Faith has traditionally been known as one of the three theological virtues, along with hope and charity. But who would ever say that uncharity is a necessary compliment to charity? Or that Christians can never have hope without despair? Yet people seem blind to the absurdity of saying that doubt must accompany faith.
A couple Sundays ago we had this Gospel reading at the traditional Latin Mass:
[W]hen it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” And when He had said this, He showed them both His hands and His side. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them and *said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”
But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples were saying to him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”
After eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” Then He said to Thomas, “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.” Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”
This used to be a puzzle to me: Why are they more blessed who did not see, and yet believed?
I now think it’s because anyone can believe with the eyes of science. There is no blessing in that; it’s mere nature.
As explained before, by “science” I mean “sure and evident knowledge obtained from demonstrations”; basically, seeing things with our own eyes, or figuring them out using our reason. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, knowledge acquired by science, and knowledge acquired by faith are equally certain, the difference being that science is certain about things that it sees, whereas faith is certain about what is unseen (cf. Heb. 11:1):
“Now those things are said to be seen which, of themselves, move the intellect or the senses to knowledge of them. Wherefore it is evident that neither faith nor opinion can be of things seen either by the senses or by the intellect.” (See “St. Thomas Aquinas on faith and doubt“.)
Whereas faith is of things not seen either by the senses or the intellect; of what we can neither see nor figure out for ourselves.
Certainly, “Doubting Thomas” was blessed to have seen and believed. But even more blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed, that is, those who believe by the divine grace of faith, since faith is literally a blessing, a gift from God, and otherwise completely unattainable.
This is so good that I’m copying it in its entirety rather than just linking to it (though the link to the original is below), lest it ever be taken down from its original location and be lost:
For the past two years, I have been struggling with my faith, not due to a lack of love for the Church, but due to a struggle with religion in general. As a cradle Catholic who has been devoted to her faith throughout college, this has deeply bothered me. My doubt is not about the details of what the Church teaches, but about the existence of God, about Jesus, and about the Resurrection in general.
This is not something I welcome; in fact, I do not want to feel this way at all. It is hard for me to attend Mass every Sunday and not be able to take full joy in it as I used to when my faith was whole. However, it is this nagging doubt that lies underneath everything that prevents me from feeling completely whole in my faith as I once did. I feel as if I have one foot in the Church’s door and one foot out.
I have turned to priests, friends, and books looking for an answer to resolve this perpetuating problem, but have been left empty handed. I read that you went through something similar in college, and I look forward to hearing from you.
Since we haven’t met personally, you must forgive me for speaking in generalities, but I think it would be good to consider some the most frequent reasons for the kind of distress you are suffering about faith. By my count, there are about seven big ones.
First is the normal undulation of feelings. I mention this one before the others because you haven’t described any intellectual problems concerning faith; the problem seems to lie in your confidence. Faith itself is not a feeling of confidence, although many people think it is. Faith is simply adhering to God by freely assenting to the truth He has revealed. To put it another way, faith is something that the mind and will are doing, not something that the emotions are doing. Since our emotions are unstable, it is entirely normal for our feelings of confidence to waver up and down, even if our actual adherence to God is consistent and strong. If we don’t understand the difference between faith and feelings, the normal undulation of confidence might cause us to panic and think we are losing our faith. This can make a trough last much longer than it otherwise would.
You ask for advice, so here is what you can do about the normal undulation of feelings: Bear in mind that in itself, being in a trough of confidence isn’t a bad thing; God uses it to train us to place our trust in Him, rather than in our feelings about Him. Live in reliance on Him, just as though your feelings weren’t wavering. Eventually your confidence will return.
Second is depression. Depression isn’t just feeling bad; the mind gets into the act too, because we get into the habit of allowing our minds to drone on repeating things that we have no reason for believing but that keep us feeling bad. The worse we feel, the more we tell these things to ourselves, and more we tell them to ourselves, the worse we feel. The interior monologue varies according to the person. One person’s litany runs, “I’m a failure.” Another’s, “I’ll never have any friends.” Another’s, “Everything I touch turns to ashes.” Another’s, “Nothing has any meaning.” As to faith, yet another litany can be, “Those things about God and Christ just couldn’t be true.”
Here is what you can do about depression: Find out if you are depressed. If you are, seek help from the Church. It’s surprisingly easy to be mildly depressed and not know it. Check for that vicious circle I mentioned – the loop between what you tell yourself and how you feel. Cut it in two.
Third is sin. One would think that first people would stop believing in God, then start living in ways that He forbids. Much more common, though, is to do something He warns against, fail to repent, and then start looking for reasons to disbelieve in God. This is very common in the atmosphere of continuous temptation and habitual indulgence which characterizes most college campuses.
What to do about unrepented sin is very straightforward: Turn away from it, sacramentally confess, and accept Christ’s forgiveness and penance.
Fourth is spiritual carelessness. Although this is a sin too – the traditional name for it is acedia or sloth – its nature is different from the others. Some sins are selfish. We seek what is good for ourselves in unjust preference to others. But the essence of sloth lies in failing to seek what is good for us enough — in particular, not ardently pursuing our ultimate good, who is God. So we neglect worship, or spiritual reading, or works of charity, or the sacraments, or some of the sacraments (you mention that you attend Mass regularly) — and predictably, the rivers of grace silt up.
Here is what you can do about sloth: Desire Christ to stir up your longing for Him. He is doing that already, or you would not have written. Ask Him to; ask persistently; ask your earthly and heavenly intercessors to help you ask. Be patient, but be ready, because at the right time He will certainly respond. God wants to pour His grace into us, but we have to cooperate.
Fifth is lack of spiritual friendships. According to an ancient saying of the Church, solus Christianus, nulus Christianus – “One Christian is no Christian at all.” God made us social beings; that is why there is a Church. It is all well and good to resist bad peer pressure, but it is much more important to find the right peers, to spend time with them, to encourage them and be encouraged by them. We cannot thrive in faith if our closest compadres are strangers to it, and your nonbelieving friends cannot help you with your problem, no matter how sympathetic they are.
If that is the problem, the solution should be clear: Form spiritually healthy friendships, and avoid spiritually unhealthy ones! You mention friends, but you don’t mention whether they are faith companions. Seek for your friends among the most faithful Catholics you know, people you can pray with and worship with.
Sixth is cultural bombardment, which comes in two forms. The first form is the unending hail of pagan propaganda which reaches us from a society which insists on living as though there is no God. The second form is sheer noise. Even on those rare occasions when we pull out our earbuds, disconnect from social media, and walk into the sanctuary, all those chattering, jingling, crooning, thumping incantations ring on in our minds. God commands recourse to the abyss of silence so that we might hear Him in it: “Be still, and know that I am God.”
Here is what you can do about the bombardment: Turn off the hail of propaganda in words, sounds, and images. Continually remind yourself that it is propaganda. Sift your music and your pastimes. Unplug and stay unplugged. Get some holy silence in your life. God will speak into that silence; listen.
The seventh common reason for distress about faith is probably the most misunderstood. Sometimes Christians think that there must be something wrong with them if they find themselves spiritually unfulfilled. Actually there would be something wrong with them if they thought they had attained fulfillment in this world. St. Paul spoke searchingly of how we “groan” in the longing that what is mortal in us may be “swallowed up by life.” Yet the same Paul counsels us to rejoice, because one day we will no longer see Christ dimly, as in a dark mirror, but face to face.
Here is what you can do about unfulfilled spiritual longing: Rejoice the way St. Paul did. That poignant longing is a blessed reminder that we are made for heaven, and cannot be completely at home in this world. This is why we sing as we do in this season of Advent —
Zion hears the sound of singing;
Our hearts are thrilled with sudden longing;
She stirs, and wakes, and stands prepared.
Christ, her friend, and lord, and lover,
Her star and sun and strong redeemer —
At last his mighty voice is heard.
Has any of this struck any sparks of light onto what you may be suffering? I hope so.
One more thing: You can’t work yourself up into faith. That’s impossible, because it is a gift, so don’t try.
But you can ask for it. May the peace of Christ be with you.
J. Budziszewski, “That Mourns in Exile Here“, The Underground Thomist blog, December 21, 2015.
[Reposted from Scriptural Postscript.]
Many learned Christians offer rational proofs of God’s existence and attributes to the incredulous who seek such proof. St. Thomas Aquinas offered five superbly logical proofs in his Summa Theologica (I, 2, 3). Even Aristotle, centuries before, offered similar proofs.
But knowledge obviates faith inasmuch as one cannot know a thing with certainty and believe in it in the same respect. Belief necessarily involves some degree of objective uncertainty. The believer believes in divine truths as if he possesses scientific certainty of them, though he actually does not possess such certainty. His faith affords him subjective certainty where objective certainty is lacking.
Christ would have us value faith above certainty. He said: “Blessed are they who believe without seeing” (Jn 20:29). And St. Paul taught that we are saved by grace through faith (Eph 2:8).
The sort of faith that enables one to attain everlasting life is supernatural faith, a gift from God enabling a person to assent to divine truths with his will. It is not a human faith, the kind we use daily when we accept the word of others and build upon the scientific knowledge of those who have gone before us.
Should an unbeliever’s doubt be replaced by nothing more than rationally demonstrable certainty, his new-found confidence would not enable him to reach Heaven. But should his doubt be replaced by a willful assent to all that God’s duly-appointed teachers have proposed to him as necessary to believe concerning matters of faith and morals, even though he does not adequately understand these things by human reasoning alone, then he would be well on his way to his proper end in God. Rational proofs may signal the start of a journey, but faith carries one through to a clear knowledge of God and everlasting life in Him.
I came across a blog post the other day in which a guy talked about being plagued by feelings of doubt, which are occasionally dispelled by an experience of consolation at Mass. The consolations eliminate the doubt for a time, until the doubt feelings return, which in turn are eventually dispelled in a similar manner.
I can relate to this experience. Once in a while, the Mass strikes me in such a way as to strengthen and renew my faith; or at least, provide me with feelings of stronger faith and renewal; deep, powerful feelings, sometimes accompanied by tears.
But I think it helps to remember that faith is not a feeling, but an act of the will. Since faith is not a feeling, faith’s opposite also is not a feeling. Therefore, feelings of doubt do not imply lost faith. Since faith is an act of the will, its opposite must also be an act of the will. While feelings are not always under our control, faith cannot be taken away against our will.
In this way, faith is like love: Love too is an act of the will and not primarily a feeling. Long after feelings of love have disappeared, we can choose to continue loving our spouse, parent, sibling, etc. In fact, that is a test of love: Whether we continue caring for someone when their company becomes burdensome or onerous to us. Will we love someone only while it’s easy? What kind of love is it that disappears like a puff of wind when our feelings change?
No, we can choose to love regardless of our feelings. And we can also choose faith.
I happened to read the following passage in my mid-day prayers:
“Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.’ So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.” Gen. 12:1-4.
Abraham is sometimes called the Man of Faith (Gal. 3:9 (NIV)). This passage illustrates what earns him that title: God tells him, at the age of 75, to pack up his things and take his family to a strange land, “which I will show you”.
“So Abram went.” He made the act of faith, or rather the act of the will that constitutes faith. It says nothing about how Abram felt about it. Was he sad to leave his home, or was he excited to go on an adventure? I would suggest that his feelings are not mentioned because they don’t matter. The point is that he went, irrespective of feelings.
By the same token this blogger, who received feelings of consolation when he went to Mass, demonstrated his faith by going to Mass in the first place, even though he had, in his words, “fallen prey to doubt”.
It seems to me that a basic sign of genuine faith in a Catholic is whether he goes to Mass regularly. People may go to Mass for various reasons, whether out of habit or to avoid displeasing one’s family. But when a Catholic doesn’t go to Mass, it’s a pretty good indication that he lacks faith: He feels compelled neither by habit or family, nor by the command of the Church.
The Holy Eucharist itself, on the surface, has nothing that compels belief in us. Its form is as plain as can be: A simple round wafer, bland in color and taste. As the old hymn goes,
“Not to sight, or taste, or touch be credit,
Hearing only do we trust secure;
I believe, for God the Son has said it —
Word of Truth that ever shall endure.”
(“Adore Te Devote” by St. Thomas Aquinas.)
“Hearing only do we trust secure” — we go to Mass not because of visual marvels, or any properties appealing to taste or touch, but only because of what we have heard and believed: Like Abram, we hear and believe and therefore we act.
“It seems to me that a (perhaps the) fundamental drama in life is this: whose plan will I put first? Is my life fundamentally about acting according to my own judgments, or is it fundamentally about bringing my judgments into conformity with the judgments of someone above me?”
John Cuddeback, “The Piety of Pagans: What We Can Learn“, Aleteia.org, January 22, 2014.
More from Francis J. Hall:
“The idea of God thus derived, and thus formulated is a finite idea and anthropomorphic, but it is a true idea of the infinite and triune God. Its truth is confirmed by its working value, by the multitude of problems which it solves, and by the mental and spiritual emancipation which is enjoyed by those who adopt it and guide their lives by its light. The personal experience of those who with divine assistance accept and apply the Christian idea of God dissolves doubt and develops belief into knowledge.”
The Being and Attributes of God, Francis J. Hall, D.D., New York:Longmans, 1918, p. 13.
I have often heard Christians speak of doubt almost as if it were a virtue. They say that true faith actually implies doubt, or at the least always accompanies it. Doubt, they say, is a good thing, since the more we doubt, the more we must have faith. Doubt, you see, actually spawns faith.
As past readers of this blog know, I consider this flaming nonsense, since faith and doubt are logically repugnant to each other. Saying that one has faith and doubt at the same time and with respect to the same thing, is like saying that a thing is both black and white at the same time and in the same respect. It may be black at one time and white at another; or black on top and white on the bottom; but it can’t be both black and white at the same time and in the same place.
Anyway, I’ve gone over this many times before (namely here and here; click the “Faith and Doubt” tag to see still more). But in the course of my travels I recently came across this answer to those who contend that doubt in a Christian is a virtue:
“The sensitive loyalty to truth which characterizes many persons tormented with doubt is most praiseworthy. But this very loyalty ought to suggest the necessity of being guided practically by the apparent bearing of the evidence actually available. In moral issues involving an immediate determination of conduct, neutrality is in effect evasion of, rather than loyalty to, truth. What seems to be duty cannot be tested by inaction, nor can the absence of conclusive evidence justify refusal to make the venture. Sympathize as we must with honest doubters, we cannot justify the too common glorification of doubt. It is neither the necessary mark of earnest truth-seeking, nor to be regarded as other than something to be thrown off by the grace of God and by courageous action.
“Our Lord’s language to the doubting Thomas contains an implied rebuke. He plainly reserves His praise for those who escape doubt: St. John xx, 29. To suspend judgment when the data available are not sufficient for satisfying proof is not to show loyalty to truth, but is to miss the only available road thereto.”
The Being and Attributes of God, Francis J. Hall, D.D., New York:Longmans, 1918, p. 74, fn. 1.
“Infallibility is for those of little faith.”
I came across this statement in a blog comment. I responded with my own comment over there, but won’t link to it as I don’t want to make this a personal thing. Instead I will treat it as representative of what I consider a common liberal Catholic attitude.
I have a vague idea of the reasoning behind the statement. The idea seems to be that the articles of faith can’t be proven, we can’t know them with our own natural powers, yet faith still allows us to believe them. Thus faith is “the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1.) Fair enough so far.
But the idea is taken further, and it is supposed that faith is the opposite of certainty: Anyone, they argue, can believe when he’s certain, but it takes real faith to believe while you doubt. The man of strong faith is constantly assailed with doubts, yet he soldiers on! While the weak in faith refuse to admit their doubts (after all, everybody has them) and crave to be coddled in the cradle of certainty.
The less certainty therefore, the more faith. I suppose then that they who are most certain that their religion is false, have the strongest faith!
But consider these scriptural passages:
But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.
“Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
Faith then is single-minded and stable, whereas the presence of doubt is directly equated with a lessening of faith. In fact if doubt makes for stronger faith, why then did Peter sink?
No, they have got it quite backwards. Infallibility can be no comfort to one who has little faith. Faith has to come first, and then it’s a comfort. And the stronger the faith, the stronger the comfort. They who doubt the doctrine are the ones who are of little faith.
This [the prior post] is my first remark, and now I go on to a second. You may easily conceive, my brethren, that they who are entering the Church, or at least those who have entered it, have more than faith; that they have some portion of Divine love also. They have heard in the Church of the charity of Him who died for them, and who has given them His Sacraments as the means of conveying the merits of His death to their souls, and they have felt more or less in those poor souls of theirs the beginnings of a responsive charity drawing them to Him.
Now, does it stand with a loving trust, better than with faith, for a man to anticipate the possibility of doubting or denying the great mercies in which he is rejoicing?
Take an instance; what would you think of a friend whom you loved, who could bargain that, in spite of his present trust in you, he might be allowed some day to doubt you? who, when a thought came into his mind, that you were playing a game with him, or that you were a knave, or a profligate, did not drive it from him with indignation, or laugh it away for its absurdity, but considered that he had an evident right to indulge it, nay, should be wanting in duty to himself, unless he did? Would you think that your friend trifled with truth, that he was unjust to his reason, that he was wanting in manliness, that he was hurting his mind if he shrank from the thought? or would you not call him cruel and miserable if he did not?
* * *
Well, pass on to a higher subject;—could a man be said to trust in God, and to love God, who was familiar with doubts whether there was a God at all, or who bargained that, just as often as he pleased, he might be at liberty to doubt whether God was good, or just or mighty; and who maintained that, unless he did this, he was but a poor slave, that his mind was in bondage, and could render no free acceptable service to his Maker; that the very worship which God approved was one attended with a caveat, on the worshipper’s part, that he did not promise to render it tomorrow; that he would not answer for himself that some argument might not come to light, which he had never heard before, which would make it a grave, moral duty in him to suspend his judgment and his devotion?
Why, I should say, my brethren, that that man was worshipping his own mind, his own dear self and not God; ….
The argument is the same, in its degree, when applied to the Church; she speaks to us as a messenger from God,—how can a man who feels this, who comes to her, who falls at her feet as such, make a reserve, that he may be allowed to doubt her at some future day? Let the world cry out, if it will, that his reason is in fetters; let it pronounce that he is a bigot, unless he reserves his right of doubting; but he knows full well himself that he would be an ingrate and a fool, if he did. Fetters, indeed! yes, “the cords of Adam,” the fetters of love, these are what bind him to the Holy Church; he is, with the Apostle, the slave of Christ, the Church’s Lord; united (never to part, as he trusts, while life lasts), to her Sacraments, to her Sacrifices, to her Saints, to the Blessed Mary her advocate, to Jesus, to God.
John Henry Cardinal Newman, essay entitled “Faith and Doubt” from Discourses to Mixed Congregations (paragraph breaks added).