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Br. Peter Junipero Hannah, O.P.'s picture

Roper, the Answer is No...

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“...and will be no, so long as you’re a heretic,” says Sir Thomas More in the great film A Man for All Seasons, when young William Roper Holbein's Moreasks to marry his daughter. Instantly indignant, Roper thunders back “I don’t like that word Sir Thomas!” More—never at a loss—rejoins “It’s not a likeable word, it’s not a likeable thing.” (See here for the entertaining exchange.) The presumption (Saint) Sir Thomas More makes here—namely that what we believe about God and the universe, even down to the minutest and gritty details, matters—is radically alien to contemporary Christians. And it is we, not More’s generation, I fear, who have gone astray.

One often hears today the cry “I am spiritual but not religious.” In the mouths of those who say it, it seems to have behind it something like this: “I feel within me spiritual forces and principles. I also have a sense of the mystery of the universe, its beauty and splendor, and the heart-breaking contradictions of a world with so much good and so much evil side by side. There does seem to be ‘something’ or ‘Something’ out there. But I also don’t want to be a part of any organized group that talks about these things or imposes on me ideas of what they are. I do have a vague sense that these larger forces deserve 'reverence,' even 'worship,'  but I don’t want to offer this reverence like anyone else, or with anyone else, or according to any set format, or in any way that smacks of tradition or human institution or set rules for behavior. I sense something like ‘God,’ however we call it, but I will have no part in traditional religion.” So is the intention.

Now the first part about the universe’s mysterious character is truly a noble, human and healthy instinct. It is not wrong to call it, from the side of human nature, the basis for all contemplation, prayer, and worship. It is the second half that is problematic. I will re-phrase our contemporary man’s creed into plainer language, with a slightly cheeky elucidation and commentary on its real meaning: “I,” says this man actually, “have a deep, though obscure sense that ‘God’—whatever that might mean—exists [good so far]. But since these things can’t be known for sure [well...] and people have killed over them [true but not determinative] and religion in general is very dangerous [yes and no, but even if yes, not necessarily a bad thing], I will invent my own, the religion that belongs to me, the religion of me [insert Family Feud buzzer].”

There are countless things to say in response to this “personalized” sort of creed. I will state just a few. Vast segments of the Christian West would rise as a phoenix from the ashes if Christians understood one truth and the implications following from it: namely, that faith is an act of the intellect (see Summa Theologica II.II.4.2). Faith, Christian Faith that is, does not arise from our feelings about what might be nice or not, or from what we are “comfortable” believing about God or not, or from what our family or friends or The New York Times thinks about priests, or from behavior we want to justify in our own lives. Faith believes in realities that are more solid and sure and sharply contoured than anything on earth, precisely because they were crafted in heaven. We cannot change them because we want them to be different any more than we can remove the Pacific Ocean at will, or obliterate half the stars in the sky on a wish. It can be truly said that we have absolutely nothing to do with determining the essential content of the faith, any more than Jesus could metamorphose into different shapes, alter his nature as God, or shrivel the moral demands of the Gospel according to whether people agreed with them or not. God is infinitely beyond us, and He is as He is, regardless of what we think about Him. The Nicene Creed can be affirmed (as Christians affirm it) or denied (as non-Christians deny it, or confused Christians deny parts of it), but there is no middle ground.

This is an important point, because for some time Christianity has been yielding to the temptation of presenting the faith as something bland, undemanding, and ultimately uninteresting (which is why it has been shrinking since the 1960s). Christianity itself has contributed to the "religion of me" creed. God is presented as a non-judgmental moral therapist, there when you need Him (or Her—whichever way you like!), goes away when you do not, and affirms in gentle lullaby voice whatever you already believe or do. But this is not Christianity! This is not faith! Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus say, “Come follow me, when you want, and how you want,” or “Affirm yourself, take up your personal creed, and visit me when you feel like it.” Rather, Jesus’ preaching perpetually insists on very sharply defined principles. It often has the character of holding out two radical extremes without diluting either side. Exceeding mercy and severe demands are wedded in a beautiful and entrancing unity. In one moment Our Lord will say, “Come to me, all you who are burdened, and I will give you rest,” then in the next, “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.” His promise, “I am with you always” reaches the heart with comfort and security, after which neck-hairs stand erect at the rebuke, “Brood of vipers! How do you expect to escape the damnation of hell!” “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” pierces the heart with profound joy, while “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off” sounds, out of context, like a sick and cruel practice in some barbarous land. Translation: Jesus is infinite love because he is God, but milquetoast moral therapist he is not.

How does this character of our Lord relate to the virtue of faith? If we are to be Christian, if we are to be Catholic, it is imperative that we believe in God and not--well--not in ourselves. Faith involves accepting, in a posture of humility, all that God has revealed to be true through his Holy Church; since the Church’s commission from Christ is precisely to guard and pass on the fullness of the truth which liberates. There is certainly a subjective side of the faith involving our own particular circumstance and personality and experiences, which may make it more or less easy to assent to all the Church has revealed. No one can come to faith apart from the grace of God, meeting and imbuing our hearts and minds, and healing the deepest recesses of our souls.  This is where the will and choice and conscience and love come in—but this more subjective side would require another article.1

For now, it is simply my burden to highlight a truth that has been all but lost in contemporary Christianity (Catholic and non-Catholic): it really matters what things we objectively believe about God. It really matters whether or not we can believe with our minds what the Church has revealed to be true about God. Eternal things hang in the balance. Orthodoxy and Heresy hang in the balance. Heaven and Hell hang in the balance. If it were not the case, honoring martyr-saints like Sir Thomas More makes no sense. Aquinas, to put an even finer point on it, goes so far to say that if someone rejects even one article of faith from Scripture or proposed by the authority of the Church, he cannot have real faith in any of the articles (ST II.II.5.3). Translation: when we pick and choose what we want to believe, when we are “Cafeteria” Catholics, we are not exercising faith but “only a kind of opinion in accordance with [our] own will.”

I do not mean to harp excessively on the point, and it is neither my desire nor personality to enjoy upsetting people. I emphasize faith’s objectivity, though, since one of the fundamental spiritual ills of our time is, to put it bluntly, self-worship. Modern man is inclined to trust no authorities outside his own personal subjectivized world: which is fatal to faith. Realizing, on the other hand, the positive place our minds have in establishing a relationship with God goes a very long way towards getting us on the right track. Such an affirmation of the mind in relating to God implies necessarily that we study about Him, contemplate Him, ask questions about Him, seek Him always, and address Him daily in prayer. Only when we have believed rightly can we fully and authentically love Him. This, above all, implies a humble posture towards all that He reveals, including the institutions and authorities He has established to govern, lead, and clarify Church teaching. Every saint took such a posture. If we do so with our whole hearts, souls, and minds, God can make us into one as well.

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1 For example, I could go into the distinctions between, in Aquinas' language, "formed faith" (faith with charity, which alone can save) and "unformed faith" (faith without charity, which even the demons can have); or between "material heresy" (non-culpable error about God which stems from ignorance, rather than bad will) and "formal heresy" (knowledgeable and obstinate denial of revelation). (see Summa Theologica II.II.4, Questions 3 & 4)

These are important distinctions, but would require another article. I here focus simply on the objectivity of the Christian faith and the importance of believing it.