Faith Isn’t a Checklist

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 B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.