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Written Word > Articles & Commentaries > October 2011 > What Faith Is and What it Isn't
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What Faith Is and What it Isn’t

By Rev. Robert Barron

The Protestant theologian Paul Tillich once commented that “faith” is the most misunderstood word in the religious vocabulary. I’m increasingly convinced that he was right about this. The ground for my conviction is the absolutely steady reiteration on my Internet forums of gross caricatures of what serious believers mean by faith. Again and again, my agnostic, atheist, and secularist interlocutors tell me that faith is credulity, naïvete, superstition, assent to irrational nonsense, acceptance of claims for which there is no evidence, etc., etc. And they gladly draw a sharp distinction between faith so construed and modern science, which, they argue, his marked by healthy skepticism, empirical verification, a reliable and repeatable method, and the capacity for self-correction. How fortunate, they conclude, that the western mind was able finally to wriggle free from the constraints of faith and move into the open and well-lighted space of scientific reason. And how sad that, like a ghost from another time and place, faith continues, even in the early twentieth century to haunt the modern mind and to hinder its progress. 

Just last week, Pope Benedict XVI announced that, commencing next Fall, the universal church will celebrate “a year of faith.” A good way to mark that announcement is, it seems to me, a clarification of what Catholics do and don’t mean by that obviously controversial word. I will begin with an analogy. If you are coming to know a person, and you are a relatively alert type, your reason will be fully engaged in the process. You will look that person over, see how she dresses and comports herself, assess how she relates to others, Google her and find out where she went to school and how she is employed, ask mutual friends about her, etc. All of this objective investigation could take place even before you had the opportunity to meet her. When you finally make her acquaintance, you will bring to the encounter all that you have learned about her and will undoubtedly attempt to verify at close quarters what you have already discovered on your own. But then something extraordinary will happen, something over which you have no real control, something that will, inevitably, reveal to you things that you otherwise would never know: she will speak. In doing so, she will, on her own initiative, disclose her mind, her heart, her feelings to you. Some of what she says will be in concord with what you have already found out, but much of it—especially if your relationship has deepened and your conversations are profound and intimate—will be new, wonderful, beyond anything you might have discovered on your own.

But as she speaks and as you listen, you will be faced with a choice: do you believe her or not? Again, some of what she says you might be able to verify through your own previous investigation, but as she speaks of her feelings, her intentions, her aspirations, her most abiding fears, you know that you have entered a territory beyond your capacity to control. And you have to decide: do you trust her or not? So it goes, whether we like it or not, anytime we deal with a person who speaks to us. We don’t surrender our reason as we get to know another person, but we must be willing to go beyond our reason; we must be willing to believe, to trust, to have faith.

This is, I think, an extremely illuminating analogy for faith in the theological sense. For Catholics (and I would invite my Internet friends to pay very close attention here), authentic faith never involves a sacrificium intellectus (a sacrifice of the intellect). God wants us to understand all we can about him through reason. By analyzing the order, beauty, and contingency of the world, there is an enormous amount of “information” we can gather concerning God: his existence, his perfection, the fact that he is endowed with intellect and will, his governance of the universe, etc. If you doubt me on this, I would invite you to take a good long look at the first part of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae. Now one of the truths that reason can discover is that God is a person, and the central claim of the Bible is that this Person has not remained utterly hidden but has, indeed, spoken. As is the case with any listener to a person who speaks, the listener to the divine speech has to make a choice: do I believe him or not? The decision to accept in trust what God has spoken about himself is what the church means by “faith.” This decision is not irrational, for it rests upon and is conditioned by reason, but it presses beyond reason, for it represents the opening of one heart to another. In the presence of another human being, you could remain stubbornly in an attitude of mistrust, choosing to accept as legitimate only those data that you can garner through rational analysis; but in so doing, you would close yourself to the incomparable riches that that person might disclose to you. The strict rationalist, the unwavering advocate of the scientific method, will know certain things about the world, but he will never come to know a person.

The same dynamic obtains in regard to God, the supreme Person. The Catholic Church wants people to use reason as vigorously and energetically as possible—and this very much includes scientific reason. But then it invites them, at the limits of their striving, to listen, to trust, to have faith.

Posted: 10/20/2011 12:00:00 AM by Word On Fire | with 18 comments

Beautiful analogy! Relieved you put it out here that scientific reasoning does not lead us away from faith, but closer; our intellects indeed are our gift from that same Person who Loved us into being. God Speed!
10/27/2011 3:09:28 PM
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Amen, Father! I've been following you for a while and really enjoy your commentary - it's a breath of fresh air in a polluted world.

As a scientist, I always tell people that I rely on faith daily in my own work - I must trust (and therefore have faith in) all of the work that has come before me and which guides my own research. As I stand on the shoulders of the men who have come before me, I must have faith that the work they did is true and that they didn't manipulate the data for their own gain (actually pretty likely given the kind of pressures there are to publish...). I always find that this at least puts a crack in the door of the mind of those who claim science is opposed to reason.
10/27/2011 4:06:06 PM
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Father, you are one of Catholicism's most erudite and passionate ambassadors. Your writing, as always, is simply brilliant!
10/28/2011 10:54:30 AM
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Father, when it comes to Faith I often remember St. Augustine who fought with Faith. He just would not believe until God's grace through Christ began to overflow in his soul thus enlightening many.
10/30/2011 8:37:11 AM
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Thank you,Father.Exactly the message I was looking for...
11/3/2011 4:05:59 AM
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Fr. Baron. Yes. Faith exalts reason. Faith has its own method.
11/3/2011 4:19:33 PM
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As I strive to grow deeper in my faith, I am asking God more to be Holy Love, ie. To love God and neighbor. To become a man of action. As I read scripture you can see how St. Paul became Jesus to the people he associated with and how they were influenced by the truth of Jesus Christ. The call to awaken what it means to have faith and to live the faith is a great blessing from God, and proves that He is alive and well and always seeking our welfare and eternal salvation.
11/13/2011 9:58:33 AM
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“Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” (Fides et Ratio, John Paul II, 1998). This has been a major driving force in my scientific research and teaching career of over twenty years.“And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”(John 8:32). Truth is found through knowledge and accepted through faith. In science there is a leap of faith as we accept what others have studied before us as a basis for "truth". We, scientists, feel more "comfortable" in accepting the scientific truth as we exhaust our investigation of the data. Similarly, as we spend human time on getting to know God and His Creation, our faith grows, inevitably.... and wonderfully.... Pride and skepticism go together. Unfortunately, one sees a lot of this in the scientific world, where pride and high self-confidence are seen as assets and almost a requisite for "success". If we'd just surrender and follow our most natural and intimate tendencies in the perception of the world around us, we will naturally find ourselves in communion with our Creator. I think that Faith is to surrender, and to accept that we do not know it all, that we can't know it all, at least for now. I love your writings and talks, Father, and I find myself totally hooked to the Catholicism series. Each episode I watch over and over, and delight myself in "dissecting" each one of your sentences. Thank you for being such an inspiring intellectual and lover of the Divine Truth. God's Blessings to you in your apostolic work.
11/26/2011 10:33:05 PM
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susan doepp
Father, as a cradle Catholic, I have come to your website to help me in my crisis of faith. I know that without doubt, it wouldn't be called faith, but my doubt grows as my faith wanes, probably ever since I learned as a child that heaven is not really just beyond the clouds.

I have spent much time recently imagining what life must have been like in Jesus' time. How did people live? Life must have been very tenuous, with conquering powers slaughtering and enslaving whomever they choose, with lack of accountable judiciousness and policing (people were stoned by mobs at will due to the smallest of misunderstandings or misinterpretations), with lack of medical knowledge of the causes of hysteria, manic depression, drug and alcohol abuse and the lack of institutions to manage these illnesses. How many people roamed the countrysides espousing various God-related ideas? How many people were desperate to find someone, something, they could grasp onto to give meaning to their oh so vulnerable lives. Why do I feel convinced that if it hadn't been for St. Paul, there would be no Christianity today? Why do I think that the only reason Christianity survived is because St. Paul took his message of eternal life to those who most needed to believe in something beyond this life?

in all sincerity, how do I rein in these poisonous thoughts? please help me to understand.
12/7/2011 9:11:01 AM
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Susan, I don't know what Father will say, but I don't believe your thoughts are poisonous...maybe just a little limited. How is the world you imagine 2,000 years ago any less frightening and overwhelming than today's world? There are thousands of churches epousing their God-related ideas and folks with serious mental challenges wandering the streets or simply medicated out of reality. Don't underestimate the genius of the ancient times as well. The folks of 2,000 years ago were sophisticated and informed. True, they knew different "facts" from us, but they were intelligent and reasoning all the same. Read some of the ancients and you will not take such a dim view of our forefathers (or foremothers) in the faith. And they were happy people too! The joy of learning, fellowship, community, the arts, these were all present in the believers of the past. Instead of locking God into the time of the New Testament, maybe you will be able to find Him in today's world? His truths do not change. Growing in love is the job and the Catholic community is the knee at which we were to grow. Hang in there!
12/20/2011 5:13:58 PM
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I have to agree with Laura, that these my be difficult and troubling thoughts, but that they are not in fact "poisonous" at all. These are all valid questions that you raise and I suspect that in them, The Holy Spirit calls out to you, offering you a venue to come to a deeper faith and a more perfect knowledge of God. The questions are challenging, but necessary - how are you to realize the answer, without first asking the question.

The questions provide you with a choice; to risk your faith as it is, by searching beyond your current conceptions and conceits, or to deny the questions and retreat from the search for truth, which is God. The former is a path of growth and true faith, while the latter is like the house built upon sand, of which Christ warned us.
1/7/2012 3:57:35 PM
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Robenson Joseph
Very good father and keep up the good work.
1/12/2012 11:57:56 AM
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Chesire11 - beautifully said. Thank you.

Susan, I agree your thoughts are not poisonous at all. You are in very good company - St. Augustine, blessed with a superior intellect, searched much of his life for answers to similar questions, left no stone unturned, and finally found his way to the Truth. God Bless you on your journey.
1/16/2012 11:29:34 AM
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I am not a Catholic. I was raised a fundamentalist baptist and then "converted" to evangelicalism and now seem to be on a trajectory towards agnosticism.

I enjoyed reading this and the response to the "I love Jesus but Hate Religion" video.

I am, however, left with a question. The Catholic Church seems to require that I believe THEIR reading of Scripture and THEIR interpretation of what God "says". Why can I not do this for myself? So, I am required to have faith on two levels...1) I must believe God "spoke" and 2) I must believe the Catholic church is the source for the authoritative word on what God said (or what his words mean).

Am I missing something? I think it's on point 2 I struggle. I look at the history of the "Church" and...well, I doubt.

I think I've come to the conclusion that my ultimate faith is in doubt. I don't say this to my credit.
1/22/2012 8:45:00 PM
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For "Frank i am not a catholic" : i think your grovelling with point#2 is very normal but may be best understood when you see the "Catholic" church in that original sense of the GK word "katholikos" universal. The church is the universal community of believers who come to agreement on the overall aspects of divine revelation. In the case of scriptural interpretations no one is saying various lines can not be interpreted one way or another but their is also a universal sense of overall scriptures and "the authority" of the universal "catholic" church guides the individual in their interpretation. Mind you that many great minds of women and men contribute to the overall biblical scholarship and understanding of scriptures that all individuals benefit from and can learn from .No one single person has all the answers. May i suggest you read the beautiful Vatican II document DEI VERBUM On Diivine Revelation for further insight and illumination. God bless you in your journey seeking the TRUTH about yourself and our Creator and Lord.
1/26/2012 10:03:18 AM
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Hi Frank.

I write this with respect and understanding. I put myself in your shoes and I know how odd it seems that a Catholic needs someone to tell him or her how to interpret a Biblical passage. Assuming that we may interpret Sacred Scripture as individuals, because we have different backgrounds, we can also assume that this will result in different interpretations: and I assure you that for a Catholic that sounds strange. Allow me to offer my shoes so you may see why this is from a Catholic point of view.

When interpreting a Biblical passage, Catholics employ something we call “Sacred Tradition.” It is not something we do, but something we know. See, one thing we cherish about the Catholic Church is that she can trace all her doctrine and teachings from the apostles themselves. These apostles lived and ate with Jesus himself. Whenever other people didn’t understand his teachings, Jesus would explain it to them in private (as with the parable of the seeds.) It would be difficult to imagine that they didn’t ask him questions when they themselves didn’t understand what he was said or did. So these teachings (whether or not they got written down in the Bible) were passed on by the apostles, the first bishops, down to the next generation of bishops, and so forth – making sure that nothing is added nor subtracted from the original. In short, we can say that what the Catholic bishops are teaching us today is the exact same thing that Jesus taught 2000 years ago to the apostles.

So, when we superimpose that background on scripture, Catholics believe there can be only one interpretation of a teaching – which is the way Jesus taught it and explained it to the apostles; and what better way to know it than thru the bishops who we know have received Christ’s teaching in-tact.

As a Catholic I think Jesus has left us a wonderful gift: a Church that can tell us, with authority, what is meant by a certain Biblical passage.

I hope this helps a bit
2/11/2012 4:06:07 AM
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Thank you for this interesting subject. Faith and the lack of it has always been an issue with me. The bible texts send very clear messages but these are are sometimes glossed over by the church. And Church teachings on several issues do not often have the biblical support. I find myself questioning the authority of even the pope when history has shown many of them to be fallible and prone to human weakness. Yet in all of these doubts I always come back to the 'fold' so to speak but with doubts still remaining at the back of my mind. A situation I find troubling.
2/20/2012 3:47:32 PM
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Fr. Barron you are a well spring in the middle of a desert. I am coming from the Protestant tradition but am currently in the process of converting... although I grew up surrounded by the Catholic tradition as my Grandmother was a devout Roman Catholic. Anyways, I have really enjoyed watching your commentaries on youtube which has been a relatively new discovery of mine and now it's the first time visiting this website. I love what I am seeing and reading.

What I love is the fact that there is enough given to make us think and you ask good questions and any good teacher knows how to ask the right questions... which we all know is actually for the sake of the learner.

Over the years faith has been a somewhat mystical term for me... but I'm beginning to value to the phrase "infinitely knowable" ... and so it's not even close to believing in some mythical character but rather a being all of creation points to and if all of creation points to a Creator we know science cannot possibly be our enemy but rather our friend... it takes more faith to believe all of creation came into being by accident. Like a I say, "I believe in the big bang theory... God spoke and BANG! there you go... the big banger causing the big bang... it is less logical to suggest we evolved from tadpoles that somehow evolved to apes that somehow evolved into humans... therefore faith really is about encountering what is or what can be hidden...

The word "faith" can be one of the most misunderstood word because so many people use the word faith to mean so many different things and more often then not.. at least within the Protestant tradition, perhaps more the case within the charismatic camp, the term faith is more or less to describe explainable things like miracle healing... but more often then not when people believe something they can't adequately explain they sum it up as being faith when really they should rather be saying they're really just ignorant and there might be something wrong with their conclusion and really in all honesty I really believe that is why the term "faith" is not understood in proper context.
3/9/2012 3:19:24 AM
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