How do we cultivate our faith? If faith is a ‘place’, as I asserted yesterday – my word and not St Thomas’s – then we need to discover where we are. It is not a place on a map. So, and this is St. Thomas now, faith is cultivated (the ‘place’ comes to be understood) through questions, says Thomas. Faith, he says, “involves the intellect in a kind of inquiry.” What kind? Not the kind demanding empirical evidence (cf. II.II.1,5). Nor, when we inquire about the object of faith are we setting ourselves up as judges of the object of belief. If so, then this is not the kind of inquiry that is an expression of faith. It is merely a pitiful attempt to out-smart God. Thomas says that the kind of inquiry that goes with faith is that which attempts to “grasp with greater understanding what God has revealed and how he has confirmed it.” Faith, then, concerns not a vacuum in our knowledge; indeed, it concerns something that already exists, something that God has revealed, something that we therefore already ‘know’ – even if we only know it obliquely.
For me, this teaching from St. Thomas helps to dispel that temptation to think that we have to have faith because we can’t know God. At all. Faith, in that case, becomes something that merely tries to plug up the vacuum, a vacuum that we might not like to acknowledge is there in the first place.
What do we know, then? What can we say about faith? St. Thomas asserts: we can say that we know about eternal life. Or at least, we know it a little. This is how he puts it: “Faith is a habit of the mind, whereby eternal life is begun in us, making the intellect assent to what is non-apparent” (II.II.4:1). The little words ‘in us’ are so important, I think. They tell us that we are ‘in touch with’ eternal life. And, so eternal life is not ‘out there’ beyond our reach. It’s not in an unbearably dull theological book. It’s not across the sea. We ‘have it’ in us. Going back to the image of the vacuum, well, we simply don’t have one, because through faith eternal life is begun in us.
This word ‘begun’ is important. Faith is not about the completion of the knowledge of God – if there even is such a thing. Which I doubt. Faith is about something that exists as a beginning – a beginning of something beautiful. This is something we ‘know’, but in a different way, on a different level from what we usually say we ‘know.’
Now, I can live with that understanding of faith pretty happily. It will probably not convince a hardened sceptic, but it does help to make my act of faith intelligible to me. If faith starts with ‘a divine infusion’ then it starts with mystery. This coexistence of real knowledge with mystery is not something to dismiss but to validate, and St Thomas does. In his teaching, faith is a real connection with eternal life, not in its fullness, but in its beginnings; not in clarity, but in mystery; not in fantasy, but in reality.
Cultivating or Ploughing near Beachy Head, Sussex.