Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Intellectual Pride

I've written a few times this year on the supernatural virtue of Faith. This Spring I largely just quoted from and highlighted the Catholic Encyclopedia article on the topic, and I think this is worth a re-read for anyone. Then in late Summer I wrote a post referencing back to that about how Faith is not ultimately about intellectual satisfaction, which is at best preparatory.

My concern in both cases is a trend I've seen even among some orthodox (or erstwhile orthodox) friends and online see Faith as primarily about intellectual conviction. As I described it in my post, there a sense (even among the modern conservative "apologists") that Faith is nothing more than being overwhelming rationally convinced and intellectually satisfied by the arguments for it. However this is not true, as Catholic Encyclopedia says, " We must insist upon this because in the minds of many faith is regarded as a more or less necessary consequence of a careful study of the motives of credibility, a view which the Vatican Council condemns expressly." The "motives of credibility" (in other words, the rational "arguments" for the Faith) at best can provide a sort of natural "knowledge of revealed truth which precedes Faith [and] can only beget human faith; it is not even the cause of Divine Faith."

As much as the natural "motives of credibility" can lead us to the "door" of Faith, in itself (to quote the Catholic Encyclopedia article again) "the Church has twice condemned the view that faith ultimately rests on an accumulation of probabilities." In reality, "it is evident that this 'light of faith' is a supernatural gift and is not the necessary outcome of assent to the motives of credibility. No amount of study will win it, no intellectual conviction as to the credibility of revealed religion nor even of the claims of the Church to be our infallible guide in matters of faith, will produce this light in a man's mind. It is the free gift of God."

In reality, of course, the nature of the Mysteries assented to in Faith make it impossible that the intellect should truly grasp or understand them, because they are beyond it. Instead, "the disposition of a believer is that of one who accepts another's word for some statement, because it seems fitting or useful to do so. In the same way we believe Divine revelation because the reward of eternal life is promised us for so doing. It is the will which is moved by the prospect of this reward to assent to what is said, even though the intellect is not moved by something which it understands." Faith is always a choice made to assent to truths beyond its grasp, yet which are presented to it by that supernaturally infused Light, by the Holy Spirit, for the sake of the prospect of the heavenly reward which the Will can also only be moved by grace towards.

No amount of rational "truth-seeking" or consideration of the extrinsic arguments can ever bring us to the supernatural virtue of Faith; "Authorities are to be found on both sides, the intrinsic evidence is not convincing, but something is to be gained by assenting to one view rather than the other, and this appeals to the will, which therefore determines the intellect to assent to the view which promises the most. Similarly, in Divine faith the credentials of the authority which tells us that God has made certain revelations are strong, but they are always extrinsic to the proposition, 'God has revealed this or that,' and consequently they cannot compel our assent; they merely show us that this statement is credible. When, then, we ask whether we are to give in our free assent to any particular statement or not, we feel that in the first place we cannot do so unless there be strong extrinsic evidence in its favour, for to believe a thing merely because we wished to do so would be absurd. Secondly, the proposition itself does not compel our assent, since it is not intrinsically evident, but there remains the fact that only on condition of our assent to it shall we have what the human soul naturally yearns for, viz., the possession of God, Who is, as both reason and authority declare, our ultimate end."

Assenting to the truths of the Catholic religion because they convince us not Faith. Faith is assent given for the sake of heavenly reward (and, I would argue, one is fooling oneself if you think any amount of rational argumentation can ever produce the certainty of Faith in the intellect). "It is here that the heroism of faith comes in; our reason will lead us to the door of faith but there it leaves us; and God asks of us that earnest wish to believe for the sake of the reward — 'I am thy reward exceeding great' — which will allow us to repress the misgivings of the intellect and say, 'I believe, Lord, help Thou my unbelief.'"

Only such an act of Faith, given by grace, constitutes the supernatural virtue. One chooses to believe or not, and only God can move the Will supernaturally like that, given that both the Truth in question to be assented to is above the intellect's natural capacity, and that the motive for the Will's choice to assent nevertheless is also above its natural capacity (ie, Heaven). "Not feeling convinced" by the arguments is irrelevant. One could still make an act of Faith in such a situation assuming God was offering it.

As Cardinal Newman said, "Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt." Doubt itself is incompatible with true Faith, and a grave sin, as the Catholic Encyclopedia's article on Doubt says: "It will be evident from what has been said that doubt cannot coexist either with faith or knowledge in regard to any given subject; faith and doubt are mutually exclusive, and knowledge which is limited by a doubt, becomes, in regard to the subject or part of a subject to which the doubt applies, no longer knowledge but opinion."

A "difficulty," meaning that my fallible fallen human intellect perceives some apparent logical contradiction in various propositions of the Faith, or doesn't find the motives of credibility to provide even a natural knowledge, is not incompatible with Faith however. I could still assent to the Truths on divine authority for the sake of heavenly reward due to the infused virtue...even while such a difficulty nagged at my intellect. The proper attitude is, in fact, not to suspend assent until such difficulty is resolved, but rather to assent in spite of such difficulty and then to strive to understand, to trust in Faith that the difficulty can be resolved and then to seek its resolution. And to trust that even if our own weak intellect cannot resolve it (though I've never found that to be the case if I think and pray on something enough) or is not satisfied by certain arguments, that this is a problem with us, not with the Truth of Faith in question.

However, this has thus-far all been a sort of review. The "new" point I want to make regards the loss of Faith. It should be clear from what has been said above that mere natural rational argumentation or intellectual dryness or non-satisfaction in the motives of credibility or internal consistency of the system...are not enough to make us lose Faith, which is 100% certain in spite of such things, and a supernaturally infused virtue that moves the Will to assent even though it does not understand (and it never fully can).

Rather, as Catholic Encyclopedia again explains very well, "From what has been said touching the absolutely supernatural character of the gift of faith, it is easy to understand what is meant by the loss of faith. God's gift is simply withdrawn. And this withdrawal must needs be punitive, 'Non enim deseret opus suum, si ab opere suo non deseratur' (St. Augustine, Enarration on Psalm 145 — 'He will not desert His own work, if He be not deserted by His own work'). And when the light of faith is withdrawn, there inevitably follows a darkening of the mind regarding even the very motives of credibility which before seemed so convincing. This may perhaps explain why those who have had the misfortune to apostatize from the faith are often the most virulent in their attacks upon the grounds of faith."

Faith is not "lost" because we hear some new argument that makes us no longer intellectually satisfied or rationally convinced. Assent can be willed in spite of that, Faith is 100% certain in spite of that. The only way Faith once had can be "lost" is if God takes it away. And obviously, He sometimes does, as people do lose Faith.

Why would God take it away? As Catholic Encyclopedia said, as a punishment (of the "medicinal" variety we'd hope, of course) for sin. But what I'd argue here is that it's usually not just any sin. Even though mortal sin destroys supernatural Hope and Charity in the soul, the infused intellectual habit of Faith can clearly remain even if it is a "dead" Faith because of how the Will (without grace) can no longer choose to continue building that habit in the intellect (given that such a choice requires an orientation towards God that the sinful Will no longer has). Still, it is a real sort of Faith; a mortal sinner can still believe, obviously, why else would he seek confession if he didn't?

And yet we are told Faith is withdrawn as punishment for sin. Surely it is not arbitrary. Although many sins, surely, can dispose us towards this, the argument I would make is that it is intellectual pride specifically which finally makes God withdraw Faith. This pride can be primed by many sins (including especially greed and unchastity) but I would tend to think that Faith is withdrawn by God ultimately as chastisement for placing its origin in our own intellect. For choosing to see our belief not as an utterly gratuitous free gift infused by God beyond our natural capacities, but as the result of us having built a "tower of Babel" to heaven with (ultimately flimsy) intellectual arguments or rational apologia by which we think we have attained the Truth by our own natural powers and place our faith in that mere fallible intellectual sense of satisfaction in those arguments.

This scares me, however, because I see so many even orthodox Catholics who clearly have tendencies to view Faith this way. In fact, it is how I think I was inclined to view it in my days as a hot-headed young re-vert, "Oh, look at me, I'm smarter and so I've logicked my way into discovering this gnosis which makes sense of the world and which answers all the question. You other people have clearly faulty frameworks, and I can out-argue you about it in a debate."

This is why I am wary of "apologetics" as a tool of evangelization. While there is, of course, a place for the preparatory motives of credibility, Faith is ultimately a gift that even a child exposed to no complicated philosophical arguments or "apologetics" can have. Apologetics seem primarily useful for resolving difficulties (not doubts, difficulties) in someone who
already believes by Faith. If we see it as the cause of our Faith, however, we do not really have Faith at all, and the devil will likely come along then with even better arguments and convince us away, or with more enticing natural motives to draw our Will's assent away. As the old saying goes, "For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don't, no proof is enough."


Mark of the Vineyard said...

"Leap to faith"

Luke Togni said...

I have often heard it said, by Thomists, that once we know something, it is no longer a matter of faith, e.g. once we are certain of God's existence. This seems wrong-headed, and mistakes the nature of Faith. What you think "Sinner"?

A Sinner said...

Faith is replaced in heaven by Vision, of course.

When scholastics say that, this is what they're talking about. "Faith" is incompatible with the immediately intuitive knowledge of "vision" (in this case, the Beatific Vision). This does not mean Faith is not 100% certain, just that it is a different sort of thing (exactly because its object is something beyond the grasp of the intellect).

They are not saying that Faith excludes certainty or knowledge, however.