09 January 2013

Aspects of Belief

We can consider our beliefs under a few different aspects. On one hand, there is the certainty with which we believe: how sure we are that our idea of something is correct. We can also think about beliefs in terms of their value, how much of a difference they make to us. Things matter more or less, and the truth about them matters correspondingly more or less. Again, we can divide up our beliefs based on the evidence through which we came to believe them: the evidence of our own senses, or that of a textbook or teacher, or the testimony of a friend.

The evidence or testimony on which we come to believe something is really independent of our certainty about it, and both are really independent of the value we place in our beliefs, though of course there are logical connections between all three. There are, no doubt, many other ways of sifting through beliefs, but evidence, certainty, and value are pretty fundamental. Since they are so important to belief, let's think about them in relation to Belief, i.e. supernatural faith.

The Evidence of Faith
When Thomas Aquinas discusses the act of faith, he talks about "believing God". This means that in faith the testimony one is accepting as the basis of one's belief is God's revelation about himself. God does not speak words to me, and I have certainly never heard him read out the words of Scripture, so how exactly is the believer believing God?

Suppose you have a friend in a distant land who wants to send you a message, but no one is willing to make the entire trip to deliver it. Instead, he finds someone traveling in your direction, tells him the message, and instructs him to go as far as he can and, when he stops, to pass on the same instructions to someone else, so that (with luck) the message will eventually reach you. Now, even if everything goes right and the message eventually arrives, there are difficulties involved. What is actually being reported to you is not simply the message of your friend, but the testimony about what that message was, mediated by the entire line of messengers, men whom you do not know and whose character and intelligence you cannot be sure of. The message may have been misunderstood or intentionally changed, and you would never know. Your only way of determining the credibility of the messenger's account is with reference to what you would expect your friend to say in a message, and this is no sure guide. In any case, the testimony available is merely that given by the messenger, and is his own, not your friend's.

The situation changes somewhat if your friend is not just a man living in a distant land, but the eternal and omnipotent God, who governs all things. Why? Logically, the providence of an omnipotent God excludes the frustration of his plans through error or malice. Which means that, as the entirety of the world and all its events are intentional expressions of God's will, whatever true proclamation about him you receive can rightly be called God revealing himself. The evidence of faith is God's self-revelation, mediated through the tradition of preachers and teachers and accompanied by the light of the Holy Spirit, though obviously this fact can only be seen in the light of faith itself. In other words, the evidence of faith is not evidence sufficient to convince those without faith. This is one of the paradoxes of faith: that it is the evidence of things unseen (Heb 11:1), that in it testimony is given visibly of things which are beyond sight.

The Certainty of Faith
Certainty is a complicated business, because it has no one root. Our certainty is based on the quality, character and clarity of the evidence on which we believe, but also on its relation to other things we believe, and on our desire to make a particular view of things work. The certainty of one belief may not be well-grounded in evidence, but may be supported by a network of desires and implications which hold together an entire worldview. A physicist may have once believed that the Higgs Boson existed, before it was observed, but he believed on the basis of a theory the explanatory power of which was sufficient to render credible something for which there was no direct evidence.

The certainty of faith is, like most important certitudes, twofold: on one side it is based on the credibility of the claims of faith in relation to all our other beliefs, in relation to our general habitual understanding of the world. This intellectual certainty can be enhanced through theological study and historical research, uncovering the strength and continuity of the tradition, the depth and profound coherence of the mysteries, their transformative power and transcendence.

On the other hand, there is a volitional certitude which underlies our faith and makes it possible in the first place. (This is the deeper and richer certitude.) Faith concerns things which lie beyond the scope of natural human reason, and our first assent to the things of faith happens because the will moves the intellect to believe. The motion of the will is inspired by grace (this is the “prevenient grace” described by the Council of Trent), which disposes us to want to accept what we have heard. Even after we have understood and accepted the gospel, though, the force which underlies and sustains our belief, which keeps it "alive" instead of just making it an irrelevant and empty assent, is a motion of the will, namely charity.

The Significance or Value of Faith
We mentioned earlier that the connections between beliefs and our interest in sustaining a coherent understanding of things make a difference for our commitment to any given belief. I am fairly certain that the square root of two is greater than 1.414, but (not having calculated it recently) I would not stake very much on this belief, nor would I fret over having to give it up if new evidence came along. Many beliefs are invested with great significance, and this happens in two ways. Sometimes beliefs are deeply significant because their loss would entail the loss of everything else significant, though in themselves they don't attest to anything particularly desirable or valuable. The law of non-contradiction is an example, as are many abstract principles. Other beliefs are significant because in themselves they attest to the nature of something we desire, something our lives are oriented toward. A man whose life was spent in a quest to walk upon the sun would be devastated when he learned that this was impossible. Beliefs matter in this way because they are what determine what matters in the first place, because they give shape to the value of everything else in our lives, not merely by implication but by direct infusion.

For the believer, faith has both sorts of significance, but primarily the latter kind. When given reign, faith transforms the mind of the believer and enriches his desire for happiness by showing him the root and end of all his desires. In faith First Truth speaks, and speaks himself, who is our ultimate desire, whose goodness is heard by echoes in all our earthly longings. In faith we find the true value of creatures and reach beyond them to eternity.

[This post was also published today at Fare Forward.]