Merton on Faith

In my previous entry, I mentioned something about knowing that my faith had nothing to do with my feelings. Thomas Merton, in New Seeds of Contemplation, wrote the following about faith:

First of all, faith is not an emotion, not a feeling. It is not a blind subconscious urge toward something vaguely supernatural. It is not simply an elemental need in man’s spirit. It is not a feeling that God exists. It is not a conviction that one is somehow saved or “justified” for no special reason except that one happens to feel that way. It is not something entirely interior and subjective, with no reference to any external motive. It is not just “soul force.” It is not something that bubbles up out of the recesses of your soul and fills you with an indefinable “sense” that everything is all right. It is not something so purely yours that its content is incommunicable. It is not some personal myth of your own that you cannot share with anymore else, and the objective validity of which does not matter either to you or God or anybody else.

But also it is not an opinion. It is not a conviction based on rational analysis. It is not the fruit of scientific evidence. You can only believe what you do not know. As soon as you know it, you no longer believe it, at least not in the same way as you know it.

So much for what faith is not. Now for what it is:

Faith is first of all an intellectual assent. It perfects the mind, it does not destroy it. It puts the intellect in possession of Truth which reason cannot grasp by itself. It gives us certitude concerning God as He is in Himself; faith is the way to a vital contact with a God Who is alive, and not to the view of an abstract First Principle worked out by syllogisms from the evidence of created things.

But the assent of faith is not based on the intrinsic evidence of a visible object. The act of belief unites two members of a proposition which have no connection in our natural experience. But also there is nothing within reach of reason to argue that they are disconnected. The statements which demand the assent of faith are simply neutral to reason. We have no natural evidence why they should be true or why they should be false. We assent to them because of something other than intrinsic evidence. We accept their truth as revealed and the motive of our assent is the authority of God Who reveals them.

Faith is not expected to give complete satisfaction to the intellect. It leaves the intellect suspended in obscurity, without a light proper to its own mode of knowing. Yet it does not frustrate the intellect, or deny it, or destroy it. It pacifies it with a conviction which it knows it can accept quite rationally under the guidance of love. For the act of faith is an act in which the intellect is content to know God by loving Him and accepting His statements about Himself on His own terms.

Faith is primarily an intellectual assent. But if it were only that and nothing more, if it were only the “argument of what does not appear,” it would not be complete. It has something more than an assent of the mind. It is also a grasp, a contact, a communion of wills, “the substance of things to be hoped for.” By faith one not only attains to truth in a way that intelligence and reason alone cannot do, but one assents to God Himself. One receives God. One says “yes” not merely to a statement about God, but to the Invisible, Infinite God Himself. One fully accepts the statement not only for its own content, but for the sake of Him Who made it.

Too often our notion of faith is falsified by our emphasis on the statements about God which faith believes, and by our forgetfulness of the fact that faith is a communion with God’s own light and truth. Actually, the statements, the propositions which faith accepts the divine authority are simply media through which one passes in order to reach the divine Truth. Faith terminates not in a statement, not in a formula of words, but in God.

Finally, Merton wraps up faith as:

Ultimately faith is the only key to the universe. The final meaning of human existence, and the answers to questions on which all our happiness depends cannot be reached in any other way.

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