The closest we get in all of the Bible to a definition of faith is the famous summation in the Epistle to the Hebrews, “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for, and evidence of things not seen.” In the middle ages, there was considerable debate as to whether this statement amounted to a definition or not. St. Thomas Aquinas devotes a special article in his Summa to this question.
Aquinas concludes that, although the definition is not in correct syllogistic form, it amounts to an “informal” definition. He then goes on to reformulate this passage as a more properly formal definition: “Faith is the habit of the mind, by which eternal life begins within us, causing the intellect to assent to that which has not yet appeared.”
Aquinas brings together the subjective and objective connotations of hypostasis – faith is a habit, or virtue, of the mind, and also the seminal implantation of eternal life. And though oriented toward an unseen “homeland,” it brings about the same type of assent or conviction generated by objective realities encountered here and now. In other words, it is the grounding in our present life for our entry into eternal life, and supplies the believer with evidence for the existence of a transcendent realm.
This definition is obviously paradoxical. It is experiential, but not in any ordinary sense of experience. It refers to an experience of being able to go beyond experience. The “substance” or substantial “realization” that the author of Hebrews refers to is, to utilize more philosophical language, a power or “potency” that complements the natural capabilities of the believer. The paradoxical experience that results is an encounter with the “evidence” for the unseen mysteries to which faith is directed.
A Christian thinks of the Apostles and disciples after Pentecost, traveling out into the then-known world to spread the “good news.” Many of them – having known Christ, seen his works, witnessed his resurrection, received empowerment from the Spirit – were similar to a reporter who had just come upon a scoop, and was impatient to spread the news; or, perhaps more appropriately, like the woman (Luke 15:8-9) who finds a lost coin she had been searching for, and goes out proclaiming her good fortune to all her neighbors.
For many of the first Christians, the primary source of their faith was preaching, by Christ himself, or by John the Baptist. St. Paul points to the ordinary source for the activation of faith:
Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?
But obstacles stand in the way, as Christ points out in his parable of the sower with the seed:
The seed is the word of God. Those on the path are the ones who have heard, but the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts that they may not believe and be saved.
What other sources are available for eliciting faith? Christ offers one alternative source. Those who don’t believe his words may be convinced by his “works,” i.e., the “signs” that he offers; and the disciples that he is sending out to spread the announcement of the coming of the Kingdom will also be distinguished and recognized by their “signs” – casting out demons, speaking new languages, healing the sick, etc. To these signs, Paul adds the gift of prophecy and the gift of tongues (the “glossalalia”).
The signs that were almost exclusively offered by Christ himself were exorcisms of evil spirits and miraculous healings. One may presume that it was primarily signs, rather than preaching or Scripture, that elicited the faith of the Caananite woman who asked Jesus for the “leftovers” after he had accommodated the Jews, and the faith of the Roman centurion who sent a messenger to ask Jesus for a cure of his servant.
Are miraculous “signs” still given to bolster faith? There are occasionally “private revelations,” or miraculous healings at shrines like that in Lourdes, where teams of doctors examine cases of alleged cures after bathing in the spring; or through the ministration of exceptional individuals such as St. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina (1910-1968), by whose intercession numerous inexplicable healings were reported; or to occasional public miracles witnessed by tens of thousands – such as the miracle of the sun at Fatima in 1917, or the publicly witnessed, videotaped, and governmentally investigated apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Zeitun, Egypt, in 1968 and 1969.
Skepticism about miracles is common now, even among Christian theologians, to whom a miracle seems an unwarranted and unnecessary intervention by God in the very laws of nature. Some believers seem to think that they don’t “need” miracles to bolster their faith. The often unappreciated source for this view is to be found in the anti-Christian sentiment of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.
As Frank Tipler observes: “The idea that a miracle violates the laws of physics was introduced in the English-speaking world by the Deists, whose motivation was to deny the Resurrection and the Incarnation. If a miracle violated physical law, if the Resurrection and the Incarnation violated physical law, then the Deists could use the strong evidence that physical laws were never violated as evidence against the Resurrection and Incarnation. Hume [in his treatise on miracles] just continued and expanded this Deist strategy.”
In any case, signs are not a sine qua non for one’s faith. Jesus even warned about depending too much on signs.
What, then, are the major sources of faith now – sources that may inspire the sort of enthusiasm reported among the first Christians? Have they changed? Theoretically, technology is so advanced now that the Gospel, as “Good News,” could be proclaimed worldwide with the use of radio, satellite television, the internet, social media, etc.
But the practical obstacles in the way of this communication seem insuperable. How can the message of the Gospel be communicated to aborigines, the illiterate, the isolated? to individuals in dictatorial regimes prohibiting free speech; to individuals in religious sects which distort and vitiate the word of God, and/or spread violent sectarian rivalries, and/or use force to prevent hearing of the Word; or to secularists surrounded by family, friends, colleagues, and a culture that has imbibed the alternative “good news” (namely, that science has all the answers, and scientific orthodoxy should be the litmus test for beliefs?) How can the Gospel be conveyed to those in progressive, industrialized societies who are just too busy to listen?
Scriptures and preaching are still major sources. But it may be a mistake to put too much emphasis on Scriptures and preaching. Other sources may be more effective for some persons. For instance, the investigation of nature, if not the major source of faith, is certainly an important auxiliary source in all eras, since, “Ever since the creation of the world, God’s invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made.”
In the contemporary world, with the exponential growth of scientific knowledge, this source may be more important than it has ever been in the past. As St. Paul mentions, the basic prerequisite for faith is that one comes to believe that God exists, and that He rewards those who seek him; and contemplation of Nature seems to be a path to faith taken by many in the scientific community. Awareness of a Designer can be a starting point for transition to a belief in divine providence and eternal life.
Faith is described by St. Paul as an indistinct vision of the divine: “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.” There are a variety of “mirrors” in which we see may see partial reflections of God. Signs of divinity and power and creativity can be seen in nature, as St. Paul notes, unless by some strange cerebral gyrations a hyper-enlightened individual perceives in nature only the incredible workings of Chance as a substitute for divinity.
Since humans are made in the image of God, more or less distinct visions of divine love, wisdom and power are available in our neighbors, unless we habitually view them with the glasses of indifference or hate. And a Christian who meditates on the life and deeds of Jesus will come to see evidence of divinity.
Although doubt is compatible with a search for the proper objects of faith, the indistinct vision of the divine that comes through the “mirror reflections” of faith can be free from doubt, just as while looking at a reflection of someone we may lament the fuzziness or cloudiness of the image, but have no doubts about who is being represented.
Another characteristic of faith is an openness to divine power. In the Gospels, those who are seeking a miraculous healing are admonished to “have faith” as a prerequisite for the healing to take place. Such openness can also be a continual, habitual state, an abandonment to divine providence, which manifests itself particularly at times when human assistance is out of the question, or when believers voluntarily divest themselves from ordinary sustenance.
The Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, in his autobiography describes a stage in his development when he and a companion, with the support of their spiritual director, undertook a journey with no money and without begging, to solidify their faith in divine providence. As a somewhat analogous test of faith, students preparing for the Catholic priesthood in the Jesuit Order will often be sent to travel without funding, depending on the kindness of strangers or opportunities for employment that come their way.
Besides such passive openness to God’s power, faith may take the form of an openness to participating actively in manifestations of divine power. The most dramatic reference to this is the rather stunning assurance Jesus offers to his followers: “Amen, I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”
Commentators on Scripture from the earliest times have almost always taken this as metaphorical, as a reference to the great things that can be accomplished in God’s service, depending on the degree of one’s faith. But St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (“wonder worker”) is said to have moved a mountain in the 3rd century to make room for a church. And in the Orthodox Christian tradition, there are instances in which the saying was taken literally. A 4th century Orthodox saint, Venerable Mark the Anchorite of Athens, is reputed to have moved a mountain into the sea. And in the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox hagiography, Saint Simon the Tanner in the 10th century, taunted by a challenge from the Muslim Caliph Al Muizz, is said to have moved the Mokattam Mountain as testimony to the superiority of Christianity over Islam. Needless to say, if such powerful manifestations of faith were available in our day, the choice of a religion for some seekers would be unproblematic.
Finally, faith is manifested actively in courageous perseverance in the face of death and against the forces of evil, as exemplified in Jesus’ words to Simon Peter: “Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers.”
The ultimate manifestation of the strengthening caused by faith is, of course, the unflinching courage and patience of martyrs enduring extraordinary sufferings at the hands of opponents of the faith. And given conditions in our day, that type of witness is widespread in the Middle East, but may be coming closer and closer to us all.
[This column is an extract adapted from Professor Kainz’s book The Existence of God and the Faith Instinct, published in 2010 by Susquehanna University Press, and now available from Rowman and Littlefield.]