Aug 3, 2011
How does a person come to perceive Jesus Christ as the beauty beyond all other beauties, and taught in the Church’s incarnational theology? Many readers of this column were born into Christianity; many were born as Catholic Christians. Perhaps some have been raised with no religion at all. One could say that we have inherited the tenets of our family, however expressed. As we mature, so too the invitation to a mature faith. Deciding to follow Jesus as his disciple is the most important choice of one’s life because it is a person’s most fundamental and personal decision. How is it that St. Peter and so many others through the ages have proclaimed Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God (Mt 16:16)?
For the moment, let us set aside this question and consider how we come to love and embrace something beautiful, person, place or thing. Natural beauty is a more eminent kind of beauty and can be directly intuited, but enjoying artistic beauty requires guidance. When you hear the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony, for example, why is your attention arrested? It is because the music, of itself, compels you in a conspicuous way to listen. The music attracts, and as you begin drawing near to it, you are enjoying the experience. Every time you hear the Fifth symphony, you listen with an increasingly open mind and heart. Its beauty has such credibility that you may respond: ‘I know that this composition is a thing of rare beauty. I love to listen to it and want it to be part of my life because it transports me upward beyond myself to itself.’ This example somewhat resembles the movement that takes place when a person decides to become a totally committed disciple of Jesus Christ. One is transported, one ‘travels’ from the self, to be united with him, and through him, with the Father and their Holy Spirit.
Christian faith is “the assurance of things hoped for and the expectation of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). Catholic faith is “the graced but free human acceptance of God’s self-communication in Christ as mediated by the Christian community” (The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, 510). Unlike all other Christian faith-traditions, Catholic Christianity has two dimensions to it, the objective and the subjective. The objective dimension refers to revealed truth as taught by Christ and mediated by the Church from apostolic times. It is the faith professed and taught by the Church, the content that I believe in, the faith that is to be believed (fides quae creditur). The subjective aspect refers to one’s personal commitment to the objective, revealed truth of the Church. It is the faith to which I fully and personally assent; this is the faith as it is received and believed (fides qua creditur).
In the Synoptic gospels, “faith is related to concrete situations–illness, danger, and death of loved ones” (Dulles, The Assurance of Faith, 10). In St. Paul, faith is an active response, related to trust and obedience. In the Johannine gospel, believing and knowing are united. Here faith is a verb and not a noun. To live a life of faith is to be committed in an intimate personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and the model for this intimacy is the unity existing between Jesus and his Father (Jn 10:14-15).
The Gift of Catholic Faith
Catholic faith, from first to last, is a mystery, the pearl of great price, a gift, and a weighty responsibility. Still, a person’s faith is received through a specific culture and a specific catechesis in a specific faith-tradition. If, from infancy, children have been reared in the culture of a faith-tradition other than Catholic Christianity, they will probably know little about Jesus or the Catholic faith. They may be raised in no faith-tradition or in more than one. Modernity has brought about these new challenges. Today many are asking how the Church, as one among many faith-traditions, can claim to possess the exclusive message of salvation. To outsiders, the Church looks like one sect among so many, yet she claims to have the complete depository of faith. How does a creed that seems to have resulted from random historical events make this claim?
Consider this: a non-Catholic remarks to a recent Catholic convert: ‘I am trying to appreciate your reasons for conversion, but for the life of me, I cannot see how you have come to your conclusion.’ To which the convert responds: ‘To me, it’s like two and two make four.’ One person perceives nothing remotely credible about the Catholic faith; the other sees it as a natural and reasonable decision. How do converts come to this conclusion? Do they make an act of ‘blind faith,’ without the use of their intelligence? Is their conversion done through pure logic that first proves the truth of the evidence and then assents to it? The short answer to both questions is a resounding no. How then do mature men and women come to Christ or be converted to his discipleship? The longer response will be considered in our next reflection.