College Chaplain Reflection – August 13, 2015
August 12, 2015
One of the difficulties of the English language is that we can use the same word in entirely different settings. On a given Saturday in winter I can tell my rugby team at half time, -You only need to believe in yourselves and you can win this!- and then follow that up in the evening by inviting the Church congregation to stand and profess -I believe in God.- One of those uses clearly carries a bit more weight; I’ll let you decide which one.
When we speak about belief in God we aren’t talking about mere sentiment or feeling. It is a serious act of our mind and our will. Even if a Christian doesn’t always -‘feel it’, when they profess -‘I believe in God’ they are making a radical assent to the truth of God’s existence and of his dealings with us. Sometimes emotions will form around this act but really that isn’t important, even irrelevant. What is vitally important is that when we freely profess -‘I believe’ we do so with our full understanding.
This may perhaps sound surprising. The popular portrayal of religion in modern society is that it goes against reason or that it is at least indifferent towards logic. To mindlessly profess -‘I believe’ against our better judgement though is not a sign of a strong faith; it is simply reckless abandon. We have a brain, we are meant to use it. When we say -‘I believe’, we say it because we have a thousand different reasons to do so, all converging on the pivotal truth that there is a God and that he cares about his Creation, he cares about me.
That is not to say of course that each of those reasons is as clear cut and as easy to grasp as, -Two plus two equals four.- It can’t work that way. I can grasp that equation because I can easily grasp the idea of -‘Two’ and of -‘Four’ and I can connect them together and contain the whole thing in my head. I can’t contain God in my head; I can only contain certain ideas that point towards him. Think of those people who are closest to you, the ones you love the most. Can you honestly say you know absolutely everything about them, that you will never learn anything more? Of course you can’t. We stand face to face with another person equal to us in every way; we can never completely grasp all there is to know about them. There will always remain something hidden, an element of mystery. How much more therefore in relation to our knowledge of God? In this sense it is true that belief has to take a step beyond the limits of our understanding. Not against our reason, but alongside it and complementary to it.
Again, this does not mean that our ideas about God are therefore entirely vague and indistinct. A student once asked me, -What if God is like an enormous giant and the universe is just like a tiny blood cell in his veins?- Perhaps that student is a mystic. Unfortunately I can’t find it in myself to belief that God is a ginormous space monster.- Just as we have reasons behind our belief, so too do we have reasons for believing what we believe about God.
We will have a look at some of those reasons in our next piece, but for now a final point has to be made. As much as belief has to involve all our faculties of understanding and will, in the end the capacity to embrace that statement -‘I believe’ with our entire heart and mind is itself a gift from God. Perhaps you have seen the TV series -‘Father Brown’. It is based on a character made up by an English author G.K. Chesterton. Eventually Chesterton received this gift of faith and became a Catholic. Perhaps this doesn’t sound so remarkable. What is remarkable about his story though is that he had publicly been writing in defence of the Catholic faith for some twenty years before actually becoming one. He could understand and articulate all the reasons pointing towards faith. The final grace of being able to assent in faith though was only to come in God’s time and at his bidding.