Why it is believed and why it is not believed

"To believe" or "not to believe": what do these personal expressions (these decisions) mean? Professor Antonio Aranda analyzes the motives and factors surrounding or explaining these two different attitudes, particularly in the context of a social and cultural environment with Catholic roots.

Antonio Aranda-February 21, 2022-Reading time: 10 minutes
To believe or not to believe Antonio Aranda

To ask oneself about the reason for personal attitudes which, as in the case we are studying, refer mainly to the freedom and availability of man in the face of the mystery of God and of himself, is to enter into a question of a certain difficulty. 

Not only, in fact, is the magnitude of the notions that come into play (God, man, faith, freedom, truth, etc.) unmanageable, but also, since these are acts that belong to the particular sphere of each subject, the objective of giving a general answer is inadequate. The verb creer or its opposite is not properly conjugated in the impersonal form (se cree-no se cree), but in the first person singular (creo-no creo), or in the plural (creemos-no creemos).

This double question (why one believes-why one does not believe), given the reality and transcendence of the human phenomenon it contains, has been studied in its fundamental anthropological meaning, since in all times and in all places there have been, and there are, men who have believed or have not believed. Analyzing the tendency to believe that beats in the human creature as such, as well as that of its opposite, is undoubtedly of great interest.

However, without fundamentally abandoning this terrain, we will approach the question from a different point of view. We will situate ourselves in the here and now of contemporary society, but what we will take into consideration, looking above all at the Western world, is not so much its "postmodern" condition as its nature as a "post-Christian" society, as it is sometimes called, that is to say, religiously and culturally influenced by faith in Jesus Christ and trust in the Church, but now distanced in practice - albeit only partially - from its roots. In this context, when a citizen raised and educated in a social and cultural environment with Catholic roots says "I believe", or "I do not believe", what is he saying and why is he saying it? 

Faith, trust and truth

Believing is a personal act and attitude, essentially linked to the rational and relational nature of man. It means to accept the truth of what is made known to me by someone else, in whom I trust. It is not only to know what is transmitted to me, but to accept it as truth, and this because it is communicated to me by someone in whom I have placed my trust. The attitude of faith, insofar as the acceptance of something as true even though it is here and now inevitable, is inseparably linked to the trust that the believer has placed in the one who manifests that truth to him. The knowledge of faith is, above all, as it is usually said, a knowledge of the truth. per testimonium. 

Faith in the truth of something and trust in the one who says it are inseparable: if trust in the witness fails, the acceptance of his message as truth vanishes and, consequently, the certainty of the knowledge of faith is broken. As Christians, in particular, we accept with obedience of faith the truth of a doctrine that is communicated to us, or the coherence of a moral behavior that is taught to us, because "before", or simultaneously, we have placed our trust in the witness of the Church, in which we recognize the authority of Jesus Christ, in whom we believe and trust as God and Savior. 

In the current crisis of faith - or rather of the life of faith, since it is the external actions that we can observe - in people and populations of ancient Christian tradition, various situations can be detected, which we will describe briefly until we reach the last one, on which we will dwell. 

a) Sometimes, for example, there is a weakening of the acceptance of the doctrine and the model of life taught by the Church, and a distancing from the Church itself, because of a previous deterioration of trust, perhaps due to the lack of exemplarity of some of her representatives. But this, although not a minor issue, is not the main reason for the widespread crisis of faith. 

b) In a second example, the distancing from the faith could be revealing a morally deficient disposition that does not want to be corrected, and that induces to deny the assent to a doctrine that would oblige to rectify the behavior. When that happens, when a believer does not want to accept a personal commitment to the truth in which he believes, he may end up refusing to be so. A wounded heart is capable, in effect, of silencing the voice of conscience and attenuating the natural tendency of the intelligence to rest in the truth. 

c) As a concretization of the previous case, it could also happen that the deterioration of trust no longer refers to the Church as a witness to Christ, but rather to oneself as unworthy of God's trust. One who, by reason of his moral behavior, does not consider himself susceptible to receive divine mercy - which means wrongly distrusting it - can also end up putting his faith in quarantine. This disposition, like the previous one, can only be overcome, as the parable of the prodigal son teaches, by a movement of conversion towards the paternal mercy of God. And in both cases this conversion is achievable, because in these subjects there is a personal sense of guilt, even if they are reluctant to admit it.

d) But, in addition to these modes of behavior, which derive more towards not practicing faith or not wanting to accept it for moral reasons than towards non-belief in the strict sense, we can also observe in contemporary society an attitude contrary to faith, which is widespread and has objectively more serious consequences. It consists, in essence, in denying with theoretical arguments the very existence of any objective truth, and in rejecting any authority that claims to transmit it. The prolonged hegemony of this intellectual position, which has led to relativism and the culture of indifference prevailing in the Western world, is causally present in the current non-belief of many. If in the previous cases we alluded to a relatively feasible conversion, in this one, on the contrary, it is necessary to underline the difficulty, since the denial of all objective truth entails the rejection of the objectivity of guilt, and without consciousness of guilt there can be no conversion. 

Relativism and unbelief

To know and embrace the truth is the great capacity and, at the same time, the great temptation of man, for he can also freely not embrace it. This capacity is inscribed - focusing the question from the light of faith - in the fact that man is a creature in the image of God. In God himself, the Truth known (the Word) is always Truth loved; moreover, Love in God is Love of Truth. Having placed his image in us, he has made us capable of freely loving the truth, but also of rejecting it. In this sense, when one denies the existence of truth as such and consequently rejects the natural tendency of human intelligence towards it, its quality as the foundation of personal freedom, etc., ... one is also denying at the root the condition of man as the image of God. 

The great contemporary conflicts and challenges - also that of believing or not believing, which we are considering here - are in fact being debated in an essentially anthropological scenario, in which different conceptions are confronted. It is important, therefore, to refer, without departing from our theme, to what basically distinguishes the believing (Christian) understanding of man from that which is widespread in postmodern, relativistic and indifferent society. As we have just mentioned, the revealed root of man's greatness and dignity is his having been created in the image of God and made capable of becoming, through grace, a child of God. From this perspective, natural knowledge and the knowledge of faith enjoy, in the unity of the subject, an intimate coherence and continuity. Christian thought, in different cultural contexts but permanently throughout its history, has been able to show and defend this intimate relationship between faith and reason, while at the same time underlining their qualitative differences and their different epistemological statuses. This has made it possible, for example - although the example is of the utmost importance - to develop a metaphysical knowledge whose speculative vigor is admirable.

The affirmation of the objectivity of being, of the real analogy and ontological difference between the creature and God, and of the capacity to attain objective truth both in the natural order and - through grace - in the supernatural order, are indispensable elements of Christian reasoning. In it, to put it simply, man's reason is measured by objective truth, truth by being and being by the Creator. 

At the same time, always within the dynamic of the development of Christian thought, the knowledge of faith is linked by its very nature to testimonial sources that transmit it faithfully and interpret it with authority. It is not that reason remains linked in the exercise of its proper operation to the faith and to the Magisterium that proposes it, but rather that it is the object of this operation (truth) that the Magisterium can show with authority. The reason of the believer says necessary reference to the doctrine of the Church through the mediation of the truth that she proposes. And in the same way, the free moral behavior of the Christian and the personal judgment of conscience must refer to that truth and to that authority, to the degree that the Church manifests it. 

These affirmations, which we make so briefly because they are well known doctrines, have nevertheless been subjected to strong criticism and even rejected by a part of philosophical and theological thought for three centuries. As is well known, modern thought - through the introduction of a new notion of reason - established two ruptures with the Christian tradition: the rupture with the objectivity of being and truth, and the rupture of the intimate relationship between faith and reason. Reason is no longer seen as the capacity to know a truth that transcends it, but as a function of a truth that it itself constitutes. 

Reasoning is therefore detached from everything external to the subject, and finds its justification in itself. Reason means, then, self-determination and liberation from the normative power of all tradition and authority. 

A new way of understanding 

We are thus faced not only with a new concept of reason and knowledge, but also, in the long run, and going to the heart of the matter, with a novelty in the way man understands himself, an anthropological conception that moves away from that taught in the Catholic tradition. The consequences of this intellectual dynamic, which postulates the fracture of the unity between faith and reason, have been and are decisive in our question. 

In matters of morality, for example, such a breakdown translates into sustaining the total separation between an ethics of faith (not organically related to reason) and a rational ethics (which finds its validation in the autonomy of practical reason). And it will end up presenting the doctrine of the Church in moral matters as contrary to the dignity of man and his freedom. And, similarly, by rejecting the objective foundation of truth and reducing it to pure subjectivity, any reference of conscience to a moral norm external to the subject will be challenged as unworthy of man, as pure legalistic formalism and as the destruction of authentic morality. 

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the evangelical phrase: "the truth shall set you free" be replaced by the opposite: "freedom will make you true".. This reversal sets the premises for seriously harmful moral consequences. 

In fact, the doctrine of faith and the moral praxis transmitted by the Church in these matters seem to have lost plausibility in the structure of thought of the modern world, and are presented and considered by many of our contemporaries as something that has already been superseded by time. But, while this is serious, it is objectively even more so the fact that these ways of understanding man - which basically pose the alternative between faith and opposition to faith, between believing and not believing - have become commonplace, and find an echo and even acceptance among Christians.

In the culture of relativism and unbelief

As we have been pointing out, behind belief and non-belief there is always a certain vision of man (an anthropology) that necessarily leads to a theory of moral behavior (an ethics) congruent with that starting point, and that, as a final consequence, ends up converging in a conception of social, cultural, political life, etc. (a sense of the way society is made). For this reason, in the disaffection of many of the baptized with respect to the doctrine and the meaning of life transmitted by the Church - and with respect to the Church herself - or, in other words, behind the reason for the distancing and even the theoretical or practical non-belief of so many, it is necessary to discover the weakening in them - through ignorance, through lack of formation - of the Christian sense of the person, under the dominant influence of other anthropological conceptions and, in particular, of the relativism that pervades society and the media.

It is no easy task to present an orderly synthesis of what this obscuring of the Christian vision of the person is representing in the real life of believers, and even less to indicate particular solutions to the problems it poses. However, because of their importance, we mention, by way of example only, two areas in which the weakening of the Christian sense of man is contributing to fostering among believers moral and social attitudes of unbelief, that is, an underhand shift in practice from believing to non-belief. They are: a) lack of personal commitment to the truth; b) indifference to the crisis provoked against marriage and the family. 

a) Knowing the truth and not loving it -which leads to rejecting it- is seriously damaging to the conscience, and inevitably leads to a fracture of the inner unity of the person. This is a serious spiritual illness, suffered today by many citizens born and educated in traditionally Christian societies. Those who behave in this way in matters of faith and morals contrast their generic belonging to the community of believers with an existential attitude of unbelievers. He also easily ends up postulating a "double morality" and admitting a "double truth", which is a step away from pure non-belief. On the contrary, the commitment of the believer to the truth translates into moral attitudes of great personal and social importance, capable of overcoming the current ethical conformism, dominant in almost all countries. We thus leave alluded to, although we do not develop it, the evangelizing transcendence of the Christian's unity of life.

b) In the sphere of marriage and the family - and also in that of primary and secondary education - the first and decisive transmission of the model of a believing life is ordinarily carried out. The proper unfolding of its educative function contains important reasons why people believe, just as, in a similar way, its breakdown nourishes the roots of why people do not believe. In this regard, a few words of Benedict XVI deserve to be highlighted: "There is an obvious correspondence between the crisis of faith and the crisis of marriage." (Homily at the Mass inaugurating the Synod of Bishops, October 8, 2012). Indeed, everything that harms the truth of marriage and the family also harms the transmission of the faith as a religious attitude and as a trusting adherence to certain truths. 

When the Christian meaning of marriage and the family is actively combated, as is happening today in a relentless manner, and its image is disfigured before public opinion, its capacity to propagate the basic foundations of the formation of conscience and moral attitudes is also being badly wounded: the filial reference to God and the Church, the importance of sincerity, the duties of fidelity, charity and justice, the sense of sin, the obligation to do good, etc. 

It is there, in the assimilation of these basic elements of moral responsibility, transmitted in the family by the most effective way, which is that of love, that the personality of the believer begins to be forged. Hence the urgent need to protect the truth of marriage and the Christian family in order to contribute to the preservation and propagation of the richness of faith, without which the human as such is also lost. The centrality of a reality also outlined by Benedict XVI is thus pointed out, although, as in the previous case, not developed: in the present situation, "marriage is called to be not only the object, but also the subject of the new evangelization". (ibidem).

The authorAntonio Aranda

Professor Emeritus, School of Theology, University of Navarra, Spain

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