Faith is not Work

Even though I believed it for reasons arising from experience, I had always had trouble understanding the doctrine of justification by faith, rather than by works, because I had always had trouble understanding faith as anything but itself a work of the creature. The difficulty was due to the fact that I was treating “work” and “act” as coterminous. But they are not. Works are acts, to be sure; but there are other sorts of acts. The act of faith is not a work, but a motion. We can open ourselves to it, and prepare for it, and yearn for it, and indeed enact it; but we cannot buckle down and just do it, the way we could with working out or finishing an irksome chore. The work that we do to prepare for faith consists mostly of waiting patiently.

So long as I understood the act of faith as an act of work, the best I could do was to treat faith as cessation of all idolatry, all creaturely work to “pin down” God, and so understand him. Stop trying to understand, and simply turn to God and do nothing else, was the idea: let go, and let God, as the saying has it, truly. I’m pretty sure that this notion is not wrong, so far as it goes, because as implemented it does indeed consist in waiting patiently for the Lord. All ascesis takes this form. But what it doesn’t do is help us understand what happens when faith arrives.

Faith in Jesus is like faith in “2 + 2 = 4.”

You can’t choose whether or not you believe “2 + 2 = 4″ in the way that you choose whether or not you are going to the store. Either you understand the idea conveyed by such a true statement, in which case you automatically believe it, without possibility of any alternative; or else you just don’t understand it. When you properly understand a true idea, you come by the same motion to a perception of its truth; and once you perceive the truth of an idea, you find yourself compelled to believe it. The belief part of the transaction is not optional; it is simply not in your power to say something like, “I can see that ‘2 + 2 = 4’ is true, but I don’t believe it.” Well, not quite; you can indeed say those words, but what you can’t do is mean them.

So faith in a truth is part of the package that comes along with apprehension of its truth, which comes along with its proper comprehension. When you comprehend a true notion, you apprehend its force – its meaning, that is to say, and the consequences of its truth, and the mere fact of its truth – and you believe in its truth irresistibly. Because your belief is entailed in your apprehension of truth, it is not your work.

Neither is your apprehension of truth your work. Your works can put you in the way of an apprehension of truth, as when you work to get admitted to college, to study math, and so forth. Your works can lay the foundation of an apprehension of truth, as when you hold a difficult concept in your mind, fasten your attention upon it, and wait patiently for understanding to arrive. But the understanding itself is not something you can force, any more than you can force yourself to exist. The understanding simply arrives once you look at the difficult concept in the right way. And neither can you force yourself to look at a difficult concept in the right way, because until you have understood the concept you have no idea what that right way might be. Indeed, the only way that you can tell you are looking at it rightly is that you suddenly understand it! To look at something in the right way is practically identical with understanding it.

The analogy with trying to force your own continued existence is very tight. Just as you have no idea how to make yourself exist, but are limited to working with the existence you find that you already have, so with understanding. As you can’t guarantee your existence, but only act in such a way as to put yourself in a good likelihood of continued existence – by, e.g., prudence – so you can’t simply generate a flash of insight, but only set things up so as to make such flashes more likely.

So, if you understand what the Gospel is saying, then you cannot but apprehend its truth, and so believe. All the more important, then, that we get theology right, so that we can understand just what the Gospel is saying. We are fortunate, as humans, that we are so made as to be able, with theology as with math or physics, to hear and understand what the masters tell us is the right way to look at things. We can get faith by hearing someone explain the right way to think about the doctrines we do not yet understand. This does not consist in being argued into faith; it consists in understanding what the faith actually is. It may take a great deal of discussion to learn what the faith actually is, and indeed the discourse has continued for a few millennia already, with no sign of ever letting up. But the point is not whether one has won or lost a particular intellectual engagement, but whether one has yet properly comprehended what it is that Christians are talking about.

As for disagreements within the holy Church universal, so a fortiori for our evangelical apologiae to those outside the House of the Lord, and not yet even aware that they have been invited to the banquet we share, or indeed that there is such a thing even as a banquet.

No one of them can be won to the faith by argument who does not want to understand it in the first place; those who do want to understand generally end up converted. For the latter sort, intellectual life just is, always, faith seeking understanding; the first motion of faith is the faith that faith is possible because there is some truth out there to be believed in, that can be discovered. This is just to say that the first motion of faith is the faith that there is such a thing as reality. Thus it is that while realism generally establishes even among the unchurched a fundamental equanimity, confidence and spiritual courage – early fruits of faith – determined unbelief sooner or later ends at radical skepticism, nihilism, and despair. The only hope for such convicted, anti-intellectual atheists is in some experiential comeuppance, some inarguable disaster in their lives, that can break down their pride and provide them the opportunity of opening to an eucatastrophe.

My own experiential apprehension of the truth of the Gospels came at the Fraction of the Mass one evening with the words, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” You could say without too much exaggeration that my intellectual life has been devoted to understanding what those words mean; hearing what the masters have to say about them, pondering them, and waiting for light to dawn. At the time, of course, I had no idea at all what those words meant – I was only 13 – but, together with the sight of the priest breaking the bread, they did the job. They meant, simply, suddenly, all that can be meant, they meant everything that is, they meant meaning itself. I understood them beyond what I could ever have words to convey, and mere words are to that Word at best an earnest profanation, uttered by a dog quivering in the vestibule of the Temple and wishing for some crumbs to eat.

When I heard those words, they literally knocked me down to my knees, whence I found myself powerless to rise. I didn’t decide to fall to my knees. It happened to me, as if I had been taken up off my feet by a mighty wave of the ocean and tossed head over heels. Sure, I was the one who did the work of getting to the beach, and I was the one who did the work of wading into the surf. I decided to go on that retreat, I decided to go to Mass that evening. But when the immense wave overshadowed me, it was not I that decided whether or not to stand my ground, or surrender to the boundless Ocean.

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32 thoughts on “Faith is not Work

  1. I find this post, and lines of argument like it, profoundly distressing, in at least two ways.

    It is distressing to the (I believe significant) part of me that wants to be Christian. On reading it, I wonder what I am doing wrong that is preventing me from receiving faith, which I really, really want in some ways. What sin, what blindness, what bad habit in life, what intellectual mistake, is that which prevents me from bowing and seeing God’s work and thus his Presence as manifestly evident in my life? (And if there is no sin, blindness, bad habit, or mistake, why won’t God give it to me? What purpose does this serve?)

    It is distressing to the skeptical part of me, which (perhaps) wants the truth but thinks that the whole of the above sounds (from the outside) more like a recipe for self-deception than for finding the truth. When you describe the process that you personally went through–forgive me for saying this–it sounds from the outside, not like an intellectual apprehension or understanding of what the Faith is, but an emotional experience. Emotional experiences come in all shapes and sizes, but not all of them are apt to lead one to the truth. You would reject a Mormon vouching for the truth of Mormonism by citing a ‘burning in my heart’; why shouldn’t I reject an argument for the truth of Christianity that in many ways seem to function the same.

    Again, I realize that you’re saying that you ought to understand, not that I ought to go through a certain emotion. But it seems (and this might just be pride speaking, the same pride that keeps me from believing) that I do understand, at least as well as many who are Christian. Yet I do not believe.

    People I know keep converting, or being confirmed in their faith, and basically moving to a plane of being that appears to me from the outside either as (1) a sudden fuzziness of the head, whereupon they suddenly ignore normal arguments and doubts or (2) apprehension of a higher truth, of a Presence in their lives, of the God-Who-Is, which is totally beyond me. I’m not sure how to distinguish the two. Whatever happens, after they do it they are often happier–but is that sufficient to show that what they have done is true? It doesn’t seem so.

    Sorry for the rant, and I hope it does not come off as a rant. Its just that I’ve concluded (skeptically, which might make me faulty according to you) that arguments will never conclude on this matter (and if it were arguments by which faith should be arrived-at, then the majority of men would never have arrived at the faith). Yet, having concluded this, I find that I cannot distinguish between sudden-apprehension-of-a-basic-truth-in-a-non-argumentative-fashion and a quirk of emotion and the brain. And as I do not know how to settle many arguments, so also I do not know how to settle this issue of distinction.

    • I’ve concluded (skeptically, which might make me faulty according to you) that arguments will never conclude on this matter . . . [H]aving concluded this, I find that I cannot distinguish between sudden-apprehension-of-a-basic-truth-in-a-non-argumentative-fashion and a quirk of emotion and the brain.

      From your handle, I assume you are talking here about arguments for and against the existence of God. Notice, first, that the continued existence of these arguments is not evidence against God’s existence. Satan’s influence in the world and our concupiscence are enough to account for these arguments continuing. So, you might begin by asking yourself whether you are really open to being convinced, or whether you are smuggling in (unconsciously) the assumption of atheism/naturalism somewhere. For example, asking that God’s existence be proven using naturalistic assumptions is the same as stating a closed-minded atheism.

      More broadly, again looking at your handle, you are saying, I think, that you can’t figure out which arguments are right: those for God’s existence or those against it. It’s hard to know what the problem is without more specificity. Maybe the argument you will find convincing you have not yet read. Maybe the arguments you have read have not been well enough explained. Maybe you are not good at sussing out the truth of philosophical arguments. Etc.

      It’s hard to tell where you are at, exactly. You say you want to be Christian but also say that you are an agnostic. Why do you want to be Christian? Is it that you think the Christian world-view is the best explanation for things but that not every doubt has been expunged from your mind?

      Yet, having concluded this, I find that I cannot distinguish between sudden-apprehension-of-a-basic-truth-in-a-non-argumentative-fashion and a quirk of emotion and the brain.

      I traveled from atheism to Catholicism, so I think I know what you are talking about here. Maybe, you are asking too much. Once you get to the place where you acknowledge that arguments for the Christian God are better than arguments against Him, you have done what you can by natural reason—no human can ever be absolutely, 100% sure about any non-trivial argument, on his own efforts, because our brains really are not that good.

      Once you have done what you can by natural reason, you can only ask God to help you the rest of the way. It’s OK to ask, even though you are not 100% sure He’s there. Just like it’s OK to call your father Dad, even though you are not 100% sure he’s your father. And you ask both literally by asking in prayer and also by doing what Simon recommends above. Start going to Mass every week. Go talk to a priest about converting. Live as if you are already Catholic. Pray the rosary and meditate on the mysteries. That’s what I did, for example, in this position.

      People live their whole lives without having an experience like Kristor’s. Mother Theresa rather famously lived most of her life in a state of spiritual dryness: in a state in which she was no longer in direct, immediate touch with “sudden-apprehension-of-a-basic-truth-in-a-non-argumentative-fashion.” St Thomas Aquinas stopped doing theology late in life because his touch with that direct apprehension made what he had spent his whole life on seem like so much straw.

      • This advice worked for me. Many people here know, when I started Collapse: The Blog, that I was a deist on a good day and flirted with atheism on bad ones. At some point, I can’t remember when, I started praying for the gift of faith. The exercise felt ludicrous, so I don’t know why I persisted. Almost two years later and, well, here I am.

        All that said, reading helps (and it’s what got me from points A to B). Faith is, primarily, trust in what is known to be true, so it begins with proper formation of the intellect.

      • “More broadly, again looking at your handle, you are saying, I think, that you can’t figure out which arguments are right: those for God’s existence or those against it.”

        Yes. I’m not sure what the problem is, vis-a-vis the arguments. As you state below, they do not seem 100% conclusive. I suppose at least part of the reason they do not seem 100% conclusive is–as you suspect–that, when faced with a naturalistic worldview, I’m not sure that it is wrong, and such an uncertainty naturally leaks into and pervades with uncertainty all philosophical, non-scientific arguments.

        I like a number of arguments for God’s existence; say, C.S.L’s, at the beginning of Miracles, is a fun one. Yet this one also hinges on a rejection of naturalism, which… maybe I should just reject outright. But when I think about that, it doesn’t seem so much an insight that would cause me to reject it, as repulsion to naturalism and just the desire that it be false. So maybe I’m not justified in rejecting it.

        (On the other hand, maybe I just haven’t attended to the arguments against naturalism carefully enough, and am allowing its absolutely massive social presence to influence my reason).

        “You say you want to be Christian but also say that you are an agnostic. Why do you want to be Christian? Is it that you think the Christian world-view is the best explanation for things but that not every doubt has been expunged from your mind?”

        More that, of the states-of-affairs that I can imagine being true, I would prefer the Christian one to be true to the atheist one.

        To be honest about my path–I am a cradle Catholic. At some point, after reading, among other things, what you all would probably identify as too much Hume, Wittgenstein, Popper, and so on, I realized that I no longer believed any of the arguments that I used to believe for God and for the truth of Christianity. This was preceded by a persistent inability to concentrate in prayer, which perhaps (along with a few other things) is the driving cause–I really do not know how to pray. Several of my friends seem to find deep spiritual consolation in it, which, again, I lack. I do still go to Mass, although I still have absolutely massive difficulties praying at it, and often everything there feels most unreal. Obviously there is more, but maybe that’s enough for now.

        Proph, I do ask for faith. Probably not frequently enough.

        What were the arguments / books that moved both of you from atheism to Catholicism? I’d ask Proph after his comment, but the indentation is too deep.

      • For me, it was Edward Feser’s “The Last Superstition.” Feser attacks naturalism quite aggressively in that book as well as on his blog, so it might be the right fit for you. (His blog is linked to the right, and is always worth checking out).

      • Unhappily, I think it might help you a great deal to read Feser’s book. It’s a fun read, and it will help you get over your reluctance to abandon naturalism. Feser demolishes it, in the process teaching the reader a great deal about classical philosophy.

      • Ah, I’ve actually looked at Feser’s book before, and found it grindingly difficult to get through (I didn’t); not because of content, but because Feser seems to move so often from “My opponent is wrong” to “My opponent’s position is wrong, and absurdly wrong, and he is a moron.” Basically, whenever anyone says something like that, I automatically distrust them; Feser may be opposed to the New Atheists in beliefs, but he doesn’t seem so far from them in tone. But I shall re-add it to my list, unless you could suggest something a bit more boring.

      • He takes that aggressive tone on purpose, as a form of tit for tat. His opponents talk about us as if we were the ignorami, when – as Feser shows again and again – it is usually they who just don’t know what they are talking about.

        But his attitude is generally cheerful, and he eviscerates his adversaries with tongue firmly in cheek.

      • @Agnostic

        The Kalam Cosmological Argument burned with a slow fuse inside my head for more than a decade (I did not know to call it that or that there were even better arguments). For that argument, just look at the wikipedia article and references and links therein. Ed Feser’s stuff is very good also, though I came to it after my conversion.

        More important than deductive proofs, for me, was inductive evidence. Christians (and Christian societies) make better art, better science, better philosophy, better music, better buildings, and better neighbors than do their modern replacements. Not quantitatively a little better, but qualitatively and categorically better. I spent a lot of time in a neighborhood with both modern buildings and a neo-gothic Cathedral before I converted, and this experience worked on me pretty substantially, I think.

        There was a spurt beginning in the 19th C where post-Christians did better than their Christian predecessors at technology. But that’s really all they’ve got going for them. Sort of like Saruman had a pretty impressive operation going with the Orc factory.

        Maybe this is what you mean that you’d like Christianity to be true—but it is more than that, it is evidence that Christianity is true (not proof, of course).

        I understand about the difficulty in concentrating during prayer, too. I’ve fallen off recently, but I used to pray the Rosary regularly. There were different levels I could aim at achieving. On a bad day, it was a struggle just to pay enough attention to squeeze the words out. On a better day, it was possible to squeeze them out while paying attention to what they meant. On a better day than that, I could live in the meanings of the words and go on to contemplate the mysteries. On a (very rare) really good day, the meaning of the mysteries was just there for me to enter into.

        One thing that helped me was letting go of (or in another way of speaking facing up to) physical discomfort. When I knelt on a pillow to pray, the distractions came hot and heavy. When I knelt on the hard floor, not so much. To do the latter, you have to decide that, yes, it’s going to hurt, and, yes, I’ve decided that I’m going to do it anyway. Also, either you are going to think about your knees hurting or you are going to think about what you are supposed to be thinking about. There are not other choices.

        On the Mass, Proph has elsewhere praised weekday Masses, and I agree with him. Those have fewer distractions (from your own children if you have them, and from others’). There you are surrounded by people who are there not for tribal reasons, not to be seen, not to fulfill their obligation and get it over with. There you are surrounded by people who are there to witness the re-presentation of Our Lord’s Sacrifice. There because they know What is there.

      • Unhappily Agnostic,

        If you found “The Last Superstition” too contentious, you could try Feser’s book “Aquinas”, which is much milder in tone. However, I do not recall if it deals with naturalism specifically. It does deal with arguments for God’s existence, existence of an immaterial soul, etc. I have found (most of) these arguments decisive. (However, I’ve always been a Christian, albeit one who used to think it was not possible to prove God’s existence. Feser convinced me otherwise).

        You could also try his book “Philosophy of Mind”, which I’m reading now. This one is also mild in tone and points out errors with naturalistic interpretations of mind (I think this one may have been written before Feser had become a full-fledged Thomist).

    • I have had discussions with my pastor about this, and while many people think that the moment of conversion (or however you want to phrase it) is essential, it is not. Indeed, it seems that most believers never have one. Either they were raised in the faith and simply accepted it, or they went through a process.

      I was once an atheist, firm in my belief that religion was just so much mumbo-jumbo. Yet I knew that my lack of faith was a defect, and I envied the faithful for their having what I did not.

      In reading the traditionalist blogosphere (especially View From the Right), I was gradually converted to the belief in God. I can’t tell you a date or event that marks my conversion; it was a process. Knowing that I had to act on this, I sought out a Bible-believing church, and found the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (despite its name, it is a Protestant denomination, founded in the wake of the liberal coup in American Presbyterianism). I started reading the Bible, and books recommended by my pastor, as well as C.S. Lewis. My readings and church attendance satisfy the intellectual part that wants reasons and explanations and the like, but it is the working of the Holy Spirit in me that is responsible for my conversion.

      In your case, it might be better to find and attend a Bible-believing church first, to do your reading first, and pray that belief will follow. Since faith is a gift from God, there is nothing we can do to hasten or delay its arrival: it will come when God wills it. I think this verse (Romans 8:29-39), which brought me to tears with the power of its truth, is apposite:

      For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified. What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

    • @ Unhappily Agnostic: If you feel that you understand, but you don’t yet believe, then however much you do indeed understand, you don’t yet understand whatever it is that you need to understand, in order to believe. Right? There’s a nugget of understanding out there, a pearl of great price, and you just can’t reach it, can’t locate it. That’s how it feels, right?

      Note that I’ve talked a fair bit about feelings in the foregoing. There’s nothing irrational about feelings per se. Some feelings are rational, some not. Ratiocination proceeds by feelings; an intellectual apprehension of a proposition is a feeling. One realizes one has arrived at understanding by having the feeling of understanding. And the feelings by which ratiocination operates – feelings such as those of similarity and dissimilarity, for example, or equivalence, or identity, or sequence, or cogency, or logical compulsion, or entailment, or absurdity, or of relation in general – precede and transcend their formalizations in words or symbols.

      Think, then, of quantum mechanics. One can understand how to do the math of QM, and even perform experiments or design machines using that math, without understanding what the math means – indeed, while finding it impossible to fit into one’s picture of the world those notions that the math demonstrates are true. This would be analogous to understanding theology intellectually, and observing the practices of a religion, and even noticing that these observances led to improvements in one’s life, without believing. It seems to me that a lack of belief in such circumstances would logically indicate a defect of understanding.

      In such a case, all that one can do is contemplate the problematic concept and wait patiently for its resolution to arrive, in the meantime practicing the faith, as Simon, Pascal, Bill, and Bill Lewis all recommend. That practice, and your waiting, are the work of preparation that lie within your power. They are the work of walking down to the beach, and wading into the surf, and waiting there patiently for the next set of waves, so that when the big wave arrives, you will be there and in the way of it. This waiting may itself be undertaken in faith: faith that there is indeed a resolution out there, and that it will in the fullness of time arrive.

      • “That’s how it feels, right?”

        Yes.

        “This would be analogous to understanding theology intellectually, and observing the practices of a religion, and even noticing that these observances led to improvements in one’s life, without believing. It seems to me that a lack of belief in such circumstances would logically indicate a defect of understanding.”

        Granted. And granted that whatever understanding I have or do not have of theology is in any case excessively intellectual.

        “In such a case, all that one can do is contemplate the problematic concept and wait patiently for its resolution to arrive, in the meantime practicing the faith, as Simon, Pascal, Bill, and Bill Lewis all recommend. That practice, and your waiting, are the work of preparation that lie within your power.”

        I mean… yes. Maybe. First of all, I feel like you’re about to quote T.S. Eliot here, so I might as well.

        “I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
        For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
        For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
        But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.”

        I guess I am bad at waiting. Part of it is that, if you’ve asked God, what seems like a million times, for faith, and continually hear nothing–or, if not nothing, what usually seems like nothing, even if perhaps it really isn’t–then you begin to think that you’re waiting on a void. Not that I’m going to ask you to solve that problem–I guess it isn’t really a problem, in the sense of an intellectual thing that I can figure the answer out for and then just forget about, and so it certainly isn’t something I’d ask you to solve. But it’s a… snag that is persistently in my mind.

    • Unhappily Agnostic, since questions of faith, by definition, cannot be decided by logic or experimentation, what would you expect them to be decided by other than by emotion? You want the truth, you say. Either you believe in absolute truth as in Plato’s cave, in which case Plato tells you that you can never get the whole truth and will just have to settle for what you have, or you believe in relative truth, as the sophists did and I do, in which case the whole issue loses its urgency.

      • My emotions aren’t truth-indicating–my positive or negative feelings about a certain statement has little relation to whether the statement is true. So, at least as I see it, to say that only emotion can settle it is to say that it cannot really be settled.

        I like the sophists, at least in some respects, but I don’t know what you mean by relative truth.

  2. “One cannot speak of the reception of faith without also speaking of the work necessary to exercise or appropriate it. Even the most passive receipt involves a reception, a work, that is contained in the nature of the receiver.

    Faith itself is a work and cannot be meaningfully spoken of in any other way. When a man asks what he must do to be saved, he is told that he must believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, not as though the believing and the doing were two different things, but one, for the work of God is to believe on him whom he has sent. When the evangelist preaches that men must be reconciled to God, and they ask him how, the answer is always to do something. A great irony is that many of those who vigorously deny the catholic doctrine of faith and works are active in an evangelism where the first word to those who would be saved is “accept,” as though acceptance were faith and no work. (Acceptance is the whole labor of Christian life!)

    To divide justifying faith and works in time as though the first exercise of faith was without works while subsequent works may be performed in faith is precisely what James was denouncing when he taught that faith cannot be abstracted from works: “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” There is no support whatever in this passage for those whom it has forced to admit that faith and works must always be together, that faith must be demonstrated in works, but still will not straightforwardly confess that “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone,” for in order to say this, as James does, justifying faith and works, while two, must also be one. Since formal Protestant theology has historically denied this in its doctrine of grace, in this place it is in error and at war with the Scriptures on which it claims to be founded.”

    http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=13-06-041-b

    • I understand the commandment “Believe!” as a statement like “Arise!” addressed to a dead man, rather than as meaning “Come on, believe, you know you should.”

      The natural man not only does not, but cannot, receive the things of God — 1 Cor 2:14. Those born again are not born of the will of man (must this not include their own decision, their own act of putting their faith in Christ?) but of God’s will — John 1:13.

      Correspondent Unhappily Agnostic above need not torment himself with introspection trying to ascertain whether he has faith. Christ has atoned for his sins already, yes, even from the foundation of the world. It is this that really matters, not the presence or absence of the feelings that UA imagines should attend faith. I mean to write with sympathy though it may sound like I’m impatient. In my own life I have found that nothing really beats Reformation (in my case Confessional Lutheran) theology for the resolution of such uncertainties.

      In my upbringing outside that Reformation tradition, there was a hymn “Is Your All on the Altar?” or some such title. Let’s be thankful rather that His all was on the altar of the Cross for us. This is most certainly true.

    • The Orthosphere is a wonderful website, with extraordinary authors and a generally high level of commentary. We are free of the puerile inanities that typify most “discussion” on the Internet, and are blessed with a forum for informed discussion of the deepest issues.

      *ahem* However. There is a distressing tendency amongst some Catholic participants to disparage Protestantism. If the Orthosphere were a Catholic blog, that might be fine, but since Reformed Confessional Protestant Alan Roebuck is one of the principal contributors to this blog, it is not a Catholic blog, and as such, Catholic attacks on Protestantism are inappropriate in general, and out-of-place for this topic in particular.

      I think the Protestant commenters have been unusually restrained in the face of these tendentious attacks, but we should not have to defend our beliefs here. Please, grind your Catholic axes elsewhere, and let us stay ecumenical, and on-topic, here.

      • Bill Lewis: I totally agree with you that we shall all benefit from politeness to other Christians with whom we disagree on certain doctrinal matters. But I can’t tell what on this thread you might be interpreting as a Catholic attack on Protestantism. Bruce B. is Anglican, and Wurmbrand is Lutheran. Bill, further up the thread, is Roman Catholic, but his comment says nothing about Protestantism. Did you perhaps post your comment to the wrong thread?

        More generally, it seems to me that the criticism on Orthospherean comment threads goes pretty equally both ways between Protestantism and Catholicism.

      • Bill Lewis,
        If I offended you, then I am sorry. I was quoting Hutchens (a Protestant) with the intention of quoting him on faith as a work. Anything else in the quoted paragraph was just part of what I grabbed.

      • Bill,

        I have made several provacative, pro-Catholic comments recently. If I had to make an excuse for them, I’d say that I am reacting to some of Alan’s posts which define “Christianity” as evangelical Christianity and, at least implictly, suggest that Catholicism and Orthodoxy as outside of Christianity.

    • Bruce, thanks for the link to the review by SM Hutchens. It is really excellent, and I highly recommend it. The basic gist of the article is that the act of faith entails the infusion in the believer of the person of Christ, so that the believer’s body becomes a member of Christ’s body – this being, not just an assertion in ecclesiology, but in anthropology. As the Christian grows in his faith, the man Jesus destroys and drives out the fallen man Adam, so that the believer’s works are more and more the works of the fallen man redeemed, and so perfected – so that, i.e., they are the works of the Lord. This I grant.

      Interestingly, this is a description as it were from Christ’s point of view of what happens when he drives out the fallen Adam from one of his rescued sheep, while in a post of last March I describe the same process from the believer’s perspective, as he more and more admits Christ to sovereignty over his personal economy. Note how I begin with the same example as in the current post:

      When Christ and Christians say that one can be saved by belief in Jesus, “belief” is not meant the way we mean it when we say things like, “I believe what you say about that fellow,” or “I believe the free market is the best form of economic organization,” or “I believe that Caesar conquered Gaul,” or even “I believe that 2 + 2 = 4” – although the latter statement is much closer to the sort of thing that Christians do mean. Christian belief means forming every aspect of one’s life in respect to God, and ipso facto to Jesus, in just the same way that one forms one’s mathematical operations in respect to the truths of mathematics. Anything less is just hand-waving.

      In doing math, or anything that employs it or instantiates it, one must behave as if math were really true, and normative, so that conformity to its truths is mandatory – even if one understands math but poorly. If one believed that math is true, how could one possibly do otherwise? If one failed in this, disaster would soon ensue.

      In doing life, the Christian behaves as if God were as real as the cliffs of Dover (or rather, even more real than the Dover cliffs), and as true as the truths of math, so that (being normative for everything whatsoever), he and his will are normative and mandatory for every sort of thing that a person might do – however poorly the Christian might understand God or his will.

      So, one is saved from the abyss, not just by saying, “Lord, Lord, I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, and of all things, visible and invisible; and in one Lord, Jesus … &c.,” but by doing the will of Jesus’ Father. Confession of faith is just the first step of the process; acceptance of salvation the second; the willing total sacrifice of the Christian himself as the host of the confected eucharist is last. First, intellectual and moral assent; second, openness of mind and heart to the Divine influx; third, willing donation of all that is in one’s power to give.

      Hutchens’ argument – and, he insists, the arguments both of Saint Paul and of Saint James – is indicated by the title of that post: The Integrity of Faith & Works.

      Faith certainly does work – it operates – in us, and in the world. Once I have learned the truth of “2 + 2 = 4” I have really no alternative but to integrate that truth into the whole body of doctrines by which I govern my daily behavior. Having apprehended a truth, I must work with it, and at it, until I have got it down right. For most truths, especially moral truths, this is more like practicing a musical instrument than it is like admitting with no further inward cavil that a proposition is true. But, even with the truths of math and philosophy, practice and rehearsal are sometimes needed. That’s why there are problem sets in math textbooks. The body must be trained to conform its habits to the ways dictated by truth. Old Adam’s body of death must be destroyed, and replaced by a resurrection body. It’s a long hard slog; Good Heavens, it’s long, and the way grows ever steeper, the cliffs either side ever more vertiginous. And I haven’t even made it to the foothills, yet!

      I nevertheless maintain that the flash of insight that results in the comprehension of a concept, the apprehension of its truth, and belief in that truth, is not something we can muscle our way into. You can’t force yourself to believe that 2 + 2 = 4. If you could, then by the same token you should be able to force yourself to disbelieve it.

      Likewise, we cannot squeeze our eyes tight shut and force ourselves to believe in Christ. Whether we arrive at faith by a blinding theophany, or by a subtle hunch that compounds in us over the years until it assumes inexorable power to compel our agreement, the belief must arise in us organically, as a result of our whole life’s experience of things.

      As Gerry Neal points out, faith in a given proposition is not like picking up a stick. It is like seeing the stick that is there before you, and recognizing it for what it is. The work involved in the act of belief is all preparatory. It is like the work involved in driving out to that field in Gerry’s metaphor, and of walking about the field looking for that stick you have been told is out there. Or maybe it’s a pearl, I don’t know. Unless you get out to the field and walk about, peeling your eyes, you will for sure never find what you seek.

      But seek, and ye shall find. Guaranteed. By God.

      So, summing up: faith requires and entails work. You have to work to find the stick, and once you find it your work has just begun. But faith itself is not a work.

  3. Imagine you are standing in a field and a stick is lying in front of you. You then receive a commandment from God saying “pick up that stick. If you do you will be rewarded, if you don’t you will be punished.”

    Whether or not you pick up the stick, depends entirely upon you. It is an act that can be produced by your will If you pick up the stick, therefore, the reward you receive will truly be a reward – something you have earned by your own actions.

    Faith is not like that. You can tell someone to believe something but whether or not he does is not dependent entirely upon him. Belief is not something we can produce at will. If you want someone to believe you, you have to persuade him that you are telling the truth. If you want someone to trust you, you have to convince him that you are reliable. Your task of persuasion will be harder or easier depending upon whether he is a more trusting or a more naturally suspicious person. Ultimately, however, if he believes you, it is a credit to your perceived reliability, and not to his own ability and will.

    That is why faith is an appropriate conduit for the reception of God’s grace and works are not. When we believe God, His Gospel, and in His Christ, we are crediting God’s reliability and trustworthiness – not our own virtue, ability, and choice in believing.

    There is hope in this for the person who finds himself in the position of “I want to believe but am unable.” Rather than straining to produce faith by the strength of his will, he should rather look outward, contemplate Christ, His claims, and His promises. If these are not reliable it is foolishness to try to believe them. If they are reliable, then stop asking the question “why can’t I believe” and ask yourself instead Who it is that you can’t believe.

  4. I responded to this in a post, also provided below:

    I think that Kristor’s account leaves out what my own experience entailed. When I wandered for years in agnosticism, it was not because of willful unbelief. Far from it! Moreover, my exile did not result from a lack of spiritual awareness of God, which I had had for as long as I could remember. Rather, I became fixated on certain problems that I had encountered during my education, which became my focus. In my post “The Faculty of Faith,” I mentioned Strauss’ philosophical-religious dilemma in his “Progress or Return.” Strauss’ impasse along with Nietzsche’s attack on religion and realism captured and held my spiritual focus for many years. During that period, I did not unlearn what I knew. I did not change allegiance. I simply became captivated with particular questions, and I did not attend to other truths of which I was once well aware.

    Men are limited, and, as the Jedi say, one’s focus determines his reality. Fellow Cincinnatian Thomas Kuhn argued in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that the scientific enterprise in the West has not been one of pure progress but rather of shifting paradigms where men seek out answers to different sets of questions. Old lessons are forgotten when they are no longer useful for — or when they complicate — finding solutions to popular problems of the age. As such, natural philosophy is not comprehensive but ever specialized in addressing particular aspects of the world and of our experience of the world. I suspect that individual seekers of truth function in the same way. We set our gaze in a certain direction, and it is difficult or impossible to attend to everything that is not our current object.

    I think that this quality of the human mind and of its quest for truth explains the widespread spiritual alientation of modern intellectuals. Their minds have been trained to sniff out mechanistic relations among particular beings in time and space. Entire lifetimes of genius are occupied with what Socrates calls the world of sights and sounds, though made academically respectable with formulae and accurate prediction. The best of our intellectual culture has become thoroughly earthy, and this does not even address the madness of the irrational movements in the humanities.

    Kristor does write about the importance of proper intellectual formation and of preparing oneself to understand. I just wish to add that there are traps inherent in “faith seeking understanding” whereby one’s attention could be distracted for a long time in such a way that divine truth becomes inaccessible to the mortal mind.

  5. I was reading The Princess and Curdie the other day. MacDonald puts an aphorism in there that you echo:

    There is this difference between the growth of some human beings and that of others: in the one case it is a continuous dying, in the other a continuous resurrection. One of the latter sort comes at length to know at once whether a thing is true the moment it comes before him; one of the former class grows more and more afraid of being taken in, so afraid of it that he takes himself in altogether, and comes at length to believe in nothing but his dinner: to be sure of a thing with him is to have it between his teeth.

    And to Unhappily Agnostic, I also am a cradle Catholic, who kind of drifted along never doing anything really bad but not letting my faith have too much impact on my life. When I was in college I was on the cusp of taking a real step towards letting go of my faith, because it was hard to see the point of feeling vaguely guilty all the time. I can’t really explain how specifically God’s grace brought me back from that point, but can say that it happened specifically over the course of one semester, and looking back the books that I was thinking on were Lewis’ Mere Christianity, Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, and Kreeft’s Christianity for Modern Pagans (which is basically Pascal’s Pensées with some explanatory commentary).

  6. There is also an insight into the search for Truth that I was reminded of by a possibly quite unlikely source, and it is that the Truth will not be used as a means to an end. You will not find Truth if what you really want is equanimity, power, or comfort. I don’t really see any reason to think that is your problem from your comments, but it is something to keep in mind.

  7. Pingback: හලාල් යනු කුමක්ද ?

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