Why we believe: Knowledge through love
The mysteries of our faith are not confined to the supernatural realities which are the object of our faith, such as the infinite being of God, the inscrutability of Divine providence, the unfathomable unity of God’s justice and mercy, or the absolute dependence of all creation on God’s continuous will. No, the mysteries also include all the finite persons God has brought into being, both angelic and human. How is it, for example, that with such superior perception of the Godhead as the angels enjoy, so many could have refused to adore? And how is it that human persons, adrift in relative darkness, can still come to believe and adore?
One of the mysteries of faith is how we come to possess faith in the first place. We are taught that faith is a gift, and yet St. Peter himself admonishes us to “be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15). We may take the gift for granted, but on reflection we cannot see how we have deserved it. Moreover, we cannot help but reflect—and not always incorrectly, barring any definitive judgment—on the apparent stubbornness which locks others in a kind of perverse denial. Moreover, each person’s experience of the faith is different, and each would cite a different set of reasons for trusting the certainty which faith supplies.
I was faced with this problem again recently when I released my video presentation last year on the Resurrection of Christ (see How do we really know Jesus Christ rose from the dead?). I recorded four video lectures in the brief “How do we really know” series (also available in audio only) before giving it up as a bad job. I seem to have lost the ease with which I “lectured” forty years ago in my college-teaching days, especially when looking into a camera. This is one of several reasons we now have competent people doing excellent podcasts!
But in the lecture on the Resurrection I had insisted on the importance of the arguments in favor of the Resurrection as providing a reason for faith that was necessary under the pressure of persecution. One respondent asked why it could not be possible that those who kept the faith under pressure simply “believed”, without necessarily having specific reasons. While I do think it is usually quite important for the faithful to know that there are good answers to objections against Christianity, I have also reflected more deeply on this question of why different people have the faith—or, perhaps more accurately, why they have assented wholeheartedly to the gift of faith, at times even under duress. And while we are supposed to be able to give reasons for the hope this faith gives us, it has to be admitted that not all strong Christians can do so even to their own satisfaction—and that the individual reasons are not the whole story, however important they may be.
Recognition and response
A related issue is the apparent differences in commitment to “the Faith”. That commitment can range from mere cultural acceptance (“everybody acts as if this is true, so…”) to the furnace of faith at the heart of a deep, sustained, personal and in some ways tangible relationship with God. We know there are many shades of commitment in between, including all kinds of partial reservations. I had a “Catholic” friend years ago who stopped going to Sunday Mass regularly as soon as the small parish of which we were a part added a second Mass. Under these circumstances, he reasoned, nobody else could any longer tell whether he had been to Mass or not. (I was astonished that in the mid-1970s any such social concern could still be a factor, and even more astonished that my friend could forget that at least three very important Persons knew. Still, I will say that even so tenuous a faith is substantially better than none, if only for the possibilities it may keep alive.)
But a moment’s reflection is sufficient to teach us that faith’s strength is not necessarily proportionate to the number or the cogency of the reasons a person is capable of enumerating. This observation is closely linked to the point I made last week about the approach St. John takes to the faith in his letters (see John: Christ’s message is self-evidently true). The disciple Jesus loved speaks about Christ’s teachings as if anybody who knows Christ can simply see their truth; or, to put it another way, as if those who do not see the fundamental truth of Christ’s teachings obviously do not know Christ.
Now, sometimes we fail to know another person at all because we have never had occasion to know him, and at other times we fail to know another person (in the sense of truly knowing or knowing rightly) because of some deficiency in ourselves that renders us unable or unwilling to open ourselves honestly to that person. Depending on the cause, this inability or unwillingness will be more or less culpable. But it is hard to deny that an authentic openness to the goodness of Jesus Christ—that is, to His very being—is the key to receiving the gift of faith in Him. And it is also true that the proper exercise of our own responsibility to live, explore and deepen that faith once received is the key to ensuring that it grows in strength and vitality over time.
All of this certainly includes, in each according to his gifts, an examination of the broad range of good reasons we have for our hope in Christ.
Knowledge through love
The parable of the sower has much to teach us here, which is why Christ immediately applies it to the quality of the “soil” in our hearts for receiving the Word of God. As I suggested above, there are causes for lack of faith in some people that are beyond their control, but there are also causes for lack of faith, including weakened, lost or abandoned faith, that are well within their control. Culpability—real guilt for each cause that is within the person’s control—arises from hardness of heart, by which Christ is understandably grieved (Mk 3:5), just as we are when we experience the same thing.
At the same time, the strength of our faith depends to a considerable degree on our purity of heart—the openness with which we receive Christ, the willingness with which we respond to the Good as brought to perfection in Him. Part of this willingness is reflected in the desire to learn more about Christ, the Church He has established for our benefit, the means of grace He offers, and the truths He reveals, not only through Divine Revelation but through the whole of creation from His bounty. For those with the capacity and opportunity to learn more and know more and understand more through their own proportionate effort, this learning and knowing and understanding are signs of commitment. They may not be slighted without fault.
But since faith is a gift, its possession does not depend in the first place on our efforts to know “about” it. I daresay Satan has a greater “knowledge about” the faith than we do, even at our best. But there are many kinds of knowledge, and perhaps in English the word “knowing” better conveys the kind of knowledge I am addressing here. We can know all about someone without knowing that person. So it is with Christ. We can know “all about” Him without knowing Him, without being open to the gift of Himself. But if we are open to that gift and we receive it, then we begin to know as we are known.
This is because we begin at last to know through love. Perhaps this is also why St. John exclaimed, “We love, because he first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19). And why St. Paul wrote:
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. [1 Cor 13:11-13]
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