Chapter 7: A Tool for Exploring Faith


If we are to penetrate more deeply into the nature of faith we need an apt instrument. And since faith is a knowledge of God it is logical to expect that our natural knowledge of God would be ideal for this purpose. This, however, turns out not to be the case. From St. Paul to the First Vatican Council the teaching of the Church leaves us in no doubt that such a natural knowledge is possible. Maritain took great pains to explore the nature and limits of this knowledge, and he came to the conclusion, following his master St. Thomas, that we have a genuine knowledge of God which lies at the heart of the whole metaphysical enterprise. The qualities of truth, goodness and being that we discover in creatures can be predicated of God in such a way as to give rise to authentic knowledge, but how they are predicated is vital to grasp. These concepts cannot be applied to God in the same way as they are applied to creatures. We know that God is in some way Good and Truth and Being, but we must deny all the limitations these concepts have when applied to creatures. Maritain says they grasp God in an uncircumscribed manner. They do not deliver God to us in Himself, but rather posit God and His qualities at a distance. We know God must exist as an irrefutable conclusion to our experience of the existence of creatures, but we do not experience His existence.

But if there is actually a genuine knowledge both of the existence of God and His attributes, why does it generate such little enthusiasm today even - or perhaps I should say especially - in Catholic theological circles? Let us leave aside explanations based upon the influence of modern philosophy with its difficulties of conceiving of a genuine metaphysics and the strong role that idealism in its various forms still plays. The principle reason that remains is the fact that this metaphysical knowledge has little to do with the knowledge of God found in the Scriptures and the Fathers. It holds no solution to the question of the nature of faith. It is a metaphysical knowledge and not one that comes through grace. It is a work of reason that does not demand the connaturality of love. In short, it is not an adequate model by which we can explore the inner nature of the act of faith. But there is something more.

The problem of the existence of God is a prime example of where the conceptualism of the past has formed an almost impenetrable barrier to a genuine appreciation of what the proofs for the existence of God meant to St. Thomas, or to someone like Maritain. Here we return to the question of concept and intuition. It is not enough to simply parrot the words of St. Thomas' five ways, for at the heart of these ways is a tremendous intuition which is, in fact, no different from the central intuition of the primary role of the act of existence that vivifies his whole metaphysics. Without the intuition the concepts mean nothing. They are simply dead words. And we are not talking about an intuition disconnected from the intelligence, but what Maritain insisted was an eidetic intuition, an insight that worked in and through the concept of being, and, indeed, gave birth to it. The conceptualists repeat the words and ignore the intuition, and thus invoke a modern reaction which writes off the whole enterprise as sterile. This is highly unfortunate, for it effects our whole way of conceiving and doing metaphysics. This intuition of being which is simply the other side of the question of the existence of God should be the final fruit of an attentive examination of our own experience. Maritain suggests that Bergson's duration, Marcel's fidelity and Heidegger's anguish could all be ways leading to it, if only at the critical moment, the opaque veils of phenomena be left behind and the decisive step taken into a genuine metaphysical perception. (155)

Is it possible to reconcile the more essentialistic perspective that insists that reason can know the existence of God, with a concrete or existential viewpoint that is all too keenly aware that such knowledge seems very little operative in our actual search for God? Here we can turn to what is implied in the concrete experience that I sketched in Part I. It was the actual experience of human love that formed the concrete way in which the question of the existence of God made itself felt. It forms another one of the palpable approaches that Maritain saw could lead to the intuition of being. And when the step was finally taken, when the why of this human love could no longer be escaped, the result was a firm conviction of the existence of God. Certainly it was not a question of the notion of being becoming disengaged in all its intelligibility. But there had to be a certain amount of genuine metaphysical activity that, while intimately connected with the actual experience, transcended it. It was as if in the depths of the soul among the mists and clouds of emotion, sense perception and imagination, lightning strokes of metaphysical insights flashed, and they brought a certitude that God must exist, and this certitude contained in embryo a whole metaphysics that could emerge under the proper circumstances which, as we saw in Maritain's case, was the reading of St. Thomas, or which was in my own case, the reading of Maritain himself. The experience of human love, then, gave rise to the metaphysical conviction of God's existence, and this, far from being a sterile play on words, was directly rooted in experience. So here is a way that conceptualism could be and was overcome, but we cannot stop here.

From the very moment when this metaphysical conviction took hold in the spirit, it was caught up in a dynamism that demanded it be surpassed. The knowledge of God's existence and his attributes remained at a distance and remote, and had to lead to the question of whether God could be experienced in a way similar to the way human love was experienced. The recognition of God's existence had to immediately give way to the question of faith, and even, implicitly, the possibility of mystical experience. Far from the knowledge of the existence of God as a metaphysical enterprise being opposed to the question of faith, in actual practice they can be successive moments in the ascent to God without obliterating their distinctive natures. The metaphysical insight into the existence of God does not have to be downplayed to preserve the inviolability of faith, for the more we enter into this insight the more our thirst for faith should grow. We are not made for a simply natural destiny, and as majestic as our philosophical contemplation of God is, it remains at a distance and unsatisfying to our hearts which are, indeed, made more restless by these tokens of knowledge of God.

But if this metaphysical knowledge of God cannot provide the model for our understanding of the nature of faith, where can we look? The answer is right there in the initial experience of faith described before. We have to look to our knowledge of each other, or more precisely, our love of each other, for the human analogate of the act of faith. But this is precisely the kind of knowledge, though widely experienced, that has not been the subject of prolonged and profound reflection. We take our knowing and even our loving of each other for granted, for it is so natural, or we could say, connatural, to us, and it's only when our relationships fail, or as in the example of Part 1, we are confronted with a love that moves us deeply and lets us realize how much we need someone, do we begin to understand what is at stake.

Let's imagine meeting someone for the first time. I tell you my name and you tell me yours. I find out where you live and what kind of work you do, and I tell you about myself, but rarely do I pause and think about the actual structure of this communication. It starts from within myself, from my subjectivity where I am I, and where I recognize the desire of revealing myself. But there is no way I can expose this within which is myself directly to you. I am no purely angelic being living in a spiritual world, but a being whose spirit is profoundly united to matter. Through my bodiliness I live in a world of time and space and other material things. Therefore, when I want to communicate I have to create the means or vehicles for this communication. I take, for example, physical sounds which are meaningless in themselves and transform them into words, and I use gestures, facial expressions and posture to embody and make visible the inner meanings that I have conceived and wish to share.

And when you reciprocate I instinctively piece together these bits of information to form a picture of who you are in terms of your aspirations and attitudes and intent towards me. But the pictures we give each other, the revelations we make to each other, are in a very deep way unsatisfying. It's as if my very awareness of myself which appears to me as my greatest possession, and where I grasp myself in knowledge and love, seems to be the very factor that alienates me from other people. I am in myself and everyone else is outside. In order to communicate I fragment this inner wholeness into little pieces and send them as my messengers. But even when I have a perceptive listener who carefully reassembles them, my listener is still seeing the within from without. He is seeing me objectified and not in the essential mystery, that inwardness, in which I am myself. No matter how many words I use, as soon as they are launched they become words about. If you develop an ever more refined and complex picture of me I still remain other and object, and ultimately this kind of knowledge cannot assuage our thirst to know and be known in the deepest sense of the word. This fragmentary knowledge, therefore, is always in a measure frustrating. It is a piecemeal construction, valid as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. It cannot reach the subject precisely as subject, and because it cannot, it cannot relieve that fundamental loneliness which is the result of being unknown in the deepest part of ourselves. We live in a time when there is a tacit acceptance that there is no way to overcome this limitation, and subjectivity turns into a prison or a hell.

But there is no reason why we have to accept this verdict. Actual experience teaches us another possibility. We meet someone and slowly our knowledge of the other person grows, and then instead of being dead-ended, there comes a magic moment in which we some way transcend all the knowledge we have about the other person. We dimly perceive them, no longer as an other, but as another thou. We somehow touch their subjectivity as subjectivity, and this is the moment of love. We may experience it with a child, or a parent, where in a glance we love them and are loved in return in a way that no words can adequately fathom, but in a fashion that we do not doubt that something of the greatest importance has taken place. Or it can happen between two people who had been strangers and at that sudden moment when the relationship has matured, it bursts into flame and their eyes convey a genuine openness and communion that heals them, at least for a time, of their loneliness. Love centers on the other precisely as other, as a thou, as another self. It aspires to be one with the other person, to rest in the other so that within will be in union with within. Love reaches out and rests in the subjectivity of the one we love, not to objectify it as an object to be known, but to affirm it precisely as a within that stands for itself. The one who loves us is not simply amassing information about us and then deciding whether we are lovable. Instead, in some obscure and secret way, they are touching our inner selves, and then all that they know about us is bathed in the light of subjectivity - a special kind of sympathy that forgives much and wants what is best, not for themselves, but for us. This kind of love inestimably strengthens us, for to be loved in this way is to have another lend the whole energy of their being to the task which is particularly our own, that is, our own self-affirmation and determination. To be loved in this fashion is for us to discover our innate lovability and believe in it, for we have the experience of it through another.

It is true that knowledge is indispensable in order to present us to the person we want to relate to and love. In this sense knowledge precedes love, but if love is not simply a willing of what is presented by knowledge, if it goes beyond what reason can inform us about and rests in the very subjectivity of the person loved, then it is the completion of knowledge and the beginning of a deeper kind of union. And what we are particularly interested in is whether this kind of union can be the foundation of a deeper kind of knowledge, a knowledge that would be more adequate to grasp subjectivity as subjectivity, a knowledge from within instead of without, a knowledge rooted in love. Does a mother see her child with eyes that are keener than other people's not because she has more factual information about the child, but rather because she sees the child as a unique person, a within, which she affirms with her love? Does a over read a letter from his beloved in a deeper way than a stranger, for the words are no longer simply words, words about, but words that are the very bearers of the subjectivity of the one he loves?

It's hard to believe in the existence of this kind of knowledge much for the same reasons that we saw when it was a question of having faith. Our powers of sense and reasoning are to the forefront of our mind, and our society insists that they are our only ways of knowing. But this simplification makes us pay a terrible price. It can't do justice to the poet or he artist or even to the knowledge we have of the people we love, nor can it help us explain the way we arrive at important life decisions, and it cuts the ground away from approaching a genuine understanding of knowledge through faith.

It is worth our while to try to push our reflections further. We communicate with each other through the medium of bodiliness, as we have seen, but how much can this bodiliness bear and manifest he weight of subjectivity? If it is true that all our communications somehow attest to something of the spirit, the within that has molded and vivified them, this also true that the medium of matter is disproportionate and inadequate to carry the whole reality of this within. If it could, it would be spirit itself. Our communication, then, through the medium of bodiliness, is always a partial revelation of the thou.

When we communicate, just what are we experiencing of each other? It is not matter alone, an assemblage of sounds, a grouping of facial features. Such a view would destroy the idea that any truly human communication was taking place. And yet we are not communicating spirit to spirit directly. But between spirit and matter is there a third reality? No, for that would be destructive of the substantial unity of our natures. The solution to this dilemma is to be found in the symbolic nature of our communication and of our very beings. What is seen in the twinkling of an eye or the brightness of a smile is not simply a physical configuration, or a purely spiritual message. It is matter as illuminated and transfigured by spirit, and it is a transfiguration or spiritualization of matter taking place in virtue of this matter being the bodily reality of man. If we understand symbol as matter bearing a spiritual significance, then our own bodies become our supreme symbols, and out of this bodiliness we go about creating symbols out of almost everything we touch. Our bodies are not simply matter, but find their deepest significance in the higher way of being that their particular matter takes when it is elevated and transformed, fitted, as it were, to be matter profoundly united to spirit.

We can say that this matter possesses an entity of union. (156) This entity of union is the reality that matter receives precisely because it is in union with spirit, and such a union makes the whole body a symbol of the thou. It expresses the thou as far as matter is able. It turns matter to flesh, and this flesh invites us in a thousand ways to approach the mystery that vivifies it, that mystery which is its ultimate reality and form. But the flesh tantalizes, as well. Bodiliness stammers of something greater than itself. It provokes and intrigues us and draws us towards the mysterious center. Yet we can't arrive there by the flesh. We must try to enter the within of the other, and it is only love that can accomplish this and rest in the other as other. Love discerns and deciphers the symbols of the body and reads their ultimate report. It is love that longs to be one with the other as other, and it wants to possess this other directly in the manner it possesses itself, and this love creates a line or gradient from subject to subject. It creates the eyes of love and the foundation for a knowledge that wants to follow the path of love. The more my love grows and is returned the clearer I read the symbols that speak of this love and the fewer symbols I need to read. The closer I am the more I long for a deeper union. I want to experience the oneness that love has established. I want to know you as I love myself in the intimacy of my own subjectivity. I want not only to love you in intent and desire, but overcome the objectification of my ordinary knowledge, its fragmentary condition, and I want to surpass the symbols of bodiliness and taste that within that is you. This experience of love, if even for a moment, would be a fundamental assuagement of my loneliness. It would be a knowledge not by means of concepts, but following the path that love has made, it would be a knowledge through love trying to surpass the limitations of knowledge through concepts. In short, it would be a knowledge by connaturality.

In the case of our natural knowledge of God there is no question of love entering into its structure. We know God through the mirror of creatures, and not by any co-naturing or intersubjective experience, which is reserved to the order of grace. But our knowledge of each other, in contrast, takes place in a whole atmosphere of the connaturality of love. We are profoundly united to each other by the whole reality of our nature which we share in common, and while truly being individuals we are prismatic reflections, especially in our subjectivity, of what humanity as a whole or unity means. (157) And it is out of this common social being that springs our basic desire to draw close and love one another. By love we become each other in a very real way, and out of this unity arises the desire to fully experience in knowledge as well as in love what this unity means, and out of it as well comes an instinct or sympathy springing from this very co-naturing. And it is this instinctive connaturality with the very subjectivity of the other which allows us to see and recognize the thou that comes through the veiled form of bodiliness. It is because we are in some way the other that we can see what this concrete other is like even though its messages are coming through the quasi-objectified form of spiritualized matter.

Maritain in a beautiful passage from Existence and the Existent expresses the nature of this natural connaturality, this knowledge through love, that we have of each other:

"To say that union in love makes the being we love another ourselves for us is to say that it makes that being another subjectivity for us, another subjectivity that is ours. To the degree that we truly love (which is to say, not for ourselves, but for the beloved) and when - which is not always the case - the intellect within us becomes passive as regards love, and, allowing its concepts to slumber, thereby renders love a formal means of knowledge) to this degree we acquire an obscure knowledge of the being we love, similar to that which we possess of ourselves; we know that being in his very subjectivity (at least in a certain measure) by this experience of love. Then he himself is in a certain degree cured of his solitude; he can, though still disquieted, rest for a moment in the nest of knowledge that we possess of him as a subject." (158)

If these moments of exceptional clarity where the intersubjective experience brought about through love breaks through to conscious awareness are rare, this does not prevent this connatural knowledge from playing a fundamental role in our love for each other. It provides the atmosphere of intimacy that colors all our words and gestures and hints of their ultimate fruition, and it provides the best way that we can approach the nature of the act of faith.


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Chapter 8