“We Believe Because We Love”: Voluntary Faith and the New Evangelization

At the heart of the Church’s contemporary call for a new evangelization, expressed by Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis alike, is the ardent desire both for a renewal of faith among the baptized and for the awakening of that faith among those who do not yet profess it. These latter reside not only in “the missions,” places where Jesus Christ has never yet been widely or effectively proclaimed, but in historically Christian societies like our own, which have in fact “known him, accepted him and then rejected him, while continuing to live in a culture which in large part has absorbed gospel principles and values.”1 The new evangelization, thus conceived, has a threefold end: on the one hand, it must stir up the faith of the baptized to be more convinced and effective witnesses to the one in whom they believe; on the other, it must convincingly propose faith in the Crucified and Risen One anew to that “immense portion of humanity,” both in our heavily secularized post-Christian cultures and abroad, “which is loved by the Father and for whom he sent his Son,” yet “who do not know Christ and do not belong to the Church.”2

Though it may seem an obvious point, “it is only in faith that the Church’s mission can be understood and only in faith that it finds its basis.”3 The end of evangelization is faith: its increase in those who have it already, and its first beginning in those who have not. But how can the Christian faithful, even once inflamed with “new ardor,” be effective witnesses to inspire the beginning of faith in another? In order to better understand the mission to which Holy Mother Church so urgently calls us, it is fitting first to define faith more precisely and examine the causes of faith in greater detail.

According to the perennial teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, the common doctor of the Church, “faith is a habit of the mind, whereby eternal life is begun in us, making the intellect assent to what is non-apparent.”4 This compact definition implies two further conclusions about faith. First, faith is rightly called a virtue according to Thomas’ simple definition, “an operative habit … productive of good works,” since it is a habit productive of good action, namely, the mind’s assent to non-apparent truths, by which eternal life—the ultimate good!—has its beginning in us. Furthermore, since this definition indicates that faith is that habit by which the intellect assents to non-apparent truth, it is clear that the subject of faith is not the mind simply (i.e. man’s entire rational nature), but the intellective faculty.

According to the scholastic dictum, “habits are known by their acts, and acts by their objects,” then “faith, being a habit, should be defined by its proper act in relation to its proper object.”5 The proper act of faith, which Thomas describes above as “assent to what is non-apparent,” is simply the act of belief. This act is distinct from all other acts of the intellect by its two unique properties: one, the firm assent given; two, that the truth assented to is non-apparent.

The definition given in the Epistle to the Hebrews, that faith is “the evidence of things that appear not” (Heb 11:1, DRA), may be of help in clarifying this distinction. What is known or understood by the intellect, namely, first principles (such as the law of non-contradiction) or conclusions of science, is firmly assented to either because the truth is self-evident, or else the evidence of the truth is clearly seen. When it is sufficiently explained to someone that nothing can both be and not be at the same time and in the same manner, or that the square of a hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, the intellect gives its firm assent, as it were, “automatically.”

Acts of knowledge and understanding thus produce firm assent, as belief does, but it is because the truth is apparent; the intellect is not free to withhold its assent once the terms of the proposition are grasped. On the other hand, that which is only suspected, doubted, or opined by the intellect is not firmly assented to precisely because the truth is non-apparent. One may suspect such and such to be the case, or doubt that it is in fact the case, or else opine that it may be the case, but the intellect does not give firm assent so long as the truth of the proposition is not clearly seen. Belief, then, is unique in that it “has something in common with science and understanding”—namely, the firm assent given—“yet its knowledge does not attain the perfection of clear sight, wherein it agrees with doubt, suspicion, and opinion.”6 

At this point in our examination of faith, one tends to encounter a stumbling block, which Josef Pieper sums up as follows: “How is it meaningfully possible for someone to say unconditionally: ‘It is thus and not different’? How can this be justified when the believer admittedly does not know the subject to which he thus assents … either directly, by his own perceptions, or indirectly, on the basis of conclusive arguments?”7 In other words, it is precisely the firm assent generated by the act of belief that seems to be unjustified, given the obscurity of the truth to which the assent is given. It is surely this objection which leads some to wrongly identify faith with mere opinion, thereby negating the certainty which is so scandalously characteristic of the act of this virtue. The same objection may lead others, with the best of intentions, to attempt to rationally prove articles of faith such as the Trinity which can never be proved; indeed, “faith has no merit where human reason supplies proof,”8 writes St. Gregory.

The objection is answered succinctly by St. Thomas: “Ad fidem pertinet aliquid et alicui credere,” that is, “it belongs to faith to believe something and in somebody.9 Whatever is believed is believed on the testimony of one who knows. This distinguishes even our ordinary human acts of belief, not directed by the virtue of faith, from mere suspicion or opinion. I may suspect, on the basis of various motives, that an acquaintance of mine has a dark secret, but I cannot rationally claim with certainty that he does. If, however, another person who knows the acquaintance well and whom I trust tells me the secret, I may make an act of belief. This belief has a twofold object: it is belief that the secret he has told me about our mutual acquaintance is true (i.e. firm assent), but it is also belief in the friend. His trustworthiness is the justification for my act of belief in a truth which I have not seen personally, but to which he has testified as one who knows. This, incidentally, is the evidence given by St. John for the truthfulness of his account of the life of Jesus: “This is that disciple who giveth testimony of these things, and hath written these things; and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24). 

The act of belief which comes from the virtue of faith differs from merely human acts of belief in that it has God as its object, both as the aliquod, the actual content of what is believed, and the alicui in whom and by whose testimony one believes—for, as St. Thomas explains, “the faith of which we are speaking, does not assent to anything, except because it is revealed by God … If, however, we consider materially the things to which faith assents, they include not only God, but also many other things, which, nevertheless, do not come under the assent of faith, except as bearing some relation to God.”10 God is the one who reveals truths to men, principally truths about Himself, or else which bear some relation to Him and to man’s salvation. The motive of credibility is that it is God Himself, supremely trustworthy and true, who is speaking. He is not susceptible of error or falsehood, as can be known merely by natural reasoning; a God who could be mistaken about something or who could lie would be no God at all! If, then, on the merely human level, one is justified in believing a friend who one knowns to be trustworthy and true, how much more is one justified in believing God Himself when He reveals truths to men!

There is one more key aspect of faith which must be clearly stated, as its implications for evangelization are profound. One may run the risk of supposing that, if a man simply has a right understanding of God as First Truth and is then presented with the content of divine revelation, he will believe, as surely as one who only grasps the terms of the Pythagorean theorem must give his assent. On the contrary, the act of belief can never be “automatic,” as Josef Pieper notes: 

Man can be compelled to do a good many things. There are a good many other things he can do in a halfhearted fashion, as it were, against his will. But belief can never be halfhearted. One can believe only if one wishes to. Perhaps the credibility of a given person will be revealed to me so persuasively that I cannot help but think: It is wrong not to believe him; I “must” believe him. But this last step can be taken only in complete freedom, and that means that it can also not be taken. There may be plenty of compelling arguments for a man’s credibility; but no argument can force us to believe him.11

All intellectual acts, in principle, are commanded by the will, but the contrast between belief and understanding or knowledge here comes into sharper focus. The will may command the intellect to consider the Pythagorean theorem, but once the matter at hand is sufficiently grasped, the intellect gives its assent at once as a conclusion from the premises. In the case of belief, however, the will not only commands the intellect to consider the matter and reach its own conclusions, as it were; Thomas writes that belief “is an act of the intellect inasmuch as the will moves it to assent. And this act proceeds from the will and the intellect, both of which have a natural aptitude to be perfected in this way.”12  Thus, although belief “is immediately an act of the intellect, because the object of the act is the ‘true,’ which pertains properly to the intellect,”13 and it is indeed the intellect which must assent to the truth proposed, Pieper goes so far as to call it “a free assent of will,” and concludes that “belief rests upon volition.”14

Let us briefly summarize what we have learned so far about faith and its causes before considering the implications for evangelization. Faith is a virtue of the intellect by which we firmly believe divine truths, which, being of a higher order than human reason, are neither self-evident nor apparent to us. The act of faith, namely, belief, is distinct from all other acts of the mind. Unlike the acts of understanding and knowledge, its assent is not caused by seeing the truth; rather, the believer freely chooses to give his assent on the testimony of another, who has seen or knows the truth and whose testimony is received as trustworthy. Further, unlike such acts as suspicion, opinion, or doubt, this truth is not merely held by the believer in a conditional or tentative way, but with firm assent. The acts of belief which proceed from the virtue of divine faith are especially firm, in that the one who testifies to the truth believed is God Himself.

However, even when divine revelation is concerned and the trustworthiness of the witness is certain, the assent of belief is never given as the inevitable result of a logical process. The nature of belief is inviolably voluntary: “nemo credit nisi volens,” in the terse phrase of St. Augustine. “No one believes unless he wills it.”15 In the end, no matter how compelling the motives of credibility, no matter how trustworthy the witness or how magnificent the truth proposed for belief, the intellect must be commanded by the will to assent. “It is not the truth, then,” Pieper comments, “that compels [the believer] to accept the subject matter. Rather, he is motivated by the insight that it is good to regard the subject matter as true and real on the strength of someone else’s testimony … We believe, not because we see, perceive, deduce something true, but because we desire something good.”16

What is the good of faith which inspires the will to command the intellect to believe? It is obvious, given all that has been discussed so far about faith, that this will be the crucial point for evangelization. Is it enough to awaken in one’s interlocutor a desire for eternal life and beatitude? Josef Pieper maintains that this is not enough, for although “the believer’s mind is directed toward that which he hopes for and loves,” and “in the act of belief, therefore, the will may very well be engaged with the subject of belief … as something that really concerns him, as an object of hope, longing, and love,” this is not the primary cause of giving one’s assent. One can see the potential problem if it it were. Belief then would be reduced to an instrument of arbitrary wish fulfillment, the mind’s attempt to resolve the tension between what is and what it desires. This is not far from the Marxist’s conception of heaven as a dreamy unreality devised by the powerful to placate the existential longings of the poor, believed in by the desperate and the foolish.

But there is a more primary object of love and therefore volition which “is bound up with neither the act nor the content of belief.”17 In the first place, the believer does not simply will himself to believe for the sake of believing, nor does he will to believe because he desires that the object of his belief be true. Rather, Pieper argues, “the will of the believer is directed toward the person of the witness, toward the warrantor,” namely, toward God:

Assent of the intellect to the witnessed truth, [sic] takes place only to the extent that the will … seeks and wishes to bring about consent or agreement with the judgment of the speaker, participation in and communion with this insight or, in other words, a spiritual union with him; the will seeks this union as a good and thus motivates the intellect to accept the insight of the witness as if it were its own—so that the believer stands in exactly the same relationship to that which the other knows, and which he does not know, as it does to that which he knows himself. That is to say, the ‘good’ toward which the will of the believer is directed is communion with the eyewitness or knower who says ‘it is so’; this communion comes to life and reality in that the believer, repeating this ‘it is so’, accepts what the other says as truth—and accepts it because he says it.18

Thus the primary role of the evangelist (and indeed, all of the Christian faithful, insofar as we are all called to the New Evangelization) comes into sharp focus. Intellectual arguments are of course indispensable, in particular to remove prejudices and obstacles to faith and to establish the so-called preambulae fidei, but these alone will never be sufficient to bring an unbeliever to faith. Attempts to stir up in him a desire for heaven or to see the objective benefits of believing will likewise fall short. Nothing less than the figure of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God and living icon of the Father, will suffice to captivate the human heart, to inspire love, a desire for union, and therefore the act of assent. Indeed, anything less than this, than believing the revelation of God precisely because He has said it, is not faith. One may recognize the beauty or the fittingness of the Christian faith, and even hold to articles of the faith, yet not believe by divine faith. In the end, as St. John Henry Newman has it, “we believe because we love.”19

The matter of urgency for Christians engaged in the New Evangelization is, as Pope Benedict XVI has said, to show “not only … [that] there [is] such a thing as objective meaning but that this meaning knows me and loves me, that I can entrust myself to it like the child who knows that everything he may be wondering about is safe in the ‘you’ of his mother.”20 Intellectual disputations must come in second place to “the discovery of God in the countenance of the man Jesus of Nazareth,”21 who is alive, who is speaking, who is calling men to Himself. This is the crucial point to which people must be awakened. In a sense, the evangelist is called to be a “match-maker” between Jesus Christ and His people. Once the match has been made, once the heart of a man has been awakened to the reality of the living God in the countenance of Jesus, then doctrines may be proposed for belief, for only then is the man really capable of making the act of faith.


Footnotes

  1. John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio [The Mission of the Redeemer] (7 December 1990), §37a.
  2. Ibid, §3.
  3. Ibid, §4.
  4. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, II-II, q. 4, a. 1, in Summa Theologiae: Secunda Secundae, 1-91, vol. 17 of Latin/English Edition of the Works of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP (Green Bay, WI: Aquinas Institute, 2018), 47.
  5. Ibid, 46.
  6. ST, II-II, q. 1, a. 1, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP, 4.
  7. Josef Pieper, “On Faith,” in Faith, Hope, Love (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), ch. 1, Kindle edition.
  8. St. Gregory the Great, “Homily for Easter,” 8, qtd. in Thomas Aquinas, On Boethius’ De Trinitate, q. 2, a. 1, obj. 5, trans. Rose E. Brennan, S.H.N. (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1946), at http://isidore.co.
  9. ST, II-II, q. 129, a. 6, at New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org. Emphasis mine.
  10. ST, II-II, q. 1, a. 1, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP, 4.
  11. Pieper, “On Faith,” ch. 3.
  12. ST, II-II, q. 4, a. 2, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP, 5.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Pieper, “On Faith,” ch. 3. Emphasis mine.
  15. Augustine, In Johannis evangelium tract. 26, 3. PL 3.5:1607, qtd. in Pieper, “On Faith,” ch. 3.
  16. Pieper, “On Faith,” ch. 3.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid. Emphasis mine.
  19.  St. John Henry Newman, “Love the Safeguard of Faith against Superstition,” in Oxford University Sermons (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1880), 236.
  20. Joseph Ratzinger, trans. J. R. Foster and Michael J. Miller, Introduction to Christianity (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 80.
  21. Ibid.

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