Even though I believed it for reasons arising from experience, I had always had trouble understanding the doctrine of justification by faith, rather than by works, because I had always had trouble understanding faith as anything but itself a work of the creature. The difficulty was due to the fact that I was treating “work” and “act” as coterminous. But they are not. Works are acts, to be sure; but there are other sorts of acts. The act of faith is not a work, but a motion. We can open ourselves to it, and prepare for it, and yearn for it, and indeed enact it; but we cannot buckle down and just do it, the way we could with working out or finishing an irksome chore. The work that we do to prepare for faith consists mostly of waiting patiently.
So long as I understood the act of faith as an act of work, the best I could do was to treat faith as cessation of all idolatry, all creaturely work to “pin down” God, and so understand him. Stop trying to understand, and simply turn to God and do nothing else, was the idea: let go, and let God, as the saying has it, truly. I’m pretty sure that this notion is not wrong, so far as it goes, because as implemented it does indeed consist in waiting patiently for the Lord. All ascesis takes this form. But what it doesn’t do is help us understand what happens when faith arrives.
Faith in Jesus is like faith in “2 + 2 = 4.”
You can’t choose whether or not you believe “2 + 2 = 4” in the way that you choose whether or not you are going to the store. Either you understand the idea conveyed by such a true statement, in which case you automatically believe it, without possibility of any alternative; or else you just don’t understand it. When you properly understand a true idea, you come by the same motion to a perception of its truth; and once you perceive the truth of an idea, you find yourself compelled to believe it. The belief part of the transaction is not optional; it is simply not in your power to say something like, “I can see that ‘2 + 2 = 4’ is true, but I don’t believe it.” Well, not quite; you can indeed say those words, but what you can’t do is mean them.
So faith in a truth is part of the package that comes along with apprehension of its truth, which comes along with its proper comprehension. When you comprehend a true notion, you apprehend its force – its meaning, that is to say, and the consequences of its truth, and the mere fact of its truth – and you believe in its truth irresistibly. Because your belief is entailed in your apprehension of truth, it is not your work.
Neither is your apprehension of truth your work. Your works can put you in the way of an apprehension of truth, as when you work to get admitted to college, to study math, and so forth. Your works can lay the foundation of an apprehension of truth, as when you hold a difficult concept in your mind, fasten your attention upon it, and wait patiently for understanding to arrive. But the understanding itself is not something you can force, any more than you can force yourself to exist. The understanding simply arrives once you look at the difficult concept in the right way. And neither can you force yourself to look at a difficult concept in the right way, because until you have understood the concept you have no idea what that right way might be. Indeed, the only way that you can tell you are looking at it rightly is that you suddenly understand it! To look at something in the right way is practically identical with understanding it.
The analogy with trying to force your own continued existence is very tight. Just as you have no idea how to make yourself exist, but are limited to working with the existence you find that you already have, so with understanding. As you can’t guarantee your existence, but only act in such a way as to put yourself in a good likelihood of continued existence – by, e.g., prudence – so you can’t simply generate a flash of insight, but only set things up so as to make such flashes more likely.
So, if you understand what the Gospel is saying, then you cannot but apprehend its truth, and so believe. All the more important, then, that we get theology right, so that we can understand just what the Gospel is saying. We are fortunate, as humans, that we are so made as to be able, with theology as with math or physics, to hear and understand what the masters tell us is the right way to look at things. We can get faith by hearing someone explain the right way to think about the doctrines we do not yet understand. This does not consist in being argued into faith; it consists in understanding what the faith actually is. It may take a great deal of discussion to learn what the faith actually is, and indeed the discourse has continued for a few millennia already, with no sign of ever letting up. But the point is not whether one has won or lost a particular intellectual engagement, but whether one has yet properly comprehended what it is that Christians are talking about.
As for disagreements within the holy Church universal, so a fortiori for our evangelical apologiae to those outside the House of the Lord, and not yet even aware that they have been invited to the banquet we share, or indeed that there is such a thing even as a banquet.
No one of them can be won to the faith by argument who does not want to understand it in the first place; those who do want to understand generally end up converted. For the latter sort, intellectual life just is, always, faith seeking understanding; the first motion of faith is the faith that faith is possible because there is some truth out there to be believed in, that can be discovered. This is just to say that the first motion of faith is the faith that there is such a thing as reality. Thus it is that while realism generally establishes even among the unchurched a fundamental equanimity, confidence and spiritual courage – early fruits of faith – determined unbelief sooner or later ends at radical skepticism, nihilism, and despair. The only hope for such convicted, anti-intellectual atheists is in some experiential comeuppance, some inarguable disaster in their lives, that can break down their pride and provide them the opportunity of opening to an eucatastrophe.
My own experiential apprehension of the truth of the Gospels came at the Fraction of the Mass one evening with the words, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” You could say without too much exaggeration that my intellectual life has been devoted to understanding what those words mean; hearing what the masters have to say about them, pondering them, and waiting for light to dawn. At the time, of course, I had no idea at all what those words meant – I was only 13 – but, together with the sight of the priest breaking the bread, they did the job. They meant, simply, suddenly, all that can be meant, they meant everything that is, they meant meaning itself. I understood them beyond what I could ever have words to convey, and mere words are to that Word at best an earnest profanation, uttered by a dog quivering in the vestibule of the Temple and wishing for some crumbs to eat.
When I heard those words, they literally knocked me down to my knees, whence I found myself powerless to rise. I didn’t decide to fall to my knees. It happened to me, as if I had been taken up off my feet by a mighty wave of the ocean and tossed head over heels. Sure, I was the one who did the work of getting to the beach, and I was the one who did the work of wading into the surf. I decided to go on that retreat, I decided to go to Mass that evening. But when the immense wave overshadowed me, it was not I that decided whether or not to stand my ground, or surrender to the boundless Ocean.