by Fr Jacob Bottom
Faith has a bad rap these days; even in Christian circles. Faith healings, or the lack thereof and phrases like, “Just have faith,” have narrowed our understanding of the word into some small cattle corral of meaning, where it sits scared and unsure of the future. Faith, to many modern hearers, simply means to believe without thoughtfulness or nuance; to hold a blind conviction about biblical propositions. The leap of faith is the only way to defeat doubt.
Seen in this way, and during a time when doubt is so culturally prevalent, faith can seem unsophisticated, dogmatic, and dangerous.
Mumford & Sons captures the sexiness of cultural doubt (uncertain faith) in their song “Believe.” Whether about a girl or God, or both, the repeating mantra is, “I don’t even know if I believe…your world’s not all it seems.” As if to say, the view of the world presented to the songwriter was not sufficient to take in all the complexities with which experience had constantly bombarded him.
Yet faith ≠ simplistic, unsophisticated thinking. If Dante had any true grasp of reality as a poet, the virtuous pagans in Limbo suggest that natural intellectual operation is, in fact, the lacking faculty, not faith. Virgil explains to Dante the pilgrim, “That these [the virtuous pagans] of sin were blameless; and if aught they merited, it profits not, since baptism was not theirs, the portal to thy faith.”
The virtuous pagans had achieved, to full measure, everything that the faculty of the mind could offer. Yet they failed to understand that all thought, all rationale, led to and was completed by faith, i.e. Faith in the things God had revealed about Himself. Living a virtuous life is not an end of itself but simply a means to the end of knowing God more.
F.P. Harton, at the beginning of his chapter on the theological virtue of faith, states, “It is important to realize at the outset that faith is a spiritual virtue, not a natural intellectual operation; therefore, it does not oppose the rational processes of the mind, but completes them.
A Brief Distinction
As faith should provide clarity in uncertainty, so too we must strive for clarity in our thinking. Apart from the meaning mentioned above, the word faith can mean two other things, both of which are interrelated and therefore I wish to speak of both.
- Faith can mean the content of Christian doctrine; this meaning usually signified by the ever-helpful definite article, as in “the Faith.”
- It can also mean the faculty of the soul; a gift infused into the Christian’s substance by the Holy Spirit. This use of “faith” is also known as a Theological Virtue.
Harton again brings conciseness and insight stating,
In the spiritual sphere, the knowledge of God is an intuition granted to the soul through [the Theological Virtue of] Faith…Faith is indeed far more than mere knowing, either rational or intuitive; it is the virtue by which we are united to God…In purely human relationships we have faith in a person whom we believe to be true, honourable and of sound judgment, and because we thus believe in her we have faith in what she says and accept her word with our intelligence even though we may have no means of proving the truth of her words for ourselves; indeed, if we have a real faith in her we should not desire to prove her words at all. The same is true of faith in God. The essential part of faith is a spiritual movement towards God, not, as many think, an unaccountable disposition to believe certain, mostly indemonstrable statements.
Do not doubt, therefore, but grow in faith. To grow in faith is to grow in the Spirit. Faith is not a staunch certainty but a habit of trust. It is seeing His faithfulness and believing what He says, both about Himself and about the condition of the world. Faith is a supernatural movement towards God by the power of God Himself.
The evil one is cunning indeed, to shape an entire culture that views faith as the enemy and doubt as the desirable trait. May the mantra, “I don’t even know if I believe” change to “Lord, I believe, help me in my unbelief!”