My wonderful daughter,
In my last letter, I tried to impress on you the importance of Truth. In this one (and the next), I want to do the same for Truth’s sister, Faith.
Sadly, almost nobody understands poor Faith. Lots of people seem to think that “faith” is choosing to believe in something without good reasons. Some people even believe that “faith” can contradict reality, as if 2+2 could equal 5 if you had “enough faith!” My favorite character in television history, Major Kira Nerys of Deep Space Nine, once spoke maybe the worst line of dialogue in televisionhistory:
ODO: Forgive me, Major, I don't mean to be difficult, but your faith seems to have led you to something of a contradiction.
KIRA: I don't see it as a contradiction.
ODO: I don't understand.
KIRA: That's the thing about faith. If you don't have it, you can't understand it, and if you do, no explanation is necessary.
No! That is not “the thing” about faith! That is cultism! That will get you killed, or worse!
In fact, this thinking plants the seeds of doesn’t-matterism. If “faith” can make 2 + 2 = 5, then Catholicism, Islam, and atheism can all be true simultaneously. Worse, if faith is fundamentally unreasoning, then we have no reason to believe our religion is actually true. If we can’t believe in it ourselves (much less convince others!), how could it possibly matter? We decide it doesn’t.
When I was in college, there was a priest who (if I am any judge of accents) (I am not) had been loaned to us from India. Sinner that I am, I was often at Confession… and, prideful as I am, I always wanted to get that Indian priest, because I hoped he couldn’t quite understand what I was saying (and thus how awful I was). I don’t remember his name. But I remember the exhortation he gave after I finished listing my sins, because it always started the same way, in his thick accent, all the r’s rolled halfway to Srinagar:
Remember that GOD has given to us the special gift of REASON, so that we are able to KNOW what is good and what is evil and CHOOSE between the one and the other.
Father was right. This is the heart of being human. We have bodies, like beasts, but we also have reason, like angels. This union of body and reason is unique in the cosmos. Our reason is essential.
You must therefore never attack your reason (unless it is diseased), any more than you would chop off your own (healthy) arms or legs. We certainly do not suspend healthy reason when it comes to the most important matters in our life. If our beliefs are contradictory, we can’t ignore it; we have to start trying to fix it. The truth cannot contradict, and, just like I said in my last letter, the truth matters. This goes for our religious beliefs, too. Faith cannot make 2+2=5, and you shouldn’t ask it to.
What Faith will do, what Faith is for, is protecting your belief that 2+2=4.
I’ll explain what I mean by that in my next letter. Before we can see what Faith does, we have to see what Faith is.
Fortunately, that’s easy: Faith is earned trust—no more, no less. It is how we come to believe almost everything we believe.
You and I both believe that the distance between the Earth and the Sun is 93 million miles. Yet you have never measured the distance. Neither have I! “93 million miles” is a number we got from books. We trust those books not to mislead us. The books got it from some fantastic astronomers, who, in 1761, carefully observed how long it took Venus to pass in front of the sun from various places on Earth. They then used trigonometry, parallax, and knowledge about Earth’s semi-major axis to compute the total. I have not personally checked their math. In fact, don’t tell anyone, but I don’t actually know what a semi-major axis is. Nevertheless, I have faith they were correct.
They’ve earned my faith. When we look through a telescope, we can see with our own eyes that many of the things that astronomers and science books tell us are true. When we double-check other things they tell us, they always prove true. When we take all the facts they tell us and knit them together, they form a beautiful and logical picture of Creation, which fits together wonderfully (even though there are a few frayed corners and missing pieces). Finally, we trust them because they are very smart, and they seem to be trying their best to find out the Truth about the universe and honestly tell us about it. Since you’ve read my first letter, you know how much I respect their search for Truth.
That’s all Faith is. Faith is smearing on sunscreen and running to the pool, trusting that it will prevent sunburn, even though you haven’t done your own chemical analysis. Faith is going to the top floor of a skyscraper and trusting the building won’t fall over, even though your fear of heights makes it harder to trust with every passing floor. Faith is reading a newspaper article and trusting what the reporter says about what she saw, even though you didn’t see it yourself. Faith is refusing to cheat on an important test when you could get away with it, because you trust the people who taught you that cheating is wrong—even though you haven’t personally worked out the moral law of cheating from first principles.
It is true that different fields search for Truth in different ways. Astronomers and other scientists prove things by observation, but you can’t look through a telescope and see ancient Pompeii the way you can see Jupiter. Instead, historians prove things by reading the writings of dead people, looking at old junk, and trying to figure out who told the truth and who didn’t. (Reporters are much the same.) Mathematicians cannot find theorems in telescopes, either. They have to prove mathematical facts by logic alone. If you’ve started doing proofs in Math class, you know how beautiful they can be—and how difficult they are to deduce.
Even though they paint with different brushes, though, the way scientists, historians, reporters, and mathematicians earn our faith is pretty much the same across the board. We trust them because the picture of the world they create seems believable (always with room for improvement), because that picture fits with the facts we know for certain, and because they seem personally honest and intelligent. For these reasons, we respect their judgments (for the most part), unless they are clearly wrong, or start to act dishonestly. I believe that the theology of the Catholic Church deserves our faith for the same reasons, and I have attempted to instill my faith in you.
However, this kind of faith is not the most important kind of faith. It’s great to know that the Sun is 93 million miles from Earth, that the last king of Rome was named Tarquinius Superbus, that the current U.S. inflation rate is 8.3%, and that stealing money from your employees is wrong… but the essential facts that get you through the day are that I love you as a father, that Mom loves you as a mother, that your classmates love you as friends (I wonder who your friends will be by the time you read this?). You, too, love many people, in different ways—as a daughter, as a friend, as a student. That’s even more essential.
These personal facts cannot be proved the same way you’d prove the atomic structure of carbon or the existence of Gen. Erwin Rommel. I can say that I love you all I want, but my heart is forever invisible to you. You can never see my choice to love you; you can only see the actions I take as a result. If I love you, my actions will be the proof. If you love me, your actions will be the proof. I have earned your faith (I hope) by my years of caring for you, teaching you, feeding you, even though I have fallen short in many ways. Indeed, my love for you has so encompassed the early part of your life that it may seem almost invisible—like the wooden beams in the walls that hold up our house, but which we’ve never seen and rarely think about. For your part, you have certainly earned my faith through your choices so far. I hope that we will both keep making choices that build up the faith in our relationship.
This is the kind of faith Harry Potter places in Albus Dumbledore (and vice versa), that Gandalf places in Frodo (and vice versa), that Amy Pond places in the Doctor (and vice versa). It is a faith grounded in love. It is not intellectual faith in a set of facts, but personal faith in the beloved’s good will. This is the kind of faith Jesus Christ places in us, and which He asks us to place in Him.
Like anyone else, though, Jesus Christ has to earn it. For any two people (even when one of them is the King of Creation), building up that kind of faith can take a long time, and normally requires a lot of paying attention to one another. Some people (with special help from God, and with great effort) arrive at this kind of personal trust in Christ early in life. However, for many people, Christ does not earn our personal trust until long after we place our intellectual trust in Christ’s Church. That has certainly been my path.
Faith sometimes goes beyond what we can strictly prove. If your mother asked me for my car keys, five thousand dollars cash, three days, and no questions asked, I would not be able to prove that it’s a good idea. I wouldn’t even understand how it could be. Yet if she assured me it was for the best, I would give her everything she asked for and more. She’s earned my faith. Still, she earned it in the ordinary way: by presenting heaps of evidence over decades that she deserves it.
All true faith begins with ordinary knowledge of that sort, whether the scientific faith which convinces us that the Earth (astoundingly) goes around the Sun, or the personal faith that convinced Abraham to offer Isaac in sacrifice when his God asked him. To take something on faith from one who has earned it is not really a “leap of faith,” as some put it. It’s more like taking the next step on a staircase that you’ve been climbing for a long time.
Explained in this way, it may seem odd that anyone would make much of a fuss about Faith at all—much less elevate it to the exalted status of a virtue! To live a life of faith, all we have to do is put our trust where it’s been earned. That’s easy, right? We will see in the next letter.
De Civitate is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Also, movie history: a very similar line shows up in the title card of the otherwise pretty good 1943 movie, The Song of Bernadette, placed there by Fr. John LaFarge, S.J., who later claimed credit for the adage, probably falsely. (But he was a Jesuit, so are we surprised?)
While researching this, I learned that the Internet at some point decided to attribute this awful line to Saint Thomas Aquinas, and I don’t mind telling you that I physically recoiled. It goes against everything Aquinas thought and taught about faith.
I think that the quote you think so horrible when referring to Faith is actually quite apt for appreciation of kinds of Beauty. For example, To those who can appreciate the beauty of [a well executed bunt], no explanation is necessary. To those who cannot, no explanation is possible. You could replace the bracketed text with anything which you consider Beautiful, and I think it would hold: a elegant piece of code, an obscure genre of song, or even a mathematical formula.
(I do, however, agree it is horribly misapplied to Faith)
What is your distinction between "Faith" and "Belief"?