Originally Published April 19th, 2023
I am not sure when this concept of “faith seeking understanding” entered my life, but I can testify that reflection on it has proved very fruitful. I venture in the following paragraphs to share what such reflection, aided by grace, brought me to understand better and the apparent significance of it.
It is likely that the concept first arose in my mind as I tried to make sense of what was happening in St. Augustine’s Confessions. If the very words, “faith seeking understanding,” did not simply jump off the page of that book, then they were formulated for me in the lectures on the text by Father Martin D’Arcy, the esteemed British Jesuit who oversaw my first encounter with Augustine as a college sophomore. The concept helped me along the way in studying the Epistles of St. Paul, and the writings of St. Anselm for which the concept is central, and then especially in probing the thinking of Pascal. What I hope to share, however, is not material for a paper in the history of philosophy or theology but rather what were helpful insights into the here and now existential reality of Christian faith. “Faith seeking understanding” rings true as a description of where many of us are and, indeed, should be. What does it mean? What does it entail?
The concept, on the surface, suggests that faith is prior to knowing or understanding, and if faith is then not primarily a result of our efforts to know and comprehend, it seems to be something given, a gift. The concept appears to accord well with the traditional catechetical teaching about faith and the other virtues known as the theological or supernatural virtues. Faith, hope and charity are not our doing except perhaps insofar as we order our souls to be receptive to such gifts. A light has risen in the darkness for the upright of heart, Ps 112. Even then God has played the decisive role in positioning and empowering us to recognize and accept these virtues as the key markers of our Christian life. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart, Ps 19.
This recognition of a believer’s profound dependence on God comes only when we can see through faith that it was God who moved us to embrace the truths of Christianity. The priority and giftedness of faith is paradoxically only understood through faith.
Discussions I once had with a colleague confirmed the priority of faith and brought to light some of its implications. He came to our discussions as an agnostic or atheist, and those conversations were not directly about religious belief. They dealt with teaching methods for the philosophical classroom, and there was very much that we agreed on. Yet, at some impasse in our exchange I happened to remark that we should pray for faith. He retorted in frustration, that to pray in order to believe was about the most irrational act he could imagine. It was for him a giant begging of the question. His view was a sensible one implying that to seek better evidence and/or better arguments would be the appropriate philosophical approach to a weakening or endangered faith. That encounter made me realize that in praying for faith, as the Judaeo-Christian tradition and its liturgies urge on us, we are praying for something we already have in a sense or in part, namely we are turning to God whom we know and trust to some degree. We had already been given the faith that allowed us to turn to God or, in other words, the fact that we were praying for faith indicated that our prayers were already being answered.
The experience of faith as essentially a gift necessarily draws us to greater humility but also to greater understanding and tolerance of those not so gifted or chosen. So, St. Paul paradoxically proclaims that he “boasts” only in Christ, in the gift of Christ and the illumination that comes with it. How could we not be more tolerant toward those like my colleague who can understand well every argument I make and yet cannot believe. He like so many others, especially in our colleges and universities, glories in the power of reason and its critical abilities that yield so many fruits. Appreciating the priority of faith leads also, and beyond humility and tolerance, to a better understanding of our duty in faith to evangelize. We must simply do our part that the word and example of Christ are there for others to witness.
A further reflection on “faith seeking understanding” leads us to ask about the object of understanding in the concept. Understanding of what? Is faith seeking understanding of its own nature such as we seem to be pursuing here? Is it for us, as it was for St. Augustine, a search into just how faith entered our life? Or is such an inquiring faith a state, a lens or platform through which or from which we seek an understanding of all things? Our Christian tradition speaks often of seeing with the eyes of faith. In this way the object of faith’s search is all things that we might understand—our specific lives, their major turns, our aspirations and hopes and all of nature and the human works made from it are to be understood through the eyes of faith. A very demanding agenda for an on-going life in which a dynamic faith grows fuller and deeper in pulling all of experience under its wings. It calls for constant prayer and guidance along the way. Both of those are facilitated by accepting another gift, that which Archbishop Charles Chaput has aptly called “the mind and memory of the Church.”
A university whose leadership and much of its faculty are people of faith seeking understanding and working from within the Catholic tradition makes the strongest claim to being truly a Catholic university. Such personnel are the necessary condition for building and sustaining a common life in which, as Bishop Robert Barron recently told us, “Christ holds the central, integrating and organizing place among all disciplines and activities” and the relationship between Christ and the disciplines “is celebrated and explored with enthusiasm.” That exploration in our university is celebrated, of course for more than evoking touchdowns, by the library’s mural named the “Word of Life” depicting Christ the Teacher illuminating the work of scholars and teachers down through the ages. May Mary facilitate our learning through the light of Christ. We then might say with St. Anselm, “I believe so that I may understand; and what is more, I believe that unless I do believe I shall not understand.”
Walter Nicgorski is a Rover faculty advisor and Professor Emeritus in the Program of Liberal Studies.
Photo Credit: Painting of Saint Augustine
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