The What of Faith

By: Fr. Paul Scalia

A loyal reader recently took issue with something posted on Encourage and Teach. In Why the Church? (October 17, 2013) yours truly had written that “we do not know what to believe without the Church.” “Prove it,” this gentle reader demanded. Fair enough. But first (begging the reader’s patience) we should back up and consider a more fundamental issue: Whether what we believe even matters. Most people think that it is the act of faith – believing itself – and not the content of faith that matters. “Have faith,” people say. But faith in what? Without a clear answer to that, the encouragement to faith is not only vague but also dangerous.

So why is the content of faith so important? Put differently, Why should we care about doctrine?

First, because man is a religious being. We will believe in something. We are just built that way. As created, contingent beings, we have a basic intuition to entrust ourselves to what or whom we perceive can sustain us. This explains the phenomenon of religion throughout human history.

In many ways, throughout history down to the present day, men have given expression to their quest for God in their religious beliefs and behavior: in their prayers, sacrifices, rituals, meditations, and so forth. These forms of religious expression, despite the ambiguities they often bring with them, are so universal that one may well call man a religious being (CCC 28).

We are wired for faith. But history also shows how often we have gotten it wrong – worshipping as divine what is actually created, sometimes to our great sadness. Untold wickedness and sorrow follow when we believe not in the true God but in the many false gods vying for our devotion. We find slavery precisely where we seek security. Thus the content of faith is called “saving doctrine” – because it brings us the truths that lead us out of the darkness and slavery to God Himself.

Second, because faith has an object. We do not “just believe.” Not even Mets fans can do that. We believe in something. We do not just “have faith.” We have faith in something. The act of faith seeks to grasp and clamp down on some object of belief. And what the act of believing grasps determines everything.

The Samaritan Woman

The Samaritan Woman

Put differently, the meaning of “I believe” depends on what I believe. The act of faith is shaped and determined by the content of faith. In this regard it resembles love. Suppose a man takes his wife out for a romantic dinner – candlelight, Italian food, red wine, corner table. At the end of the meal he reaches across the table, gently takes her hand in his, looks deep into her eyes and says, “I love.” Now, she desperately wants him to finish that sentence – and in the right way. Of course, he could finish it any number of ways: “I love…this restaurant….the wine…the tiramisu…the waitress…” Each possible object would indicate a different kind of love. The verb “love” cries out not just for any object, but for the right one. The object makes all the difference in the world. It determines or shapes his love. “I love you” indicates an entirely different kind of affection than “I love this tiramisu.”

In the same way, the verb “believe” cries out for an object – and the right one. Because faith is shaped by its object. “I believe in one God” means a far different thing than the belief (or superstition) in many gods. “I believe in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Spirit” means something far different from belief in Allah.

Third, because faith is personal. The act of faith is the entrustment of your very being. As Joseph Ratzinger observed, “I believe” could be literally translated as “I hand myself over to.” It means more than “I am of the opinion that…” To believe is to entrust our lives to a truth or, as in Christianity, to a Person. To say “I believe” means “I hand myself over to this truth so completely and unreservedly that if it is not true I must rethink everything.” Doctrine – the content of faith – describes the One to Whom we give ourselves and what He has done for us. It provides a sure and stable destination for our self-entrustment.

Fourth, because doctrine determines conduct. If ideas have consequences, all the more does faith. To believe, as many ancient religions held, that the world came into being through warring deities produces a fearful, suspicious view of creation – and behavior to match. To believe, as did the Manicheans, that an evil deity created the body produces a hatred for the body – and corresponding mistreatment. To believe – as did the nations around Israel, and the Carthaginians, and the Aztecs – that human blood appeases the gods inevitably leads to human sacrifice. And so on. If we want to behave rightly, we need to believe rightly.

“You worship what you do not know,” Jesus says to the Samaritan woman (Jn 4:22). Perhaps no sadder thing can be said of a person or a culture. And yet that is our status unless God deliver us from darkness and reveal Himself. Indeed, our Lord came into the world precisely for this – to deliver us from false gods, so that we can worship “in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23).

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