Someone asked me the other day to define what I meant by ‘faith’. Strangely enough, there is a great deal of confusion on the subject. Some hold to classic definitions such as ‘faith is a step into the dark’ or ‘believing something in the absence of evidence’. While each of these captures part of the essence of the concept, they fail to express its fullness to my satisfaction.
For me, faith is a conviction arrived at when all the evidence has been examined, assessed, or studied. It is far from something that is opposed to the dictates of reason as some suggest, but is ultimately the fruit of the application of reason that apprehends the truth of something when not all of the evidence can be studied, gathered, or known to provide a definitive answer. After all, if we can know something completely then there is no need to have faith in it. Complete knowledge negates the need for faith. Put in a religious context, if God revealed himself in such self-evident manner that doubt in his existence could not be refuted there would be no need of faith since we would all know that He exists. Since this is not the case, faith and belief are required if one holds to the proposition that God is indeed real. But this does not mean that it is impossible to rationally support a belief in his existence.
For example, my faith in the existence of God is founded upon my acceptance of the logical deductive reasoning of theologians such as Thomas Aquinas as well the modern arguments of scholars such as Fr. Robert Spitzer who recently published a series of books examining the question from the perspective of scientific discoveries in physics of the last century. Such argumentation leads me to rationally conclude that there had to be a ‘first mover, unmoved’ or a ‘first cause, uncaused’. In other words, for creation to exist requires that there first had to be a Creator who established it with the requisite rules to sustain its continued existence. David Bentley Hart, in a recent book, ‘The Experience of God’ explores in some depth the ubiquitous theistic convictions in exists within cultures and religions the world over. The totality of all these arguments can bring me to the starting point of believing in the reality of Gods’ existence.
In fact, were I to believe in the absence of rationally sustainable reasons in the existence of God, I would be guilty of committing a heresy, namely ‘fideism’. This was declared a heresy by the Church and condemned even by the early Church fathers. Simply put, fideism maintains that faith is independent of reason, or that reason and faith are hostile to each other and faith is superior at arriving at particular truths. In the Christian tradition, faith and reason are both essential for all believers.
Another definition of faith that appeals to me, albeit in a more Christian sense of the word, is as follows: Faith is the ‘substance of hope’. Substance here carries its original Greek meaning, which is to say it’s something that ‘stands under’ or supports the Christian virtue of hope. To clarify even further, ‘hope’ stands for more than just one’s wish or desire for something. Hope is defined in the Catholic Catechism as the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ's promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit. Thus faith for Christians is seen then as the structure that lifts up and sustains our trust that the promises of Christ will be fulfilled for us as individuals and for the greater world in general.
So the question needs to be asked… How do we obtain faith? The answer to this is both simple and complex.
While Catholics hold that faith is a gift from God, it would be wrong to say that it comes directly from God and thus is possessed by all who are created in His image and likeness. While it is true that God desires for all to believe and offers sufficient grace for us to accomplish this end, it is necessary for us to do our part to bring this gift to fruition. We must be open to using the gifts we’ve been given, gifts such as our rationality, logic, and intellect as well as the spiritual gifts of prayer, an openness to grace and a steadfastness of spirit to develop and sustain that life-giving faith that undergird our hope and desire. It is something that not everyone will be successful in attaining, but this is not indicative of some failing on God’s part. If we do not do our part in apprehending faith for ourselves, it will not likely take root and grow as an integral part of our life. God opens the door for us, but it is up to us to accept his invitation and to enter into a relationship with him… a relationship of faith, hope, and love. Faith thus is sustained and nurtured through the practice of a religious life, one that is fed by the grace of the sacraments, prayer, and the merits of living as a disciple of Christ.