Belief, Authority, and Faith
‘Belief’ is for children, says modern man. To ‘believe’ is cute, like ‘make believing’, but the mature person has no space for ‘belief’ in the strict sense. Because the strict sense entails that one has not actually seen the thing that is being believed. ‘Faith is the … conviction of things not seen’ (Hebrews 11:1). In reality, we believe many unseen things. We believe Tokyo is to our east and our west, the moon is dusty, and in Afghanistan its hot. These things are reasonably believable because we trust the authority that delivers them. We believe them. There is no belief without authority, without a trustworthy witness. Our beliefs, then, are not about our verification of facts, but our verification of authorities. We would live a lonely life if we trusted no authorities, since someone who believed no one would seem quite unreasonable and difficult to get along with – “I don’t believe you,” would be the mantra of conversation. And thus, we can see that it is against reason to be against belief. Now, the word “belief” is not a total assent. We can choose to believe, even with bits of restraint, and this is based on the trustworthiness of the deliverer. A young boy telling a fish story is not the same as an astronaut describing the earth from space, but we can ‘believe’ both of them. No one purposely believes what he inwardly thinks is false. (This is actually the great false-claim of modern atheist; that believers believe what they really believe to be unbelievable.) We believe the unseen because it is reasonable to do so.But “beliefs” are not the same as “faith”. Faith is much more. “Beliefs” are a sort of collection of things, faith is a unifying whole. If the young boy says that he caught the biggest fish during the camp-out, we can chose to believe that proposed fact, but when we recite the creed, we say we believe ‘in’ God. The nuance here is extraordinarily important when discussing the word ‘belief’, and its relation to faith. The only way we can believe ‘in’ someone – fully assent to everything that comes from them, because they are the ultimate authority, of which none is higher – is if that Person, that Someone, ‘stands incomparably higher above the mature man … and that this Someone has spoken in a manner audible to the mature man,’ as Josef Pieper points out. In other words, only if the Creator speaks about Creation in a way we can comprehend would we have a sort of ‘total belief’. Faith is not necessarily about assenting to what was said, but to Who said it. This total belief is faith.
Faith is not one fact filed in our minds, but “if rightly understood, involves the depths of one’s being,” said Henri de Lubac, “It gives a definite orientation to one’s entire being.” It is so entire because it comes from the One who is completely Other. He reveals Himself, and we must respond to that revelation (if it is true!) in faith or in rejection. This is where we can see another distinguishing of faith and belief – the devils believe in God, but do not have faith .
The Confidence of Christian Faith
And here, we must return to the theme of the witness – of the authority of the deliverer of the message, or the information, that we are to believe or reject. Most religions pivot on some sort of disclosure of God. For example, the Buddha received a special awakening and passed on that tradition. We also have an interestingly parallel disclosure of celestial truth in the religions of Mohammedism (Islam) and Mormonism – or rather to the ‘prophets’ Mohammed and Joseph Smith – both of them were founded by men who received a special message from an angel; both of them were founded in the midst of traditional monotheism (Christian and Jewish); both were illiterate yet somehow transferred the message to tablets; and both religions no longer have these special tablets.
Christianity, on the other hand, claims not that a particular man had a divine message given to him, but that a Divine Message became a man – the Word of God made flesh, not the Word of God written down. Catholicism is not, therefore, a religion of a book (like Islam), but a religion of the Word of God made flesh. It is based completely on the Incarnation of God, of God’s self-disclosure – God revealing Himself. Jesus’ claims are a sort of ‘trump card’ for all other faiths – “I am the way…” After the Incarnation of God, all claims of God must be measured on this Authority, because it is God Himself. So, if Joseph Smith and Mohammed both are visited by angels offering deviations from the words and deeds of God in Jesus Christ, one must respond that “even if… an angel from heaven, should preach a … gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8-9).
The Trustworthiness of the Witness
But how can Jesus be counted different from any other religious figure? Did He really claim He was God? Other religions have claimed that deities have become man. Hercules was even a sort of man-god like Christians claim, right? Vishnu, a Hindu god, became man multiple times. This being the case, where does the confidence of Christian faith, unique of all other claims, come from? “The confidence of Christians is the resurrection…” said Tertullian, “believing this we live.” The authority we trust is the testimony, the authority and trustworthiness, of God Himself revealed in Jesus Christ, but only if He has been raised from the dead. Only if the resurrection is a real, historical event is the Christian Faith worthy of belief. “As the risen one,” said Pope Francis in Lumen Fidei, “Christ is the trustworthy witness.”
Faith in God truly “involves the depths of one’s being”, and its foundation is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. “[If] Christ has not been raised, then … your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14).
Faith then is a response to God’s initiative, it is rightly called a “theological virtue”. This means that, unlike other human virtues, it is not achieved by human effort. God disposes us to belief by proving His trustworthy power in the resurrection, and as soon as our will moves to believe Him in response to His grace, He “infuses” this virtue directly into our soul (CCC 159). How much, it seems, does God want to draw us to Himself! “I will draw all men to me…” said Jesus (John 12:32). Faith is an act of God, and a response of man. There are things we “do” with the virtue and are merited to us as good works of faith (see James 2), but it always is in reference to what God has done first, as the Initiator. He is the Mover, we are the moved.