Faith Is Not Just Belief

Dear Heather:
There are many aspects of popular Catholic faith that have sometimes shocked me and turned me away. Yet I well remember visiting the great Catholic shrine at Czestechowa, in Poland, where once almost a million people turned out for Pope John Paul II when he first pierced the Iron Curtain to visit his homeland. On my visit, I was a little sickened by all the kitsch and the “buyers and sellers in the Temple .” And also by all the outer devotion of peasant piety, the jostling, the seeming lack of silence and reverence (Anglo Saxon ways are not those of all the parts of the church), the ostentatious fingering of rosaries and the sometimes loud praying. Then the thought hit me: These are the people who defeated Communism. These were the hard rocks of resistance.
Neither do I like the “pills” with written words in them. However, many petitions for canonization are received by Rome every month, and the process of declaring any one person a saint, as you can see from the case you cite, may take two or more centuries to complete.


The investigation must go through four stages altogether: agreement to take up the case, a decision that the title ‘venerated’ may be used, a later decision that the title ‘blessed’ may be used, and then the hardest one of all: the presentation of all the evidence about the person’s life and actions, argued for by the ‘postulator’ and against by the ‘devil’s advocate,’ whose task is to knock down the case because it might mislead the church and cause scandal.
At this stage, scientific tests and testimonies are required of any claimed ‘sign’ from God (any purported ‘miracle’ or ‘wonder’). Many cases falter at this stage. Essentially, what the church states by canonization is that the living example of the person canonized may safely be studied and imitated by others. This person’s life has been vetted as not just a normal follower of Christ, but as one who is a practitioner of the gospels to a ‘heroic’ degree.
But all this comes at a far later stage than the admission in one’s judgment that a radiance of intelligence lights up our own minds, stimulates them to inquiry and testing for evidence, and finds in the world of experience all around us marvelous flashes of intelligibility and even mathematical elegance. In addition, there is plainly a powerful force driving us to keep on questioning, infinitely. And there is enormous energy in the drive forward — in the human world, at least.
You yourself in conversation often bear witness that you are aware of these realities, and presuppose them in what you write about progress, especially scientific progress, and the amazing, driving vitality of evolution on earth. As their presupposition, Jewish and Christian faith require that the Creator be intelligent and purposive, unlimited in energy for the forward thrust of the cosmos (as we know of it at any particular stage). These faiths require that human reason be valid, trustworthy, and able to become aware, at least very dimly, of the presence of divine energy and intelligence in all things. Especially in ourselves, in our own cognitive activities. Know thyself, is the first law.
Such uses of reason, however, do not bring us to the Jewish or Christian God, only to the impersonal god of Deism. The difficulty one must next face is whether such a divine presence (intelligence and energy) is also capable of revealing ‘his’ own nature and intentions to reasonable, inquiring human beings. Christians call God ‘the Word,’ the word spoken in history by the Almighty.
That is a pretty huge step. It can be made not by reason alone but by a further use of reason, called ‘the light of faith.’ Faith is not just ‘belief.’ It is an inner power to wonder, to examine, to reflect, and to decide. After that, a further difficult step is whether it makes any sense to judge that this ‘Word’ spoken in history might first be spoken to one particular people at a unique point in time, and be spread outwards from there only gradually, by a kind of ‘evolution’ of its own, a process of ‘development’ through inquiry and reflection down the ages, and in different cultures, and from different points of view.
As I understand it, Heather, you have difficulty at the very first step. Not the revelation part. But the part about becoming aware, at least dimly or darkly, of the presence of God in your own mind, in your own inquiring intelligence, and in the sheer energy of Progress that you discern in the world you know best, the human world. So the later steps (all the stuff about ‘revelation’) seem quite out of reach, even hard for you to imagine.
Tell me if I am wrong.

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posted March 12, 2009 at 9:46 pm

The Book of Hebrews tells us what faith is:
Hebrews 11:1
“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see,” (Heb. 11:1).

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