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.

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, forthcoming this winter from Cluny Media.

  • rick

    Good article.

    “Science, as wonderful and powerful as it is, remains ultimately a man-made tool that measures reality, but does not transcend it.”

    The above statement needs a modifier to be true. Reality must be modified with adjective physical. Reality as a whole is much larger than physical reality.


  • Fr. Kloster

    I’ve wrestled with this very issue for a long time. Here are a few observations. In my work in prisons, almost none of the men there were weekly church goers. In my hospital work, those who were practicing their faith were overall much more serene when death closed in on them. In hiring people to work for the parish, those practicing their faith almost universally are better and more conscientious in completing their work.

    I’ll end with the proposition I made to my dad as he got older and surprisingly more progressive (it’s usually not like that with most people). Dad, you take all of your progressive allies and start a society. I’ll take all of my practicing Catholics and start a society. We’ll compare notes in one generation. There’s no question which society will flourish. One is based on “me” and “my” preferences. The other is based on self sacrifice and helping alleviate the suffering of one’s neighbor.

  • Manfred

    “A genuine hope that there is a life beyond this vale of tears.” A hope? Faith instills KNOWLEDGE. The true, trained, believing Catholic KNOWS that the very purpose of his life is to achieve salvation in Heaven with God and the saints for eternity. He KNOWS that only the true Catholic Church can assist him in achieving this goal. He KNOWS that if he fails, that HELL exists and that its horrors and HOPElessness are what await him. This FAITH is what guides the true Catholic through his days on earth. That is why good priests and good catechetics are critical to salvation and that is precisely why catechetics have not been taught for fifty years and why Catholics have had to endure mediocre priests and faithless bishops as well. We have the church (sic) we deserve because of our lack of Faith.

  • grump

    When one contrasts Tertullian with Mencken, one is always left in the vast seas of doubt.

    Quoting, respectively:

    “It is certain because it is impossible.”

    “The curse of man, and cause of nearly all of his woes, is his stupendous capacity for believing the incredible.”

    And so, turning to Jesus, we are told, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.”

    Would the author kindly point to an instance in history when a tree was so transplanted?

    Thank you.

  • Sir Mark

    It appears that Manfred has neither read St. Paul nor listened at Mass.

  • David Bonagura

    Dear Grump,
    Perhaps with His mulberry tree analogy Jesus was speaking metaphorically, as He did more than once in His preaching. So, for something nearly as astonishing, how about the conversion of the pagan Roman empire that at first was persecuting the Church? And if we want to take “transplanting” more literally, how about the adoption of Christianity across the world despite its very diverse peoples and cultures? In my book, these are pretty impressive miracles.

  • Howard Kainz

    @Grump: Forget about mulberry trees and metaphors. The Orthodox saint, Venerable Mark the Anchorite of Athens, supposedly moved a mountain into the sea. And the Coptic Orthodox Saint Simon the Tanner, challenged by the Muslim Caliph Al Muizz, allegedly moved the Mokattam Mountain to show the superiority of Christianity over Islam.

  • Manfred

    Sir Mark: When Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher were ascending the stairs to their respective deaths on the very fine point of whether the King or the Pope was the head of the Church in England, do you believe their last thoughts on earth were: I really, really hope that what I believe is true? Is it possible I was misinformed?

    The Synod on the Family which is causing such concern is being “engineered” by a Pope who is totally familiar with St. Paul and who not only listened at Mass, but actually gave the homilies each week!

  • grump

    @Howard. I’d be much more persuaded if you’d left out “supposedly” and “allegedly,” weasel words that spoil the tales.

  • DS

    I have met many non-believers who exhibit neither doubt nor despair, yet are selfless and find fulfillment by loving and serving their fellow man. Conversely, I have encountered some Catholics (including some commenters here) whose faith seems to animate anger more than anything else.

    I try to keep this mind when I think about evangelization. Not many people like to hear “you’re lost and unhappy, even though you don’ know it” from an angry Christian.

  • Fr. Kloster

    @grump and Howard You both seem to have forgotten St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (the miracle worker). He was a 3rd century resident of Neoceasarea. He did move a mountain so that a church could be built. St. Basil writes that he was comparable to Moses, the Prophets, and the Apostles in the sheer number of miracles worked through his intercession. He is one of the saints on the older roman liturgical calendar.

  • Paul V

    I agree, as a believer I now handle the ups and downs of life a lot better. However, I’ve meet several non-believers over the years that exhibit the same kind of peace that some believers have, so I wonder how much genetics plays.

  • Seanachie

    My understanding of faith (based on long ago religion and theology classes)is that it is a supernatural gift that enables the recipient to believe in God with certainty and without doubts. Since it is a gift, not everybody receives it. Faith strengthens one to counter unbelief and take great comfort in embracing the essence of Luke 22:42, “Thy will, not mine, be done.”

  • bobby

    I meet people very often who try to draw on their own wisdom, conclusions and view of life who have disconnected themselves gradually from their faith. More often than not, such individuals live with an existential unhappiness and inner joy. It comes as no surprise as happiness is a by product of living a life of meaning.