Sunday, March 06, 2022

The Dark Mirror of Faith


I often come across Catholics who are "wrestling" with something. They are trying to understand how God's benevolence can be reconciled with the evils in the world. They struggle sorting out what they believe on questions pertaining to evolution and the origin of things. They want to affirm the Church's claims about itself but are put off by the vices of the clergy. Living in a modern secular world, they try to delineate exactly how the Catholic faith should be lived out in terms of dress, habits, hobbies, etc. They agonize over what liturgy they should be going to. They struggle to find adequate political and economic expression of their beliefs within the current system. They labor to find meaning in the twists, turns, and disasters of their own lives. And so long as they cannot resolve these conflicts, they do not feel peace. They often experience a sense of disquiet; part of their faith seems incomplete, or on "hold" until they can resolve these intellectual struggles. They feel profoundly that they must "settle" these matters to attain tranquility.

The life of faith will bring forth many such struggles, and this is unavoidable. But God wants us to have peace, even in the midst of struggle. "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you" (John 14:27). His peace is meant to be an abiding peace; not a peace "as the world gives" that is taken away as soon as conflict emerges. We are meant to have peace, even in the midst of the "wrestling" that is inherent in faith. What kind of peace would Christ offer if we were thrown into turmoil every time we encountered something we couldn't reconcile? Clearly, our Lord means for the peace of our faith to be maintained even in the midst of uncertainty. But how can we accomplish this?

To do this, remember that you do not need to resolve your difficulties in order to maintain faith.

Let's recall a bit about the nature of faith: it is trusting, provisional, and imperfect.

Faith is a kind of knowledge, but unlike empirical knowledge (which is based on experience), faith is based on trust in someone else. So even though we can have certainty grounded in the trustworthiness of the one in whom we believe, it is not the same kind of certainty that comes with empirical experience (what the Bible calls "knowledge"). The way we "know" something through faith is thus fundamentally different than the way we "know" things through empirical experience. So first, we need to recognize that difference and be comfortable with it. The certitude of faith will never "feel" like the certitude you have about empirical knowledge, and that is okay. It's not meant to feel the same. 

Second, recall that faith is provisional. It is a temporary state that is meant to pass away. Faith, hope, and charity we abide in here and now, but in heavenly glory, faith and hope pass away; only charity remains. Faith and hope are proper to people still "on the journey", viators, those who are pilgriming here below towards "that city whose builder and maker is God" (Heb. 11:10). Faith gives us a semblance of what we are doing and where we are going, but it is inferior to the knowledge that will come. Faith is is like looking at a map to try to get yourself to a city; heaven is actually being there, standing in the midst of the heavenly Jerusalem with your feet planted firmly on its golden causeways.

Because faith is provisional, it is imperfect. Not imperfect in the sense that anything is lacking in the formulations of faith, but in the sense that faith alone does not give us the sense of finality that we all crave. It is something we are meant to wrestle with. Faith offers us a broader view than what we could otherwise have, but it is a view through the mist, partially obscured. "when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. 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" (1 Cor. 13:10-12). The experience of faith, even for St. Paul, was "seeing in a mirror dimly." There is always going to be a sense of imperfection, a deep yearning, a wrestling, a sense of "not yet-ness" about our faith. A wandering about in the murky dusk of existence, struggling to come into the brilliance of daylight. 

Even if we are occasionally graced with periods of clarity and resolution, there will always ultimately be a kind of tension so long as we are in the flesh. Why is it like this? Because that is the nature of faith; it is the difference between being on a journey and arriving at your destination. We cannot demand the fulfillment of the arrival when we are yet on the road. And, if by some miracle of God, we had all the knowledge and finality and certainty we could possibly desire here and now, what incentive would we have to grow ourselves? Aristotle once observed that "all men by nature desire to know." It is the curiosity of life, the unquenchable thirst to "get to the bottom of things" that propels us, drives us on towards new adventures, new conquests, and ever greater horizons. There is a cliché that "the real treasure is the friends you make along the way"; goofy as this cliché is, there is a kernel of truth in it: what matters is how we comport ourselves on the journey. It's not about how many talents you are given (cf. Matt, 25:14-30), it's not about whether you ever attain the great intellectual or moral or spiritual synthesis you are struggling to birth into existence; it's about walking, one foot after another, towards that luminous horizon with the sun on my face.

Abraham was the father of faith; he was called, and sojourned into a foreign land in search of what he knew not based on promises he never lived to see fulfilled. Likewise, all of us who live in faith must sojourn in a strange land. That is the essence of being a believer. You must grow comfortable with the sojourn, with the provisional nature of the journey.

What does this mean concretely?

It is obviously a good and praiseworthy thing to seek out knowledge, to learn, and grow in understanding. It is good to seek as much certainty as we can get. But moderation in all thing—you must also acknowledge your limits; there are some things you may never reconcile, and others that may take a long time to understand. This state of "not knowing" is okay and should be embraced. Understand that it is a normal part of faith to grapple with something. Perhaps it is part of our western rationalist bias that makes us feel like our faith will be stronger once we have sorted everything out intellectually. I challenge you to consider backing away from that premise: you don't need to take a position on everything; you don't need to understand how the pieces of something all fit together; you don't need to reconcile every contradiction; you don't need to see clearly or have all the answers. Get comfortable with not knowing. The beginning of wisdom is admitting you do not know as much as you think; learn to say, "I am still wrestling with this; I don't know what I think about it. If it please God, someday I will." That's a perfectly valid response to the conundrums that faith presents to us. To have faith is to wrestle with things; accept that.

Now, I can foresee some critiquing this concept by saying that I am suggesting we just believe blindly even though our mind can no longer assent; that I am telling people to just stuff their difficulties and proclaim CREDO! despite their faltering heart. This is not so. Faith is fundamentally an act of trust, and if that trust has been so compromised as to become unsustainable, then faith is impossible, and it would be wrong and cruel to tell someone to simply ignore it. I am, however, suggesting that those of us who have faith give up thinking that we need to cross every jot and tittle; let go of the idea that being a strong believer means working out all the answers intellectually. Learn to rest in not knowing. You will not be denied heaven because you did not have a fully worked out intellectual synthesis of some disputed issue. If you find yourself in those moments of "wrestling," acknowledge the struggle, embrace it, and offer your ignorance to God.

"All I have written is like straw," said Aquinas, after experiencing a vision of the Divine. No matter how brilliant we are, how much we think we know, or how hard we work to educate ourselves, we are all "seeing in a mirror dimly", as St. Paul says. The dimness may be frustrating at times, but it is part of faith. An essential part. We should learn to take comfort in that and embrace the tension. At least I have.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great post. Very timely as well as earlier today I was experiencing a strong lack of peace while dealing with one of those intellectual struggles. God bless.

Gab said...

Love your insights. BUT it's really hard to read the small white print. Also the black background overwhelms the the white print. Would be better with slightly larger font and maybe bold the white letters. Or just get rid of the black background. Also red print on black is really really hard to see. I have to copy/paste your words onto a Word document to read.

Boniface said...

You should read it on your phone then, where it appears as white on black.

Karl said...

Good post, Boniface. I hope all is well with you. I've been a regular reader for a decade now, however hard it is to think.

Gab: USC's outdated template is forever!

JMM said...

Wonderful and super helpful. Thanks for these thoughts.