Showing items filed under “A: The Narthex: coming to faith, natural knowledge of God”

Measuring the Tower: The Christian Life as Risky

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‘One day we’ll all know the answer, or else we won’t.’

So goes a line from the Canadian Christian musician (and a friend), Wyndham Thiessen (check him out on itunes!). He is exploring the essentially risky nature of faith in a way that echoes St. Paul in I Corinthians 15.  There Paul says that everything depends on the reality of the resurrection, first of Jesus and later of humankind.  If it turns out not to be so, we are ‘of all people most to be pitied.’ 

The great mathematician and Catholic theologian Blaise Pascal went so far as famously to call it a ‘wager,’ only what we are betting is our life itself.  Jesus after all said you had better be ready to lose it to gain it for eternity.  In the entries up until now we have been pointing out the variegated and partial pointers, suggestions, encouragements to faith.  In other words, faith as its valid reasons, but these do not remove its risky side, rather like a man summoned to leave the boat and walk on the water toward his Master.  The important thing is to come to understand those bits of evidence, those breadcrumbs, as themselves His summons.

Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval theologian and the official one for Roman Catholics, asks himself if faith is ‘certain.’ It’s an important question for us too: but how can I be sure?  He wisely (or exasperatingly) says ‘yes and no.’ With respect to the One in whom we believe, it is sure, because he is trustworthy. But with respect to the one believing (namely us), it is unsure, since we are weak, fickle, confused, willful, etc. Now if one thinks about this answer, one comes to see that there is a difference between thinking about ourselves and the world starting with Christ, or starting with ourselves. One is ‘sure,’ says Thomas, and one is not. But how do I get from where I am, to the point of assuming Him and His resurrection in all things - and there the question of risk returns once again. 

We have come to the conclusion of our time in the narthex, the lobby, as it were, of the house of faith, which is the house of God, Father, Son, and Spirit.  We have seen some of the aspects of reality which seem to be openings of the front door; there are doubtless others.  From now on however, having entered, we begin to see things ‘from inside,’ that is, as we assume the reality of God.  This doesn’t mean that we stop striving to make sense of things or stop asking questions. We continue to see to find ways to offer ‘a reason for the hope that is in us.’ (I Peter3). We begin to enjoy how the world comes to ‘fit together’ in the light of faith.  And we can use what we learn better to order the life of God’s people in His house, and to explain that ordering.  St. Anselm, an Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12thCentury spoke of theology as ‘faith seeking understanding,’ which says both that it must begin ‘from within’ but also must not become a ‘know nothing’ affair.  As we seek this understanding, we are exposed to risk in new ways, for we must make sure that the resulting understanding does not come to undermine the faith from which is emerges.

The contemporary apologist Peter Kreeft on Pascal’s wager:

The most powerful part of Pascal's argument comes next. It is not his refutation of atheism as a foolish wager (that comes last) but his refutation of agnosticism as impossible. Agnosticism, not-knowing, maintaining a skeptical, uncommitted attitude, seems to be the most reasonable option. The agnostic says, “The right thing is not to wager at all.” Pascal replies, “But you must wager. There is no choice. You are already committed [embarked].” We are not outside observers of life, but participants. We are like ships that need to get home, sailing past a port that has signs on it proclaiming that it is our true home and our true happiness. The ships are our own lives and the signs on the port say “God”. The agnostic says he will neither put in at that port (believe) nor turn away from it (disbelieve) but stay anchored a reasonable distance away until the weather clears and he can see better whether this is the true port or a fake (for there are a lot of fakes around). Why is this attitude unreasonable, even impossible? Because we are moving. The ship of life is moving along the waters of time, and there comes a point of no return, when our fuel runs out, when it is too late. The Wager works because of the fact of death.

St. Anselm of Canterbury

I do not endeavor, O Lord, to penetrate your sublimity, for in no wise do I compare my understanding with that; but I long to understand in some degree your truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. 

On Faith: Two Helpful Distinctions

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At this point, we do well to pause and consider the words we are using, ‘to have faith.’  In English, this ‘faith’ of which we speak can mean one of two things.  It can refer to all the things we now claim to be so. Or it can refer to an act of claiming them. In the great tradition there was a distinction made between ‘the faith which I believe,’ (the first meaning), and the ‘faith by which I believe’ (the second).  We need to have both, and making the distinction shows us two ways that we might fall short.

We might think that all we need to do is to assent to a list of truths, to check the right cognitive boxes.  We might think that everything depends on content. But this would leave my heart out of the equation. But I am a real flesh-and-blood person summoned to have faith, or fall short of it (more of this in the next post).  On the other hand we might think that the believing is the thing, so that what we believe doesn’t really matter. But people have faith in a variety of things, some of them ridiculous, some of them pernicious. Furthermore, if the act of believing is the thing, then I the believer am all important, though centering everything on myself is actually the problem, not the solution!

This leads naturally to a second important distinction. We talk of having faith in the sense of believing the Christian claim. But we can also speak of ‘having faith in someone.’  In the latter case the word means ‘trust’ and has a more inter-personal dimension.  In Latin there is actually a different word available, not fides but fiducia (from which we get the term ‘fiduciary’).  Faith, in other words, can be broken down to include a dimension of what (content), how (the activity), and who (the one toward which it is extended).  Now they are related one to another. I trust my friend because I can recall how he has proved trustworthy in his actions toward me over the years.  We are reminded that it isn’t just in the question of faith that all these dimensions come into play in our lives. 

Matthew 16:13-20

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter,[a] and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades[b] will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be[c] bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be[d]loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.


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