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Our Belief in God
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Before we begin to answer what it means to believe it may be useful to explain that Faith is not some strange experience professed by some people and denied by others. Faith is the most common commodity of the human race. As I never tire repeating, we start to believe the moment we are born. We trust father and mother; we accept their least signs of communication.
As we go through life, our lives are filled with trust in people and acceptance of their word like a social atmosphere without which we would suffocate. Who would ever read a book unless he believed in its author? Hence the importance and I hope you were not surprised when I mentioned that a lot of books today though ostensibly approved by ecclesiastical authority are not necessarily the teaching of the Church.
Who would ever buy an article of clothing or furniture, who would ever sit down to a meal he had not personally prepared? I should add that most of my meals while Im in Chicago I prepare myself. Who would go to school or listen to a lecture or patiently sit through a conference. Who would ever marry another person, who would sign a contract or open a friendship or enter the priesthood or the convent. In other word, what would we do unless we trusted people and their word and believed in their promises; what would we do?
We would stifle as human beings because social life would become impossible and the least interchange between person and person, even the briefest conversation would be irrational. Why talk unless the one I am speaking to believes me. Why listen unless the one I am hearing can be trusted. Why all of this? Because the human heart is made to believe and the human mind is made to accept people and their word in trustful confidence. So true is this that once our confidence has been cruelly betrayed something sacred breaks in our spirit and life becomes, as it has for all of you, a torture chamber of agony from which it seeks, even at the cost of self destruction to escape. As a woman just told me an hour or so before I left for Cincinnati, she has been betrayed; she wants to die and she wants to take her own life.
All of this though it may sound preliminary I think is worth saying to protect us from making the mistake of supposing that there are such people as unbelievers. There are no unbelievers except in mental institutions. It is part of rational man as a social being to believe. In fact it is Faith that makes society. The only difference is in the way people believe, or in whom. There is no question of not believing and living rationally with others.
With this as a background for our reflections suppose we change our original question to read, What does it mean to believe in God? That after all is the hub of the problem and the only issue that deserves prayerful analysis. It is in this context that the awful question posed by Saint John should haunt us. How is it he asks that you who are so ready to believe in men are so slow to believe in God? How indeed! How is it that credulous man who is so ready to believe in the most bizarre television statements or the most atrocious editorials in newspapers? How is it that this same credulous man who thanks to the billions spent in advertising will buy what he does not need with money that he does not have.
How is it that this same credulous man can suddenly become so skeptical when God speaks and when the message He communicates is His own Divine Wisdom? Lets never apologize, least of all to our own minds for believing. Whatever the reason for this inconsistency it can not be that man is not sufficiently credulous. Might it not be that what God asks us to believe is so demanding and the cost to our generosity so great. It is not Faith we fear but the demands of Faith. Suppose then, and that was again introduction, let me then try to answer the topical question in three parts by saying first that to believe in God means to realize that He has spoken. It means secondly to believe in God as an acceptance of His mysteries. We believe in Him when we accept the mysteries He revealed and to believe in God means to do what the Faith demands as the price of our believing. First then, to believe in God means realizing that God has spoken.
As we look at the shambles of Faith in the Western world today, and they are shambles; if sometimes what I say and sometimes when I name names I may seem to be, well, too explicit. No language I can use can describe the massive loss of Faith in the church today. So we are tempted to explain what happened, why have so many Catholics, so well educated, suddenly stopped believing. No one but God knows the full answer, but one reason it seems to me is that in todays agnostic climate only a realized Faith can be trusted to endure.
What do we mean by realized Faith? By such a Faith I mean first of all and in its foundation a well-grounded conviction that what I believe makes sense. That it is not a mirage, that I have reasons for being a Christian and a Catholic; reasons that satisfy my mind as credible. Its not enough to say I believe; I must as far as my mind can understand know why I believe, because a lot of people are believing in a lot of strange things. Why do I believe?
As we read through the Gospels, we are perhaps all be thee not scandalized but at least surprised at all the miracles Christ worked, kind of nice we think to have them there. It was rather generous of Christ to work miracles, how thoughtful of Him that we pass on as we may feel to something more substantive to meditate on. All those healings of the blind and deaf mutes, all those cures of the paralyzed, all those exorcisms of the possessed and those dramatic resurrections from the dead.
As we read the passion narratives and then see how after the third day, Christ having been crucified, rose from the dead, we are maybe surprised that God our Savior should have done it just this way. We may be surprised that we change the accent, we may be surprised, but Saint Paul tells us why it happened, oh it didnt happen, it was done just that way. Unless Christ be risen from the dead youre Faith and mine is vain and we are still in our sins.
This can mean several things, but it means before everything, that unless Christ had worked miracles in His public life, which had culminated in raising Himself by His own power from the dead, the objective grounds of our Faith would not be there. We would not have real reasons; thats why I use the term realized Faith for believing. Dont misunderstand me, people can believe without reasons, can they ever, can they ever.
There is nothing so strange or incredible; in fact, physiologists say that some people have a special proneness to believe the incredible. So it is not that we could not believe. If Christ had not worked these miracles, the point is we would not have objective grounds for believing. So we could believe, subjectively, as 500,000,000 Muslims believe in Mohammed who was never crucified and never rose from the dead. Or as millions of confirmed Marxists believe in Karl Marx who spent most of his life reading books in libraries and who most certainly never came back to life after he died in 1883.
In order to provide for the ongoing foundation of our Faith to give it credibility, Christ not only worked miracles but, and this is where all of us come in, continues working miracles even physical ones as we read in the lives of the saints or can witness today at places like Lourdes. But more frequently, and for us much more pertinently, He works miracles in the mobile order of suffering patiently endured for the love of Christ over a long period of years of persecution undergone and martyrdom for Faith in Christ, as thousands of our fellow Catholics have experienced; for example in the Communist prisons of Hungry and China.
Of total commitment to Faith in Christ in the practice of the Evangelical councils in poverty, celibacy and obedience in religious life religiously lived out under the guidance of the Church; that adverb is crucial, religious life religiously lived out.
Of complete fidelity of one man and one woman loyal to each other in spite of the erotic mania all around them, these if you please the Church calls miracles in the mobile order and the faithful need to see this to continue making and keeping their Faith credible.
Thats why religious life in the Catholic Church is absolutely necessary for the well-being of the Church so that the faithful may see sanctity and nothing else will do. All of these are part of the basic realization that God must have spoken in the person of Christ and even now speaks through His Church. Why, because how otherwise explain the marvels of power and the signs of the supernatural we need superhuman strength which those who accept the Faith are able to practice.
God can not contradict Himself. What those who believe in Him claim He said must have been said by Him otherwise why did He, better, why does He so obviously confirm His message in those who believe in Him, by working so many wonders of body and spirit through those, and in those, and by those who believe in His name and we are suppose to be, the those.
Is it any wonder the Faith of millions has been shaken? They need to see especially the miracle of sanctity. In order to confirm them in the fact of the same Jesus who is followed by those who believe in Him works in those who believe things that flesh and blood can not achieve but are possible only by His grace.
Religious are meant to be the moral miracle, which the Church needs to sustain the Faith of the faithful in every age.
Thats part one.
We are asking what does it mean to believe in God. We answer; it means to accept the mysteries of God. If as we have just seen, the rational basis of Faith is the realization that God has spoken, the realization short of strengthened and confirmed for the mind by seeing marvels of grace in the Church today. If thats the rational basis then the substance of Faith is the acceptance of Gods mysteries.
What are these mysteries? They are ultimately the mystery of Gods Trinity and the corresponding mystery of His Incarnation. All the mysteries of the Faith are locked up finally in those two.
The first, the Trinity, is the goal of our existence to be possessed by us in the beatific eternity and the second is the means of reaching that goal through Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. But if these are the mysteries and they include, as is clear, all the truths of revelation like the church and the sacraments, the life of grace and the advocacy of humble prayer, what do we mean by calling them mysteries? So whats a mystery?
Whats a mystery? A mystery is mysterious which is not an evasion. They are mysterious since though we accept them on grounds that are consistent with reason, thats making our Faith realized. Once accepted they cannot be comprehended by the human mind and surpass the capacity of reason to fully understand why they are true. The believing mind simply says, I know they must be true because God revealed them, and only He knows why there have to be three persons in one God. Notice, have to be. There cannot be a God unless He has three persons, two persons no God, one person no God, three persons, thats God.
Why there are two natures in Christ. Why the sacraments, which Christ administers in His church, are the divinely instituted channels of His saving grace to a sinful mankind; only He, God fully understands why. But there is more then theology in knowing that Faith is the acceptance of mystery. There is also good Christian common sense. It will preserve the believer, thats us, not from examining the Faith or reflecting on it, or trying to make it as intelligible as we can. But it will preserve us from trying to do the impossible and racking our minds and nerves in attempting to comprehend how a few words of priestly consecration can change the common elements of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.
Now a small part of the crisis in todays Christianity is the failure on the part of intelligent believers to know when to stop asking questions of God. Which means putting God on trial before the bar of human reason, as much as to tell Him, Lord I am willing to believe what you say, but only in so far as I can understand. As though Faith were not what it is. The humble obedience of a created mind, humbly submitting its ability to understand, before the uncreated mind of the Lord of the universe. He wants this humble submission from His creatures and will be satisfied with nothing less. So we dont stop thinking but we do know when to stop telling God, Lord I cannot understand, I am tempted to disbelieve.
You left it up to me, your very kind, to talk about what ever I wished in this conference which turned out to be, or I hope will turn out to be three days.
I am going to concentrate on Faith. It is awfully, I mean it is terribly important, not only that we might remain firm in the Faith, but especially that some people, and I would say with very special emphasis in Gods providence, you, might pray and sacrifice to strengthen, through Gods grace which you can obtain, the Faith especially in this Order of bishops, priests and religious.
So much then for what does it mean to believe. It means to accept Gods mysteries to know when to stop allowing the mind to start asking God the questions He does not want to answer.
Finally, to believe in God means practicing what we believe. It was not a casual remark that Christ made when he gave the last instructions to His disciples before He ascended into Heaven.
Now as you know, any single passage from the Gospels, especially the words of the Savior, every single passage has layer upon layer of meaning. And I suppose that the first impression from reflecting on the last instruction of Christ is to stress the apostolic mandate, which Christ gave to the disciples, through them to their successors and to all Christians. He told them to go into the whole world and preach the Gospel to all nations. Teaching them as Matthew says, quoting the Savior, to observe all the commandments I have given you.
Well no doubt, the apostolic implication is clear but what needs to be stressed, thats why Im stressing it, is the word commandments. I dont know where some people ever got the idea that the function of Faith is to believe period. As though theres any great problem in accepting that there are three persons in the Trinity or two natures in Christ or the Real Presence. Of course it requires humility of mind but frankly nobody can understand the Trinity or the Incarnation or the Real Presence except God. But thats only the beginning of our Faith. The Faith has finality, the finality is to do.
Christ came on earth to reveal mysteries that were hidden from the foundation of the world, true enough. But Christ was no mere philosopher. His purpose in giving us these mysteries was not only, or what is so crucial, finally, which means purposefully that we might think about them, talk about them and give lectures or write books about their hidden and abstruse theological implications. He revealed these mysteries that those who believe might put them into practice. There is such a thing as believing in the Trinity; there is such a thing as living the Trinity.
It is in doing what God has revealed that authentic Christianity is identified which being interpreted says that the Faith is not only, though it is surely that, a submission of the mind to Gods revealed truth. It is also the surrender of the will to Gods revealed commands.
Gnosticism, a big word which is another big word, cerebral Christianity, invaded the Church as early as the first century. It means, as Im sure you know, that type of Christianity which claims that Christianity stops in the mind with gnosis, which is the Greek for knowledge. Who is a Christian, and it is immaterial what he does. Is this ever the most rampant heresy in our day!
One of the main reasons for the gospel of Saint John, way back at the turn of the first century, was to combat that heresy. It is the heresy of intellection, which defines the Christian Faith in terms of mental speculation? The Church today is being suffocated with books. Latter day Gnosticism is still with us. It claims that a person is saved by what he knows rather then by what he does.
True Christianity does not deny the value of reflective knowledge of the Faith nor of intelligence, prayerful even theological reflection. But it insists that this is not enough. The Faith must not only be reflected upon, it must be lived. It must be exercised in the practice of the virtues of charity for God shown in loving even ones enemies. Its so easy to tell God, I love you; its so hard to accept an unlovable person who comes to me for kindness.
Of trust in God shown in accepting lifes reverses have so many gifts from a loving providence that we and other people make mistakes that God never does. That we and others sin, that God never sins. That God uses our mistakes and sins, the mistakes of other people and their sins as part of His infinitely wise providence does this ever take Faith and Faith that does not stop with a printed page.
Of struggle with ones own weaknesses. Lord you could have made me so many things. There are so many wonderful people I know; the saints Ive read about; Lord, dear Lord why did you make me?
And of doing all of this so joyfully. Let me change the accent, and of doing so joyfully because we know, that is, we believe, God knows that those who persevere to the end will be saved. Persevering in doing what they believe.
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