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Apologetics and Faith: Different Convictions

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | Jan 04, 2008

Over the twenty centuries of the Church’s life, Christians have advanced all kinds of arguments to convince non-Christians to accept the Faith. Some systematic apologists have come perilously close to arguing that every truth contained in Revelation can be proved by natural reason. Others have avoided philosophical proofs and concentrated only on how the Christian Faith addresses the deepest needs of the human heart. These methods, along with an astonishing array of more balanced initiatives, have all been designed to make non-Christians certain of the truth of Divine Revelation.

Apologetical Certainty

The wide variety of arguments used in different situations over the years—logical, philosophical, historical, psychological, apodictic—has been admirably documented in Avery Cardinal Dulles’ A History of Apologetics, originally published in 1971 but revised in the late 1990’s and now available in a second edition from Ignatius Press. It is fascinating to review the divergent approaches that have been taken, including differences as to whether apologetics can fully prove the faith or whether it can merely clear away obstacles to belief. In wrestling with all these questions, however, apologists in every age have been acutely aware that the certainty of a believer is always far greater than that of a non-believer.

This statement may sound strange, but consider what it means. It means that no matter how much force an argument for the truth of the Faith may have, the non-believer who accepts the force of the argument will always be less certain of the truth of the Faith than the believer, including a believer who is completely unfamiliar with the same argument. That is, the logical force of the presentation is not as capable of imparting conviction to the mind and will as is the very gift of Faith itself. I could argue here that this shows the primary purpose of apologetics is to remove obstacles and predispose the person to the acceptance of the gift of faith, rather than to actually convince him to rationally embrace the propositions of Revelation. However, my point is not to stress the provisional nature of apologetics, but to call attention to the peculiar truth-bearing power of Faith itself.

Nothing Convinces Like Experience

Some apologists have urged non-Christians seeking the truth to first begin to live as if Christian Revelation were true, convinced that this exercise will lead to Faith. This approach takes the formative power of experience very seriously. Its proponents have perceived that God offers the gift of Faith more frequently than it is received, and that the obstacles to receiving it are often rooted in bad habits, unfortunate attachments, and considerations of human respect. For this reason, if the sincere seeker can bring himself to live now as if the Faith is true, he will go far toward overcoming precisely those prejudices and hindrances which might otherwise cause him to reject the illuminating Presence of the Holy Spirit.

At the same time, this experiment in experience, so to speak, is not to be confused with Faith itself. For whatever reason, it seems that the gift of Faith—and all Catholics must acknowledge that Faith is in the end a supernatural gift—may sometimes be withheld, at least for a time, even from well-disposed souls. In any case, a simulated faith experience is merely an external discipline used to better prepare for the possibility of faith. As such, it is very different from the experience of Faith itself, which actually transforms the believer from within. For Faith is its own form of experience—perhaps the very deepest form—with its own power to generate not only intellectual conviction but heroic constancy. This is why it is the gift of Faith itself which most deeply convinces us that God exists, that He has revealed Himself, and that what He has revealed is absolutely trustworthy.

Benedict’s Second Encyclical

In Spe Salvi (Saved by Hope), Benedict XVI touches on this theme; in fact, it was when I read this second encyclical just a week or two after finishing Cardinal Dulles’ book that these ideas came to mind. The Pope discusses Christian Hope from many different vantage points, but the one most relevant here is his extended commentary on Hebrews 11:1, where the Holy Spirit teaches us something vital about the relationship of Hope to Faith:

Est autem fides sperandarum substantia rerum, argumentum non apparentium—faith is the “substance” of things hoped for; the proof of things not seen. Saint Thomas Aquinas, using the terminology of the philosophical tradition to which he belonged, explains it as follows: faith is a habitus, that is, a stable disposition of the spirit, through which eternal life takes root in us and reason is led to consent to what it does not see. The concept of “substance” is therefore modified in the sense that through faith, in a tentative way, or as we might say “in embryo”—and thus according to the “substance”—there are already present in us the things that are hoped for: the whole, true life. And precisely because the thing itself is already present, this presence of what is to come also creates certainty: this “thing” which must come is not yet visible in the external world (it does not “appear”), but because of the fact that, as an initial and dynamic reality, we carry it within us, a certain perception of it has even now come into existence. (#7)

What Benedict is saying, in essence, is that through Faith we actually experience the Kingdom of God. And precisely because we experience it (and this in the very depths of our being), we become absolutely certain of its reality. For this reason, our minds and wills hold to all the related propositions of Revelation with a security that no mere argument can impart. The believer is sure that the propositions of the Faith are correct because he has already experienced the Kingdom by the very fact of his Faith.

Impact on Apologetics

The believer has already experienced the reality which the propositions of Revelation describe. In contrast, the unbeliever has no such experience. This difference has enormous consequences for apologetics, and for how believers and non-believers interact in general. First, we should be neither surprised nor perturbed by the fact that many non-believers regard believers as credulous simpletons who have hastily attached themselves to a whole series of questionable ideas. As if to reinforce this view, some believers may not be capable of learned explanation or debate, and so some unbelievers may run intellectual circles around them. But the believer has one thing that the unbeliever lacks, and that one thing is the best teacher: Experience.

Second, the believer must recognize that the unbeliever’s attitude toward the claims of Revelation (whether he is well-disposed or ill-disposed for whatever reason) must necessarily be fundamentally different from the attitude of the believer. In this light, the unbeliever’s doubts will be understandable, and his fears predictable. The unbeliever is something like a person who is being asked to swim unaided for the first time. He is to be forgiven if he cannot bring himself to go near the water. Better if the water comes to him, engulfs him, and allows him to experience that he was made to swim.

The analogy limps (or perhaps sinks), but at least it indicates why the apologist must proceed patiently, and with as much empathy as he can muster. Unless he is an adult convert, the apologist must imagine what it is like to be without Faith. He cannot hope to substitute for the irreplaceable experience of Christ and His Kingdom that the gift of Faith provides. All he can hope to do is answer objections and urge the adoption of values which, once embraced on natural and rational grounds, can open the non-believer to the possibility of Faith; can suggest that it would be most appropriate if the Faith were true; and can even inspire him to desire it. Only God can do more.

Into the Light

The point is that the believer is in a fundamentally different experiential position from the unbeliever. Consider a man who habitually lives on the surface of the earth, caressed by the breeze and warmed by the sun. When this man ventures beneath the surface of the earth he encounters a whole host of persons who have never been outside the vast caverns in which they dwell. These cave-dwellers may well ridicule the visitor from the surface, dismiss him as a lunatic (perhaps a dangerous lunatic), and try to convince him that the sun and the breeze are mere chimeras of his overheated imagination. But though a thousand questions be raised, the visitor from the sunlit lands will not doubt. He has experienced the sun. He knows by a means that mere argument can neither diminish nor augment.

The believer is like this man, though the sun is in his very soul. No matter what incredulity he encounters, he understands that the non-believer is at best only dimly aware of the complex dynamics which tether him to his unbelief. These dynamics may be cultural, emotional, material or psychological, but they are always intensified by spiritual stirrings of opposite kinds: fascination and fear, surrender and resistance, love and hostility. On both sides of this divide, only the believer sees all that is at stake, and all who are at war.

I do not wish to argue that the conviction of Faith can never be dimmed or extinguished, that logical reasons have nothing to do with Faith, or that Faith itself cannot burn with greater or lesser intensity. That is a subject for an even longer discussion. But even so, the believer is in a radically different position from the unbeliever, and is capable of a radically superior kind of certainty. A proper understanding of Faith, not as an intellectual assent but as “the substance of things hoped for”—as a nascent interior experience of the very Kingdom of God—is for all these reasons absolutely critical not only to apologetics but to evangelization itself. Without it we are doomed to be sounding brass and clanging cymbals, disgruntled arguers for a certainty which we can never fully explain. With it, we are witnesses to a rich experience that others cannot yet fathom, ambassadors of a kingdom they have not yet seen, harbingers of a great light which—for unbelievers—has not yet dawned.

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