Faith comes from what is heard

There can be a tension between the movement of faith and the desire to grasp with the mind the essence of faith. God gave us our minds and our rationality. We bear the image of God, in part, because we are rational. And we must keep in mind that rationality is not something cold. There is no such thing as cold rationality; there is cold logic, but rationality is, if anything, a hot, passionate, totality of the person kind of thing. Thus our rationality includes our passions, our intuitions, and our logic. We often misuse our rationality for sinful purposes. One of those sins is the desire to circumscribe the essence of faith in such a way as to turn it from something given and believed to something controlled and, perhaps, created by the individual. Theology should be the study of God (to state simply) but too often it becomes an attempt to control God, to demarcate and proscribe God so that one can handle God rather than be handled by God. So it often is with studies of faith. The result is something that looks like faith but becomes, instead, a “system” of faith, or an artifact of the individual to which the individual then, naturally, claims as his own. With this in mind consider these words from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI):

“Faith comes from what is heard”, says St. Paul (Rom 10:17). This might seem like a very transient factor, which can change; one might be tempted to see in it purely and simply the result of one particular sociological situation, so that one day it would be right to say instead, “Faith comes from reading” or “from reflection”. In reality it must be stated that we have here much more than the reflection of a historical period now past. The assertion “faith comes from what is heard” contains an abiding structural truth about what happens here.  It illuminates the fundamental differences between faith and mere philosophy, a difference that does not prevent faith, in its core, from setting the philosophical search for truth in motion again. One could say epigrammatically that faith does in fact come from “hearing”, not—like philosophy—from “reflection”. Its nature lies in the fact that it is not the thinking out of something that can be thought out and that at the end of the process is then at my disposal as a result of my thought. On the contrary, it is characteristic of faith that it comes from hearing, that it is the reception of something that I have not thought out, so that in the last analysis thinking in the context of faith is always a thinking over of something previously heard and received. (Ratzinger, p. 91)

The use of our minds to comprehend the Gospel is important. But the Gospel comes to us from without, unlike philosophy which emerges from within. We hear the Gospel. It is something about which we have to make a choice—do we believe it or do we reject it? Could it be, however, that in our modern world Christians have become, in a manner of speaking, “pro-choice” in all things (except abortion, which many Christians unfortunately accept as well)? Being “pro-choice” in all things is to take a smorgasbord approach to faith where any and every “Christian” option is open, any denomination or system of thought, any so-called Christian “life style” option is open, and we can all call ourselves Christians just as long as we play the game of “let’s not think about it”. In other words, as long as we consider truth as a vague, warm confidence in our general rightness surrounded by Christian-sounding language, and a love for Jesus, then all is fair game. And if all is fair game, then we can march ahead. We are a “pro-choice” culture, and Christians have helped create, and continue to support, this culture. But the Gospel comes from without. We don’t make it up. We don’t change it. We don’t merely add a little bit of it to what we already have and stir it in to make something of our own creation. Perhaps that is the sin of denominationalism, where men became too confident in their (ever so slightly reductionist) systems and began to separate themselves from each other based on those systems. Many see the problem with denominationalsim, and yet vague, warm “christiany” feelings are not the antidote. The Gospel, which comes from outside, is the antidote. And that Gospel proclaims Christ. Ratzinger continues:

[I]n faith the word takes precedence over the thought, a precedence that differentiates it structurally from the architecture of philosophy. In philosophy the thought precedes the word; it is after all a product of the reflection that one then tries to put into words; the words always remain secondary to the thought and thus in the last resort can always be replaced by other words. Faith, on the other hand, comes to man from outside, and this very fact is fundamental to it. It is—let me repeat—not something thought up by myself; it is something said to me, which hits me as something that has not been thought out and could not be thought out and lays an obligation on me. This double structure of “Do you believe?—I do believe!”, this form of the call from outside and the reply to it, is fundamental to it. It is therefore not at all abnormal if, with very few exceptions, we have to say: I did not come to believe through the private search for truth but through a process of reception that had, so to speak, already forestalled me. Faith cannot and should be a mere product of reflection. The idea that faith really ought to arise through our thinking it up for ourselves and finding it in the process of a purely private search for truth is basically the expression of a definite ideal, an attitude of mind that fails to recognize the intrinsic quality of belief, which consists precisely in being the reception of what cannot be thought out—responsible reception, it is true, in which what is heard never becomes entirely my own property, and the lead held by what is received can never be completely wiped out, but in which the goal must be to make what is received more and more my own, by handing myself over to it as the greater. (Ratzinger, pp. 91-91)

The movement of the faithful, in terms of understanding, is to hear the truth, receive it, and make it one’s own—except never entirely one’s own, for it remains outside as it dwells within. The action between the Gospel and the individual is not an interplay, it is not a synthesis where both are changed. Only the individual is changed. What appears to be change within the Gospel is, and can only be, discovery. The Gospel does not change, but one can spend time, forever perhaps, in plumbing its depths and scaling its peaks. New territories discovered only yield more beauty of what is already there. The heart and mind of faith is not unlike that of the scientist. To study the Gospel is to study the creation, what God has made and made available to all who would submit to its unequaled riches.


Work cited:
Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. Introduction to Christianity. Trans. J. R. Foster. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004. (Note: First published in German in 1968)

1 Comment

Filed under Christian Life, Gospel, Philosophy

One response to “Faith comes from what is heard

  1. Hi, Tucker. I continue to find fascinating your thoughts as you journey along. My experiences the past year and a half bring up responses to this entry: first, I like your impressions about rationality. In Orthodox Christian services, every so often a phrase pops up about us being “rational sheep.” I find I really like that description, and I think it fits with your expression of the warmth, rather than coldness, of human rationality.

    Second, the quotes here strike me close to the heart. Especially the way Ratzinger introduces hearing the word as the means of recognizing belief in oneself. Faith, I’ve noticed from a life spent within the Bible’s pages, is never presented in Scripture as something someone found via reflection. God disrupts people’s lives, and then they do whatever reflecting, etc. it takes to decide whether or not they believe what God has shown and told them. Jesus showed up in Palestine, messing thoroughly with the paradigm(s) of the scribes and Pharisees. This is most amazing evidence to me that God is real — I couldn’t have expected or imagined the ways He would mess with my life story. I’ve gone from gratefulness (which I’ll always have), for meeting people with whom I could relate experientially about spiritual things, to gratefulness for a means to “enter into” hearing the truth that shakes up the world. I didn’t know this reality, this Church, existed, but once I started exploring it, I had to continue and will always be gripped by something that has definitely come from outside my little rationality.

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