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Week 4: Opening our Lives to Mystery: The Response of Faith
Last week we ended our reflection with the observation that revelation does not become revelation unless it is accepted freely. The great Dutch-American spiritual writer Henri Nouwen says this beautifully. He is referring to gifts in general, but it is the same in regard to the response in faith: “a gift only becomes a gift when it is received, and nothing we have to give—wealth, talents, competence, or just beauty—will ever be recognized as true gifts until someone opens his [or her] heart to accept them.” Or, as José de Mesa and Lode Wostyn, writing from the Philippines put it, revelation and faith are “correlatives”: “Revelation as God’s offer of life and love does not become revelation until that offer is experienced and accepted in faith. And Christian faith is not possible without God’s offer of life and love to people.”
So what are the “dynamics” of faith? In the act of divine revelation, as we have seen in the last several weeks, God offers God’s very self by means of objective things—events in our lives, events in history, through the words of Scripture, through the doctrines and persons of the tradition. In the act of faith, women and men reciprocate. They reach out and accept God’s offer, both initially and continually by accepting the truth or meaningfulness of the objectivity by which God’s self is offered, by accepting the person who makes the offer, and by realizing that such a decision commits them to continued growth and transformation as they live their lives.
That last sentence has a lot packed into it, so let me take it apart a bit more clearly.
First, the act of faith is the way that human persons are open to or offer their own personhood—their Mystery—to God. Like the offer of revelation, by which God gives God’s very self, God’s very Mystery, to women and men, the act of faith is the way that women and men give themselves by giving God something objective—assent to truth, personal commitment, change of behavior (more about these below). The result of faith, the relationship in which we are with God through it, is grace. Grace is not some thing outside God. It is, rather, the relationship that comes into being when a person accepts the grace of God’s revelation.
Second, the act of faith is both a onetime act and a continuous effort. On the one hand, faith is an act that we make as a response to God’s offer of Godself in the experience of revelation. But it is also an act that we make every day as we experience over and over again God’s call to relationship and friendship in our lives. Some people have a particular “conversion” experience—like Paul on his way to Damascus, or Augustine reading that passage of Romans—and that basic act of faith is something that is the foundation for their lives and vocation. Others—and I think I am one of them too—realize at a certain point in our lives that we just had faith, we are deeply related to God and we’re not sure how we got that way. Probably it was the many small “yeses” that we said every day for years. Dag Hammerskjold, who served as Secretary General of the United Nations in the 1950s, had an experience that way, and in his diary he wrote these famous words: “I don’t know Who—or what—put the question, I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone—or something—and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.”
Third, the act of faith has three aspects that are all interconnected but clearly distinguishable.
There is, in the first place, the intellectual dimension of faith. In the act of faith we accept something objective as true—either factually true or meaningful. For example, when we assent to the fact that God is the creator of the universe or the deep truth of the image of God as “my shepherd,” as Psalm 23 says, we are experiencing the intellectual aspect of faith. In faith, we believe in something; we believe it because God is telling it to us.
Second, faith has an affective, relational or trusting dimension as well. We believe that something is true, but what we believe is “for us and for our salvation” as the Nicene Creed tells us. The belief that God is the creator of the universe calls us to trust in the kind, merciful, and (in theologian John Haught’s wonderful phrase) “humble God,” who has love the universe and each one of us into existence. Or we believe that “the Lord is my shepherd,” and so we can trust that God will be with us as we walk through the “dark valley.”
Finally, faith has a kind of behavioral or ethical aspect. When we believe in the truth of our experiences, or the Scriptural Word, or the doctrines of the tradition, we commit ourselves to acting and behaving in a particular way. “The true believer practices what he [or she] believes,” wrote Pope Gregory the Great. We cannot really believe in the creator God, or the God who shepherds us throughout our lives, without realizing that we need not live in reliance on wealth, prestige or power. This is also where our vocation is rooted. When we give ourselves over to God in faith, we become open to serving God’s purposes in the world in some capacity. I don’t think God has a particular plan for us. “God’s will is the heart’s desire,” as I pointed out in the introduction to this retreat several weeks ago. But when we are people of faith, we are open to discover in our lives where our deepest desires meet the world’s great hungers, to refer to the famous definition of vocation by Francis Buechner.
The point of these three aspects of faith is to recognize that, finally, faith is a total response to God, one that involves a person’s entire being, one’s entire self. If in revelation one is touched by the presence of Mystery in one’s life, or through the Scriptures or the Christian tradition, in faith one allows it to happen, welcomes it. The Second Vatican Council, in it’s document on divine revelation, expresses this well: “’The obedience of faith’ (Rom 16:26 …) must be given to God who reveals, an obedience by which men and women entrust their whole selves freely to God, offering ‘the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals,’ and freely assenting to the truth revealed.”
And so faith is much more than just “believing things.” It is that, of course, but it also involves embracing God as a trusted friend, and acting in a way that can reveal God’s presence to others. Even doubt has its place in faith. As theologian John Davies writes, “the enemy of faith is not doubt but the suppression of doubt.” As German feminist and liberation theologian Dorotee Sölle insists, without some kind of struggle and openness to uncertainty, faith is more of an ideology than it is true faith. Open wrestling with doubt highlights the fact that faith is indeed always a risk—we are, as it were, staking our very life on its truth. But then again, when you think of the really important decisions in life—like applying to a theological graduate school, or entering a congregation or seminary, or getting married, or choosing a profession—we are never totally sure that we are making the right decision. In all these areas we make a leap of faith—certainly an informed leap, but a leap nonetheless.
I hope you can see how the topics we have discussed and reflected on in this past month are key ideas and attitudes for “Catholics on Call.” As we discern our futures together, we realize that we live in a world where “all is grace,” where God is always and everywhere offering God’s self—God’s Mystery—to us and hoping that we respond in faith with our whole selves. However we decide to live our lives—as married or single lay men or lay women, as lay ministers of some sort, as religious women or men, as religious or diocesan priests or deacons, the main task of our lives and ministry is to ourselves be mediators of God’s Mystery to others, so that “they may have life, and have it in abundance” (Jn 10:10).
By: Steve Bevans, SVD, Faculty Moderator
Questions for reflection:
- Can you remember the moment when you first realized that you “had” faith? Was it a particular moment or event, or a slow process?
- Are you grateful for the gift of faith? Where can you see God’s grace present in your life?
- How have you experienced the relationship between the intellectual and the affective dimension of faith? Where there times when you knew something was true, even if you didn’t feel anything? Are there moments when you felt God close to you, even though your intellect doubted it?
- Have you experienced times of serious doubts of faith on your life? How did you deal with it? Have you experienced God as a “trusting friend” who you can be honest and wrestle with?
- “God’s will is the heart’s desire.” (John Dunne) – “The place God calls you is where your deepest desires and the world’s greatest hunger meet.” (Frederick Buechner)
Think about the deepest desires of your heart and how they can be a sign of God’s call. Do you feel like God is calling you to make a “leap of faith” and say a new “yes”? To what?
For further reading:
- Stephen B. Bevans, An Introduction to Theology in Global Perspective (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 27-33.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, #144-184.
- Avery Dulles, The Assurance of Things Hoped For: A Theology of Christian Faith (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
- Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1957).