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Chapter 1: Faith, Religious Assent, and Reverence for God

Question D: What about the “Logical” Case against Faith?

Not only many nonbelievers but even some believers think there are no rational grounds for believing: the act of faith can only be a nonrational leap. Often such people assume that the so-called logical case against faith is overwhelming. If this view were sound, the act of faith, assuming it involves a free self-commitment, would not be a reasonable choice, and so would be morally irresponsible.37

The logical case against faith has four parts. (1) Faith is simply absurd, because it includes doctrines which are self-contradictory (for example, that God is three and one) or at odds with the facts (for example, that God is all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful, despite the plain fact of evil in the world). (2) Even if faith is not absurd, it is unreasonable, because it involves absolute conviction about matters on which opinions differ. (3) Even if it once was reasonable to believe, faith is now outmoded by modern science. (4) Although, despite everything, people still believe, that can be explained psychologically: faith is an illusion which human beings naturally develop to ease their anxieties and/or to control others.

1. Faith Is Not Absurd

Faith is mysterious but not absurd. Only if they are oversimplified do Christian doctrines seem self-contradictory or at odds with obvious facts.

a) God’s inner reality is beyond human understanding. One thinks rightly about God only by keeping in mind that, as the ultimate source of everything else, he is quite unlike the world and the things human beings can comprehend, which only more or less share in reality, meaning, and value (see C.1.b, above). One can know what God is not, and how other realities are related to him, but one cannot know what he is in himself (see S.c.g., 1.30). Thus, great theologians such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas have been able to defend the mysteries of faith against the charge that they are self-contradictory.

For example, in saying that God is both “one” and “three,” the doctrine of the Trinity does not use those words in a way which would imply the absurd statement that one equals three. Rather, while Christians, like Jews and Moslems, believe there is only one divine being (and reject the claims for all other gods), they also believe that this unique God, whose unity is unlike any which human beings comprehend, is three persons, whose personhood and distinction also surpass human understanding. This is mysterious, not absurd.38

b) God’s ways cannot be judged by human standards. God’s attributes are beyond human understanding. Most of his plan of creation and redemption is hidden even from believers (see Jb 38.1–42.6; cf. Rom 11.33–36). Therefore, it misses the point to try to judge his ways by applying human standards to what one thinks he is doing. For example, evil in the world seems inconsistent with what one believes about God only if it is assumed that an all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful God ought to eliminate evil but fails to do so. A Christian need not grant this assumption.39 As with the problem of evil, so in other cases, Christian doctrines seem at odds with the facts only on arguable assumptions, which believers need not grant. (The challenge to faith posed by the suffering of the innocent will be treated more fully in E.6.)

2. Faith Is Not Unreasonable

The second challenge to faith is based on a dilemma: If something is obvious or conclusively demonstrated, there is no need for faith; if it is neither obvious nor shown to be true, it is unreasonable to take it on faith. Those who pose this challenge conclude that Christian faith is unreasonable, because it requires absolute conviction about matters which are neither evident nor demonstrable beyond doubt, as can be seen, they argue, from the fact that many well-informed and educated people are unbelievers.40 The response is that it is reasonable to believe God’s self-revelation, and that Christian experience confirms faith.

a) It can be reasonable to take something on faith as sure. When others bear witness to something which they are in a position to know, one is right to be convinced of the truth of what they say, provided one has reasons to trust them and no good reason not to. Of course, there are limits to how sure one can be on this basis, for normally others cannot be trusted absolutely and can be mistaken. But if they were absolutely trustworthy and bore witness about matters concerning which they could not be mistaken, it would be entirely reasonable to believe their statements with absolute conviction.

b) God cannot be mistaken about the matters he reveals. Christian faith is quite different from belief in news reporters or experts, who provide impersonal information and judgments on matters of opinion. It is more like one’s belief in other human persons or groups of persons who invite one to enter personal relationships. To accept others, one must believe what they say about their identity, intentions, and promises—matters about which they know directly and cannot be mistaken. But the content of Christian faith is God’s invitation to communion, his plan for common life, and his promise of faithful cooperation with those who accept the invitation and agree to live according to the plan. God cannot be mistaken about these matters.

c) God makes himself known as the source of faith. The absolute certitude of faith is a fact requiring explanation. This certitude is a datum of experience of which each believer is immediately aware. Faith itself provides the explanation: Scripture and the Church’s teaching make it clear that special divine action inspires and assists faith in those who come to believe (see Mt 16.17; Jn 6.44, 15.26; Rom 8.14–16; DS 3008/1789; DV 5). Hence, while the various truths of faith are mediated by others’ testimony, faith’s unique certitude shows that belief in those truths is immediately warranted by divine authority. If that were not so, faith would be impossible, because for divine faith it is “necessary that revealed truths be believed on the authority of God who reveals them” (DS 3032/1811).41

d) God is completely trustworthy. Since God, who created everything, can do whatever he wills, plainly he can keep his promises. Moreover, God proved his love by revealing himself through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Assured of this love, believers also are sure that God will not betray them but will keep his promises (see 1 Cor 1.9, 1 Thes 5.24). Therefore, unlike human persons, God is completely trustworthy (see Dt 32.4; Ps 33.4, 145.13).

e) Christian experience confirms faith. In committing oneself to the faith, becoming a member of the Church, and so entering into friendship with Jesus as man, and through him into friendship with God, one experiences the real intimacy faith establishes. One’s faith is confirmed by this experience, and one tastes something of what led Paul to exclaim: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil 3.8). Thus, the absolute certitude of one’s Catholic faith is analogous to that of a happily married woman in the sincerity of her husband’s “I love you.” But while any merely human partner can be untrue, Jesus cannot (see 2 Tm 2.11–13).

3. Faith Is Not Outmoded by Modern Science

Faith is not science, but it is not in conflict with science.42 Any claim that the legitimate ways of reaching reality are limited to those called “science” is self-defeating, since that claim cannot be established by any science. Moreover, exclusive claims for scientific knowledge conflict with the reality of personal knowledge: one knows one’s friends and is known by them in a way transcending what any scientist knows.

a) Faith is not about the same thing as the natural sciences. Modern physics, chemistry, biology, and so on do not deal with the same subject matter as faith, and so their methods and findings can neither conflict with faith nor replace (and so outmode) it. It is a sign of the harmony between faith and science that some able scientists are devout believers.

b) History and archaeology have not undermined faith. Faith bears on certain definite past states of affairs—for example, the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and Jesus’ words and deeds—whose reality cannot be established by studies which prescind from the tradition of faith. Still, it is logically possible for historical and archaeological studies to make discoveries which would tend to undermine faith. But in fact such studies have not established anything inconsistent with the teachings of faith.43 Moreover, even if there were evidence which seemed to tell against some truth of faith, the argument never could be decisive. For instance, if someone claimed to have found Jesus’ tomb and to have identified his remains, the argument for the claim necessarily would involve questionable assumptions going beyond the evidence.

c) Secular culture which does conflict with faith is not science. Of course, the social sciences, psychology, history, the humanistic disciplines, and the science and culture communicated through the mass media challenge Christian faith just insofar as they presuppose an alternative world view.44 To that extent, however, they are not entirely detached scholarship, objective scientific inquiry, or reliable channels of information. Nonbelievers in the secular academic world and the media may be honest, but they naturally interpret everything in the light of some form of secular humanism which they apply to every problem society confronts.

d) In particular, universal evolutionism is not science. Holding that all reality undergoes evolutionary development, certain ideologies naturally deny those Christian doctrines which involve unchanging truths. However, such evolutionist theories also conflict with one another and cannot settle their conflicting claims by any scientific procedure. In fact, universal evolutionism plainly is philosophy, not science. Genuinely scientific theories are constituted of logically universal statements, which refer to some limited set of data and explain observed changes by the regular working of constant factors distinct from those data. But universal evolutionism tries to explain the whole of nature and history, not some limited set of data, and it denies that there are constant explanatory factors outside this subject matter.

4. Faith Is Not an Illusion Which Psychology Can Dispel

Christian faith does have an emotional appeal: it eases anxieties aroused by moral guilt and the prospect of death. But why must beliefs which answer to psychological needs be untrue? Psychological theories which try to explain faith as an illusion merely assume that what Christians believe is unreal. While nonbelievers think the anxieties eased by faith are mere symptoms of underlying psychological problems, Christians believe that sin and death should concern any sane person and that faith offers the only real hope of surmounting these evils.45

Moreover, psychological theories which try to explain away faith as an instrument of social control can themselves be explained psychologically. For instance, some proponents of such theories had unfortunate childhood experiences with authority figures who behaved badly in the name of religion. Also, sinners naturally want to evade responsibility, and in doing so they deny as much of reality as necessary until, finally, “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God’ ” (Ps 14.1).

37. Catholic teaching, definitively summed up by Vatican I, is that the assent of faith is free, and that although the truth of the mysteries of faith is not evident to natural reason, the evidences of credibility are adequate to provide good reasons for believing: DS 3008–14/1789–94, 3017/ 1797, 3033/1812, 3035/1814. Some Protestants who think of faith as a nonrational leap regard it, not as a free human act, but as the effect of grace alone, and so do not see why it would be unreasonable and irresponsible to believe if the logical case against faith were overwhelming.

38. See Grisez, Beyond the New Theism, 370–73.

39. An excellent theological treatment of evil: Charles Journet, The Meaning of Evil, trans. Michael Barry (New York: P. J. Kenedy and Sons, 1963). Also: Jacques Maritain, God and the Permission of Evil, trans. Joseph W. Evans (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1966). A useful work with many fine insights and arguments, although not acceptable in every respect: Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), 7–64.

40. Many philosophers who argue along these lines assume that if belief is not passively determined by evidence, it must be arbitrary. That dichotomy omits the real situation: belief is a moral act by which one more or less responsibly evaluates reasons and evidence which support but do not determine one’s assent. See M. Jamie Ferreira, “Newman and the ‘Ethics of Belief’,” Religious Studies 19 (1983): 361–73; Patrick Lee, “Reasons and Religious Belief,” Faith and Philosophy 6 (1989): 19–34.

41. According to Guy de Broglie, S.J., Pour une théorie rationnelle de l’acte de foi, 2ème partie (Paris: Institut Catholique, 1955), 166–70, the immediacy of faith is taught by St. Thomas and his classic followers. See also: Benoît Duroux, La psychologie de la foi chez s. Thomas d’Aquin (Tournai, Belgium: Desclée, 1963). A review of numerous theological accounts of the supernatural motive of Christian faith: Roger Aubert, Le problème de l’acte de foi: Données traditionnelles et résultats des controverses récentes (Louvain: E. Warny, 1945), 720–36.

42. See Stanley L. Jaki, The Road of Science and the Ways to God (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978); Ashley, Theologies of the Body, 19–50, 253–344.

43. Some might argue that Scripture studies using the historical-critical method do undermine Christian faith. But they do so only insofar as they beg the question by proceeding from philosophical and theological assumptions which themselves have not been proved and which believers need not accept. See Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: On the Question of the Foundations and Approaches of Exegesis Today,” This World, no. 22 (Summer 1988): 3–19; Gerhard Maier, The End of the Historical-Critical Method, trans. Edwin W. Leverenz and Rudolph F. Norden (St. Louis: Concordia, 1977); Mary Ford, “Seeing, but Not Perceiving: Crisis and Context in Biblical Studies,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 35 (1991): 107–25.

44. Against the notion that the social sciences and psychology somehow show that the word God cannot refer to a reality: John Bowker, The Sense of God: Sociological, Anthropological and Psychological Approaches to the Origin of the Sense of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973).

45. On excesses and abuses of psychology: Paul C. Vitz, Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1977); William Kirk Kilpatrick, Psychological Seduction: The Failure of Modern Psychology (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 1983).