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Why Believe?

Sam Harris

"Faith is always at a disadvantage; it is a perpetually defeated thing which survives all of its conquerors," wrote G. K. Chesterton.

Faith is the Christian word. Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., in his masterful theology of faith, The Assurance of Things Hoped For, writes, "More than any other religion, Christianity deserves to be called a faith". He points out that in the New Testament the Greek words for "faith" and "belief" occur nearly 500 times, compared to less than 100 for "hope" and about 250 for "charity" or "love." Which is not to say, of course, that faith is more important than love, since Paul makes it clear that love is the greatest of the three theological virtues: "So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor. 13:13).

But there is no doubt—pun intended—that faith is essential to being a Christian and to having a right relationship with God, as the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews states, emphatically and succinctly: "And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him" (Heb. 11:6).

The daunting work of defining and analyzing faith has been described, with perhaps a dose of knowing humor, as the "cross of theologians." As with hope and love, the virtue of faith can appear initially rather simple to define, often as "belief in God." But some digging beneath the surface suggests a far more complicated task, as some basic questions suggest: What is belief? How is faith obtained? Is it human or divine in origin? How should man demonstrate his faith? What is the relationship of faith to the will, to the intellect, and to the emotions?

The Catholic, meanwhile, must respond to charges against faith: that it is "irrational" or that it is the cause of conflict and violence. In recent years a number of popular, best-selling books written by atheists have called into question not only tenets of Christianity—the historical reliability of the Bible, the divinity of Jesus, the Resurrection, and so forth—but the viability and rational soundness of faith itself.

One such book is The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris, which repeatedly—mantra-like—uses words such as "ignorant" and "irrational" in making the case that religious faith is not only outdated, but overtly evil. Every religion, Harris muses, "preaches the truth of propositions for which no evidenc e is even conceivable. This puts the ‘leap’ in Kierkegaard’s leap of faith" (Harris, The End of Faith, 23). He adds: "Religious faith represents so uncompromising a misuse of the power of our minds that it forms a kind of perverse, cultural singularity—a vanishing point beyond which rational discourse proves impossible" (Harris, The End of Faith, 25).

Calling Christians and other religious believers stupid and unreasonable is often the default argument for Harris; it is also an approach, crude yet often effective, embraced by many who believe that religious faith is an offense to enlightened, modern man. With that basic opposition in mind, let us take up two basic tasks: defining what faith is and answering some of the charges against belief.

Do I Trust the Chair?

A witticism goes: "Everybody should believe in something; I believe I’ll have another drink." It is more accurate to say that everybody does believe in something, even if it is belief in the ability to live without belief. Of course, even the skeptic understands that life in the material world requires certain types of belief or faith, using those terms broadly and non-theologically: the belief that stop lights will work correctly, faith that I will be given a paycheck at the end of the month, the trust that my grasp of basic math will keep me on the good side of the IRS.

One argument posits that sitting upon a chair is an act of faith, so even atheists have faith when they sit on a chair in, say, a home they are visiting for the first time. If for some reason I doubted the chair in question would hold my weight, I could ascertain its load-bearing capabilities by asking my host to sit in it first, thereby ridding myself of concern (and likely puzzling or offending my host). The argument only goes so far when it comes to faith in what cannot be seen, touched, or proven by scientific means. It does, however, suggest what many people are reluctant to admit: that all of us have beliefs and we live our lives based on those beliefs, even if we never articulate or define them. As Joseph Ratzinger observes in Introduction to Christianity, "Every man must adopt some kind of attitude to the basic questions, and no man can do this in any other way but that of entertaining belief." (Introduction to Christianity [2nd ed.], 71)

We, as creatures, have limited, finite knowledge, and so must make decisions—practical, relational, philosophical—without the luxury of proof. We use common sense and rely on our experience and, significantly, on the experience and testimony of others. I may not know for certain that the chair will hold me, but I conclude it is rational to think it will, based on certain observations: The chair looks well-constructed; it appears to be used on a regular basis; and it is in the home of someone who isn’t the sort of person to ask guests to sit on a chair that might fall apart upon human contact. Sitting on the chair is a reasonable thing to do. Implicit here is the matter of trust. Do I trust the chair? Do I trust my host? And, more importantly, do I trust my perception and assessment of the chair?

Consider another example. You receive a phone call at work from your best friend, who is also your neighbor. He exclaims, with obvious distress, "Your house is on fire! Come home quickly!" What is your reaction? You believe your friend’s statement—not because you’ve seen a live shot of your house in flames on a Channel 12 "news flash" but because of your faith in the truthfulness of the witness. You accept his word because he has proven himself worthy of faith in various ways. Trust in testimony and witness is an essential part of a theological understanding of faith.

God’s Gift and Our Response

The Old Testament emphasizes trusting in God and obeying his utterances, which were often (although not exclusively) entrusted (there’s that word again!) to patriarchs and prophets: Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, Jeremiah, and others. But while there are many men and women of faith in the Old Testament, trustworthiness and faithfulness are most clearly ascribed to God: "Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments …" (Deut. 7:9). The well-known narratives of the Old Testament are accounts of faith and faithfulness (and much faithlessness), all deeply rooted in a covenantal understanding of God’s revelation of himself to man. It is God who initiates and it is God who gives wisdom, understanding, and faith.

The New Testament places more emphasis on the doctrinal content of faith, focusing upon man’s response to the message and person of Jesus Christ. Again, faith is a gift that comes from God, accompanied by God’s promises of life. "No one can come to me," Jesus declares, "unless the Father who sent me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day" (John 6:44). Paul repeatedly states that faith is intimately linked with trust and obedience, referring to the "obedience of faith" (Rom. 1:5), exhorting the Christians at Philippi to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12), and telling the Galatians that circumcision is not the issue of concern, "but faith working through love" (Gal. 5:6). Faith is portrayed as a living, vital movement that brings man into a grace-filled union with the Father, through Jesus, in the Holy Spirit. According to James and John, while faith is distinct from good works, it is never separate from them, for they display the reality of faith: "Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith" (Jas. 2:18), and "this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us" (1 John 3:23).

Needless to say, the Old and New Testaments together present a complex and rich tapestry of understandings of faith, including elements, Cardinal Dulles writes in his study, "such as personal trust, assent to divinely revealed truth, fidelity, and obedience" (Assurance, 17).

At the Threshold of Belief

Augustine and Aquinas stressed that the object of belief cannot be seen or directly perceived, nor proven by mere logic. If you can prove it, you don’t need to believe in it. And yet, as Josef Pieper explained in his essay, "On Faith," the believer must

know enough about the matter to understand "what it is all about." An altogether incomprehensible communication is no communication at all. There is no way either to believe or not to believe it or its author. For belief to be possible at all, it is assumed that the communication has in some way been understood. (Faith Hope Love, 24)

God has revealed himself in a way that is comprehensible to man (in an act theologians call "divine condescension"), even if man cannot fully comprehend, for example, the Incarnation or the Trinity. Reason and logic can take man to the door of faith, but cannot carry man across the threshold. "What moves us to believe," explains the Catechism, "is not the fact that revealed truths appear as true and intelligible in the light of our natural reason: We believe because of the authority of God himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived" (CCC 156).

Belief can also rest upon the testimony of someone else, as Paul states: "But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?" (Rom. 10:14). Aquinas succinctly remarks: "Now, whoever believes, assents to someone’s words…" (Summa Theologiae II:2:11). Pieper points out, however, that this leads to a significant problem: that no man is superior enough spiritually to serve as "an absolutely valid authority" for another man. This problem is only solved when the One who is above all men communicates with man. This communication, of course, reaches perfection in the Incarnation, when God becomes man—that is, when the Word, God’s perfect communication, becomes flesh. And this is why, to put it simply, the historicity of Jesus Christ and the witness of those who knew him is at the heart of the Catholic faith.

Faith is ultimately an act of will, not of emotion or deduction. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting Aquinas, teaches, "In faith, the human intellect and will cooperate with divine grace: Believing is an act of the intellect assenting to the divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace" (CCC 155). This submission is called "the obedience of faith" (CCC 143). Logic, reason, and recognition of authority go only so far; an act of will, dependent upon God’s grace, is required for faith to be realized. Yet this response of the will is not an impersonal act, like selecting numbers for the lottery, but an intensely personal response. "We believe, because we love," wrote John Henry Newman in a sermon titled, "Love the Safeguard of Faith against Superstition." "The divinely enlightened mind," he continued, "sees in Christ the very Object whom it desires to love and worship,—the Object correlative of its own affections; and it trusts him, or believes, from loving him."

So much for understanding what faith is. What are some of the popular, common criticisms of faith that need answering?

Faith is contrary to reason. Harris puts it in this provocative form: "And so, while religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs are. This is not surprising, since most religions have merely canonized a few products of ancient ignorance and derangement and passed them down to us as though they were primordial truths" (The End of Faith, 72). Yet the claim, "I don’t need faith!" is ultimately a statement of faith. If reason is the ultimate criteria of all things, can the skeptic prove, using reason, that reason explains everything about reality? To say "I will only trust that which I can logically prove" begs the question: "How do you know you can trust your mind and your logic? Aren’t you placing your faith in your reason?"

Thus atheism requires belief, including faith in (choose one) the perfectibility of human nature, the omniscience of science, the equality of socialism, or the steady conquest of political, technological, and social progress. But reasoned observation shows that the "truths" produced by these philosophies and systems of thought are lacking and incomplete; they cannot provide a satisfactory answer to the big questions about life, reality, and existence. The belief in science is a good example. The Catholic Church recognizes that science, the study of physical realities through experimentation and observation, is a valid source of truth. But this is quite different from believing that science can and will provide the answers to every question put forth by man. That is a belief—commonly called scientism—that cannot be proven but rests upon the unstable premise of materialism, which is a philosophical belief, not a matter of proven scientific study. For example, Harris writes that there "is no reason that our ability to sustain ourselves emotionally and spiritually cannot evolve with technology, politics, and the rest of culture. Indeed, it must evolve, if we are to have any future at all" (The End of Faith, 40). If that isn’t an overt statement of dogmatic faith, what is?

Put simply, the Church believes that reason is limited and not contrary to faith. True faith is not irrational, but supra-rational. In the words of Blaise Pascal, author of Pensées, whose rational genius is difficult to deny (unless one wishes to be unreasonable about it): "Faith certainly tells us what the senses do not, but not the contrary of what they see; it is above, not against them" (Pensées, 68). So faith does not contradict the facts of the material world, but goes beyond them.

Faith is a crutch for those who can’t handle the difficulties of life.I once worked for a delightful Jewish lady who was married to a self-described atheist. She once told me, with obvious frustration, that he would often tell her that faith in God was simply "a crutch." This is not an argument at all; it is simply of way of saying, "I’d rather trust in myself than in God." But belief in self only goes so far; it obviously does not save us from death, or even suffering, disease, tragedy, heartache, depression, and difficulties. Everyone has a "crutch," that is, a means of support we turn to in the darkest moments. These can include power, money, drugs, sex, fame, and adulation, all of which are, by any reasonable account, limited and unsatisfying when it comes to the ultimate questions: What is the meaning of life? Why am I here? Who am I? Harris, for his part, spends a considerable portion of the final chapter of his book arguing that Eastern mysticism is a thoroughly rational and legitimate means for living a full life. In the end, his book says, "Religion is evil. Spirituality is good." But spirituality does not provide answers; religion does.

Faith is the source of superstition, bigotry, and violence. We’ve all heard variations on this theme, mouthed by the increasing number of people indoctrinated to believe that nothing good ever came from Christianity and that every advance in human history has been due to the diminishing influence of Christian thought, practice, and presence. Never mind that the bloodiest and most savage century in human history was dominated by forms of atheistic Marxism (e.g., the Soviet Union) and neo-pagan Fascism (e.g., Nazi Germany), accounting for the deaths of tens of millions. Harris insists that Communism and Nazism were so bad because they were religious in nature:

Consider the millions of people who were killed by Stalin and Mao: Although these tyrants paid lip service to rationality, communism was little more than a political religion. … Even though their beliefs did not reach beyond this world, they were both cultic and irrational. (Harris, The End of Faith, 79)

This is actually quite true, and provides further evidence that every "ism"—even atheism, materialism, and the "pragmatism" endorsed by Harris—is religious in nature. History readily shows that man is a religious animal who thinks religious thoughts and has religious impulses. As Chesterton wrote in Heretics:

Every man in the street must hold a metaphysical system, and hold it firmly. The possibility is that he may have held it so firmly and so long as to have forgotten all about its existence. This latter situation is certainly possible; in fact, it is the situation of the whole modern world. The modern world is filled with men who hold dogmas so strongly that they do not even know that they are dogmas. ("Concluding Remarks on the Importance of Orthodoxy")

Chesterton suggests elsewhere that if you wish to be free from contact with superstition, bigotry, and violence, you’ll need to separate yourself from all human contact. The choice is not between religion and non-religion, but between true religion and false religion.

Christian faith, then, is not contrary to reason. Nor is it merely a phantasmal crutch built on pious fantasies. Neither is faith the source of evil. Faith is a supernatural virtue, a gift, and a grace. Faith is focused on God and truth; it is the friend of wisdom. "Simple secularists still talk as if the Church had introduced a sort of schism between reason and religion," wrote Chesterton in The Everlasting Man, "The truth is that the Church was actually the first thing that ever tried to combine reason and faith" ("Man and Mythologies"). The challenge for every Catholic is to give assent and to have faith, while the Catholic apologist must strive to show that such assent is not only reasonable, but brings us into saving contact with the only reason for living.
Originally posted at Catholic Answers.
(Image credit: The Daily Show)

Carl Olson

Written by

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report and IgnatiusInsight.com. He is the best-selling author of Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"? (Ignatius, 2003), which was selected by the Associated Press as one of the best religious titles of 2003, and co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius, 2004). He's also the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead? (Ignatius/Augustine Institute, 2016) and co-editor and contributor to Called To Be the Children of God: The Catholic Theology of Human Deification (Ignatius, 2016). Raised in a Fundamentalist home, Carl attended an Evangelical Bible college, and entered the Catholic Church in 1997. He holds an MTS from the University of Dallas. A well-respected author, Carl writes a weekly Scripture column, "Opening the Word" for Our Sunday Visitor, and has also written for First Things, This Rock/Catholic Answers Magazine, Envoy, Crisis, National Review Online, and National Catholic Register. Find Carl on Twitter @carleolson and visit him online at CarlEOlson.net.

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