Faith: A Virtue of the Intellect

I know what my students would say.

A few weeks back, I published a column here entitled Faith as Commitment in which I suggested that “faith” in the fullest sense means being changed by God’s love in such a way that we respond with love. Unless faith is given birth by love and bears fruit in love, it will remain empty.

You can walk around all day talking about God, but that won’t make a bit of difference if what you believe doesn’t touch both your mind and your heart and force you to make fundamental changes in your life.

What my students would likely say is this:  “I get it, Prof. Smith. What you’re saying is that it doesn’t matter what we believe, only that we believe in something.” No, that’s not what I’m saying at all

It doesn’t matter how often I repeat that faith is an intellectual virtue – an intellectual virtue formed by charity and made possible by grace, yes, but an intellectual virtue nonetheless. They still persist in thinking of faith primarily in voluntaristic, fideistic ways, because that’s the way both sides in the reigning cultural wars tends to talk about it.

The cultured despisers of Christianity imagine that Christian faith involves “believing six impossible things before breakfast every morning.” The uncultured defenders of Christianity often fortify them in this belief by trumpeting the notion that doctrines of faith aren’t things you can think about, they’re merely accepted out of obedience to authority. 

My students, being neither cultured despisers nor educated Catholics, try to split the difference by styling themselves as more “tolerant” of faith than the cultured despisers among their boomer-era elders, while never admitting that anyone needs to believe any particular thing. Anyone can think (or believe) whatever he or she wants, no matter how odd or ridiculous.

A student once said to me:  “Prof. Smith, what if we’re spirits trapped in the prison of our bodies, and the point of human life is to find the key?” I told him that if he really thought the body a prison, he’d better make some radical changes in his college lifestyle. Freedom from his “prison” would mean no more beer and pizza, no more warm beds, no more hugs. “Go to it,” I told him.

I don’t consider the body a prison – and neither does the Church. Indeed, I quite like seeing and tasting and touching and smelling, all of which are functions of a body. What’s more, I don’t find the thought of a totally disembodied existence, like a ghost, all that appealing, which is why I’m glad I belong to a faith tradition that teaches the resurrection of the body. That way, I don’t have to spend my life seeking to “get free” of the body. 

I am blessed with a sacramental tradition. My goal is to see material stuff as an embodiment of – indeed, as an instrument of – divine love.  I’m much happier spending my time trying to figure out how to become an instrument of a divine self-giving Love who became incarnate to save sinners like me, and not worrying too much about shuffling off my “prison” so as to become a “pure” spirit. 

I’ve also argued that faith isn’t merely obedience to a checklist of impossible propositions that one accepts without evidence. We mustn’t turn faith, this powerful, life-altering virtue (akin to courage, justice, and love), into nothing more than a series of hurdles where the central question becomes not whether I’ve hardened my heart or not, but only whether I’ve got the right “list” to get to heaven, because the wrong “list” will stick you in hell.

And yet, make no mistake, what one believes – the content of faith – matters a lot; it determines the direction people will give to their lives. If you believe, for example (as many people say they do), that “it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there,” then you will probably live a bit like a rabid dog fighting off other rabid dogs. 

If, on the other hand, you believe that the world is a selfless free gift of love from a God in whose image we are made, then that suggests we are meant to spend our days giving selfless free gifts of love. Fortunately, most of us live better lives than our dissolute philosophies suggest we would.  Unfortunately, most of us do not live the way our noblest aspirations suggest we should either. Which is why, as Aquinas notes, we need God both to “instruct our intellect” and “aid our will” by means of His grace. Faith is a kind of understanding given birth by love that is meant to bear fruit in love.

Saint Thomas Aquinas (Carlo Crivelli)

Christian faith begins as faith in a person and only later becomes faith in certain propositions. When you love a person, you want to know more and more about him or her, not because you need to make up your mind whether to continue loving, but because growing in understanding is simply what love seeks to do. 

Love seeks to know the beloved. So too Christian faith seeks understanding, not because there’s a theology exam to get into heaven, but because there’s a Person – and a world and a Kingdom and a creation – that we seek to understand better and more fully because we believe they are calling us with a divine love.

With the help of God’s grace, Faith allows us to see things more clearly and comprehend them more deeply than otherwise, given our natural failings, we’d be capable of or likely to achieve. Such grace does not destroy our nature, or our intellect, but perfects them. 

That might be something worth thinking about when we start thinking about faith.


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.