We Do Believe

For Christmas, I received a copy of Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, written by then-Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. (I was also given some new shirts, in case anyone might think Schall is a one-dimensional man.) In the last section, Benedict questions whether, logically, a man can be an “agnostic” — someone who decides, with intellectual consistency, that he can really know nothing about the important things. Hence, he need not take a stand on anything. Such a mind is so delicate that it verily ceases to be a mind at all.

In the end, however, such a man still has to live and decide whether his living is just that — meaningless — or has some purpose. He cannot have it both ways. In his daily actions, he has to live as if his life does or does not matter. To maintain that he does not know either way is useless. Perhaps he does not; but where does he go from there? He cannot just stand there paralyzed until he passes into the great beyond, if it does or does not exist. Does he decide to be free of any consequences in his actions? Or, if they are meaningful, will this not require him to live a different way than he might otherwise do?

From here, Benedict turns to faith itself. Does it make sense? Is it a help? We go around affirming that “we believe” in many things, even though we ourselves have not checked out the evidence. That does not much bother us. We trust that is so. Now, it is an understanding of Catholics that faith is not blind. In a teaching that goes back at least to St. Thomas Aquinas, we believe only if someone else sees and we have reasonable evidence for its being known by someone. It cannot be otherwise. If we cannot, logically, reduce faith to seeing, we cannot hold it.

This is not strange doctrine. Often, faith is made to appear a silly enterprise that only the naïve would accept — and yet faith happens to us every day. We act by faith. A common-sense reflection on it often illustrates the point. Benedict tells us to check our experience. Few of us know the ins and outs of any complicated technical system, market, or contraption. We know that electricity works. We turn on the switch. What is electricity? We vaguely recall experiments in high school . . . But somebody obviously knew what it was, because he examined it.

The difference between faith and reason in technical affairs is that we can accept the testimony of others that they know. We do not take our busted car to the beauty stylist. We do not go to the grocer in order to cut our hair. We go to those who know: the mechanic, the barber. In all crafts and professions, some are better than others. So we, in fact, live and act in a daily world of trust. We think nothing of it.

Is religious faith, in principle, any different? Not really. This faith understands that something else that we do not see is true, because we accept the testimony of someone who saw. The only issue, then,  is whether the witness is telling us what he saw, however odd it might seem to those who did not see. If we thought for a moment that the witness was telling us something that was not as he said it was, we might still believe him, but we are deceived. This is why the credibility of the witness is such an issue.

The essence of the Christian faith — that is, what it attests — is that God, the Logos, became man in Jesus Christ, who was true man. This is how He described Himself. He said that He is sent by the Father, His Father. He tells this to a number of fishermen who seem by no means naïve. He does a number of things to confirm His divine power. They see what He does.

These apostles and others surrounding Christ are told to make known this Good News, that He is. Why He did not do it Himself might be wondered about, but He is crucified in a public trial in Jerusalem under the authority of Rome. Since that time, right up to today, we have folks who live in the company of those who attest to these truths, the ones that have been handed down about this Man-God.

But at the basis of all our ability to “believe” is not more belief, but finally seeing. The apostles saw what He did and told us. Christ on His part simply said, “I have seen the Father.” He did not say, “I believe in the Father.” The reason is that He did see.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His newest books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His most recent books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017) and The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018).

  • georgie-ann

    Hebrews 11

    1Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. 2This is what the ancients were commended for.

    3By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible. 4By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.

    5By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death; he could not be found, because God had taken him away. For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. 6And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”


    John 20
    Jesus Appears to Thomas
    24Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
    But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”

    26A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

    28Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

    29Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

    30Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31But these are written that you may[a] believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.


    seeing (or someone having seen) does play a part in these scriptures, but there seems to be another blessed part of the “believing equation,” in which the ability to believe/have faith does not seem to be an issue of logic,…

  • Steve P

    Thanks for this brief but excellent article, Fr. Schall. I found it particularly helpful for myself, as well as for the students with whom I work. It’s important for us to examine our Christian faith, to look at it’s merits and fruits and challenges. If we simply throw up our hands in disbelief or despair, we’ve missed out on the most essential truths of our existence. And you are right, we cannot think or act consistently by holding to doubt as though doubt itself were our creed.

    I’ll be sure to check out Cardinal Ratzinger’s book.

  • kieranesq

    I was about to send this to an unbelieving friend, but then I stopped because I could not answer the following objection that occurred to me: given that our faith teaches that God is ultimately transcendent, i.e., beyond our experience, how can we assert that faith rests on experience? Of course we who believe do have religious experiences, but if God is transcendent then shouldn’t we question whether they are really experiences of God who is beyond experience? Maybe the answer is that God is immanent as well as transcendent; still, given God’s transcendence, one ought to be really careful about asserting that one’s experiences are truly experiences of God rather than of our own imaginations or emotions. As Rev. Schall knows, Pope Benedict does not care for the translation of Hebrews 11:1 cited in the first comment in the thread. He prefers to say that faith is the “substance” of things hoped for, which better makes Pope Benedict’s point that faith is based on someone’s experience. Certainly the apostles had experiences of God through the person of Jesus Christ. “If you’ve seen me, Philip, you have seen the Father.” We believe because of their testimony, based on their experience, passed down through the bishops. Even if one has what one thinks is a religious experience, even if one thinks one “has a personal relationship with” Jesus Christ, though, I’m not convinced that this is sufficient evidence to believe. This is for two reasons: first, the experience is not independently verifiable, as my unbelieving friend would be quick to point out, and second, because a fundamental quality of this God whom the Church proclaims is his unknowability.

  • georgie-ann

    Matthew 16smilies/tongue.gifeter’s Confession of Christ
    “13When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

    14They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

    15″But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

    16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

    17Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you that you are Peter,[c] and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades[d] will not overcome it.[e] 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be[f] bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be[g] loosed in heaven.” 20Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.”

    “…for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.”

    it seems as if faith has a supernatural (spiritual gift) side, as well as a human factual evidence transmission side,…both aspects work together, and neither should be denied an appreciated/acknowledged role,…

    i also know the Hebrews 11:1 quote as: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,”…but my on-line reference had it that other way,…

    if you’ve ever had “faith” for something to come, that has not been manifested to the eyes as “yet,” you know that there is a felt tangible-ness to the experience, that really is much like a spiritual “substance” or “vision,”…it seems to be a little stronger that just holding a human form of “hope” or a “nice idea” up to God,…