Moral Briefs – Chapter XVIII – Why We Believe

cover of the ebook 'Moral Briefs' by Father John Henry StapletonBelief, we have said, is the acceptance of a truth from another. We do not always accept what others present to us as truth, for the good reason that we may have serious doubts as to whether they speak the truth or not. It is for us to decide the question of our informant’s intellectual and moral trustworthiness. If we do believe him, it is because we consider his veracity to be beyond question.

The foundation of our belief is therefore the veracity of him whose word we take. They tell me that Lincoln was assassinated. Personally, I know nothing about it. But I do know that they who speak of it could know, did know, and could not lead us all astray on this point. I accept their evidence; I believe on their word.

It is on the testimony of God’s word that we believe in matters that pertain to faith. The idea we have of God is that He is infinitely perfect, that He is all-wise and all-good. He cannot, therefore, under pain of destroying His very existence, be deceived or deceive us. When, therefore, He speaks. He speaks the truth and nothing but the truth. It would be a very stultification of our reason to refuse to believe Him, once we admit His existence.

Now, it is not necessary for us to inquire into the things He reveals, or to endeavor to discover the why, whence and wherefore. It is truth, we are certain of it; what more do we need! It may be a satisfaction to see and understand these truths, just as it is to solve a problem two or three different ways. But it is not essential, for the result is always the same – truth.

But suppose, with my senses and my reason, I come to a result at variance with the first, suppose the testimony of God’s word and that of my personal observations conflict, what then? There is an error somewhere. Either God errs or my faculties play me false. Which should have the preference of my assent? The question is answered as soon as it is put. I can conceive an erring man, but I cannot conceive a false God. Nothing human is infallible; God alone is proof against all error. This would not be my first offense against truth.

“Yes, all this is evident. I shall and do believe everything that God deigns to reveal, because He says it, whether or not I see or understand it. But the difficulty with me is how to know that God did speak, what He said, what He meant. My difficulty is practical, not theoretical.”

And by the same token you have shifted the question from “Why we believe” to “Whence we believe;” you no longer seek the authority of your faith, but its genesis. You believe what God says, because He says it; you believe He did say it because – the Church says it. You are no longer dealing with the truth itself, but with the messenger that brings the truth to be believed. The message of the Church is: these are God’s words. As for what these words stand for, you are not to trust her, but Him. The foundation of divine belief is one thing; the motives of credibility are another.

We should not confound these two things, if we would have a clear notion of what faith is, and discover the numerous counterfeits that are being palmed off nowadays on a world that desires a convenient, rather than a genuine article.

The received manner of belief is first to examine the truths proposed as coming from God, measure them with the rule of individual reason, of expediency, feeling, fancy, and thus to decide upon their merits. If this proposition suits, it is accepted. If that other is found wanting, it is forthwith rejected. And then it is in order to set out and prove them to be or not to be the word of God, according to their suitability or non-suitability.

One would naturally imagine, as reason and common sense certainly suggest, that one’s first duty would be to convince oneself that God did communicate these truths; and if so, then to accept them without further dally or comment. There is nothing to be done, once God reveals, but to receive His revelation.

Outside the Church, this procedure is not always followed, because of the rationalistic tendencies of latter-day Protestantism. It is a glaring fact that many do not accept all that God says because He says, but because it meets the requirements of their condition, feelings or fancy. They lay down the principle that a truth, to be a truth, must be understood by the human intelligence. This is paramount to asserting that God cannot know more than men – blasphemy on the face of it. Thus the divine rock-bed of faith is torn away, and a human basis substituted. Faith itself is destroyed in the process.

It is, therefore, important, before examining whence comes our faith, to remember why we believe, and not to forget it. This much gained, and for all time, we can go farther; without it, all advance is impossible.