Before speaking about faith in Chesterton’s sense, as a theological virtue, let’s consider it as a natural part of our lives. The dictionary defines faith as “complete trust, confidence or reliance: as, children usually have faith in their parents.” Although the dictionary uses the example of a child, faith is always part of our lives. In fact, it increases as our world expands from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. Most of what we know comes not from immediate experience, but from reliance on others. I have never been to Moscow, but I believe it exists because I trust (in varying degrees) mapmakers, reporters and travelers. Something similar could be said about my knowledge of Seattle. Though I have lived here off and on for many years, ninety nine percent of what I know (or think I know) about the city comes from talking with others or reading the papers. Someone who believed only what he immediately encountered would live in an extremely narrow world - like that of a cat or some other animal having no mediated experience. For us humans faith is the door we pass through to enter a broader world.*
Scientists also rely on faith for most of their knowledge. Although they can examine some of the evidence for themselves and duplicate many experiments, usually they build on what others have done. Sometimes this reliance proves naïve. For example, last century scientists (for forty-five years) believed they had found the “missing link” between men and apes. Closer examination showed it to be a modern human skull and an orangutang jaw. It was an embarrassing hoax, but no one said, “that’s the last time I trust a scientific report.” We cannot do without faith, even in relatively restricted fields, such as the hard sciences.
When we move into the “soft sciences” like psychology and sociology, the issue of faith becomes more complex, but still indispensable. A student begins by accepting certain pre-suppositions, for example, that a child's early experiences will influence his later behavior. As the student advances, he probably does not spend much time reflecting on how much he knows directly and how much is mediated, that is, comes by way of faith. But if he insisted on rigorous proof for every proposition, he would not get beyond the most elementary texts.
While we acquire ordinary knowledge mainly by faith, we usually have no reason to question it. By and large, it works. However, there is a level of faith which is much more important, but less secure. It is the faith required for human relations. Our everyday dealings with others depend on trust. Unfortunately, people betray that trust, either by momentary weakness or by pre-meditated deception. The events of September 11 show that humans can deceive in monstrous ways. Because of such sad experiences, as we grow older, we become more circumspect and tend to have less friends. If we are not to wind up completely isolated, we have to deliberately cultivate trust.
In human relationships, trust always involves pardon. No parent, no spouse, no friend, no priest is perfect. Far from it. People close to us have let us down – and we have done the same to others. Bitterness, because of betrayal, and guilt, on account of our own failures, can overtake any of us. Yet, neither guilt nor bitterness can totally destroy the urge to trust. What does that mean? I am convinced it points to someone who does deserve it in an unqualified manner.
The apostles asked Jesus, “Increase our faith.” I will openly admit that even after thirty years of priesthood, sometimes the existence of God seems incredible. But then, that a single photon should exist also seems incredible. The great philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibnitz asked, "Why is there anything at all and not nothing?" We humans can brush off many questions as irrelevant, but I hope no one will lightly dismiss that one.
Still there is an even more urgent question – what to do with the unquenchable longings. For sure, we can try to anesthetize them. Drugs, pornography, money, revenge will work for a time. But not forever. What Augustine wrote sixteen hundred years ago, continues to resonate: "Thou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee." (Confessions, I, 1)
President Bush has promised to hunt down the terrorists. With a much greater determination, God tracks the sinner - not to destroy, but to rescue. To conceal oneself from the entity who sustains us is supreme foolisness. It is like a fish trying to escape from water. In pursuing man, God wishes to offer a free gift, faith. This is how the Catechism describes it:
By faith, man completely submits his intellect and his will to God. With his whole being man gives his assent to God the revealer. Sacred Scripture calls this human response to God, the author of revelation, "the obedience of faith". To obey (from the Latin ob-audire, to "hear or listen to") in faith is to submit freely to the word that has been heard, because its truth is guaranteed by God, who is Truth itself. Abraham is the model of such obedience offered us by Sacred Scripture. The Virgin Mary is its most perfect embodiment. (#143, 144)
Lord, increase our faith, our trust, in you.
*In the Confessions St. Augustine used natural faith as a starting point to understand the theological virtue:
"if I took into account the multitude of things I had never seen, nor been present when they were enacted--such as many of the events of secular history; and the numerous reports of places and cities which I had not seen; or such as my relations with many friends, or physicians, or with these men and those--that unless we should believe, we should do nothing at all in this life. Finally, I was impressed with what an unalterable assurance I believed which two people were my parents, though this was impossible for me to know otherwise than by hearsay." (Book 6, V, 7)
From Archives (27th Sunday, Year C):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Bulletin (Parish Financial Situation)
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Darwin's Dangerous Idea (personal reflection on PBS' Evolution Program)
My bulletin column
St. Mary of the Valley Album
(September of 2010)
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
Are these homilies a help to you? Please consider making a donation to St. Mary of the Valley Parish.
Parish Picture Album
MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru
KRA's & SMART Goals (updated September 2013)
My Top Ten Teaching Opportunities
Geography of Faith Resources