This article was published in Religious Life Review 52 (2013) 135-142
Believing is Seeing: Aquinas on the Mystery of Faith
It is reasonable, and necessary, to believe
In the Observer Review for 31 December 1995, Richard Dawkins wrote:
I’ll tell you what I hope the Nineties may be remembered for. I hope it will be the last decade in which people believe things because of tradition, because of authority, or because of private inner conviction, rather than because of evidence. Fat chance.
Dawkins wants to purify our access to the world, shutting most of the doors through which knowledge is possible for most of us, and restricting the basis of belief to evidentia sola. In his Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed Thomas Aquinas wanted to keep all those doors open: not just evidence, but tradition, authority, and private inner conviction. We will see that Aquinas’s view is more reasonable as an account of how our knowing and believing actually happen.
‘There are those who say we are stupid to believe things we do not see’, Aquinas writes, ‘they say we should only believe what is evident to us’. But there are many good reasons, he thinks, for disagreeing with those who would want to shut down our access to knowledge in this way.
For one thing, such a view forgets the weakness of the human mind. If we were capable of understanding perfectly all there is, visible and invisible, then it would indeed be foolish to believe things: we should go and understand them for ourselves. But even the most intelligent of human scientists cannot completely understand even the nature of a fly. Aquinas tells of a philosopher who locked himself in solitude for thirty years to concentrate on understanding the bee. When we consider how limited is our knowledge, it would be foolish for us not to believe, to trust teachers.
Of course scientists know a lot more now than they did in the 13th century. But when we accept that scientists are entitled to teach us, we are acknowledging their authority. It is reasonable (and for most of us necessary) to accept as true what scientists say about things of which we have no experience or capacity to evaluate the evidence. This is Thomas’s second argument in favour of the reasonableness of believing. When a scientist speaks about things that fall within her competence, we accept what she says. If another person comes along who has nothing comparable to her expertise in the relevant area, then we prefer her teaching to his, unless we have some good reason to think that his opinion is more likely to be true.
The point for the moment is that such believing is reasonable rather than stupid. Believing is not, as some (dogmatically) put it nowadays, ‘irrational’. Brian Moore’s novels are wonderful but sadly, in one of his works, he speaks of faith as ‘reason’s opposite’. This is a common modern prejudice which, if applied systematically, would drastically shrink human experience. In Moore’s case it seems to be born of anxieties about ‘religion’ and is actually at odds with the rich understanding of human experience we find in his novels. But if we were to follow to its logical conclusion the idea that faith is reason’s opposite we would find ourselves in a mad world precisely because so much of the knowledge anybody has is knowledge that is believed. Chesterton said that the mad person is not one who has lost his reason but one who has lost everything except his reason.
This is also Aquinas’s next argument: if a person decides to believe only what he personally knows positively to be true, then life in this world becomes impossible. How could we live in the world if we do not believe someone? Notice that for Aquinas belief is not just about ‘things we assent to as true’, it is always also about ‘people whose knowledge we are prepared to trust’. In a famous statement Aquinas asks, ‘how could we even know who our father is if we did not believe someone’? Absolutely speaking, perhaps the person I have always believed to be my father was not my father. How can I know? All the doors through which I can know things are in agreement as to who my father is. Would it not be an indication of mental illness to refuse to accept what family tradition, those with authority to know, personal inner conviction, supported by the evidence of physical resemblance, all tell me about my father?
Faith, one of the ‘highest gifts’ (1 Corinthians 13:13)
One of the best teachers I had thought that people tended to read Aquinas’s Summa theologiae too slowly. Moving ponderously from point to point is one way of doing it, but it can fail to pick up the sense of movement within the treatises of the Summa. In the case of his consideration of faith, for example, his assigning it to the intellect can mislead unless we keep in mind that it always involves also an act of the will. In Aquinas’s terms, a purely intellectual faith remains ‘unformed’: it has not yet grown up to be fully itself, to be ‘faith working through love’. Faith is a kind of seeing, a knowledge, but it is always also ‘in a glass darkly’ (1 Corinthians 13:12). Faith is always both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’, putting us in contact with truth but leaving us always more or less perplexed. Faith unites us with God, who completely transcends creation and our experience of it, but who also condescends to reveal Himself to us and to call us into sharing His life. When Aquinas speaks of the certainty of faith, it is crucial to understand that this comes not from within the believer (as if we could wilfully generate its certainty by gritting our teeth) but comes rather from the One who is faith’s object.
For Aquinas, the knowledge faith gives is not as strong as the knowledge we get from science. Nevertheless we do know things by faith. We are obliged to articulate our knowledge in language – this is the way all human knowing works – and so too we are obliged to articulate our faith. This already raises some questions about theological faith. If God is perfectly simple in himself, and yet faith in God (because it is human) must be articulated, does faith touch the reality of God or does it reach only to those human ways of speaking about God? Aquinas believes that faith actually touches God ‘through’ the ways in which the mystery of God has been articulated. Divine revelation, the Word becoming flesh, means God expressing Himself within the events of our history and in what human beings have written about those events. In an often quoted sentence Aquinas says that faith terminates not in the forms in which it has come to be enunciated but in the reality which those forms express. When we say the Creed, for example, we believe that our faith reaches not just the intellectual content of the propositions we are enunciating, but reaches God who has revealed Himself in these ways.
Faith means seeing in the dark: in presenting it like this, Aquinas stands in the long mystical tradition of Christianity. Pseudo-Dionysius is the first authority he quotes in his consideration of faith, a 6th century Syrian monk who speaks of a knowledge that is beyond knowing (Mystical Theology) and at the same time speaks of ‘divine faith’ as strong, certain, and liberating. The Spanish Carmelite, John of the Cross, a student of both Pseudo-Dionysius and Aquinas, says the mystical night is illuminated only by the light of faith, but this light is more sure than the light of noonday, it is a night ‘more lovely than the dawn’ (On a Dark Night, verses 4-5). Aquinas himself presents a dialectical account of faith in which there is nothing false, because it is a contact with Truth itself, while its object remains for us invisible, obscure, unknown, mysterious, and absent.
Faith as Decision
Faith always involves decision. Something for which there is convincing evidence, and about which the mind is totally satisfied, would leave no room for decision. If a hypothesis in geometry has been understood perfectly, and its conclusion has been demonstrated with certainty, it would be perverse to decide to reject that conclusion. With matters of faith, however, evidence is not sufficient to satisfy the intellect. In faith there is room for the mind to choose, to say what it thinks is the case on the basis of the available evidence, or on the basis of the trustworthiness of the one presenting the evidence.
This decision to believe is not an irrational ‘leap in the dark’ but is supported by reasons from without and from within. The doors to knowledge which Aquinas wants to keep open are all involved: evidence, tradition, authority, inner personal conviction. What is believed is seen to be credible on the evidence of signs or for some other reason. Although we cannot see the object of faith in itself, Aquinas believed that we can see that the object of faith is credible.
Outside ourselves there are miracles, the example of Christian living, the faith and love of Christian communities, the inadequacy of alternative visions of reality, the preaching of reliable witnesses: these all support the decision to believe and make it possible to see the credibility of what is believed. They do not prove the faith in such a way as to render inevitable the decision to believe. But they do prove that it is not irrational to believe in God and in his providence.
The decision to believe is also supported from within. God himself is, in the end, the only motive of the act of faith which believes God's word simply because it is God's word. The help from outside may be referred to as the objective motive, but the subjective response requires the gift of grace. Saint Paul speaks of faith as a ‘gift’ (1 Corinthians 12:9; 13:13). We touch on the mystery of grace and of God working within human freedom, something Aquinas reflects on at greater length when he considers the act of faith in detail (Summa theologiae II.II q.2). Suffice it to say that there is a subjective light involved in faith, a light added to the natural light of our spirit, helping us to discern the mysteries of faith and to see that we ought to believe God when He speaks.
Faith and questioning
Because the mind has not been given evidence that is demonstrative and convincing, it remains uneasy in believing. For this Aquinas uses a phrase he found in Saint Augustine: faith means cum assensione cogitare. Once again faith is two-sided. It involves assent and at the same time pondering, considering, wondering about, meditating on, that to which assent is given. Faith is an intellectual act distinguished from all other intellectual acts (doubt, suspicion, opinion, knowledge, and understanding) by the fact that assent and cogitatio are present in equal measure and simultaneously. Another way of putting this is to say that faith means ‘trusting while pondering’. We have a striking model of this in Mary, the mother of Jesus, who believed what had been said to her while pondering it in her heart (Luke 1:38,45; 2:19,51).
For Aquinas, the act of believing is therefore a mysterious thing. Because it involves cogitatio it is an ongoing restlessness. But because it is an assent it also means coming to rest, in a decision, an option, an assent to one position rather than another. Plato says somewhere that ‘one must go towards the truth with all one’s soul’ and Aquinas explains the act of believing by speaking of the respective roles of intellect and will. The intellect does not come to rest in the natural conclusion of its proper operation. It does not come to see the intelligibility of the object under consideration so that its search is naturally terminated. The will commands the intellect to come to rest in one position rather than another for reasons appropriate to the will: the good that is involved in believing rather than not believing, the reliability of the witness who speaks, the usefulness of what his words promise. Faith in the theological sense is thus a unique cognitive act, the mind being brought to its decision by the will under the moving power of God's grace.
The intellect in believing is captivated, says Aquinas, referring to 2 Corinthians 10:5. In the act of believing, the intellect is determined in its judgment not by itself and its own proper operation but by a power ‘outside’ itself, namely the will (though we need to be careful not to detach these powers from each other). There is in believing an element of submission, of confident abandonment at the level of the heart, of affectivity, of trust in the One who affirms. Hence the restlessness of the intellect which has not attained its natural end in knowledge, understanding, or vision. This restlessness precedes the act of believing as we struggle with the credibility, the non-absurdity, of believing, and it remains along with the act of believing as we continue to try to understand what it is we believe while committing ourselves to it. To be a believer is to live between these two ponderings.
Faith and Love
As in English, so in Latin, one can ‘believe’ something to be true, one can ‘believe’ a person when she tells us something, and one can ‘believe in’ a person. Aquinas says that all three kinds of believing go to make up theological faith. To believe that the proposition ‘God exists’ is true, is an example of what John Henry Newman called notional assent. It is an intellectual acceptance of something as true and I can believe it without it necessarily making any significant difference to my life. Believing God when He speaks might also be understood intellectually or notionally (although it is difficult to imagine somebody believing that God has spoken somewhere and that this would not make a difference to his life).
In these first two ways, ‘even the demons believe’ (James 2:19). But for faith in a deep sense, as for ‘real assent’ in Newman’s sense, the third aspect of faith is necessary. To ‘believe in’ God then means giving one’s trust and confidence to God, relying on God, entrusting our lives to God. For Aquinas this is ‘formed faith’, faith come to its maturity in love. He writes elsewhere that to believe in God means amando in eum tendere, to tend towards God loving Him. Faith in this sense is the principle of all good works, he says, the faith which Jesus calls ‘the work of God’ (John 6:29).
For Aquinas, faith allows us to share in God’s self-knowledge. It gives us the most fragile purchase on that knowledge. But when we remember the mystery of which faith is the door (Acts 14:27), we will not despise its fragility but will struggle, with all our life’s energy, to keep it.