We Do Believe

For Christmas, I received a copy of Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, written by then-Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. (I was also given some new shirts, in case anyone might think Schall is a one-dimensional man.) In the last section, Benedict questions whether, logically, a man can be an “agnostic” — someone who decides, with intellectual consistency, that he can really know nothing about the important things. Hence, he need not take a stand on anything. Such a mind is so delicate that it verily ceases to be a mind at all.

In the end, however, such a man still has to live and decide whether his living is just that — meaningless — or has some purpose. He cannot have it both ways. In his daily actions, he has to live as if his life does or does not matter. To maintain that he does not know either way is useless. Perhaps he does not; but where does he go from there? He cannot just stand there paralyzed until he passes into the great beyond, if it does or does not exist. Does he decide to be free of any consequences in his actions? Or, if they are meaningful, will this not require him to live a different way than he might otherwise do?

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From here, Benedict turns to faith itself. Does it make sense? Is it a help? We go around affirming that “we believe” in many things, even though we ourselves have not checked out the evidence. That does not much bother us. We trust that is so. Now, it is an understanding of Catholics that faith is not blind. In a teaching that goes back at least to St. Thomas Aquinas, we believe only if someone else sees and we have reasonable evidence for its being known by someone. It cannot be otherwise. If we cannot, logically, reduce faith to seeing, we cannot hold it.

This is not strange doctrine. Often, faith is made to appear a silly enterprise that only the naïve would accept — and yet faith happens to us every day. We act by faith. A common-sense reflection on it often illustrates the point. Benedict tells us to check our experience. Few of us know the ins and outs of any complicated technical system, market, or contraption. We know that electricity works. We turn on the switch. What is electricity? We vaguely recall experiments in high school . . . But somebody obviously knew what it was, because he examined it.

The difference between faith and reason in technical affairs is that we can accept the testimony of others that they know. We do not take our busted car to the beauty stylist. We do not go to the grocer in order to cut our hair. We go to those who know: the mechanic, the barber. In all crafts and professions, some are better than others. So we, in fact, live and act in a daily world of trust. We think nothing of it.

Is religious faith, in principle, any different? Not really. This faith understands that something else that we do not see is true, because we accept the testimony of someone who saw. The only issue, then,  is whether the witness is telling us what he saw, however odd it might seem to those who did not see. If we thought for a moment that the witness was telling us something that was not as he said it was, we might still believe him, but we are deceived. This is why the credibility of the witness is such an issue.

The essence of the Christian faith — that is, what it attests — is that God, the Logos, became man in Jesus Christ, who was true man. This is how He described Himself. He said that He is sent by the Father, His Father. He tells this to a number of fishermen who seem by no means naïve. He does a number of things to confirm His divine power. They see what He does.

These apostles and others surrounding Christ are told to make known this Good News, that He is. Why He did not do it Himself might be wondered about, but He is crucified in a public trial in Jerusalem under the authority of Rome. Since that time, right up to today, we have folks who live in the company of those who attest to these truths, the ones that have been handed down about this Man-God.

But at the basis of all our ability to “believe” is not more belief, but finally seeing. The apostles saw what He did and told us. Christ on His part simply said, “I have seen the Father.” He did not say, “I believe in the Father.” The reason is that He did see.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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