More on Faith and Unbelief

08-27-2023Weekly Reflection

To believe in or unto God, Who can neither deceive nor be deceived, is essential to the dynamism of faith. By adhering with personal faith to the Word of God, the believer consents to the supreme attraction exerted by the full and absolute Good that is the Blessed Trinity. In this sense, faith – and theology as the science of faith and wisdom – offers to all “lovers of spiritual beauty” a full-flavored foretaste of eternal joy. While assent is the principal act of faith, faith is from God moving us interiorly by grace"—though this is a movement of our will and so it is consonant with free choice. Here we broach the mystery of grace and human freedom, about which much ink has been spilled in the history of Christian theology.

The fact remains that faith, gives knowledge of sublime truths, but no more. The elimination of this imperfection of faith must come from outside itself, from another virtue that will order it beyond its own proper object to the goal of the whole person. It is in this way that faith is changed from a dead to a living faith, from faith unformed to formed faith, when charity, coming with sanctifying grace, orders it to its goal, charity, the love of God. God in His goodness does not give the sinner a full foretaste of hell. While serious sin, other than infidelity, destroys grace, charity, and most of the infused virtues, it still leaves the foundation stone of supernatural life, the basis of hope -- a firm belief in the supreme Truth and the infallible authority of that supreme Truth telling us the details of His personal life.

Since faith is necessary for the attainment of the vision of God, all infidelity, objectively speaking, causes men to lose God. We say “objectively speaking,” because men lose God through sin, and it is not possible for men to judge accurately when infidelity is sinful in a particular person. It is possible that a man may reject the faith without sin because he personally does not know that a particular truth or all the truths of faith have been revealed by God. In the case of negative infidelity, St. Thomas is inclined to believe that such infidelity is impossible in fact. He thinks that, if necessary, God would make a special revelation of the necessary truths of faith to any man who had not previously heard of them. In that case such a man would have the free choice of accepting or rejecting the faith, and so he would have the free choice of accepting or rejecting God as his happiness.

St Paul says about the pagans in the Epistle to the Romans: 18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

In the case of positive infidelity it seems clear that original unbelievers or heretics knowingly reject the faith which is preached to them or which they once accepted. Hence their lack of faith is sinful and if they persevere in infidelity they will lose God. In the case of their children or descendants it seems possible that they may be misled by their parents or leaders or be so poorly instructed that they do not recognize God’s word in the world. If this is their real situation then their infidelity is not formally sinful. As everyone knows lack of faith in Christ’s teaching is widespread in the world. This constitutes a double danger for men. It is dangerous for the unbelievers themselves because they run the risk of losing God. It is dangerous even for those who have the faith because unbelievers fight against the faith.

Believers, especially if they are not too well educated or instructed in the truths of the faith, run the risk of losing their faith in the face of the bad example, false arguments or persecutions with which unbelievers attack the faith. The Church of Christ, which He founded to propagate and safeguard the faith in the world, must face these two dangers. She strives to overcome the danger to unbelievers by sending missionaries to preach the Gospel to them.

If faith is the beginning of happiness, then infidelity, or the lack of faith, is the beginning of unhappiness. If a man does not believe God and God’s message, then he does not know the true goal of human life. If he does not know the goal of life, he cannot attain the goal. But unbelief or infidelity means that a man does not know that God is his goal. It can lead then only to unhappiness. There are different kinds of infidelity. First of all it is conceivable that a man might never come to know that God has spoken to man by way of divine revelation. In this case he simply does not accept God’s message in faith because he is ignorant of the message. This kind of unbelief is called negative infidelity. Secondly there is positive infidelity. This occurs when a man knowingly rejects the faith. This can occur in a number of ways. First of all there is the pagan or heathen who rejects the faith when it is preached to him. Secondly there are those, who have accepted the revelation which God made through the patriarchs, Moses and the prophets, but have rejected the revelation made in and through Jesus Christ. Lastly there are those men who once accepted the totality of God’s revelation but have since rejected one or another of the revealed truths— which is the sin of heresy—or have given up the faith entirely—which is the sin of apostasy, both sins against the First Commandment.

She strives to overcome the danger to believers in a number of ways. She counters the bad example of unbelievers with the good example of believing, practicing Christians. She answers the false arguments of infidels with the true arguments proposed by trained theologians and apologists. She resists persecution by asserting the right of believers to be undisturbed in their faith and by consoling and strengthening her children through good example, preaching, the Sacraments and the Mass. She advises her children to avoid contact with infidels when such contact might cause them to lose their faith.

The act of faith is a free act. She never seeks to compel infidels to accept the faith against their will. She will not even compel the children of infidels to be baptized into the faith against the will of their parents. Obviously if her own children lose their faith she can and will impose penalties upon them. She may expel them from membership in the Church and so cut them off from all the spiritual benefits to be obtained within the Church. Since they have voluntarily rejected God and His Church by their unbelief this action of the Church is fair and just.

Though unbelief is one of the greatest of sins because it separates a man from his God, until a man dies it is always possible, through the grace of God, for a man to gain or regain the faith. The Church is as merciful as God. If an unbeliever wishes to enter the Church through faith, the Church, like a loving mother will receive him into her arms. Blasphemy is also a sin against faith. In blasphemy a man denies the goodness or perfections of God or reviles God. Since man is obliged to love and reverence God, blasphemy which shows that he despises or hates God is by its nature a mortal sin. It is significant that the devils and the lost human souls in Hell detest the divine justice and so are guilty of blasphemy. This shows that blasphemy is closely related to real unhappiness. Many men sin against faith in an even more subtle way through the sins against the Holy Spirit, namely, the sins of despair, presumption, impenitence, obstinacy, resisting the known truth and envy of someone else’s spiritual good. The sins against the Holy Spirit are not sins of weakness or ignorance. They are sins of certain malice.

By despair a man rejects God’s goodness and mercy. By presumption he rejects God’s justice. By impenitence he refuses to turn from sin to God. By obstinacy a man hardens his will in sin. A man sins in resisting the known truth because he does so in order to sin more freely. Lastly a man sins by envying someone else’s spiritual good because he hates the increase of God’s grace in the world. In all these sins there is great danger for man because these sins mean that man is deliberately refusing to consider those truths and motives which would keep him from sin and enable him to turn to God. It is for this reason that the sins against the Holy Spirit are said to be unforgivable. It is not that God is unwilling to forgive any sin. It is rather that in these sins a man shows that he does not wish forgiveness.

The last of the sins against faith are sins against the gifts of knowledge and understanding which perfect faith. They are the sins of blindness of mind and dullness of heart. Blindness of mind rises from lust. For lust withdraws a man’s mind from the thought of God and immerses it in the maddening welter of sensual pleasure. This prevents man from knowing or understanding God as he ought. Dullness of heart arises from gluttony which deadens the power of the mind to penetrate to the meaning of truth. Both are great dangers to faith because they withdraw the mind of man from God and plunge his mind and his heart into the base, temporary pleasures of this world. The man of wisdom and good will is a happy man because he accepts God in the loving obedience of faith. His mind is fixed on the far horizons of God where happiness awaits him. Through the gifts of understanding and knowledge nothing can swerve him from his path to God. “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” (Heb. XI, 6.) With and through faith man is happy because he has already begun to possess God.

What about all the millions of people that existed on the earth before Christ came and were not part of the people of Israel? St Thomas reflecting the Fathers of the Church points out that the Church began to exist from the time of Abel the just, the brother of Cain. In the dogmatic constitution on the nature of the Church, Lumen Gentium, there is the following: The eternal Father, by a free and hidden plan of His own wisdom and goodness, created the whole world. His plan was to raise men to a participation of the divine life. Fallen in Adam, God the Father did not leave men to themselves, but ceaselessly offered helps to salvation, in view of Christ, the Redeemer "who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature". All the elect, before time began, the Father "foreknew and pre- destined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that he should be the firstborn among many brethren". He planned to assemble in the holy Church all those who would believe in Christ. Already from the beginning of the world the foreshadowing of the Church took place. It was prepared in a remarkable way throughout the history of the people of Israel and by means of the Old Covenant. In the present era of time the Church was constituted and, by the outpouring of the Spirit, was made manifest. At the end of time it will gloriously achieve completion, when, as is read in the Fathers, all the just, from Adam and "from Abel, the just one, to the last of the elect," will be gathered together with the Father in the universal Church.