13 Jan Reflections on Faith
According to the Letter to the Hebrews, Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. In other words, Faith appears to be a contradiction. How can we be assured of what we hope for? Assurance comes from possession, and possessing something means we no longer hope for it, precisely because we already have it. And how can we have conviction about the unseen? What convinces us is what we see, because seeing gives it to us, lets us take it in, as we say, which again is a kind of possession: the unseen, by contrast, is the un-given, the un-possessed, so how can we be convinced of it?
Faith, then, seems to require of us an unsustainable state of mind: to relate with assurance and conviction to something which makes assurance and conviction impossible. And this apparent contradiction is not something to which we can respond neutrally: partly because contradictions in themselves baffle and defeat us, but more importantly because here we are dealing with things that matter to us, since assurance and conviction are things we want, even crave, and if Faith seems to deny them their fulfilment it will appear obvious why people turn away from it, and towards things about which they can be assured and convinced, even if such things are less exalted. We might well feel that it is better to possess what is less, than to be dispossessed of what is greater. We must find assurance and conviction where we can, and Faith seems to render this human satisfaction impossible.
Well – it is meant to. If Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen, this is because it is intended to oppose and displace the search for satisfaction. Or, more precisely, it is intended to displace a certain very natural conception of satisfaction, the conception according to which assurance and conviction are sought in possession. In denying us possession, Faith breaks us open and opens us out. It leads us away from finding assurance and conviction in things we can take into ourselves and make our own. What we can see and have becomes part of us, it becomes ours, and thereby a dimension of ourselves. In finding assurance and conviction in what is absorbed into us and made subject to us, in rooting ourselves in such things, we root ourselves in ourselves. And this is what Faith intentionally makes impossible. Assurance and conviction are displaced from the contemplation of the self, from anything the self has or possesses, and are re-placed, re-rooted, in another, in God. What assures and convinces us is not what we are but what He is. We are broken open and opened out to find assurance and conviction in what He promises. The assurance and conviction of Faith are secured in trusting Him. Faith is first and foremost a matter of trust, and therefore a matter of love.
Now this may seem strange, because Faith is very often discussed as a kind of knowing. But knowing is a matter of seeing and having – what we know is there before us: or rather, in knowing, what is there, before us, is also taken in, so that it is not only there, but also here, where I am: knowing is bringing what is other than myself into myself, and therefore knowledge, encircling what I know, completes itself in me. But in Faith we do not encircle God, going out to Him only to draw Him back into ourselves. In Faith, it is almost precisely the opposite. God encircles us, reaching out to us to draw us to Himself. He reaches out to us by His promises, and He draws us to Himself by enabling us to stop resting in ourselves and to trust in Him. And this trust is itself a kind of reaching out, our reaching out to God in response to His reaching out to us, and our reaching out completes itself not in ourselves but in Him.
Now a reaching out which completes itself in another is essentially love. One who loves does not seek himself, but someone else. Nor does he seek someone else merely to draw him to himself, to attain him in order to capture and hold on to him. One who loves reaches out to the other in order to let the other be, to find his being and his flourishing, not the being and the flourishing of the lover himself. To love, in other words, means simply to desire the good of another. And so when we trust God, when we reach out to Him by having Faith in what He promises, we are conforming ourselves to Him, for His sake, not encircling Him within ourselves. More essentially than knowing God, then, Faith is loving Him. Faith moves us beyond what is ours, abandoning the assurance and conviction we naturally want to place in ourselves and instead handing them over into God, because this is what He asks of us – we might almost dare to say, it is what He needs from us.
In fact we can dare to say that – provided we remember that the need of which we speak is a need of love, not of the self. God does not need our Faith in order to complete Himself. But He desires our Faith in the way that a lover desires the flourishing of the one he loves: He desires it, not for Himself, but for us. Love gives, in order to complete the other, it does not take, in order to complete itself. And God, Who is Love, desires that what He gives should complete us in our receiving it. What He gives is His promise, and what He promises is Himself. God Loves, then, by giving us Himself, and to receive what He gives is ourselves to enter into Love, which is to say we enter into Him, giving ourselves in response to His own self-giving. And how we give ourselves is in Faith, in the believing and hoping which are fundamentally expressions of love, since through them we allow ourselves to be dispossessed of ourselves, casting ourselves away from ourselves towards and into Him, in an adventure that only Love can apprehend and undertake.
We have just said that in Faith we give ourselves in response to God’s own self-giving. This response, we have insisted, is not something God wants for Himself; but now we also have to insist that it isn’t something He requires of us, as a debt of justice, not even of the higher justice which, because He loves us so much, demands that we love Him in return. Love does not offer or seek the just response, it offers and seeks only the loving response. In any case there can be no question of justice here, since justice operates between equals, and there is no equality between God and ourselves. Everything we are is from Him, and this givenness of ourselves to ourselves isn’t something we could ever repay, because every re-payment we could possibly make would itself depend upon something we had received from Him: if we must speak, for a moment, in the language of justice, then we have to say that creation and redemption are undischargable debts. So the point is not to give God what we owe Him, or what He deserves. The point is freely to join in the eternal circulation of Love He reveals Himself to be. This mystery of self-offering, founded in the Persons of the Trinity and offered to the world for its participation, transcends the language of justice, which exercises its power according to what must ultimately be a closed economy of equalization between giving and receiving. It transcends this, breaking out beyond it according to its own unique logic, its singular and irreducible beauty.
We can apprehend this logic and this beauty – indeed we in some sense cannot fail to – but nothing compels us to respond to it by joining in with it, rather than turning away from it, or participating only half-heartedly and from the constraint of a certain distance. No line of thought can compel or require the self-abandoning engagement of Faith. For Love cannot be compelled or required – it is given at all only in being given freely, in the space opened up between the necessary and the arbitrary: because, on the one hand, love cannot be exacted according to any other logic than its own, either by reasoning and knowing, or by some natural movement or process; and, on the other, because love isn’t merely chosen in a void, without any other ground or foundation than the sheer exercise of will. There is a beauty in Love, an intuitively grasped plenitude and charisma, which requests of us that we give ourselves to it, and its riches unfold themselves to us the more that we do so. Love – Faith – is a gift; and for this reason it is also a risk.
It is a risk – in us, and also in God Himself – because in so far as Love belongs to the domain of freedom and is ventured unreservedly, there is no knowing how it will unfold and where it will take us. The Incarnate Word was taken by Love to the very extremity of our suffering alienation, dying and descending to the realm of the dead, where the Father seemed altogether to have abandoned Him, and trust reaching out into darkness and desolation was all that was left to Him. And, even then, human beings, for whom God the Son undertook this unprecedented journey of solidarity, cannot be compelled by what He has achieved for us; which means that His free descent into the depths of a world estranged from God does not guarantee the end for which this descent was undertaken: the rescue and restoration of all things. This outcome, won for us in the Son’s freedom, remains still poised over our freedom, the freedom to embrace or to reject Him. This is the risk of love taken by God in creating and redeeming us: His confrontation with the freedom He Himself bestowed on us, in a meeting in which the only language that can really be spoken is the language of the appeal of Love.
And for us, too, there is no knowing in advance, and hence no possible calculation, concerning what God might ask of us in Faith. Here our freedom confronts His, His sometimes mysterious and even terrifying Providence for each one of us, in which our Faith may be stretched to breaking point, and the future plunged into impenetrable obscurity. It is true that precisely this is what the eternal Son Himself endured in His Passion and Death, so that in reality our sufferings are never without His companionship and assistance. And yet, just as, for Him, His apparent abandonment by the Father was the deepest ingredient of His suffering on our behalf, so also, in our case, any experienced consolation may be taken away from us, so that we may also find ourselves as if abandoned, and what is left to us, as to the Son, is the blindness of the love that trusts.
In such times, the definition of Faith that we have been considering – the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen – obtains its purest and deepest confirmation. For then we seem to be nothing in ourselves, and God, to Whom we have been called to give all our assurance and conviction, has apparently inscrutably withdrawn.
But then, also, our Faith is not only intensified but its true meaning is disclosed. For here Faith is clarified as our participation in the redeeming Love of the Incarnate Word. Faith, by which we are dispossessed, is finally revealed as our sharing in the dispossession of God Himself, in the loving self-abandonment of the Son to the Father in the Holy Spirit. For this reason, Faith is not only trusting in the Incarnate Word, but also, and more profoundly, trusting with Him, by sharing in His own self-entrustment to the Father. And so it is that the Letter to the Hebrews, elsewhere, identifies Christ Himself as the pioneer and perfecter of our Faith.
By Fr Philip Cleevely, Cong. Orat.