Commitments and Checklists

by Circle or Line

We sometimes treat “faith” as though it involved nothing more than assenting intellectually to a list of propositions without evidence. Then, our faith is challenged; we’re not sure we “believe” any more. Does God really exist?

Thinking this way makes it seem as though talk about God is like talk about ghosts or UFOs. Do they exist, or not? And if so, what difference would it make? Even if ghosts exist, what do they do except make strange noises and move stuff around in your house. Your own children do that. Whether ghosts exist or not will not change my life.

Faith – Christian faith – is something different.

Consider the following thought experiment. Let’s say you’re back in high school – as painful a thought as that might be – and you have been afflicted by one of those teachers, the kind that clearly hates you. You say it to yourself all the time: “She hates me.”

Now, let’s say that a good friend comes and tells you that he overheard a conversation between the principal and several teachers during which the teacher who supposedly hates you was defending you and arguing vigorously on your behalf against all the others that you should not be expelled from school. (This thought experiment is based on an actual event, by the way.)

Consider the possible responses. Your first reaction might be to say: “I don’t believe it.” That is to say, “I don’t believe it happened; I don’t believe she did that; you must have mis-heard.” “No,” says your friend, “I saw it through the door; it was her.”

Depending upon your faith in your beliefs about this teacher, your next reaction might be even more extreme: “No, it didn’t happen; you’re lying.”

But let’s say that this is a good friend who has never lied to you, who has in fact seen you through quite a few bad scrapes, and who, quite frankly, has no reason to lie. What would “believing” his story entail?

Well first of all, not having been there yourself, to believe that his story was true, you would first have to believe in your friend enough to believe that this particular historical event had actually happened. But that would only be the beginning, would it not?

Because even if you believed that the event happened as described, it’s still possible to deny that the teacher did what she did “on your behalf.” That is to say, even if you accepted that she defended you, you might still insist she did it out of spite: “She just wants to keep me here so she can keep torturing me,” or something along those lines.

Thus along with believing in your friend enough to believe that the event actually happened, you’d also have to believe in your friend enough to accept his particular interpretation of the event: that the teacher did what she did out of concern for you, and not just to jerk you around.

Thus “believing” involves not just an acceptance of the truth of the historical event, it entails as well an acceptance of the meaning or significance of that event. If you actually were able to entertain the notion that this teacher, whom you thought hated you, had not only defended you, but had done so out of actual concern for your well-being, you might then in fact be forced to think back over everything this teacher had done to you in the past and re-interpret those actions in a new light.

It’s a grim realization: “Oh no! Don’t tell me this woman is actually on my side – that she’s been trying to help me? This is going to force me to re-evaluate everything!” When you’ve based a good part of your waking hours on hating someone you think hates you, discovering that the other person doesn’t share that hatred can be extremely unsettling. It’s like kicking out the crutch on which you’ve been leaning.

But let’s say that, in the end, the explanation “She just wants to keep me here to torture me” appears pretty unlikely even to you, forcing you to entertain the thought that she actually does care about your well-being. Here’s the rub: it’s still possible for you to say: “Okay, I admit (A) that she did it, and (B) that (maybe) she did it out of love, but the truth is (C) I just don’t care. The woman is a sap, and I don’t want to live her way.”

That’s still possible, isn’t it? You aren’t forced to respond with gratitude or love. You could respond with contempt. Plenty of people do. What you’ve got is a free invitation. You can say “yes” to it and be changed, or you can say “no” to it and harden your heart.

The first question, then, isn’t whether you believe in God; the first question is whether you believe in love. Because if you can’t or won’t believe in love, then you’ll never be able to accept the good news about Christ, any more than you’d be able to accept the good news about the teacher you thought hated you.

It’s much easier to hold on to the conviction that it just can’t be true. Believing in God isn’t hard. People believe in all sorts of things they’ve never seen: ghosts, UFOs, quarks. Giving up childish convictions, changing your view about the world, and reforming your life: that’s what’s hard.

Christianity, in a similar way, means not only believing that Christ was crucified for us, but also that he gave his life freely in an infinite act of love (and not merely to increase our feelings of guilt), and then accepting this truth in such a way that it actually changes us within our own hearts. Faith that is not born in love and does not bear fruit in love is empty.

Note, however, that in the case of the student, if he refuses to believe or accept what the teacher has done for him, that doesn’t mean the teacher ceases caring. The problem is that, in refusing to believe, the student has cut himself off from experiencing the full fruits of that care and concern.

Who has rejected whom here? The teacher who interceded for the student? Or the student who won’t believe it?

So too, “not believing” when it comes to God, isn’t something that causes God to reject us. Rather, “not believing” – especially when it comes to love and forgiveness – is precisely the way we reject Him. He continues to love and forgive us. We just won’t believe it.

When it comes to faith, I fear we often turn this powerful, life-altering virtue (akin to courage, justice, and love) into an intellectual checklist. The question then becomes not whether I’ve hardened my heart, but merely whether I’ve got the right “list” or not. Heaven forbid that you should have an entry on your itemized list different from those on mine, or that you would have an extra item on your list that wasn’t there in, say, the fourth century (or third, or second, or after the Council of Trent – take your pick).

And of course then the idea is that, if your list isn’t the right list, then you must not be a good Christian (or Catholic), and you’re going to, well, hell – as though God somehow had a pop quiz on theology as the entrance exam for heaven. Are we to imagine St. Peter standing at a podium like Alex Trebek on Jeopardy: “For the game, now Mr. Smith. Infant baptism: yes or no? Ooooh, we’re so sorry.”

How did this happen? How did the grand virtue of “faith” – the virtue the great Patristic and Medieval Doctors hailed as expanding both mind and heart – become nothing more than a question of getting the right checklist? It’s always been a danger – human beings love “formalism”: it makes the spiritual life so much easier.

But our current problems began, I would suggest, in the seventeenth century, when the scope of “faith” and “reason” each became dramatically narrower. Descartes and his followers insisted that “reason” included only those things with an absolute mathematical certainty. Reason had to be based on things that could in no way be doubted.

For the earlier Church Fathers, faith and doubt could co-exist, just as one can be sure that he loves his wife or children, and yet still have one of those days. After Descartes, no more. If faith was to be a kind of “knowing” (and it is), then it must be ineradicably, unshakably certain.

Quite frankly, not only was this a lot to ask of faith, it was a lot to ask of any kind of knowing. Do you believe your mother loves you? Are you certain? Can you demonstrate it with scientific rigor and mathematical precision? Hardly.

With the realm of “reason” thus narrowed, “faith” – what had been for St. Thomas that great virtue of the intellect – increasingly came to be thought of as something not of the intellect, but solely of the will. You accept these things, you don’t think about them.

At the same time, divisions among Christians accentuated the importance of the different “creeds”: the lists. Not to subscribe to the “right” list became the difference between being in and being out – not only with regard to central matters like Christ and the Trinity, but with an equal fervor placed on all matters great and small. (Dear God, you people baptize babies?). And to be out, well, we don’t even want to talk about where those people are going. Nothing less than one’s cosmic destiny was thought to be bound up with the specific contents of one’s list.

[W]hat is being called for is not mere intellectual assent to six or ten or eighteen propositions. What we are being called to is a change of heart and a change of life. Faith not born of love that does not bear fruit in love is empty.

Randall Smith