Friday, November 24, 2017

Faith Comes From What Is Heard, Feingold (III)

The second chapter in this section is called, "The Virtue of Divine Faith."

As we have already seen, the starting point of sacred theology is the fact of God's revelation of himself. If there is to be a relationship between God and man, then man needs a power by which he assents to what has been revealed. At the supernatural level, Feingold says, this power of assent is called divine faith. We are reminded that in Catholic theology, grace builds upon nature, so that the supernatural definition of faith is not wholly unlike that for human faith.

Feingold defines faith in general as a “firm assent of the mind to things unseen." He points out that a thing can be seen in two ways: by the senses, and by the mind. First principles are self-evident, says Feingold. These are immediately grasped by the mind as true. Things which can be empirically observed are “seen” by the senses. Thirdly, truths can be seen by the mind that are deduced from a sound process of reasoning. He concludes therefore, “Something is unseen, therefore, if it is neither empirically observed, nor self-evident, nor deduced from evident principles through a sound process of reasoning."

One important question we might ask is, “How much of a Protestant and Reformed epistemology is premised upon epistemic skepticism?” To the extent that it is, much of what a Catholic would classify as able to be seen by the senses, or by the mind, would be re-classified by the Protestant as belonging to faith in general, or to supernatural faith as such. Thus, the Protestant could reject much of the putative common ground--in an area the Catholic regards as preambles to faith--as an appeal to supernatural authority, that is, the Catholic Church, an authority they have rejected. If we suppose also than non-Christians of various sorts have adopted the same skepticism, we can see why so much contemporary discussion in terms of morality and ethics is dismissed as an appeal to religious authority, when it fact such an appeal is not being made.

Returning to Dr. Feingold then, he points out via St. Thomas that true things that are seen motivate the assent of the intellect by their nature. That which requires faith cannot motivate assent by its very nature, because the object is not seen. Feingold asks, "Why would the will choose that the intellect assent to something unseen?" He points out that the will never moves without some motive. In addition, because this firm impulse of the will moves the intellect toward an unseen object, it is entirely voluntary. Feingold says, "Faith therefore can be defined as assent not moved by the intrinsic evidence of truths, but rather by a firm impulse of the will based on a sufficiently credible witness." St. Thomas had been cited earlier to explain that a firm impulse of the will, moving an assent of the intellect to an unseen object is faith. If the motive for assent to these credible witnesses is uncertain, the resulting act is called opinion, he says. Faith--in its divine and supernatural dimension--is distinguished by its certitude, ultimately rooted in the character of God, who can neither deceive, nor be deceived. I will have some personal reflections on this point in my next Addendum.

We have a paragraph from Dr. Feingold in regard to human faith, and it provokes a personal story. When my mother left my apartment this morning, she said she'd be working at the home improvement store from 12:30 to 9 PM. My mother is a sufficiently credible witness. Excepting unforeseen happenings beyond her control, it would be irrational for me to believe my mother is anywhere other than the home improvement store. She is not at the dog track; she is not in Bali. I don't need to personally verify that she is there right now. Moreover, I do not need to be unreasonably skeptical of my sense data, were I to call the store, and ask to speak with her, that it would be her speaking to me on the phone. Feingold writes, "Withholding assent in such a case, without cogent reasons to the contrary, would be irrational and contrary to social communion and friendship." Larry certainly has that Thomistic penchant for humorous understatement!

The moral duty of divine faith emerges from the character of God, Feingold says. Therefore, giving credibility to the witnesses of the Apostles and the Hebrew prophets is reasonable, if it is reasonable first to agree that God has revealed himself, and if those people have been sent by God to communicate supernatural revelation. If divine faith is the proper response to this supernatural revelation, then the exercise of divine faith is reasonable. In fact, the biggest obstacle to agreement between Catholics and Protestants is the Church, which Feingold says, "preserves and passes on the deposit of faith." It is not necessary to answer the fullest expression of skepticism for our purposes, because it questions the existence of God and the supernatural as such. However, insofar as agreement between Catholics and the Reformed on the matters of supernatural revelation is premised on epistemic skepticism, it is vulnerable to skepticism in general. Suffice to say that consistency with skepticism and its premises is not at all conducive to adherence to any revealed religion in Christ.

Absent any prejudice to the effect that God cannot and has not revealed anything supernatural, I do not find any great difficulty in the assent of faith, as Ratzinger describes it, because my worldview has never depended upon faith as contrary to reason, even if I cannot give an exhaustive account of how reason functions. 

Feingold appeals to a definition of divine faith from the First Vatican Council as a, "supernatural virtue whereby, inspired and assisted by the grace of God, we believe that what he has revealed is true, not because the intrinsic truth of things is recognized by the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God himself who reveals them, who can neither err nor deceive."

Feingold says that supernatural faith consists in assent to all that God has revealed because he has revealed it. Because God cannot lie or be deceived, the motive for this assent is the character of God.  

Feingold says, "In summary, divine faith is the freely chosen, firm, stable, joyful, and self-abandoning adherence of the mind, moved by divine grace, to the truths revealed by God about himself and His plan of salvation, not on account of their own intrinsic evidence, but based on the veracity of God, who cannot err or deceive."

The reality of self-abandonment to God recognizes the all-encompassing nature of faith, and communion with God. It is,--as I have written previously--where the intellectual collides with the personal. As we will see, there is no inherent conflict between grace and nature, if "nature" is understood properly.

It is wise to recall that in the mind of the Church, other religions, especially those that do not possess supernatural revelation as such, still represent the human effort to ascend to God by way of reason. Dr. Feingold points out that the seventh paragraph of a document issued by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Dominus Iesus, makes the distinction between belief, and divine faith. This distinction must be firmly held, and represents the clearest difference between the Christian religion, and other belief systems.

It is also possible to see how epistemic skepticism threatens the foundation of reason, such that Catholic ecumenical dialogue aimed at establishing the preambles to faith rooted in reason, seems from a certain vantage point to be capitulation. If everything that is known must be supernaturally revealed in order to be known, then any dialogue with other religions implies an equivalence in matters of revealed truth. It is incumbent upon us to maintain the distinction between truths accessible to reason--and thus identified as beliefs--and revealed truth as such, all in a spirit of social communion and friendship, so that all people can come to the fullness of truth. If we can remove any stumbling blocks for our separated brethren in Protestant communities, we should do so. However, the prior judgment that right reason is unknown or inaccessible should be discarded as a premise. To even suggest this is to ignite a vigorous discussion, but if this premise can be seen as a philosophical assumption, and not as a truth of faith, it will be much easier to leave behind. 

The right of private judgment is intrinsic to Protestantism, Feingold says. The Reformers did not anticipate that their own authority would be denied, as surely as they denied the authority of the allegedly infallible Church and its Magisterium.

Feingold writes, "In consequence of the multiplication of Christian denominations, faith has increasingly become identified with mere religious sentiment or opinion." He goes on to say that such a notion was prevalent in liberal Protestantism in the 19th century, but is fairly common today. Feingold quotes Newman to this effect:

"That truth and falsehood in religion are but matter of opinion; that one doctrine is as good as another; that the Governor of the world does not intend that we should gain the truth; that there is no truth; that we are not more acceptable to God by believing this than by believing that; that no one is answerable for his opinions; that they are a matter of necessity or accident; that it is enough if we sincerely hold what we profess; that our merit lies in seeking, not in possessing; that it is a duty to follow what seems to us true, without a fear lest it should not be true; that it may be a gain to succeed, and can be no harm to fail; that we may take up and lay down opinions at pleasure; that belief belongs to the mere intellect, not to the heart also; that we may safely trust to ourselves in matters of Faith, and need no other guide,--this is the principle of philosophies and heresies, which is very weakness."

This is in contrast to what Newman calls the "dogmatic principle," which enables the assent of faith. Feingold says by contrast that private judgment destroys the submission of faith, because it does not allow the total submission of the mind to God.

Catholic teaching distinguishes two kinds of heresy: material, and formal. Formal heresy involves an obstinate denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith. Material heresy is either not done obstinately, is in good faith, or is simply an error. Feingold says, "The sin of formal heresy has a very special gravity because it goes against the common good of a Christian society in a very weighty matter."

After pointing out that Protestants today are most likely in material heresy, rather than formal heresy, Dr. Feingold adds, "Nevertheless, it is reasonable to think that the founders of heretical sects were heretics in the formal sense because, while still within the bosom of the Church, they obstinately opposed the voice of her authentic Magisterium. Nevertheless, God alone knows the interior state of the heart."

Dr. Feingold points out that committing formal heresy on just one point makes other beliefs the realm of religious sentiment or opinion. Indeed, it must be so, because such beliefs are not being held with the aid of grace.

Faith is a gift, of course. But the dispositions proper to faith are also a gift of grace, and can be cultivated. Feingold quotes Newman to the effect that faith is easy for those who have the right dispositions, and difficult for those who do not. May we be like those praised in the Scriptures, expectant for God's Revelation.

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