Faith, Obama, and Notre Dame
Much has been said about President Obama's speech. In particular, I think this was an exemplary instance of just how much language has been corrupted (think Orwell and Percy). But at this point I simply want to call attention to a few lines of speech near the end, where the President tries to teach on the uncertain nature of faith. There could be a real problem there. Depending on how you take what he said, the President either stakes out a position contrary to the basic worldview of Christianity, or he demonstrates a line of subtle thinking remarkably similar to none other than the Pope, in his earlier role as a university professor. (Hat tip to Ryan Herr.)
The President actually makes several theological assertions:
And in this world of competing claims about what is right and what is true, have confidence in the values with which you've been raised and educated. Be unafraid to speak your mind when those values are at stake. Hold firm to your faith and allow it to guide you on your journey. In other words, stand as a lighthouse.
The Catholic tradition has a different understanding of faith. First, from the Catechism:
But remember, too, that you can be a crossroads. Remember, too, that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It's the belief in things not seen. It's beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us. And those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own.
And this doubt should not push us away our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, cause us to be wary of too much self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open and curious and eager to continue the spiritual and moral debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame. And within our vast democracy, this doubt should remind us even as we cling to our faith to persuade through reason, through an appeal whenever we can to universal rather than parochial principles, and most of all through an abiding example of good works and charity and kindness and service that moves hearts and minds.
 What moves us to believe is not the fact that revealed truths appear as true and intelligible in the light of our natural reason: we believe "because of the authority of God himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived".And to quote just one of many examples from St. Thomas:
 Faith is certain. It is more certain than all human knowledge because it is founded on the very word of God who cannot lie. To be sure, revealed truths can seem obscure to human reason and experience, but "the certainty that the divine light gives is greater than that which the light of natural reason gives." "Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt."
two of the intellectual virtues are about contingent matter, viz. prudence and art; to which faith is preferable in point of certitude, by reason of its matter, since it is about eternal things, which never change, whereas the other three intellectual virtues, viz. wisdom, knowledge, and understanding, are about necessary things.... But it must be observed that wisdom, science and understanding may be taken in two ways: first, as intellectual virtues, according to the Philosopher; secondly, for the gifts of the Holy Ghost.To wit: faith is certain and without error; by it we believe what God has revealed not because reason perceives its truth but because God himself has said so, and does not lie; faith is the most certain kind of knowledge, objectively, because of its object, but subjectively feels less certain since our minds cannot penetrate its mysteries. So, we can know that something is true without knowing exactly how it is true.
If we consider them in the first way, we must note that certitude can be looked at in two ways. First, on the part of its cause, and thus a thing which has a more certain cause, is itself more certain. On this way faith is more certain than those three virtues, because it is founded on the Divine truth, whereas the aforesaid three virtues are based on human reason. Secondly, certitude may be considered on the part of the subject, and thus the more a man's intellect lays hold of a thing, the more certain it is. On this way, faith is less certain, because matters of faith are above the human intellect, whereas the objects of the aforesaid three virtues are not. Since, however, a thing is judged simply with regard to its cause, but relatively, with respect to a disposition on the part of the subject, it follows that faith is more certain simply, while the others are more certain relatively, i.e. for us. Likewise if these three be taken as gifts received in this present life, they are related to faith as to their principle which they presuppose: so that again, in this way, faith is more certain.
On one reading, against what the President said, it is in our capacity to know with certainty what God has revealed; faith necessarily does not admit doubt; faith is the most universal and least parochial principle. Therefore, on some things dialogue is not possible, debate is useless, and discussion without merit. Certainly the persuasion of reason is more immediately convincing and should be sought whenever available: nonetheless, revelation proper is about matters that transcend reason. And revelation does teach several things about the human person and his destiny. And we know these things with certainty, without the possibility of error, by faith.
But there is another plausible reading that was alerted to me by a reader of this blog in a draft I wrote: the President was talking of the subjective experience of doubt that both believer and unbeliever alike must share. Pope Benedict, when a mere university professor, gave a series of lectures later published as Introduction to Christianity. In the beginning of these lectures he addresses the dilemma of belief today, or rather, the difficulty of proclaiming the Gospel in a world used to doubt, skepticism, and scientific positivism.
Ratzinger cites the story of Kierkegaard's that Harvey Cox tells, of a clown who has to run into a village and alert them that a fire is approaching from the country. No one believes him of course. Like the clown, the apostle just isn't taken seriously today. So is theology merely a matter of taking off the makeup and assuming the pose of the spectator? Well, certainly the apostle's own situation is not that different from the modern agnostic: both are threatened by moments of intense uncertainty and a lack of any real security. Like Mother Teresa assailed by moments of intense doubt. Or, in the example Ratzinger provides, like the Jesuit missionary in the beginning of The Satin Slipper, tied to a mast from his sunken ship, drifting on the ocean alone. "The cross fastened to nothing, drifting over the abyss." Indeed, sharing Claudel's conception, Ratzinger argues that the believer's faith must be perfected over an ocean of nihilism, doubt, and despair. Faith can exist nowhere else. But, and this is key, the unbeliever has no superior vantage point. He shares the same predicament. Science offers him no comfort against that ocean. He is plagued by the same possibility of uncertainty. Positivism requires faith as does Theism, as it is only as true and certain as the current amount of evidence dictates. This angst, if you will, is the corollary of Popper's insistence on falsifiability. As Ratzinger puts it:
Just as the believer knows himself to be constantly threatened by unbelief, which he must experience as a continual temptation, so for the unbeliever faith remains a temptation and a threat to his apparently permanently closed world. In short there is no escape from the dilemma of being a man. Anyone who makes up his mind to evade the uncertainty of belief will have to experience the uncertainty of unbelief, which can never finally eliminate for certain the possibility that belief may after all be the truth. It is not until belief is rejected that its unrejectability becomes evident.In sum, there is something that links both the believer and unbeliever, something they share in common: the experience of doubt. Now when I was in school a few years ago, we had a little debate about these passages (and some others) in this book, and whether it was indeed compatible with orthodoxy. What we reached, if I remember correctly, is that Ratzinger is attending to the subjective experience of believing, which can indeed feel doubt. But, he unjustly neglects the other half of this experience, the certainty that the believer experiences because of the formal object of faith: I know this is true, indubitably, because God himself has revealed it, who cannot deceive nor be deceived. I never believed in the first place because what I believed made sense to me, but because I believed the signs that pointed to the reality that God himself had spoken. And this comes back to a point Ratzinger makes at the end of the first part of those lectures: we do not believe in the articles of faith, so much as we believe in a You. It is the encounter with the man Jesus, who reveals a love and a gift that is free from any threat of fading away.
In light of the points President Obama raised, I would defer again on the emphasis that St. Thomas provides: the reason that *why we believe* is not up for debate, cannot be threatened by science or compromised by the feeling of doubt. I did not decide to believe because of debate, because of dialogue, because I was argued into it. I believe because I have encountered the risen Christ, Jesus the man who reveals the Father as his Son. And because I have experienced the Holy Spirit and his love, and this something I cannot doubt just as I cannot doubt my own thinking.
I would disagree with Ratzinger, if that indeed is what he is asserting: no, today it is just as important to emphasize the certainty of faith, as it is the feeling of doubt we share with the unbeliever. For the unbeliever and I do not share the same position epistemologically: there is a certainty faith provides that is greater and more perfect than even the most sure of rational knowledge cannot provide. In fact, perhaps it is more important to emphasize this certainty of faith, in this age of skepticism today, without ignoring the reality of the feeling of doubt in the mode of the dark night, Claudel, etc. But as great as any feeling of doubt and despair I may be tempted to, I know in whom I have believed.
In other words, I don't think existentialism should have the last word here, nor do I think it is the best position at the end of the day. I think the Christian realism of John and Augustine and Thomas is a better stance and in fact more appealing to the modern man at the end of the day. This is why an approach such an Giussani's is so appealing. It works not so much, if I understand it, from a shared existential doubt, as from a position of certainty: I have met Christ, encountered him in my experience. I bear the evidence myself of a changed life, of a hope that the world does not know. Come and see why this experience is different from any the world can point to.
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— 3we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.