Wednesday, December 3, 2008

God or Ourselves?

Another fine homily, given this past Monday, by our friend Fr. Anselm Ramelow, O.P. Fr. Anselm is a Dominican Priest and Professor of Philosophy at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology here in the Bay Area.

Faith is Necessary for Salvation


Jesus praises the centurion in today’s Gospel for his faith, the faith that lead to the healing of his servant. And indeed faith is necessary for our healing as well, for our salvation. Without faith, nobody can be saved. Jesus, whose first coming we remember during Advent, is the one and true mediator, and without faith in Him, we cannot be saved.

But if faith is necessary for salvation, how about all those before Jesus’ coming? How about those who did not know him? How about all the righteous people in the Old Testament? The Church teaches that all those who lived before Jesus, were saved by their faith and hope for the coming of the Messiah. This is described wonderfully also in the letter to the Hebrews, in the 11th chapter. There it also says: without faith it is impossible to please him [God], for anyone who approaches God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. So what we need is at least an implicit faith in God as our redeemer, and the readiness to accept everything he is going to reveal to us. It is faith as hoping for things unseen. During this Advent season we are entering in some way the mind of the patriarchs and fathers of ancient Israel again. We renew our faith.


Faith is an attitude of trust, a trust that is ready to embrace all and everything that the heavenly Father is going to reveal. The patriarchs of the Old Testament had this trust.

In our age, however, we sadly see that even those, to whom all of this has now been revealed, are not ready to embrace God’s revelation. Even those who claim to be Christians often claim the right to pick and choose among those things that God has revealed. They are often called Cafeteria Catholics. A few days ago, the wife of the governor of California explicitly called herself a Cafeteria Catholic. She called herself a good Catholic who is going to Church every week, but claims the right to pick and choose among the teachings of the Church. She is for gay marriage, abortion and communion for those who are divorced and remarried; what she likes and picks from Catholic teaching is only the message on compassion and social justice.

Even though it is more scandalous if this is said by a prominent Catholic in the news, it is by no means an attitude that is rare in the Church today. If Jesus in today’s Gospel does not seem to find the Centurion’s faith in Israel, he might today not find much of it in the Church either.

I think we need to be very clear that this is not a path that leads us to heaven. Without faith nobody can be saved. But a faith that willfully excludes something that God puts before us to be believed cannot be called faith. It is less than the faith of the forefathers of the Old Testament who in their hope for the Messiah were ready to accept everything that God was about to do even thought they did not know yet, what it would be. They were saved in hope and expectation.
We on the other hand know and yet we do not accept. But that cannot be supernatural faith; it is at the most human credulity. Faith is a grace that cannot be had on our own terms, but only on God’s terms, and that is: as a whole or not at all. Everything else is not faith, but mere human opinion, our own subjective choice, picking and choosing according to our taste.


Faith, I said, can be had only as a whole, or not at all. There are a number of reasons for this: the object of our faith, God’s revelation and all that is taught by the Church in matters of faith and morals, is one seamless garment. Everything hangs together, and you cannot have one without the other. Wherever in history we see groups rejecting one little detail, they will soon lose the rest as well; the fabric starts to unravel. Faith is then coming down like a house of cards, from which you remove just one. Because in our faith one element builds on the other, what we have left, when we deny any one of them, is something that cannot be understood and believed consistently. It does not have an inner unity. Unity without consistency is not unity, but confusion.


What we need, therefore, is the humble acceptance of everything that God shows us, regardless of whether we know all the details or understand them. Indeed, in some ways we find ourselves still in the situation of the Old Testament patriarchs. Who of us could say that he knows every detail of the Church’s teaching? Not even most theologians would claim that. And even what we know is something that we can still come to understand ever more deeply. Our faith is inexhaustible, and it is consoling to know that we do not have to know and understand everything all the time. We can be at peace in knowing that God entrusted this faith to the Church as a whole. She in the meanwhile guards it, keeping it in her profession of faith, even where we do not grasp the whole. The Church is the true subject of faith,
[1] and we can only enter the Church’s faith as something that will always be greater than our minds.
This does, therefore, require from us an act of trust, humility and faith before the Church that God has entrusted with this faith, knowing that it would be too big for us. That is why we confess: “I believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” Without the Church we cannot believe, we could only, like the Protestants, go our own ways, believing with our subjective credulity various things, contradicting each other, not knowing who is right; because none of us can exhaust the whole; only a Church guided by the Holy Spirit can safeguard the whole “deposit of faith.”


What is reflected in our relationship with the Church is ultimately our relationship with God himself. I said: what we believe, always remains a reality that is greater than we and the capacity of our minds, something that does not enter our mind (which could never contain it), but rather something into which our minds are entering. The reason for this is that the ultimate object of faith is God himself, who will always be greater than our minds. He is the principle of everything else; he is the author of his revelation as well as of our faith.
The traditional definition of faith is the following:

“Faith is the theological virtue that inclines the mind, under the influence of the will and of grace, to yield a firm assent to revealed truths, because of the authority of God.”

We believe because of God’s authority who witnesses to the truth. He is the one in whom we believe, as well as the one whom we believe. We believe in a God whose witness is truthful, because he reveals to us nothing else but what he himself knows to be true. Faith amazingly is a participation in God’s own self-knowledge here on earth. This is obviously not something we can have on our own power, but a gift from God, a pure grace. As such, faith is itself the beginning of our justification and salvation, because it is the beginning of our union with God, which will find its fulfillment in the beatific vision of heaven. But already here and now, faith enlightens our hearts and minds, giving us the strength to carry our crosses and endure our sufferings.

God’s own self-knowledge, in which we participate, is his own knowledge of who he is, and of what he decided to do here on earth, in creating this world and revealing himself in it. All of the content of our faith is contained in God’s self-knowledge. But just as God is utterly simple, so is his knowledge. He knows everything in one concept, in one word, in the Eternal Word which is his Son, who came to bring us the faith as the Messiah.

It is in the simplicity of this one word of God’s self-knowledge that we participate when we have true supernatural faith. This faith can only be total, it cannot pick and choose; it cannot be partial or half-hearted. As the philosopher Aristotle pointed out: something simple can be had only as a whole or not at all. You cannot pick and choose a part from a mathematical point, because a mathematical point does not have parts. And so it is with God’s self-knowledge, in which we participate by faith: it is simple, and we can participate in it only if we are that simple, too, i.e., if we are single-hearted and simple-minded enough to allow this faith to enter into us. We can only believe with whole-hearted surrender or not at all. [In the simplicity of God, everything in our faith holds together consistently, and in true unity rather than in confusion. Something simple does not have parts that could contradict each other.]

It is this simplicity which is the sign of true supernatural faith. It is a faith that does not make itself into a judge over God’s revelation. It is the single-mindedness that is itself a sign of the presence of God. It is this simplicity that is required of us, in order to go through the narrow gate, the needles ear, which is too small for anything to pass through except something that is simple and total. Just as the rich young man had to give up his riches to get through this needles ear, we have to give up the richness of our personal opinions that we reserve to ourselves in spite of what God shows to our faith through his Church.

What we receive in faith is simple and round like the host that we receive at communion. And just as we say our “Amen” there, we say it to the faith of the Church as a whole. The host contains the whole of God, as well as his mystical body the Church, under each and every particle. As we say “Amen” at communion, we say Amen to the whole God, and the whole Creed, and the entire faith of the Church.


The San Franciso Chronicle a few days ago quoted a parishioner of St. Dominic’s being upset about how backwards the Church is, and how she is trying to change the way the Church is thinking. Now we always want to give people the benefit of the doubt, but taken at face value, this statement is a counterexample of what I have just said. To think that we can teach the Church a lesson is not only a lack of the necessary humility, it also indicates a lack of insight into oneself. It indicates that we do not really know who we are, and who the Church is: we overestimate ourselves, or rather the influence of the secular culture that we have allowed to take over our minds; and we underestimate the Church, because we are already lacking the necessary faith that would acknowledge that the Church is not just a human institution or a party whose party-line we can change by our lobbying. The Church is divine in origin; it is founded in Jesus Christ himself, who built it on the foundation of the apostles. He charged the apostles with keeping the deposit of faith, because he knew that this faith would be questioned, and he asked Peter above all others, to strengthen the faith of his fellow apostles – something Peter and his successors have done ever since.


Without the Church, or even sitting in judgment over the Church, we are left to our own devices and credulities. We are making our own religion in our own image and likeness, i.e. according to our taste rather than God’s revelation. This faith of ours will be a form of idolatry, a work of our own making, be it our hands or minds. “I am spiritual, not religious”, often means that we want to fabricate our own beliefs. But it was always foolish to give our faith to an idol, the work of human hands and minds: idols cannot speak, they cannot hear; they are dead wood. And so are the fabrications that we call our religions or spiritualities, made according to our personal tastes and preferences. But indeed that is exactly what we need to be liberated from, because they will not save us as little as idols of wood. Salvation cannot be something that we make ourselves, as if pulling ourselves out of the mire by our own bootstraps. We need God to tell us the truth in such a way that we cannot replace his revelation again through our own productions and opinions, or worse, those of the secular world. In other words: we need the Church to believe. Faith comes from hearing, not from imagination.


This faith requires a decision, an assent of the will. It requires a conversion from the world and its opinions; we cannot listen to two masters, God and Mammon; we need to be single-minded. This can sometimes be harder to realize for cradle Catholics. But in these times we all will have to make a decision. These times force us into an examination of conscience: if you feel you cannot agree on some established teaching of the Church, be it matters of faith, as for the example the virgin birth, the divinity of Christ or his presence in the Eucharist; or be matters of morals, as euthanasia, gay marriage or abortion – if you cannot agree on this, then you have to do some serious soul-searching, because that is not optional. Read up on it; that is, if not an act of humility, at least an act of fairness of hearing all the sides, not just that of the secular world. (If you are getting your knowledge about the teaching of the Church from the secular media, then this might already be where your problem is.) And while you read also remember that, as Immanuel Kant and Cardinal Newman said: difficulties are not doubts. Finally bring it in prayer before God; say the Creed meditatively, asking yourself, whether you believe everything that is said there; and pray: “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief”, help me to believe like the patriarchs of the Old Testament.

Again: faith is neither irrational or arbitrary; nor is it ever merely knowing something; it is an acceptance of something greater than our minds, of something that requires an assent of our will. This decision is a grace, a gift from God, something you need to pray for. And then you have to make that decision, knowing that what is at stake is nothing less but the salvation of your soul.

[1] “We believe…” has its truth after all; but the formula “I believe …” is important too, because by it we enter personally the faith of the Church.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am from Philippines,one of the countries in southeast Asia.this article is very informative.may i request for some articles about the other theological virtues especially the hope? thank you. -joyce