Faith: the Reasonable Choice

We rejoice greatly in our faith; let us acknowledge gratitude and explain it where appropriate. Common in our age are a laziness concerning matters of faith and an excuse that faith involves a rejection of reason. Thus the Christian joy and sorrow of the cross are supposed by some to damage one's psychological health, or be a symptom of neurosis. If we must go to Mass, for example, surely we go either because we are dragged there or because it gives us a quasi-hallucinogenic high. If we take up our crosses to follow Christ, it is thought to be because we need a crutch. Let Christians be the first to grant that they are not perfect. At the same time, we may reply that the difference between a cross and a crutch is obvious (on literal and on metaphorical levels). Christianity cannot be countered with such narrowmindedness. What is the real reason for the Mother Teresa's, the Pope John Paul II's, and all the saints and martyrs of history? The answer, at least in part, is that they find it reasonable to believe.

For many the reason begins with an experience: not a flashy, entertaining experience, but a religious experience of the truly holy and personal God. The apostle John sums it up for many:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched - this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal Life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ...

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.

(1 John 1: 1-3,5)

Some say that if there is a God, they have not percieved him, and that's fine. God does not approach everyone in the same manner, nor does he provide revelation upon demand, even (usually) upon request. God reveals himself to people in a variety of ways, and to a limit: drawing them into virtuous relationships with him and with their fellow man. The beginning of faith is not a stifling of the intellect any more than is a meeting of two people does; rather it involves and promotes intellection. Those who are humble and take their conscience seriously might feel God's forgiveness after they truly repent of their sins and sincerely apologize to Him as their Creator. The existence of God can be known without direct experience, as is shown elsewhere at this website. He seems to require of many people an intellectual search for the truths about him, in philosophy and in history.

Let us examine what faith exactly is. To believe or have faith in someone means to assent (in the intellect) to what that person says. Thus to have faith in Christ means to accept as true what he said. Contrary to popular opinion, faith is not itself a collection of emotions, nor is it a summary of every virtue. Nor is it to be confused, obviously, with what we choose to do about our beliefs, i.e. good works. Christian faith inspires a good life; it doesn't force it.

Since humans can and do lie, to each other and to themselves, ordinary faith is considered the frailest kind of knowledge. And so it is, normally. But it must be noted that God is not some fickle human; we can come to know that God, unlike a man, is perfectly truthful always: whatever he reveals to us can be known with certitude.(1)

The following is taken from the philosopher Thomas Aquinas' work On the Apostles' Creed I.5.:

[S]omeone might object that it is foolish to believe what is not seen, and that one should not believe what one does not see. I reply that this difficulty disappears if we consider the following points:

a. Because our intelligence is imperfect. If we were able by ourselves to know perfectly all things, visible and invisible, it would be foolish for us to believe what we do not see. But our knowledge is so imperfect that no philosopher[/scientist] has ever been able to discover perfectly the nature of a fly. We are told that a certain philosopher spent thirty years in solitude in the endeavor to know the nature of the bee. If our intelligence is so weak, is it not foolish to be willing to believe about God only what we are able to find out by ourselves alone? In fact, this is condemned by the words of Job: "Behold, God is great, exceeding our knowledge." [Job 36:26]

b. Because our knowledge is limited. Another reason why faith is not foolish concerns expertise. If an expert were to make a statement in his own particular branch of knowledge, an uneducated person would be a fool if he contradicted the expert for no other reason than that he could not understand what the expert had said. Now without a doubt, the intelligence of an angel surpasses that of the greatest philosopher far more than the intelligence of the philosopher surpasses that of an ignoramus. Therefore, a philosopher is a fool to disbelieve what an angel says, and a much greater fool to disbelieve what God says. He is condemned in the words of Ecclus. 3:15: "Many things are shown to you above the understanding of men."

c. Because life in this world would be altogether impossible if one were only to believe what one sees. How can one live without believing others? How is a man to believe that so-and-so is his father? Man has to believe others in matters that he cannot know perfectly by himself.

Now no one is to be believed as much as God is. Thus, those who will not believe the statements of faith are not wise, but foolish and proud. As the Apostle [Paul] says, "He is proud, knowing nothing";[1 Tim 6:4] and, "I know Whom I believed, and I am certain."[2 Tim 1:12] And it is written, "You who fear Lord, believe Him."[Ecclus 2:8]

d. Because God's miracles prove the truth of the things which faith teaches. Thus if a king sends a letter to which he has attached his seal, no one will dare say this letter was not written by the king's orders. Now it is plain that whatever the saints have believed and handed down to us concerning Christ's faith is confirmed by God's seal, which is to be seen in those works which no mere creature is able to do, namely, the miracles by which Christ confirmed the doctrine of the Apostles and other saints.

And if anyone says that nobody has seen those miracles done, I reply that it is a well-known fact, related in pagan histories, that the whole world worshipped idols and persecuted the faith of Christ; yet now, behold all (the wise, the noble, the rich, the powerful, and the great) have been converted by the words of a few simple poor men who preached Christ.

Now was this a miracle or was it not?

If it was, then you have what you asked for. If you say it was not a miracle, then I say that you could not have a greater miracle than the conversion of the whole world without miracles, and we need seek no further. Accordingly no one should doubt about the faith, and we should believe what is of faith even more than the things that we see, since man's sight may be deceived, whereas God's knowledge is never at fault.(2)

Of these, (d) is the point most crucial to our discussion. The intelligence of humanity has changed in the sense that those living in the time of Christ were dolts and could be convinced by anything, having no powers of intellect, no logic, and no powerful sense of duty to the truth. Those who take this line have not studied ancient history of ideas, and seem given to the fallacy of presentism. The apostles' and early Christians' faith were in a sense caused by Christ through his performance of miracles, such as the frequent defeating of death in resurrection, healings of soul and body, the forgiveness of sins, clear prophesies fulfilled, and the morally perfect life practiced no matter the suffering or type of martyrdom.

These details of Jesus' life and works were recorded in detail by the eye-witnesses themselves, and many of the works survive. All are in agreement.(3) The authors' and their disciples' honesty and integrity were time after time in the Early Church with religious persecutions and martyrdoms, being themselves tortured, beheaded or crucified for not denying their message and morals. The detailed moral excellence of the message is not only sane; it is uncommonly and perfectly sane. Those who, fulfilling the command of Jesus to tach this message, imperfect as they were, lived and died obstinate martyrs and defenders of such sanity.

The apostles' and first disciples' integrity is therefore not an issue, nor is their knowledgability of their subject: the life and words of Jesus whom they lived with day by day during his years of ministry on earth.

Related to this subject:

~ A deep problem in our time: The Negative Spirit
~ On Knowing and Defeating Evil

If these do not help, please e-mail me and we'll discuss it.


Footnotes

1. See for example certain proofs for God's existence and afterwards an examination of God's attributes, monotheism and the Trinity.

2. Three Greatest Prayers, Tr. Lawrence Shapcote, O.P. (Sophia Institute Press, 1990) pp. 5-8. I have updated the English of one Scripture quotation to modern English.

3. For more on the topic of apparent contradictions and difficulties in the Bible, please click here.


Copyright 1997, Luke Wadel. Written permission of the author is required for copying, electronically or otherwise.

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