Believing is not an act of the understanding alone, nor simply an act of the will, not just an act of feeling, but an act in which all the spiritual powers of man are at work together. Still more: man in his own self, or of himself, cannot bring about this believing at all; it has of its nature the character of a dialogue.
Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith, 24
Reflection – ‘I will believe in God when sufficient evidence is given to me to prove it is true.’ ‘I will make myself believe, even though I understand nothing and my emotions are nil.’ ‘I believe because I feel in my heart that God is real and Jesus is real.’
These are the three isolated approaches to faith that Ratzinger critiques here. Faith as strict intellectual assent to a credible hypothesis, or as a teeth-gritted, knuckles clenched act of will to what we neither understand nor feel to be true, or as a joyful plunging into a tide of emotionalism and enthusiasm.
All three fall short, and even any two of the three taken together fall short. And as he points out quite insightfully, even all three together fall short of the full reality of faith.
It may well be for most of us that we experience faith more in one or two of these aspects than the others. For me, faith is strongly an act of will with a heavy dose of intellectual understanding. My emotions play little role in my faith life, not because I don’t have them but because I know how unreliable they are!
Others may have very little intellectual capacity for theological understanding, but have strong emotional attachments to God and to Jesus, and deep will to believe. I suppose some may have strong emotional and intellectual faith, but have to battle against their weak will, although I have never encountered that particular configuration.
Our whole humanity, though, is taken up into the act of faith. It is our whole person that is engaged in the task of belief. We will to accept what we have been given; our minds seek to understand it as best we can; our emotions dance in and out of this relationship of faith; and even our bodies are called to faith, as what we believe is lived out in concrete actions of worship and charity, and this commitment to action strengthens and builds the faith we have.
But as Ratzinger points out, there is something more here. Rather, there is Someone Else involved in this faith dynamic. The very nature of faith is not ‘I believe this,’ but rather ‘I believe you.’ There is this strange and mysterious Other who we encounter… how? Where? Those who do not have faith begin to suspect the mental health of us who do have faith at this juncture. Do we have an invisible friend? Are we hearing voices? What is this Other who we have chosen to believe?
Well, there is Scripture and the strange Presence we encounter there. And there is Sacrament and the mysterious Action done to us thereby. And there is personal prayer—not a matter of hearing voices, but for me at least of insight being given, understanding and direction received, not achieved. Something that happens that I, anyhow, cannot account for by my own human capacities.
There is this… Other. For those who don’t have faith, this will always sound like mystagogy or madness. For those who do have faith, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. For those who don’t have faith, but maybe would like to have it, I recommend a simple course of action: every day for the next six months, ask ‘God’ (if He, you know, exists) to show Himself to you in some way you can receive it, and every day for the next six months, read a short passage from the Gospels.