February 2017

February 2017

Faith Seeking Understanding

Medieval theologians wondered: does a theologian start with reason and work his way to faith? Or does he take the teachings of the faith for granted and then seek to understand those teachings retroactively? The Christian Church has taken the position that faith seeks understanding, not the other way round. Faith can save without understanding, but understanding can never save without faith. In fact, understanding doesn’t save us at all!

I’m a curious person. I like to understand things. I like to probe mysteries until I come up against the limits of what is possible for the human mind to grasp, and through academic discipline, I’ve become far less inclined to take anyone else’s word for anything than I once was. I try to believe only what can be firmly established by the soundest methods. Does that describe you? Certainly there are plenty of people who are willing to accept life (including the Christian faith) as it is and don’t need everything explained to them. But I’ll bet there are many under my care who share my curiosity, and who, like me, are interested in exploring the foundations of what they believe.

How does that jibe with the nature of Christian faith? Aren’t we simply to accept what God teaches us in His Word without questioning Him? Isn’t that what faith is? After all, Jesus extolled the faith of those who believe without seeing (John 20:29), and St. Peter wrote of us Christians, “Though you do not now see Him, you believe in Him” (1 Peter 1:8). Shouldn’t we just believe the teachings of Christianity without needing any demonstration that they are true?

In a way, yes, we should believe without seeing, without (and sometimes perhaps even contrary to) evidence. But faith like this is impossible for us. We simply cannot believe something without it being demonstrated to us. That is why saving faith has to be wrought in us by God Himself. “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” Our reason can never produce faith. St. Paul warns that “the wisdom of the world” cannot save us, but “since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of preaching to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:21). If we find our faith slipping, we are not to bolster it by rational arguments. We are rather to seek strengthening of faith from Him who alone works saving faith in us: “Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

Does that mean that Christianity is an anti-rational religion? Certainly not. If what we believe is true (and it is!), we will find it confirmed through the right use of reason. The historical facts of the Christian religion can be convincingly demonstrated through the study of the Scriptures as historical documents, without reference to their divine inspiration. Even someone who does not believe the Scriptures to be the Word of God could reasonably conclude through the study of the Gospels and the Epistles of St. Paul as merely human documents that a man named Jesus was seen alive by many after his public death.

Nor does human reason at its best support a materialist worldview, i.e., the idea that physical objects, interrelated by clear-cut chains of cause and effect, are all that exist. A recent book on the significance of quantum physics for our vision of reality includes the following provocative statement: “Since ancient times, philosophers have come up with esoteric speculations on the nature of physical reality. But before quantum mechanics, one had the logical option of rejecting such theorizing and holding to a straightforward, commonsense worldview [St. Paul’s “wisdom of the world”?]. Today, quantum experiments deny a commonsense physical reality. It is no longer a logical option.” Yes, as it turns out, those no-nonsense militant atheists, who take for granted that all that exists is what we can see, are in fact naïve! The current state of scientific inquiry does not support such a worldview.

But as we consider such things, we always do so as those who are already, by a miracle of God in our own hearts, convinced of the truth of the Christian faith. The faith that God supplies is sufficient. It is sufficient for the infant at the baptismal font, for the Alzheimer’s patient in the memory care unit, and for the good neighbor who is too preoccupied with loving those whom God has commanded him to love to be bothered with unnecessary questions about the nature of existence. But for those who do probe those difficult questions, our divinely wrought faith frees us to explore the mysteries of God’s creation without fear. Whether or not we ever obtain understanding, may God keep us in His faith unto life everlasting!

Pastor Neuendorf