Sunday Thoughts; A Paradox of Faith

There is a paradox inherent in the act of faith. On the one hand, belief in God involves us in innumerable logical difficulties, especially involving the nature of time and free will and their relation to eternity. Just as a simple example based on today’s readings, it seems revolting to our feelings that we should be perfectly happy while those we loved on Earth are suffering eternal punishment, yet we must allows that such a situation is entirely possible given the teachings of Christianity. To most of these we simply have to answer “well, I don’t know how it works or how it will work, but I trust it does.” Thus the atheist always has a logical foothold (even if atheism involves one in far more and far worse problems).

Yet, if we believe that God is infinitely greater than ourselves and that eternity involves a kind of perspective that we cannot at present imagine (“Eye has not seen, nor ear has heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man…”), then difficulties of this kind are exactly what we should expect, just as we can’t expect a dog to really understand the behavior of its owner (e.g. if we could ask him why his master leaves the house for eight hours every day, he probably wouldn’t have any kind of answer, and it you told him it was connected with his getting his dinner, he might take your word for it, but he wouldn’t understand the connection).

So, to put it more simply, if God exists, then we would not expect to be able to understand His actions or purposes, and so they might well seem illogical or contradictory to us. But if something seems illogical and contradictory, then one possible solution is simply to disbelieve it. Thus, by the nature of the case, it will always be psychologically possible to disbelieve in God on this side of eternity.

I say psychologically possible, in that it might not be able to stand up to logical scrutiny, but it can at least be practically accepted by the mind as an interpretive framework (unlike, say, Hume’s radical skepticism, which is utterly unworkable outside of abstract speculation). And this is, unsurprisingly, as it should be. Our faith isn’t really meant to be simply a philosophical conclusion, as if our relationship to our Creator were nothing more than an intellectual exercise. By the nature of reality, of course, logic will lead you to the point, but as long as it remains pure logic it isn’t really faith and we’re missing the point. Sooner or later, a real encounter with God has to lead us to admit that we don’t have all the answers. Because this isn’t a formula we’re working out, this is a person – the Person – whom we are encountering. Demanding to be able to take the whole in and understand Him fully is a mark that you don’t yet know what you are dealing with.

In the words of St. John Henry Newman: “A thousand difficulties do not add up to one doubt.”

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