This article is part of a series. click here to read the previous parts.
Last October I was on a flight to Chicago with my computer open typing a piece similar to this one. A middle-aged man sitting next to me asked what I was doing. After I told him I was writing about my beliefs, he gave me “advice” that I shouldn’t blindly accept what the Church teaches and learn to think for myself. Six months later, I received not a moralizing cliché but a fair question from my good friend. I mentioned a book called The Case for Christ (a great book about the historical evidence for Jesus’ miracles), and he asked me: would you still believe even if you hadn’t read the history behind this?
These examples show it’s possible for me, as a Christian, to come to my beliefs blindly. It’s equally possible for me to try to prove my beliefs. Is there a middle ground between these two extremes?
Christian faith is the middle ground between blind acceptance and rigorous proof. In the last two articles I argued for two conclusions about Jesus’ miracles: they’re philosophically possible and historically probable. Someone who does not identify as Christian may agree with these conclusions, but still not have Christian faith. Why? It’s a balance: on one hand, we do need to believe in the New Testament miracles to call ourselves Christian, but on the other hand that belief is not enough for Christian faith. Let’s dig a little deeper.
Faith does mean believing Jesus’ miracles are true.
Faith is not fact, but it’s based on fact. Herbert McCabe argues that, even though faith claims are rarely simple factual beliefs of the kind that science might deal with, faith is at least a matter of accepting certain propositions as true and their contraries false. The facts are that Jesus’ miracles happened in history.
Why does faith need to be based on fact? The answer is the same reason we don’t (or shouldn’t) believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Jesus’ miracles mean our faith in him is not blind or arbitrary wishful thinking. Miracles are specific events that give concrete expression to our relationship with Jesus, just as a wedding gives concrete expression to a marriage. And just as married love is not only a feeling, faith cannot become a mere feeling. If it does, what’s to stop us from believing in whatever idea of God feels the best? Feelings change, but truth doesn’t. While our bad mood might undo our pious feelings, nothing can undo Jesus’ miraculous resurrection from the dead. And Jesus miraculously healed the paralytic for the express purpose of demonstrating how concrete God’s mercy can be (see Mark 2:10). Faith in God, who is Truth itself, must be grounded in true events.
Faith is not about proof, it’s about trust.
It is important to believe Jesus’ miracles are true events. But obviously, faith is not simply accepting a particular historical theory after reading an article about New Testament history. Again, someone could agree that Jesus’ miracles happened without having faith in him. St Thomas Aquinas said that if faith were proven, the merit of faith would come to an end. Faith is not faith if it’s proven.
Faith in Jesus involves more than certain beliefs because Jesus is not an idea; he’s a person. Faith in him is therefore is a personal act (Catechism 166). It’s a free choice to enter into a relationship; it’s like accepting a marriage proposal. Our response to his proposal--our faith--is based not only on evidence of his good character and miraculous actions, but on our own desire and our free choice.
Facts are important, but how could you have a real relationship without faith? As Cardinal Newman wrote, Life is for action...to act you must assume, and that assumption is faith. A certain kind of facts and evidence are involved in relationships (does this person have a history of mistreating others?), but rather than impartially considering all available evidence at every turn, we decide to trust certain people. That’s why the response of “doubting” Thomas, who had to literally stick his fingers in Jesus’ wounds to believe in him is understandable (after removing my fingers I probably would have have used lie detector and thumbprint tests), but it’s wrong. Jesus replied to Thomas, Do you believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed (Jn 20:29). Thomas should have simply had faith in Jesus because of who he had known him to be, rather than seeking additional evidence for everything he said and did.
The balance of faith
Finding this middle ground between blind acceptance and rigorous proof isn’t easy. How do we find it?
C S Lewis, one of the best Christian writers of the 20th Century, described himself as the most reluctant convert in all of England. In Mere Christianity he wrote, I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it. That is not the point at which faith comes in. Clearly Lewis’ faith is not blind.
But accepting the evidence (i.e. believing in Jesus’ miracles) is only one step. Lewis defines faith as the art of holding to what your reason has once accepted (i.e. miracle testimony) in spite of your changing moods. Saints--faith role models--are not people who intellectually accept a conclusion, but those who submit their entire will to God’s love based on their beliefs. We are all called to become saints (yes, even me and even you). That means maintaining and developing our faith by praying, receiving the sacraments, loving others, reading Scripture, attending a faith formation class, committing to serve or the countless other ways God invites us to become disciples.
Thankfully, we don’t have to do all this on our own. The Catechism (153) says that before we can have faith, we must receive God’s grace. The Holy Spirit must open the eyes of our hearts and minds to make it easy for us to accept and believe the truth. It’s only then we can truly have faith in Jesus as a person, not an idea.
This article is inspired by Is Faith Wishful Thinking?, an essay in Faith Within Reason by Herbert McCabe, O P.