Saturday, December 24, 2022

Fides Quaerens Intellectum, "Faith Seeking Understanding"

[Dec. 22, 2022] I see it everywhere. I see it in the online threads of Trads debating the powers of the papacy. I see it in dialogues between Protestants and Catholics about the idea of an interpretive authority for divine revelation. I see it in the brain-dump posts of skeptics and the wavering questioning the very concept of religious faith. I see it in the tedious, dreary, back-and-forth discussions between Catholics and Orthodox. It is ubiquitous in religious discussion today.

I am speaking of a hyper-rationalistic approach to matters of faith that insists upon absolutely incontestable logical demonstrations for every point of belief before it is deemed worthy of assent. I refer not to the mere expectation that faith be logical, nor people's reasonable expectation to be convinced of what they are asked to believe; rather, I am referring to people wanting every point of faith to be proven to them in unassailable rational exactitude before they grant it any credibility. What's more, there is the implicit assumption that a point of faith that cannot be proven with ironclad, indisputable, logical certainty is ipso facto untrustworthy. 

This way of thinking is very damaging to faith, as it imposes burdens upon faith it was never meant to carry. Essentially, faith and reason are getting muddled. The propositions of faith are being treated as propositions of logic that must be logically demonstrable in order to have credibilty.

Though I see this as foundational, I think we should nevertheless revisit the nature of faith and the type of certainty faith affords, because it seems to me that people on all sides are subjecting faith to the methodology of reason, with the effect that the entire edifice of belief is being treated as one enormous logical demonstration.

Faith and reason are both modes of knowledge. Reason pertains to what we can know from our own powers of observation, whether empirical or logical. Faith pertains to what we know based on the authority of someone else. Both are true ways of knowing, but each is grounded in a different certainty. The certainty of reason is as good as our own powers of observation and intellection; the certainty of faith is as good as the person we put faith in. Whereas reason implies logical deduction, faith implies confidence. Faith itself is an act of trust.

If we go back to the First Vatican Council's dogmatic constitution on the Catholic Faith, Dei Filius, we see the following comment on the nature of faith:

We believe that the things which He has revealed are true; not because of the intrinsic truth of the things, viewed by the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God Himself who reveals them, and Who can neither be deceived nor deceive. (DF, III)

When Dei Filius says "we believe...not because of the intrinsic truth of things viewed by the light of natural reason," it does not mean that the propositions of faith are illogical; rather, it means it is not their inherent logical intelligibility that convinces us to believe. Rather, we believe based on the authority of the one who reveals—in this case, Jesus Christ. But to use a more everyday example, if my mother tells me a story about getting ice cream with her father at the fair when she was a little girl, I believe her not because the truth of her assertion is immediately apparent to my intellect, but because I know my mother and I trust her. Because of my confidence in her trustworthiness, I assent to her story; I believe it on faith.

Indeed, sometimes faith is the only way to know about a thing. In the story above, suppose I subjected my mother's story to the rigorous standards we apply in logic: "Well ma'am, that's a fine story, but is there anyone that can corroborate it? Your father? Oh, he's dead? Well can you produce any other eye-witnesses? was in 1961 you say and no one else you knew was present? Convenient. Are there any photographs? Journal entries? How about this fair...where was it? don't remember the exact city it was in. I see. Do you remember the name of the company that put the fair on? Well if I knew the exact date this happened, maybe I could check some archives and...oh what's that? You don't recall the date from sixty-one years ago? What's that? It might have been 1962 or 63 now that you think about it? Ma'am, you must admit, this story sounds incredibly suspicious. Your entire account is full of gaps; I can't understand how you expect me to believe this."

Propositions of faith were never meant to be logical demonstrations. Of course, in the Catholic religion, our core articles of faith fit into the same category as the above example—the Trinity, the Incarnation, the salvific death of Jesus Christ, the grace of baptism, His real presence in the Eucharist, etc. are all truths we would have no way of knowing had they not been revealed. They require faith to accept.

But the Christian faith is not illogical, nor was it meant to be blind. Faith does not depend upon reason; but it is in accord with reason. We do not believe because we understand, but as St. Anselm said, we believe so that we may understand. Fides quaerens intellectum ("faith seeking understanding"), to use the formula attributed to St. Augustine. Faith is logical, but not logic-based. It corresponds to reason but is not derived from it.

That this might be more clear, God gives certain "exterior proofs" to aid our reason, called motives of credibility. These motives of credibility do not establish the truth of the faith in a logical sense, but they do testify to it. Dei Filius says:

Nevertheless, in order that the obedience of our faith might be in harmony with reason, God willed that, to the interior help of the Holy Spirit, there should be joined exterior proofs of His revelation; to wit, divine facts, and especially miracles and prophecies, which, as they manifestly display the omnipotence and infinite knowledge of God, are most certain proofs of His Divine Revelation, adapted to the intelligence of all men. (DF, III)

While we should certainly not assent to something we are not convinced of, we should likewise understand that the faith does not demand every single jot and tittle be accounted for before assent can be given. Faith is a form of knowledge, but it is imperfect, characterized by a "not yet-ness"; "for now we see in a mirror but dimly" says St. Paul (1 Cor. 13:12). "Wrestling" with various problems is an inherent aspect of faith (see "The Dark Mirror of Faith," USC, March, 2022). Faith will always be riddled with difficulties. But, to quote St. John Henry Newman, "Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt." Being tripped up with a "difficulty" that you wrestle with is not an argument against assent. The motives of credibility help by lending intellectual weight to our assent, creating a momentum towards belief that encompasses the intellect and will. But we should never confuse the motives of credibility with the act of faith itself. Newman said, "Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt"; but we say, "I will continue to doubt, so long as even one difficulty remains unresolved."

I have deliberately chosen not to mention where I have seen this sort of thing happening because I don't want to drag particular individuals into it, but it is going on all over the place. And I see people's faith being wrecked by it left and right. We are always our own worst enemy. 

1 comment:

Paul said...

Roman traditionalists can sometimes fall into the trap of having tunnel vision and thinking they have liturgical orthodoxy boxed up. What's interesting is when you contrast the liturgies of the East and the West, even in the physical motions--your standard TLM will embody a Thomistic scholasticism in it's postures and movement (crisp, clean breaks, segmented gestures, etc), whereas in the East (both Orthodox and Catholic) there is a fluidity (watch the priest and congregants sign themselves 3x in an almost circular motion). I attribute this to the East's comfort and acclimation to mystery and unknowing, whereas you might find more of this hyper-rationalism in the West and, of course, imbibed in the Holy Mass. I had some thoughts on the contrast here: