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What Does It Mean to Believe?

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 a common possession of the human race.

Aristotle defined man as a “rational animal.” We may redefine man as “a believing animal.” 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? Who would ever buy an article of clothing or furniture; who would ever sit down to eat a meal he had not personally prepared; who would go to school, or listen to a teacher?

Who would ever marry another person? Who would sign a contract or open a friendship or enter the priesthood or convent? Who would ever listen to another person talk or elect a public official?

In a 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 shortest conversation - would be irrational. Why? Because the human soul is made to believe and the human heart is made to accept people and their words 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 not a few - an agony from which it seeks, at any cost to escape.

All of this, I think, is worth saying to protect us from making the mistake of supposing there are such people as unbelievers. There are no unbelievers except those who are totally insane. It is part of rational man as a social being to believe. The only difference is in the way people believe or in whom. There is no question of not believing.

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 analysis.

It is in this context that the awful question posed by St. 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 gullible man who is so ready to believe in the most bizarre TV statements or in the most atrocious editorials in newspapers; how is it that this same person can suddenly become so skeptical when God speaks and when the message He communicates is His own divine wisdom?

Whatever the reason for this inconsistency, it cannot be that man is not inclined to believe. Might it not be that what God asks him to believe is so demanding and the cost to man’s generosity is so great?

Let me answer the basic question this way: To believe in God means to realize that He has spoken.

As we look at the shambles of faith in the western world today, we are tempted to exclaim, “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 today’s agnostic climate only a realized faith can be trusted to endure.

By realized 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, which first of all satisfies my mind as credible.

In order to provide for the continual foundation of our faith to make it believable, Christ continues working miracles, physical ones, too, as we read in the lives of the saints or can witness today at places like Lourdes. But more frequently, He works miracles in the moral 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 in this century; of total commitment to faith in Christ in the practice of the evangelical counsels in poverty, celibacy, and obedience in religious life, religiously lived out under the guidance of the Church; of complete fidelity of one man and one woman loyal to each other in spite of the sexual idolatry all around them.

All of these are part of our conviction 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 mean superhuman - strength which those who accept the faith are able to practice? God cannot contradict Himself! What those who believe in Him claim He said must have been said by Him - otherwise, why did He so obviously confirm His message in those who believe Him by working so many wonders of body and spirit through those who believe in His name?

Not a small part of the crisis in today’s 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.

Vol. 16 - #6, March 1990, p. 14

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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