it. If I say, "Perhaps he is partially accurate, but I think he just as well could be inventing stories," then I am not demonstrating belief. I may be forming an opinion, making a guess, or an informed judgment, but it is not the same thing as belief. You either assent to the story about your brother or you don't, and reserving assent to the stranger's story is equivalent to saying you don't believe him.

Therefore, true belief requires unconditional assent. As Bl. John Henry Newman said, "A person who says 'I believe just at this moment but I cannot answer for myself that I shall believe tomorrow,' does not believe."

Acceptance of Faith on Testimony of Another

But this brings us to a seeming paradox in belief: how can this unconditional assent be justified when the believer admittedly does not know the subject to which he thus assents?

So far our working definition of belief (just belief in general, not religious belief or "faith") is to believe someone and to believe something. The believer accepts something as real and true on the testimony of someone else.

We should begin to see then that the decisive factor in belief is who it is whose statement is assented to; by comparison, the subject matter is somewhat secondary. I may believe things for a variety of reasons: suppose while driving home I see a big accident on I-96. When I get home, my wife says she also was out driving and saw the big accident. Now, I may believe what she says, but this is not true and "pure" belief because I also have some first-hand knowledge of the matter - I saw the accident myself. Belief itself is not purely achieved until someone accepts as truth the statement of one whom he trusts for the simple reason that the trusted person states it. If my wife tells me, "A traveling salesman came to the door while you were out," on what basis do I believe her? Because I have done a forensic examination of the porch and concluded that yes, in fact, a salesman has been here? No; my belief is based solely on the fact that my wife said it was so and I have trust in her. What she told me is somewhat secondary; the basis for the belief is in that she said it, not what she said.

That doesn't mean I take leave of my senses - I believe what my wife says because it is she who has spoken, but that does not mean I accept unconditionally anything she says. Suppose I come home and she tells me that she has been visited by aliens who brought Abe Lincoln and Amelia Earheart into our livingroom and they all had tea together. Though my wife is generaly trustworthy, because she is only a fallible human there is the possibility that she could be deceived about things. The degree to which I believe her words is somewhat correlated to the trustworthiness of her character as I have come to know it (C.S. Lewis also made this argument in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe).

That being said, we can never truly be said to have faith or believe in any human person in an ultimate sense. To ultimately believe in somebody means we don't only believe what they say about a given matter, but have such an opinion of their credibility that we must believe everything else that they say. "Belief of such an extreme sort," as Pieper says, "such as involved in the expression 'believe in someone', can neither be practiced by mature human beings nor asked of them. The immature child believes what his mother says for the sole reason that she says it. But the very fact that the child has no other reason for regarding things as true is, precisely, the measure of his immaturity" [2]. I believe what my wife says; I do not believe in her or have faith in her in the strict sense, because she, being human, is not of such credibility that every conceivable thing she could ever say would be immune from error.

Absolute belief cannot be demanded of man, as in totalitarian dictatorships where the dictator demands unconditional assent in all of the methods and programmes of the State in an absolutist sense. This demand of unconditional assent by one man/men to another signifies that something inhuman is taking place. "No mature man is so spiritually inferior or superior to another that the one can serve the other as an absolutely valid authority"[3].

But what if the one in whom we are asked to place our belief was trustworthy in the absolute sense? We shall look at this next time.


[1] STh III, 7, 4
[2] Josef Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 1992), 32
[3] ibid., 33

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