We begin our profession of faith by saying: “I believe” or “We believe.” Before expounding the Church’s faith, as confessed in the Creed, celebrated in the liturgy, and lived in observance of God’s commandments and in prayer, we must first ask what “to believe” means. (CCC #26)
“I believe…” What could we possibly say about these two little words? What does it mean to say “I believe?” Are there not many things we can believe in? Is believing just some personal choice to believe in something that makes us feel better about ourselves? Do we simply feel more secure if we choose to believe in something greater than ourselves?
And what about the question of “Why?” Why do I believe what I do? Is it just because this is what I was taught as a child? Is it simply because I have no reason not to believe what I was taught?
Throughout history there have been countless people who have tackled these questions. Some were among the most brilliant minds this world has known. Others have exercised very little intellectual power. But it’s true that the countless masses of people throughout history have pondered the question of belief. Some have done it in a very public way through books and articles. Some have discussed these matters at home with a spouse, children or friends. And others have kept these questions inside pondering them for themselves not sharing their reflections for fear of judgment or criticism
What has your journey of belief looked like? Have you looked deeply at the question of your beliefs? Do you even know what you believe? Have you tackled the tough questions of God, the creation of the universe, the afterlife, the moral life, worship and the like?
If you’ve pondered these questions and come to some sort of conclusion then have you also looked deeply at that second question of “Why?” Why do I believe this or that? Do I have a good reason for my beliefs? Or am I embarrassed or fearful to take a stand and make my convictions known?
The goal of this book is to address these questions head on. And it’s essential that we look at this question of belief as a question first. In other words, unless we understand the question, and all the subsequent questions that go hand and hand with that question, we will never be able to properly come to the right answer. The true answer. The answer we truly believe and are willing to stake our life on. But unless we’ve walked through the question properly, done our due diligence, explored all possibilities, and sought out the truth, then we will have a very hard time saying, with any real conviction, those two little words… “I believe!”
This chapter deals with faith, belief and the process of coming to faith and certainty. Take your time in reflecting upon it and don’t move on until you’ve properly done your part. This is not only an intellectual exercise, it’s also an exercise in openness to the Truth. It’s an exercise in engaging the truth as it is, letting it sink in and letting it transform your life.
Let’s begin by looking at the most fundamental desire there is.
There is one thing you cannot remove from your heart’s desire. One thing you can never shake. One thing that you will always want and seek. In fact, this one thing is one of the most fundamental and guiding desires of your life and has an effect upon everything you do! What is this “one thing?” It’s the deep and unshakable desire for happiness written upon the very depth of your being!
You want to be happy! Period. You can’t shake that desire. Interestingly, even a life of the worst of sin is focused on the desire for happiness. Sure, when sin is chosen as a path to “happiness” there is confusion present. But nonetheless, even sin is done with a desire for happiness of some sort.
Take some examples: Why would someone use drugs? Because they have a false sense that this will make them happy. Or why does someone lose their temper and blow up in anger? Because they have a false sense that this venting of their anger will satisfy them. And, yes, in a twisted way it does temporarily satisfy. But the satisfaction with this and every sin is fleeting and ultimately leaves one less happy and more dissatisfied in life.
But the point here is the desire for happiness. It’s unshakable. No one can honestly say, “I truly want to be miserable!” Some people make themselves miserable but no one truly desires this. They just go about seeking happiness in the wrong way.
This desire for happiness is unshakable because it’s a desire written upon our very nature. It’s there and it’s not going away. By analogy, we can say “The sun is bright” or “water is wet.” “Brightness” and “wetness” are essential attributes of the sun and water. You cannot take them away. There is no such thing as a dull sun or dry water. Sure the sun may be covered with clouds or water may evaporate but this doesn’t change the very essence of what the sun or water is.
So it is with our human nature. An essential aspect of human nature is the desire for happiness. Humans want happiness and there is no way to remove this desire from your heart. It may get covered up through sin or confusion or depression or despair. But deep down, the desire remains as an essential and integral part of our nature. It makes up part of who you are.
Tapping into and understanding this reality is key to understanding who we are and what life is all about. If the desire for happiness is part of our human nature then the next obvious question deals with: “Fulfilling that Desire.”
So, if I come to a point where I agree that I desire happiness and that everything I do in life is, in some way, done with this desire as a directing principle, then the next question is quite obvious: “What is it that actually fulfills this desire and actually makes me happy?”
Good question. And perhaps intelligent minds will disagree on the answer to that. But a basic philosophical truth is that two things that contradict each other cannot both be true. For example, something cannot be both hot and cold at the same time, or black and white at the same time. Sure, one person may say their soup is hot while another may think the same soup is only warm. So there is a certain perspective involved. But ultimately the principle remains that two things that contradict each other cannot both be true.
The point is this – human nature is created and designed in such a way that there are in fact certain things that make us happy and certain things that make us miserable. And perhaps there are many things in between. But it’s just not logical or rational to say that if one thing makes me happy it will also make someone else miserable.
Now I know what you’re thinking. You may be thinking that, for example, your spouse loves to go shopping and you are miserable shopping. Or you love to watch football but your friend hates football. What we have to understand is that some things create a more superficial “happiness” and others produce a more substantial and essential happiness. So, yes, football may be “fun” for one person and not for another. Or shopping, knitting, swimming, etc., may make one person excited and not another. But when we speak of the desire for “happiness” we cannot just settle for this more superficial level of things that are only entertaining or fun. We are not speaking of hobbies, pastimes or preferences. Rather, when we speak of that deeply ingrained desire for happiness, we are speaking of a whole different category.
So what is this other category? It’s the category of love. For example, no one can truly say, “I hate to love and be loved.” Sure, they can say that and even believe it, but, in reality, no one can love to hate or hate to love. Love is what we are made for. It’s intertwined so deeply within us that it cannot be shaken. Deep down, we all love to love and to be loved.
The word “love” is a dangerous word to use here because in our culture it is so often misused and abused. Our concept of love has been skewed and distorted from its true divine meaning. So, the real answer is that the love that God designed and instituted is the ultimate source of our happiness and fulfillment. Therefore, we need to shed the cultural influences about what love is and try to arrive at the real meaning. What does God think about “love?” What is His definition? The answer to this question is the answer to our happiness.
Divinely designed love takes on many forms but always retains a true selflessness, sacrificial giving, freedom and totality. It can be found in the relationship of spouses, with children, among siblings, between friends and even with a stranger. In every relationship, love will take on a unique form but ultimately will mirror and share in the one love of God.
Ultimately it is love that draws us into a deeper relationship with God. Love of God is what we were made for. This is happiness! And this is fulfillment! This is the only way to fill that longing in our heart and the only way we will address the desire that we cannot shake – love of God directly in our relationship with Him, and love of God by our giving and receiving love with those around us. When we understand this and begin to live it then we have begun to understand this unshakable part of who we are.
If we are to love God we must come to know Him. We cannot love someone we do not know. So how do we do this? How do we come to know God?
There are two basic ways. Both ways bring us to knowledge of God but the second way brings us much deeper into our personal knowledge of Him and is necessary for a true relationship with Him. Below are the two ways.
First, we come to know there is a God simply by natural deduction. In other words, our brains can figure it out by a process of reasoning. It just makes sense! As you will see, our natural reasoning process toward a God cannot help us arrive at the full picture of the Christian God we love and worship. But it can give us a start and point us in the right direction. Let’s start by looking at how this makes sense from the point of view of creation itself. There are several ways we can look at this but we’ll just look at it from a couple of them. This may seem overly philosophical, but it’s important to understand nonetheless.
One way to look at it is to realize that the Universe must have had a beginning. There was a beginning to time. How do we know this? Because it doesn’t make sense to say that the Universe simply always was with no beginning? Why? Because time moves in one direction. Forward. We can certainly imagine that time could go on (forward) infinitely. It’s rational to think that there could be no end to time. But what about the reverse? Is it rational to think that time could have what philosophers call an “infinite regress?” That is, a day before yesterday, and a day before that, and a day before that…on and on and into infinity backwards? If you think too hard about this your brain may hurt. It’s hard to comprehend this possibility and ultimately does not seem possible. So what’s the answer? The logical answer is that the universe had to have a definite beginning. A starting point. But this begs the question, “How did it start?” And that’s where we get our answer. There must be a power that is capable of starting the Universe, creating it, setting it into motion, and doing this out of nothing. Some scientists call this the Big Bang. But we will call it God
Another way to look at this question of proving God’s existence from a rational point of view is the reality of non-material “things.” What are those things? They are beauty, love, free will, intelligence, and the like. The Catechism (#32) quotes St. Augustine as he says:
Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air distending and diffusing itself, question the beauty of the sky… question all these realities. All respond: “See, we are beautiful.” Their beauty is a profession [confessio]. These beauties are subject to change. Who made them if not the Beautiful One [Pulcher] who is not subject to change? (St. Augustine, Sermo 241, 2: PL 38, 1134)
Beauty is something real. We see it, understand it when we are faced with it, and somehow it reveals the Most Beautiful One. We also see within our self the reality of our interior life. We realize we have free will. An ability to know, love, communicate, cherish. We recognize our comprehension of moral goodness, concern and care. These and so many other human qualities are so much more than the result of a bunch of molecules acting within our physical bodies. We just know that. These qualities must come from somewhere and that “somewhere” must be something spiritual. It must be more than physical. And the acknowledgement of this brings us to the realization that there is something more than just the physical world. And the origin of this is what we call God.
When we really wrap our minds around this and are honest with ourselves we realize that we can only scratch the surface of what this all means through our human reason alone. We can come to a point where we realize there is more. That there must be a source of all we are, all we know, and all we experience. But human reason cannot go much further. And human language is also insufficient in expressing this. But we do our best realizing that we are striving for that which we can only begin to fathom.
Our next step is to go beyond what our brains can figure out and turn to what we call revelation.
So, if I were a philosopher and wanted to prove that God existed I could prove certain things such as the fact that there must be a first cause of the universe. And I could argue that the non-physical aspects of humanity, such as truth, beauty, knowledge, free-will, etc., must come from some source other than the physical makeup of my body. But it’s hard to go beyond these points just from a logical argument. Therefore, if we want more, if we want to come to the understanding of who God is and how He has acted and continues to act in our lives, then we need more. So what is that “more?”
That “more” is revelation. Revelation is real. It’s almost like a sixth sense. A spiritual sense. It’s the way God speaks to us and personally convinces us of His divine nature. It’s His personal love and care for us and His activity in our lives throughout history.
Revelation is both a public act on God’s part but also a very personal act on His part. It’s God Himself speaking, explaining, and acting within our lives. It’s a personal communication with us and more! It’s more in the real sense that God not only speaks to us in revelation but also calls us to know Him, understand Him, believe in Him, love Him, follow Him, and live united with Him. It’s a true communion of love, a true relationship of love and the beginning of a complete transformation of our lives.
So how is it that God reveals Himself to us through revelation?
When God speaks, we must listen. If we believe that, then it begs the question, “How does God speak so that I may listen?” As Scripture says, God speaks “In many and various ways…” (Heb 1:1-2). What are those many and various ways?
To answer this properly we have to go back to the very beginning of time. We have to trace God’s action and communication with humanity from the very beginning. So we start with Creation itself
The Bible is the source of our knowledge of God speaking to us throughout history. It records God’s activity in the lives of His people throughout time. But the Bible is much more than this, too! The Bible is a “Living Word,” meaning, as we read the Bible we actually encounter the Living God! We meet Him and He reveals Himself to us. So let’s see how this happens.
First, the Bible tells us how God spoke in the beginning of time creating the universe and all that is within it. From there, we hear of Noah, Abraham, the patriarchs and prophets. And, of course, the Bible culminates with God speaking through His only Son.
Reading about all of this is not only like reading a history book, rather, we actually meet God Himself as we engage His Word. So, for example, when we read the story of creation we learn about what God did and why He did it, but we also come to actually “know” God Himself! When we listen to the promises made to Noah and Abraham and listen to His words spoken through the prophets and patriarchs, we encounter a living God who loves us, has spoken to us and continues to speak to us today. And most especially, when we read the life of Jesus, listen to His words, and ponder His actions we meet Him personally within those words. So the Bible is alive! It’s an encounter with the Living God! And it’s the instrument by which we establish our relationship with this loving and personal God.
God keeps speaking! He is not finished. Though everything He had to say is revealed in the Scriptures, and in the Person of His divine Son Jesus, He continues to reveal all He spoke by continuing that conversation within the Church today. So let’s see how.
Yes, the Bible is the inspired Word of God and is the source of our knowledge of Him. But God takes that glorious source of revelation and continues to deepen our understanding of it through the Church. He gave the “Keys of the Kingdom” to St. Peter and to all of his successors. They are entrusted with the responsibility of taking that revelation and making it present in every day and age. Every day and age has its own unique questions and concerns. That is why the Church is the living and ever-present source of God’s continual voice. Again, He is alive today. He speaks today. He is alive in the Bible but also in the Church. We call this continual communication within the Church “Tradition.”
Tradition is not just traditions. It’s not just ideas or practices that have been passed on from age to age. It’s not just customs or cultural practices. Tradition is the actual Living Word of God alive in each generation. Its foundation is the Bible, the foundational revelation of the Living Word of God, and its voice is the Church today and yesterday acting as an instrument, transmitting the Living Word.
How does this transmission work? It works through the Magisterium.
“The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ” (DV 10 § 2.). (CCC #85)
“Authentic interpretation of the Word of God?” Whose job is that? It’s the responsibility of the Church in every day and age. But it is uniquely the responsibility of one part of the Church: The Magisterium.
Now, to some, the idea of the “Magisterium” and “authentic interpretation” may seem dry or even impersonal. It’s similar to our relationship to the Supreme Court or the President in the secular world. Sure, we know they are important and we know they have a big influence upon society, but do they really affect me and my life? Well, yes, more than we realize. And so it is with the Magisterium, but in a way that is even “more real” so to speak.
The most important responsibility the Magisterium has in teaching is to define what we call dogmas. These are the Church’s highest teachings. These teachings, and really all the teachings of the Church, have a very direct impact upon our spiritual lives. For example, if you pray the rosary, have a devotion to our Blessed Mother, have a devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, go to Confession, etc., then the Magisterium has had a very direct impact upon your life! You see, doctrine and dogma affect our personal life of faith more than we could ever realize. Why? Because it presents a transmission of the very Word of God for our day and age. And that Word is the path to our relationship with God.
Next, let’s look more specifically at Sacred Scripture itself.
The Scriptures are the inspired Word of God. But they are also the work of man. But it’s not a 50/50 project. Rather, we say they are 100% the work of the human author and 100% the inspired work of the Holy Spirit. So it’s a 100/100 project!
This is clearly seen in the fact that each book is unique. Why are they unique? Because each book uniquely reflects the way the Holy Spirit shines through that particular chosen author. So St. Paul writes in one unique way and you can see his human personality shine through. Each Gospel is unique and reflects both the author and the community for which it was written. St. John’s Gospel, for example, is exceptionally unique from the others and clearly reveals God shining through his very humanity. But each part of the Bible is also 100% the inspired work of the Holy Spirit!
The Old and New Testament together make up one complete and total Testament of God’s inspired Word. Each book was written at a different period in time and together reveal the unfolding mystery of God’s activity in human history. Early on, as the books of the Old Testament were compiled, we see how God slowly prepared humanity for the coming of His Son. The Old Testament reveals the work of Creation, the fall of humanity, God’s continual attempts to establish a new covenant, man’s continual turning away from God, the role of the prophets, kings, Old Testament priesthood, sacrifices, prayers and much more. In the end, it all points to the New Testament when we discover Jesus fulfilling everything promised by God and prefigured in the Old Testament.
The New Testament was written over several decades and then was used by the early Church in its liturgies and teaching. Over the first several centuries of the Church, the question of which books and letters really were inspired was clarified and defined by various councils within the Church. A council is a gathering of the bishops for the purpose of teaching. The final and clearest statement from a council took place in the mid-sixteenth century, at the Council of Trent. At that council, the fathers clarified the definitive listing of the books of the Bible. It was definitively taught there that “the Church accepts and venerates as inspired the 46 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New” (CCC #138).
One of the best things you can do is learn the Scriptures. Study them, read them and, most importantly, pray with them. As you do this, you will realize that the Scriptures are very much alive! As we enter into the Scriptures, we will be called to experience the gift that the Church has called the “Obedience of Faith.”
Here comes the “I” part of our reflection. Faith is both personal and public. It’s public in that it’s God’s Word sent forth for all. It’s the revelation given by God in the Scriptures, and deepened throughout the ages by the Magisterium (Sacred Tradition). But the ultimate goal is our own personal conversion and faith.
When the public faith of the Church meets us in our consciences we are called to encounter the Living God and meet, love, and come to know God Himself. This personal meeting calls for a completely free response on our part. It means we must see God and freely choose to believe in Him, love Him and surrender to Him. This produces the glorious gift of faith in our lives when we become “obedient” to the Voice of God out of love and by our own free will.
Though this is a free and personal choice on our part, it must also be an act of the Holy Spirit because, truth be told, we cannot come to faith on our own. Perhaps, by analogy, it would be like an infant eating baby food. The infant cannot open the jar, spoon out the food and feed himself. So it is with us. We must do the “chewing” so to speak, but it must be the Holy Spirit Who does the “feeding.”
As we receive the gift of faith we will slowly discover that it profoundly affects us in various ways. Here are some of those ways:
Faith is certain: How often are you certain about something? What if you could be certain about your future? Or, more trivially, what if you could be certain about who would win the next Super Bowl? Or what if you were certain about tomorrow’s lotto numbers? Certainty changes things! It affects the decisions we make. It affects the direction we take in life. And conversely, uncertainty also affects us. It makes our decisions more difficult and our future more unstable.
Well, faith is one of those gifts that brings certainty to a whole new level. Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that faith is just a strong wish and hope with our fingers crossed. But it’s not that at all! Faith, when it’s true faith, is certain. It means we know. And we know on a level so deep that it does, indeed, affect everything we do and all the decisions we make as we move into the future. This certainty is something that only the Holy Spirit can give us. It’s God speaking in His unique language through that spiritual sense He has implanted within us. And when it is His voice speaking, and our soul hearing, we are given a certainty beyond human conviction which will direct all our actions.
Faith seeks understanding: The more we know, the more we want to know. We see this principle at work in many ways. In a distorted way we are all aware of things like greed, or addiction, or lust. When one gains a little of these, the tendency is to seek more. That’s because these disorders are simply acting upon the natural design of our human nature to want more. But that natural design was made to want more of God! And only when we use this desire for more of God are we functioning in the way we were made. So with faith we see this at work. The more one knows God, personally, truly, intimately, the more one wants to know God, love God and be with God all the more. And there is no limit to how much the human soul can receive of this glorious Gift! So seek God and let the gift of His presence in your life stir up the desire for more.
Faith and science: There are those who seem to think that faith and science are opposed. But are they? Most certainly not. Faith and science come from the same source, from the same designer, and they are 100% compatible with each other. In fact, the word “compatible” is almost insufficient to use. It’s more like they are perfectly married, united, and in union. The laws of nature and the laws of grace come from God and the more one honestly studies and understands the laws of nature (science) the more one is drawn into the deeper laws of grace. It’s a “marriage” similar to the unity of our body and soul that we will reflect upon in the next chapter. So make a mental note to think about the unity of faith and science when you read the section on the unity of body and soul.
Freedom and faith: There is a key aspect of authentic faith that must be understood because at times it is greatly abused. This key aspect of faith is freedom. Unless a person is completely free in their cooperation with grace, they will never have authentic faith. Let’s look at the danger involved here to illustrate the point. A great illustration is what we call proselytism. Specifically, I would distinguish proselytism from true evangelization. What is proselytism? It would be a forceful and manipulative way of convincing someone to be a Christian. For example, say a preacher preaches “fire and brimstone” and leaves a person so fearful of damnation that they “choose” to say they believe. Or, if someone imposes so much guilt on another for a choice they make that they “change” just because they don’t want to deal with the guilt. This may be a small step in the right direction. But if it is, it’s a very small step. And in fact, it may actually be a step backwards without us even realizing it.
What I mean is that for conversion and faith to happen, a person needs to be invited into the gift of faith freely for the sake of love. Sure, there is an authentic form of holy fear we should have, but ultimately the source of true faith is the free choice of the individual to believe because they believe, and to believe because it was the Holy Spirit speaking to their soul revealing the truths of faith, and inviting an authentic assent. Sound difficult? Well, God knows what He’s doing. For our part, we just need to respect the way He passes on faith and we will be more deeply converted and be a good instrument of that gift of faith for others.
Authentic faith is necessary for salvation, gives us strength to persevere, and is the beginning of eternal life. Faith is belief not so much in some philosophical principle; rather, faith is a belief in someone. It’s a belief in what the Creed points to, the reality behind the words.
We conclude our reflections on faith but now turn to that which faith points. And it points to more than “something,” it points to “Someone.” And, of course, that “Someone” is God!
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