Sense and Nonsense: The Reality of Things

One Saturday in July, I was at the Jesuit community at Loyola-Marymount University in Los Angeles, where a number of my old classmates dwell. On one of the campus lawns that afternoon was a display of vintage classic automobiles—Packards, Daimlers, Stuts, Delahayes, Lincolns, Duisenbergs, Cords, Cadillacs, Willis, Rolls-Royces, Pierce-Arrows. Some of these touring cars, cabriolets, phaetons, roadsters, sedans, and coupes were definitely works of art. As these automotive gems were in perfect condition, it was easy to admire the craftsmanship that went into their design. Several of these cars I had never seen or even heard of before. Ancient things can also be seen for the first time.

Looking for something to read that day, I found a copy of Irenaeus of Lyons’s tract on the Teaching of the Apostles and Their Proofs in a French translation. I have always liked Irenaeus. When his Against Heresies appears in the Breviary, I always learn something. I was particularly struck by the passage that goes as follows: “The truth leads to faith, for the faith is based on the reality of things.” The CCEL translation of the same passage reads, “Faith is produced by the truth; for faith rests on things that truly are.”

Truth is based on the reality of things. Truth occurs when the mind conforms to a reality that it did not itself create. But here we have Irenaeus telling us rather that this same truth leads to faith. Evidently, if I understand Irenaeus’s logic, both faith and truth are based on “the reality of things.” But why does truth lead to faith? we might wonder. I suspect that the answer is because the “reality of things,” in their full understanding, leaves us aware that we do not ourselves know all this reality about even the smallest of things. The very purpose of the mind is to find answers but also to know when it does not find them by its own efforts or powers.

Irenaeus goes on to complete his thought: “The truth leads to faith, because faith is founded on the reality of things, in order that we might believe in things such as they are. Believing in this way, we thus might always protect, in their regard, the firmness of our convictions about them.” Our conviction can be undermined by doubt about what is. It is a brave thing to say of what is that it is.

“For, as that which concerns our salvation depends on faith, it is necessary to have the greatest care for the true sense of things.” Salvation depends on faith. We do not directly reason to it or merit it. We must care for the “true sense of reality.” Another translation of the same passage reads: “Since then faith is the perpetuation of our salvation, we must need bestow much pain on the maintenance thereof, in order that we may have a true comprehension of the things that are.” This is what our lives are about.

What might one conclude from these comments of Irenaeus? The very first thing is that faith and truth are concerned with the very same things; namely, the “truth of things,” the “reality of things.” We have a hunger for being, for what is. How do we explain this hunger? I think we cannot properly explain it. It is already in our being before we seek to articulate its dimensions. It is almost as if we are given an initial unsettlement as part of our very being, an unsettlement that will not let us alone. We want to know reality—what is not ourselves, but ourselves too.

But “faith,” someone might object, is not “reality” oriented. Faith is “beyond reality.” It is precisely this “beyondness” that Irenaeus is intent on denying. Faith is not “beyond” reality. It is essential to reality simply because we recognize that our own minds, themselves radically oriented to what is, are not divine.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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