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Faith Isn’t a Checklist Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Thursday, 02 February 2012

In an earlier column, I proposed a thought-experiment involving a student who has been told by a friend that a teacher who he had always thought hated him has defended him in front of the principal against other teachers who were eager to have him kicked out of school. What, I asked, would be involved in “believing” or “accepting the truth” of this story?  

First, the student would have to believe that a particular historical event had taken place. But that would only be the beginning. The student would also have to believe the teacher did the act out of concern for him, and not merely to be able to continue torturing him in class. And thirdly, the student would have to accept this act of charity in such a way as to let it changehim

And one could believe that it had happened and that it was done out of charity, but still not be changed by it. 

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.”

          Saints and Doctors of the Church (unknown French painter, 15th century)

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.

I am far from denying the importance of right doctrine, precisely because it makes a difference the sort of things one is committed to. You have to believe in some thing or some one. We are creatures of both will and intellect. God both instructs our intellects and assists our will. Faith is a response to God’s call, a response made possible by God’s grace and love. 

But what 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 is associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, Houston. 

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Comments (5)Add Comment
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, February 02, 2012
Pascal famously stressed the role of the heart, not only in faith, but in all knowledge: -

“We know truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart, and it is in this last way that we know first principles; and reason, which has no part in it, tries in vain to impugn them... For the knowledge of first principles, as space, time, motion, number, is as sure as any of those which we get from reasoning. And reason must trust this knowledge of the heart and of instinct, and must base every argument on them. The heart senses that there are three dimensions in space and that the numbers are infinite, and reason then shows that there are no two square numbers one of which is double of the other. Principles are intuited, propositions are inferred, all with certainty, though in different ways “
written by Titus, February 02, 2012
Hmm, not the best piece I've seen in this space, I'm afraid. For one thing, the point Dr. Smith harps on most frequently---paedobaptism---is not a matter of faith. The Church has never taught "one must believe in the baptism of infants," because baptizing infants is something one does, not something unseen in which one believes. Furthermore, even as a matter of praxis the baptism of infants is impelled by belief: belief that Christ was serious when He said that baptism is necessary for eternal life. If one does not "check that box," and therefore leaves one's children unbaptized, one certainly will have to answer for it on the last day.

As for why Dr. Smith thinks us all Cartesians---when the Church was teaching the obligation to assent to particular doctrines centuries before Descartes---I really cannot say.
written by Burton, February 02, 2012
Professor Smith,

So much of what you say I agree with, but I see some dangers in your line of reasoning, especially if it is seen through the lens of the spirit of our age: relativism and non-judgementalism. Perhaps one of things that defines our faith working through love: am I willing to submit my will to all of the truth God has revealed through His Church, especially those items on the "list" I happen to disagree with.
written by Tony Esolen, February 02, 2012
Excellent article.

I tell my students when we read Dante that the damned in Hell know quite well that God exists; but they do not profit by the knowledge, because they do not have the virtues of faith, hope, and charity. The curdled version of faith that they have is just that propositional knowledge; the curdled version of charity they have is mere desire or appetite; and they have not even a curdled version of hope. That's why the last line of the inscription over the gates of Hell is: "Abandon all hope, you who enter here."

A great reminder from Professor Smith that we aren't saved by theology. We're saved by Jesus.
written by Randall B. Smith, February 03, 2012
The author replies:

Infant baptism isn't something the Catholic Church harps on, but it IS something certain Protestants make a big deal about. And they are the ones who insist that those who baptize infants aren't quite "right" and aren't ever going to get to the "right" place after death.

The Church does not teach that all infants (or adults) who die unbaptized are going to hell. Baptism is important. It is fundamental. But baptism is not a question of "checking the box" and then saying to oneself: "Whew, got that done. Great. No more problems."

As for why I "think us all Cartesians," well, I don't. But the current cultural paradigm concerning the nature of Reason certainly is. And that was my point.

As for whether all the doctrines the Church teaches are important and are to be accepted in the spirit with which they are taught, yes, absolutely. But again, it is not merely a question of "checking it off." It is a question of being changed in one's heart, mind, and life.

We're not voluntarists. Faith isn't merely a question of "accepting" or "obeying" (although those things are involved as well). Faith is a kind of knowing inspired by God's love, which is meant to bear fruit in love and change the way one lives one's life.

Prof. Esolen's comments are, as always, spot on.

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