Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Faith: Not Primarily About Ideas but Obedience

I. It may be helpful in the light of today’s gospel (Tuesday of the fifth week of ordinary time) to ask why faith produces eternal life, while deciding things according to the way I see them does not. The text talks about “the Pharisees, and the Jews in general, follow the tradition of the elders and never eat without washing their arms as far as the elbow… and on returning from the market place… never eat without first sprinkling themselves” (Mark, 7, 4). The meditation that we read here at Riverside this morning had to do with the miraculous catch after the apostles had fished the entire night and caught nothing.

The metaphysics of faith or working according to my own lights imposes itself on me. What rises up in my mind is the distinction between two metaphysical models of being.

First, the theology of the act of faith was transformed in the Second Vatican Council. Faith as defined in the First Vatican Council is an act of the powers of the soul, intellect and will: “we are bound by faith to give full obedience of intellect and will to God who reveals.”[1] Further on, it says that faith, “is a supernatural virtue by which we… believe that the things revealed by Him are true.”[2] Virtues, in scholastic theology, are habits that are metaphysically considered “accidents” of a substance (the reality of being in self and not in another).

The theology that is deployed in the Second Vatican Council, with a different metaphysical infrastructure, is quite different. It reads: “‘The obedience of faith’ (Rom. 16, 26; Rom. 1, 5; 2Cor. 10, 5-6) must be given to God as he reveals himself. By faith man freely commits his entire self to God, making ‘the full submission of his intellect and will to God who reveals’….”

John Paul II comments:
“Faith, as these words show, is not merely the response of the mind to an abstract truth. Even the statement, true though it is that the response is dependent on the will does not tell us everything about the nature of faith. ‘The obedience of faith’ is not bound to any particular human faculty but relates to man’s whole personal structure and spiritual dynamism.

“Man’s proper response to God’s self-revelation consists in self-abandonment to God. This is the true dimension of faith, in which man does not simply accept a particular set of propositions, but accepts his own vocation and the sense of his existence. This implies, at least in principle and as an existential premises, that man has the free disposal of himself, since by means of faith he ‘abandons himself wholly to God.’ This dimension of faith is supernatural in the strict sense of the word.”

The import of the Vatican II text and Wojtyla’s comment moves the understanding of faith from a virtue of the intellect and will to an act of the entire person as gift to the Self of Christ. That is to say,
“faith” on this reading is not a series of concepts (“propositions”) but the obedience of the self to the very Person of Christ Himself. Revelation is the act of self-gift by Christ to man, and faith is the act of self-gift of the whole man existentially to Christ. This is a significant transposition not unlike the difference between conjugal union and a telegram.

Further, the Conciliar Declaration Dignitatis Humanae #14 underlines the personal character of revelation when it says: “For the Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth. It is her duty to proclaim and teach with authority the truth which is Christ…” Truth, on this reading, is not a judgment of the intellect, but the very Person of Christ.

II. That said, the meditation that was offered this morning - on the failure of the apostles to catch fish, and the abundance of the catch when obeying the word of Christ to cast the net to the right after a laborious night of (let us presume) expert fishing to no avail – was telling. And the question is asked: Why? What happens when one acts on one’s own expertise, and when one obeys the word of Jesus Christ?

The answer is to be found in the metaphysical shape, density and weight of the obeying person. In brief - and again – Gaudium et Spes #24 offers the “parallel” of the unity of the divine Persons which constitutes the ontological reality of God, and the unity of “the sons of God in truth and love.” If we make the gift of ourselves to God in the service of others, our being is “divinized” as becoming relation in act. Paradoxically, we live outside of ourselves, and in doing so, become and experience – find [“invenit”] – ourselves. As Christ became transfigured and gave off light, so also, when we live the faith as prayer or work in the service of others, we actualize ourselves as “other Christs" and become light, while giving it off. Being increases, taking the form of a copious catch of fish. The key is to understand what is being said by “belief.”

[1] Vatican I, “Dogmatic Constitution concerning the Catholic Faith,” Chapter 3, canon 1.
[2] Ibid
[3] Vatican II, “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation” (Dei Verbum) [18 November, 1965], Chapter 1, #5.
[4] Karol Wojtyla, “Sources of Renewal,” Harper and Row (1972 Polish, 1980 English) 20.

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