For years, when I taught English, I tried to hide my profession because whenever I met someone new, I often heard an embarrassed plea, “Oh, please don’t correct my English; I’m terrible at grammar!” I would quickly assure the person that I only corrected papers turned in for grades, so worry was needless. And I was speaking truth–I never noticed problems with spoken English, and didn’t feel responsible for correcting anything written (newspapers, magazines, letters) unless someone specifically asked me to proofread it. (By the way, this is not true of my husband, a scientist. For the last 35 or more years he’s been the one yelling at the television, correcting every news anchor or sports announcer who did not use adverbs. But that is his obsession, not mine!)
I wish the same was true about my theological expertise. I’m afraid I’m the worst person to have in a congregation because I can’t seem to participate in a worship service without being a critic. Whether I am in my home parish or visiting another church, I know when liturgical “rules” are being broken, and I know scripture and church teaching well, so I know when a sermon doesn’t get at the heart of an issue or wrenches something out of context to make a point. I try to keep my judgments to myself since, as my son has sometimes reminded me, it’s “not [my] shindig.” But a while ago, I nearly jumped out of my pew because the preacher that day gave a definition of faith that so deeply contradicted what I had come to know and understand.
Faith, he said, was an assent to a set of divinely-revealed beliefs.
No! I wanted to scream. No, I said quietly, probably disturbing those around me.
He went on to say more, but from that point on, I was lost. I spent the rest of the sermon and the rest of Mass wondering if I ought to say or perhaps write something to him. How would he respond? And would it serve any purpose?
Changing Definitions of Faith
I could understand why he might give this definition of faith–it was probably part of what he memorized as a child. According to the 1941 revision of the Baltimore Catechism, “Faith is the virtue by which we firmly believe all the truths God has revealed, on the word of God revealing them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived” (lesson 10, question 122). But while this idea is part of what our current catechism says about faith, it is not the primary definition. According to the 1993 Catechism of the Catholic Church,
Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed. As personal adherence to God and assent to his truth, Christian faith differs from our faith in any human person. It is right and just to entrust oneself wholly to God and to believe absolutely what he says. It would be futile and false to place such faith in a creature.
Now, the Catechism begs for some of my proofreading and editing expertise, but no one has asked for it yet. Still, in case you don’t use language like “a personal adherence of man to God,” let me paraphrase: Faith is first of all a committed relationship with God. Without this relationship, nothing else makes sense. We have to know God, to know God is merciful, loving, and trustworthy. We have to know that God is knowable and also beyond our comprehension. We have to know that God cares for all people and the world; we have to know that God cares for each of us, individually and as part of the whole. And we have to know that God accepts our limitations and our freedom as much as God gives us wisdom and other gifts. We have to know God as Father and Mother, as son Jesus Christ, as Holy Spirit.
The ” free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed” comes out of this relationship with God, and it can only be understood in terms of that relationship. Just as our human relationships grow and change, our relationship with God–and our consequent “assent” to God’s truth and revelation–can grow and change.
Now, I know that my last statement can make some Catholics–both clergy and regular folk–uneasy. Truth is truth, and you either believe or reject it, some might say. If you reject God’s truth, you have no business saying you are Catholic, they might continue. I’ve certainly heard statements like this before. I’ll say a bit about this after a while, but first, I’d like to focus on how being in a relationship can have an impact on what we believe.
Understanding Can Change With Time
Consider, for a moment, how your view of your parents–and their rules or beliefs–can change over your lifetime. When I was a teenager, I thought my parents were unbelievably strict and often unreasonable. And one of their rules which totally frustrated and embarrassed me was their insistence that whenever we rode our bikes, we had to have a bright orange flag attached to the back of the bike. This flag was mounted on a tall, thin, flexible pole. To me, it screamed, “Look at this terribly nerdy girl!” No one else I knew had to bike with one. And everyone could see it–and me–from a distance, and I hated it. If I could, I’d stash it at a friend’s house before we rode together, but that was a dangerous thing to do. My father worked in our small town, and I knew that he would be beyond furious if he saw me biking without it. It was a relief to get my driver’s license and stop biking. I’m sure that I thought that when I had children, I would never do something like that to them.
Flash forward a couple of decades, when I had small children riding bikes. I was living in a wonderful suburban city, with great bike paths, a far cry from the small New York town of my childhood where I lived on a major road, with traffic speeding past at more than 55 miles per hour. Suddenly, I understood why my parents insisted on the bright orange flag. They wanted to keep me safe, just as I did when I insisted that my kids always wore their helmets, even if they simply biked around our cul de sac.
Just as growing up helped me to see the world differently and to understand why my parents had certain rules, growing and learning more about God and the Church–through prayer, scripture study, reflection on Church history and teaching, and service for others–has helped me to understand what God has revealed through church doctrine in different ways. I suppose it is possible to come to know God by first agreeing to a set of doctrinal statements. But I think it is better to begin by getting to know God, then seeking out God’s advice on how to live. When we believe in God, trust God, and know God desires the best for us, we have faith.
And that faith can sustain us while we struggle to make meaningful choices–even choices about how we are to live amidst Church teachings that don’t (yet?) make sense to us. But it also helps to have the right perspective on those Church teachings.
For a long time, I struggled with some of those beliefs, in part because I had run into Catholics who let me know that my desire to understand things first, not simply to accept blindly everything the Church taught, was both dangerous and wrong. These Catholics, who often defined faith as an assent to revealed truth, said that I could not question what the Church taught. But that didn’t fit the God I had come to know. So I ignored them (for the most part–a good measure of Catholic guilt nagged at me, whispering “You are a fraud. You’re heading for hell”). But I eventually came to realize that a proper understanding of these revealed truths actually invites questioning and exploration.
And this understanding was greatly confirmed by my graduate study of ecclesiology and the trinity. As my professor, Susan Wood, SCL, Ph.D., liked to say, Church doctrines “don’t fall out of the sky into bishops’ inkwells.” They come from “reflective listening on a host of sources,” and while they seem to be the end of a conversation, the end of a search for meaning, they are actually the beginning because they reveal as much as they conceal.
(By the way, please don’t hold Sister Susan accountable if I’ve misrepresented her discussion of doctrine. She was one of my favorite teachers at St. John’s University, and I am forever grateful to have studied under her. I tried to take careful notes, and any errors are mine alone.)
I imagine the process to be something like getting to know a neighbor: God invites me in, talks with me, maybe tells me some stories which illustrate what life was like before I came to visit, and invites my questions. Then God (a really good neighbor) comes to visit me, and really listens to my stories. As we get to know one another better, I can see connections between my story and God’s story. I can start to understand why those who know God better might draw conclusions about God’s point of view. And the conversations continue.
All of this depends on a relationship and freedom. I love to learn about new ideas, but faith is not, first of all, an intellectual exercise. Faith is not about my acceptance of dogma or doctrine (although it leads to that acceptance). Faith is my vital, growing and lifegiving relationship with God. And my relationship with God is what helps me through every day and–sometimes–through challenging worship services.
What do you think? What is faith to you? Which came first for you–the relationship or assent to divinely revealed truths?