Understanding Faith: A Modern Crisis

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by Nicholas Geer, The Catholic University of America

In modern times, it seems that more and more people are losing faith. According to the Pew Research Center’s religious survey of the United States, the Christian population declined from 78.4% to 70.6% during the period of 2007-2014. As Catholics, we need to understand the background of this problem if we are to carry out Christ’s command to preach the Gospel to all nations—including our own. There are certainly many varied causes for this decline of faith, but there is one underlying issue that could shed light on this modern crisis—both within and without the Church. That foundational issue is a misunderstanding of the definition of faith itself. This is a very important topic which is often not thought about in detail, and pinning down exactly what faith is, as well as dispelling some flawed assumptions about faith, will help us to interpret this modern predicament. Much of this discussion comes from the Danish philosopher and writer Søren Kierkegaard in his work entitled Fear and Trembling. Many people will recognize Kierkegaard’s name, but are far less familiar with his thought. Whether you are familiar with him or not, his distinctions and commentary will be crucial for this discussion. One last point to keep in mind is that this discourse will be from our perspective as humans and not God’s point of view. The role grace plays in creating and preserving faith will not be commented on here, but rather we will cover how exactly our response to this grace plays out in the human person.

For Kierkegaard, the example of Abraham in Genesis is the best image from which we can view the dilemma of faith. We are all familiar with the story, but just as we frequently do not think deeply think about faith, so likewise is it very easy to read the story of Abraham’s would-be sacrifice of Isaac in a superficial manner. Many of us will simply say, “Abraham’s faith was great because he loved God so much that he was willing to give the best he could offer: his son.”  While this is not wrong per se, there is much more knowledge about faith to be gained from this story when it is understood fully. We will start with God’s promises that Sarah will bear a son and that Abraham will be the Father of many nations (as found in Genesis 12:2 and 15:4-5). Abraham’s faith in these promises persevered for over fifteen years without any real visible fruit. Then what? Once God does give him Isaac, accomplishing both His promises, a sacrifice is demanded of that very gift. How do we explain this? God has asked him to abandon his natural duty as a father, to love and care for his son more than himself, with the only justification being that God has commanded it (in seeming negation of His promises). The sacrifice passage of Genesis 22:1-19 seems very difficult to understand, but if we are able to comprehend this story then we will be able to comprehend faith itself.

So, how is faith shown in this story? One common view of faith, both now and in Kierkegaard’s day, is that it is only an intellectual affirmation, a very simple “I believe.” For example, to have faith in the Trinity one only needs to know it in their mind. From there they can easily choose whether to believe in it or not. Once a person has done this, they can move on to do much harder things like high theology or complicated philosophy. This is not at all the case, as shown in the Abraham story, and indeed most of us know this from our own experiences with faith. Abraham’s faith was not one of the intellect, but of absolute commitment and passion. Abraham lived his life in service to God because of this faith; this is not only a move of the mind. For Kierkegaard, this faith is clearly both a passion and a state of being. To have faith requires us to live it out and interpret the world in light of it, as Abraham did. The previous intellectual definition is not completely false, but it is limiting. St. Augustine himself, in his De Praedestinatione, gives a similar view of thought preceding faith. The problem is that it does not give an account for faith’s implications and expression outside the mind. Because faith is a passion, it can be influenced by (and influence) many things such as our reason, our emotions, and our actions. It will be beneficial to elaborate on each of these in relation to faith, through Abraham’s example, to give greater understanding to this new definition of faith as a passion.

Faith, of course, can be supported by reason. As Catholics, we readily affirm this as we are able to make proofs for God’s existence from reason alone. But, there are times when faith does not seem to be in line with our temporal reason. This can be seen clearly in the Abraham story, and Kierkegaard describes the example of faith shown in the story as the “teleological suspension of the ethical.” Now that phrase might sound complex, but it really is not that hard to understand. Abraham, in following God’s command and being willing to perform the sacrifice, suspended what would normally be considered ethical. The natural obligation of a father to love and care for one’s son was superseded by his obligation to God (the highest obligation). In this sense, the ethical was suspended and fulfilled when Abraham followed God’s command in contradiction to ethical reasoning. This can be compared to the larger discussion of faith and reason. In most cases, reason can help to support faith; but, there are certain individual cases when faith supersedes reason—as Abraham was ready to supersede the ethical. A great example of this, which was mentioned earlier, is the Trinity. The Trinity cannot be known by reason alone, and we need revelation from God in order to profess it. This distinction is necessary for defining the role of faith and its relation to reason, and is what Kierkegaard is referring to when he talks about reinterpreting the world in light of faith.

Just as reason can play a supporting role for faith, our emotions can be a detriment to it. Anxiety and doubt, especially, can drag down our faith and possibly cause us to abandon it. Even the greatest believers will, at times, fight with doubt and anxiety—and that is okay. In fact, it is more than okay: it is reason for celebration when the faith perseveres. Kierkegaard views occasions of doubt and anxiety as being necessary for one’s journey in faith. In this way, faith should not be viewed through the Aristotelian distinctions of the continent man, the incontinent man, and the virtuous man. Aristotle views the virtuous man, who always does the good without hesitation, as superior to the continent man who has to struggle to accomplish the good. This is not applicable in the realm of faith. The one to be praised is not the one who never struggles, but the one who overcomes this struggle just as Jacob wrestled with God. Abraham, when he was walking Isaac up to Mount Moriah over the course of three days, was surely beset on all sides with anxiety and doubts. What do you think he was thinking about on that long journey, with Isaac alongside him the entire time? He is called our Father in Faith because he persevered through these trials in order to follow God’s command, not because he did not have any doubt at all. Abraham, even when he was about to kill his own son, trusted that God’s promises would not be broken. This is faith at its utmost. Also imagine, if you will, the disciples’ experiences with our Lord—is not their prostration on the ground in fear at the Transfiguration an appropriate image of their anxiety? All of our fathers and mothers in faith dealt with these issues and so do we; it is merely our job to follow their example.

Finally, faith is also connected to our actions. This was hinted at previously when we defined faith as a state of being. Faith is not only connected to how we think, but also how we act. Furthermore, linked to this idea of faith’s connection to action, is the concept of faith as a process. This is shown in the fact that Abraham lived with his faith for over fifteen years before seeing its fulfillment. A misleading error concerning this concept that seems to have sadly originated from our Protestant brothers and sisters is that faith is primarily a one-time affair. Many Evangelical Christians often speak about the moment when they “got saved.” This comes from the Protestant rejection of the Catholic view on baptismal regeneration (being cleansed of Original Sin at baptism). I will spare the specific theological details, but instead of this happening at baptism, many Evangelical Christians believe that they are “saved” at the moment they profess true faith in Jesus Christ. This, in a sense, limits faith to that one moment and does not fully account for the rest of one’s life. A favorable view would recognize that faith must be worked out and held onto throughout someone’s life as a process, and not only as an event. Faith influences our actions throughout our life, but also must be defined as an action in itself. This “refining” will occur as a process and not a one-time occasion. This is more in line with the Catholic view which can be seen through the work of many of the saints—especially the life St. Mother Teresa and poems St. John of the Cross.

As it has been shown, there is no reason to be dismay in the face of doubt and anxiety. In fact, it should be liberating to be aware of them because we know that we can overcome it! Kierkegaard aptly uses chivalric language to describe this—calling us Knights of Faith for it is a path of glory which we embark on. We are all judged great in relation to what we seek, and to seek God is the greatest of all. With these clarifications on faith, there can be some hope for this modern crisis. When we define faith as a passion worked out in an ongoing process, it allows us to reject a simple and easily discarded view of faith. Likewise, understanding how reason, emotions, and actions associated with faith helps us to clarify this definition and deal with these relations in our own lives. Both non-believers and people of faith, disheartened at the emergence of doubt or the reality of struggling, can overcome these obstacles. God willing, I hope this discussion might help you to understand how a lack of clarification on faith feeds the modern problem and can lead to the abandonment of faith altogether. I also sincerely hope this might aid you personally in better assessing your relationship with faith and give some needed encouragement. Conservate fidem et Deus vos benedicat.

Edited by Jeremy Volz

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