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Arguments and Faith: Why do we believe?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 21, 2020

When I experimented a year or two ago with recording some of my old apologetics lectures in video form (see video lectures), I had several experiences worth mentioning, of which I will share just two. First, I did not have the same “dash” in front of a camera that I had had thirty-five years ago in a classroom (but don’t worry, each lecture page includes an audio-only link). Second, I was challenged in a new way by one viewer for putting too much emphasis on arguments for the Resurrection as a reason for Faith.

Essentially, the objection was that Christians frequently believe without requiring or depending upon particular arguments. Sometimes, at least, we can state that a Christian does not believe because but rather simply believes. I did not handle this question well at the time, mostly because I did not fully grasp the point that was being made in the context of my lecture; but questions or criticisms in which I sense a certain validity often continue to bother me until I have found the right place for them in my own understanding.

The issue here is very complex, and we must consider the different factors involved, depending not only on the personality of each Christian but also on the degree of commitment to the Faith reflected by the culture in which each Christian lives. Some who grow up in a culture which takes the truth of Christianity for granted may never internalize that truth. They may speak and act in accordance with the more obvious Christian standards of the culture in which they find themselves, without ever committing to growth in holiness through a dynamic relationship with God. Such persons might identify as Christians primarily through an accident of history, without that identification doing them any spiritual good at all.

Conversely, someone who is formed by a culture which essentially rejects Jesus Christ or even the idea of God—such as our dominant modern secular culture—might develop a very deep faith and trust in God. That faith and trust will often be stimulated and increased by specific arguments, but it could also develop under the influence of various “motives of credibility” which attract and confirm without a clear sequence of argumentation. Alternatively, an act of faith may come through special interior gifts of grace which we cannot easily explain through an objective analysis. At the same time, I am convinced that apologetical arguments—the purpose of which is to clear away the intellectual obstacles that tend to militate against making a commitment of faith—are typically very important when the adoption of Christianity becomes in any way a counter-cultural decision.

But this is only to recognize that when there is any dominant pressure against a lived Christianity in a person’s life it will tend to manifest itself in pervasive attitudes, assertions, opinions and arguments which purport to demonstrate the non-necessity or even the falseness of Christian claims. In the majority of cases, if we are formed under such pressure, we will begin with unexamined assumptions which need to be dispelled rationally before we are willing to dispense with them. Similarly, if these pressures assail us after we have been only nominally Christian owing to a prior familial or cultural circumstance, we will typically need to deepen our rational understanding of the issues as we consider whether or not we will now make an interior commitment to Christ.

After or without apologetics

Of course, apologetics does not “give” anyone faith, for faith is offered as a supernatural gift. Rather, again, for the sincere inquirer, rational arguments remove obstacles to the personal assent to faith, that is, to its acceptance or reception. In addition, after the arguments are considered, or without ever having heard them, each person is typically drawn to the acceptance and deepening of faith by motives of credibility, as I mentioned above. While these can be framed as arguments, they most often serve simply as deep attractions to the soul, attractions which are perceived as having an undeniably Divine character, or as providing undeniably Divine evidence, often without any formal argument at all. In this sense, my questioner was right to ask “Why can’t someone simply believe?”, that is, without depending on a particular set of arguments. The answer, without denying the importance of arguments to most people in any culture, is that we certainly can believe without recognizing and accepting particular rational arguments. I will return to these “motives” in a moment.

At another level, though, I suspect there is always a type of argument going on in the soul, by which I mean an opposition between good and evil, in which we must repeatedly choose one side or the other. Every true Christian—that is, every Christian who is not merely nominally or culturally so—has deep reasons for this which, if they do not take the form of arguments, at least take the form of recognitions. For when we truly see some truth, it means we apprehend a certain aspect of reality. When that is so, our argument—so to speak—is that we can simply already “see” that any faithless proposal made to us is a striking denial of reality.

Every intentional Christian (for want of a better term) enjoys in some respects this direct engraced perception of reality, even if doubt or confusion on this or that point sometimes arises and requires further study. In fact it is impossible to receive the offered gift of faith without sharing to some degree in this fundamental apprehension of the “truth”—which, after all, is simply the mind’s conformity to reality. Once we behold the real, it becomes far more difficult to deny its existence. This is one reason we speak of the “light” of Faith. This light enables us to see more than we could before, and to see more clearly.

Human and Divine motives

While Faith is a gift from God, our reception of and participation in this gift is profoundly influenced by our own human response, which always conditions our growth in Faith. Once again, this “seeing” is often facilitated in a human way through logical argument based on available evidence, and it is also aided in another very human way by “motives of credibility” which appeal in particular ways to particular persons, usually based on the characteristic gifts or features which make up their personalities. As I have already indicated, motives of credibility can be framed as arguments, but it is more accurate to consider them precisely as “motives” which draw us into a deeper apprehension of reality. Typically, these motives, which express themselves differently in each of us, shape our consciousness of reality by drawing us to recognize that some particular quality of Christ, the Church, Christian doctrine, or Christian persons simply cannot exist apart from Divine agency.

For one person, this Divine attractiveness might appear in the sublimity of Catholic art; for another, in the remarkable consistency of Catholic doctrine through so many centuries; for yet another in the unfathomable moral excellence of the saints; or in the endurance of the Church through every circumstance against all odds; or in the incarnational drama of the sacraments; or the richness of the Church’s good works; or the felt power of the Divine liturgy; or the warmth and cohesiveness of a Christian community; or the fundamental integrity of any number of prophetic witnesses in our lives; or, of course, the incomparable integrity (wholeness and perfection) of Jesus Christ; or even, paradoxically, the very sublimity of the Faith’s untamed incredibility! The details of Christianity are, after all, such wild and consistent folly to our human ways of thinking that it is virtually impossible to credit that they are merely a human invention.

These are all intimations of the Divine because they have a human character that extends well beyond the normal human mode. Anyone who is considering Christianity or is already a Christian, if he has normal intelligence, will ask questions and receive answers, including assistance through arguments based on evidence, in the course of normal spiritual development. But every personality will also find something about Christianity which attracts and even subtly compels belief simply because it appears to be inexplicable without postulating a Divine Presence within it. And, yes, even beyond this, God can and at times does offer more direct interior experiences of Himself in the soul, interior experiences which offer a deep and abiding certainty of His reality and His presence.

We may even find something absurdly simple to be at once a strong motive of credibility and a deep personal experience—something as simple as the Divine touch by which God urges as to call Him “abba”, which means “daddy” (Mk 14:36; Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6). Because faith is a gift which enables us to see reality more clearly and more fully, once we assent to this gift—once we see things in the light of faith—many things become so obvious that we can only marvel at the blindness of those who apprehend so little.

Perseverance in Faith

In the writings of St. Paul, faith is at once belief in the truths God reveals, trust in His promises, and obedience to His commands. But arguments and reasons are generally steps in the reception and deepening of faith as we consider whether to assent to Christian claims or to engage more deeply with the faith we have already received. Such arguments and reasons may not be denigrated, for St. Peter himself commands us “to be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope” we possess (1 Pet 3:15). In almost every case, we must also develop such defenses for our own personal benefit when the Devil subtly challenges us with difficulties or doubts. But there are cases—and with God’s help there surely comes a time—when we have seen enough for ourselves that we accept the full gift of our faith “as the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1).

Note, however, that the author of these words was assuming a distinction, for “seeing” reality is not the same as “seeing” material objects with our eyes. The Christian really does see what many others do not, even though we may see only dimly in comparison with what is to come. The result is that both the world and human life make sense to us and not to them. Then, under any form of duress, we realize that “this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen [materially] but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor 4:17-18).

To put this another way, we actually apprehend reality in a manner that exceeds the capabilities of both our bodily vision and our natural abilities. And when we do see in this sense, we may not for a time need arguments. Though we are wise to keep up our prayer and study so that our vision does not dim through a failure to exercise it, our apprehension of reality has now fundamentally changed. By faith we simply see much more of reality. We continue to believe in part because of what we see, that is, what we apprehend of reality itself.

So far, then, we have given the “assent of faith” to the “gift of faith”, and we now see by the “light of faith”. But that does not make it easy to persevere in faith. In his single letter in Scripture, St. James writes, “Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him” (Jam 1:12). He wrote this because he remembered these words of Christ:

And then many will fall away, and betray one another, and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because wickedness is multiplied, most men’s love will grow cold. But he who endures to the end will be saved. [Mt 24:10-13]

This is the reason now for us to persevere in prayer, in study, in examining evidence and arguments, and certainly in forming consistent habits of virtue while receiving as regularly as possible the sacraments of the Church. All of these are acts of love. The gift, the assent, and the light of faith are wonderful and even stupendous things, but it remains for us fully to engage our wills. It is just this application of the will that we call the “obedience” of faith—so that our vision will not be dimmed in this world, and we will never deny the Reality we have seen.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Aug. 24, 2020 2:18 AM ET USA

    I believe because I have hope. This is my most elemental reason for belief. Catholic hope answers 2 of the most important questions posed by thinking persons: (1) the reason behind existence, and (2) the reason behind suffering. The fact that Catholicism asserts a rational beginning and end for physical existence makes it superior to science, which can only speculate. St. Paul's explanations of the purpose for suffering center on Christ and the interplay among the Church Mil., Suff., and Triumph

  • Posted by: FredC - Aug. 22, 2020 1:35 PM ET USA

    I especially like the paragraph that begins with "For one person".

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Aug. 21, 2020 9:26 PM ET USA

    Masterful. I thought at times that I was reading Newman or Dubay.

  • Posted by: fwhermann3492 - Aug. 21, 2020 8:51 PM ET USA

    This, in my opinion, is one of the most intractable questions in all of theology. I have wrestled with it for over thirty years to little avail. The best answer I have found is the words of Jesus in John 10:27: "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me." Exactly how they recognize his voice through faith is the mystery. I heard the voice through the use of my intellect, but other people obviously have ears elsewhere.

  • Posted by: mary_conces3421 - Aug. 21, 2020 7:29 PM ET USA

    This offers substantial food for thought. How do Newman’s ideas about “notional” & “real” assent fit in? (I have been working on his Grammar of Assent at intervals for a while & find its subtleties difficult to fully comprehend.)