The Difference Faith Makes

What difference does faith make in the lives of believers? What do believers have that non-believers lack?

Some surveys suggest that believers are happier than non-believers, while others claim the opposite. Yet simple experience tells us that not all believers are happy (in the sense of general well being), or even pleasant to be around. And there are more than a few non-believers whose cheerful dispositions make them pleasant company.

Faith, then, must be good for something aside from individual happiness, though the two are certainly not mutually exclusive. If faith is truly worthwhile, it must transcend the limits of the persons who possess it.

What does faith give believers? A complete disposition and way of living. A personal and limitless relationship with God, their creator, who speaks to them within their hearts. A membership in the Church that unites them all, living and deceased, as brothers and sisters in the Holy Spirit. A commitment to charity that, when lived rightly, enhances their relationship with God and other people. A knowledge that their lives and the universe, created with intrinsic worth and purpose, are in the loving hands of Providence. A genuine hope that there is a life beyond this vale of tears.

These gifts of faith are not likely to score high in secular surveys, but they remain indispensable attributes of what Socrates would call the examined life – one imbued with purpose, meaning, direction, and hope. Yet the life of faith is not merely an intellectual outlook or commitment in the way that optimism or humanism are. Faith is a reality that is lived, not just an idea held, because it consists of a dynamic encounter with the living and loving God.

         Henri de Lubac

Non-believers fail to recognize this fundamental relationship with God, which should, in turn, shape all human relationships. Without God, they also lack the attendant meaning of life and steadfast hope. Instead, they are forced to devise their own meaning of life, their own principles for relating with other people, their own things to look forward to. In a strange irony, they act as executive directors of the lives they never asked for nor had any say in bringing about.

What meaning of life will human beings devise on their own? According to Henri de Lubac, they create “anthropomorphic gods,” which can be the ideals and values of any given age. Today leading secular thinkers such as Steven Pinker advocate a “scientific humanism” whereby human purpose and morality are determined by the conclusions of science. Pinker himself anoints this worldview as “the de facto morality of modern democracies, international organizations, and liberalizing religions, and its unfulfilled promises define the moral imperatives we face today.”

But what happens in the lives of non-believers if they embrace (on supposedly scientific grounds) the philosophical hypothesis of Darwinism: that human life has no inherent purpose, and that life is just an accidental product of chance? What happens if they interpret scientific evidence wrongly, in the way that, for example, slaveholders, eugenicists, Nazis, and abortionists have drawn conclusions about who qualifies as “fully human”? It is, after all, science that prompted Dr. Richard Dawkins’ recent prescription for any woman carrying a child with Down syndrome: “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”

Science, as wonderful and powerful as it is, remains ultimately a man-made tool that measures reality, but does not transcend it. And it is transcendence of our limited human condition that our restless hearts all seek. But also because of our limits, says de Lubac, man “is incapable of transcending his own resources, [he] always remains a prisoner of the narrow notion of individuality which he has projected onto his gods.” Hence, his “yearning for transcendence…always remains ambiguous; a dream, but one which is threatened by the ruin and despair of awakening.”

By contrast, believers know through faith that God is both the source and goal of the longings of their hearts. Through the vagaries of life – joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, achievement and disappointment – they remain confident that there is a reason and purpose for everything, even if all their questions cannot be answered fully. By freely accepting the gift of faith, they become free to live their lives not without sorrow or misfortune, but without doubt and despair.

The difference faith makes, then, can be seen, analogously, to two men left alone in the center of the Amazon. The man of faith has been given a compass, map, backpack, food, water, and boots; the other has insisted that he needs only himself. In trying to make their respective ways back home, it is quite clear who is better off.

David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches at St. Joseph Seminary, New York.
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David G Bonagura, Jr.

David G. Bonagura Jr. teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God's Plan of Salvation.