Faith Seeking Understanding

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

Ecclesiastes 3:11 (ESV)

There is a famous Christian maxim from St Anselm. His famous motto goes: “faith seeking understanding.”  What exactly did St. Anselm mean? Does he mean that faith initially begins with a lack of understanding, void of rational support? Does he mean that faith is uncertainty?

There are those, unfortunately, within the Christian tradition, whether Christian existentialism a la Soren Kierkegaard or Fideism a la many modern evangelicals, who do believe that faith, is a “blind leap into the dark” of irrational abandon.  There are also those of a secular, humanistic proclivity who contend that faith is unsupportable. Case in point is one modern secular, humanist. Siegfried Gold writes:

Moving on to the charge of “the glorification of absolute certainty”: Faith is not certainty. Belief in the omnipotence of a being who is invisible, intangible, and undetectable–especially in the face of scientific theories that remove the need for God in explaining the origins of the universe or intelligent creatures–requires a lot of faith. If the language expressing that faith sometimes seems over the top, full of hyperbole, expressive of an impossible certainty, let us have some sympathy for what believers are trying to overcome with such language. People don’t believe because they are certain; they use professions of certainty as a support for a nearly unsupportable belief–and, again, they do so because it is worth it to them….The question for thoughtful atheists is not how believers manage to sustain their belief, but why they choose to do so: what do they get out of it? They are not primitive people needing myths and fairy tales to explain a frightening universe. They gain a source of hope, purpose, camaraderie, and moral guidance that some atheists find enviable.[1]

Note that he says “faith is not certainty.” Why does he hold this? It’s because, as he says, “People don’t believe because they are certain; they [have] certainty as a support for… [a lack of] belief.” His reasoning goes: the greater one’s certainty… the greater is one’s incredulity. He seems to be saying that the Christian faith and all Christians’ faith are sort of delusionally optimistic. The delusion is not based upon, as Freud was fond of saying, the impersonal forces of nature explained and animated and personalized through myths and fables. He is honest and more gracious than some militant atheists on this matter. It is not a matter of inferior intellect, but the delusion is based upon “hope, purpose, camaraderie, and moral guidance that some atheists find enviable.” I would guess what Mr. Gold means by his comment about some atheists envying the Christian sentiment of hope, purpose, etc. is something akin to an adult who envies the innocence of a child’s hope that springs eternal, a hope which inevitably gives way to the angst of brooding adolescence.

What are we to make of all of this? Well, there is a myriad of points I could take to task, but let me simply explain what St. Anselm meant by “Faith seeking understanding.” Anselm, like Augustine, held to a biblical/theological notion of faith. Biblically speaking, faith (as in the exercise of one’s faith as a faculty of the soul or mind), is first and foremost an intellectual assent of the mind where the mind agrees with the facts of reality. For example, an elevator will take me to the 50th floor of a skyscraper. I am acknowledging that the elevator will take me to the 50th floor. This is my intellectual assent. Philosophers call this the correspondence theory of truth. However, there is a second component to faith, and that is the emotional consent of the will. This is when one’s heart trusts and then acts in light of such trusting. For example, if I agree to get into the elevator and have it take me to the 50th floor then I am trusting that the elevator will take me to the 50th floor, evinced by my stepping into the elevator and allowing it to take me to the 50th floor. This is what Anselm meant by faith. When faith is habitually exercised a deeper understanding, a deeper trust, a deeper confidence supervenes. For example, the more frequently I take the elevator to the 50th floor my understanding deepens, my trust deepens, and my confidence deepens in the ability of the elevator to function. Faith seeking understanding is simply the moral dynamics of faith increasing in certainty.

The author of Hebrews says that “Faith is the substance of things hoped for the evidence of things unseen.” In other words, biblical faith is based upon reality: that is, substantial reality, or evidential certainty! The reality that is hoped for and the certainty evinced is God’s promise of His Son. All the promises of God are yea and amen in Christ. God has placed “eternity” in each and every person’s heart, a heart in need of Jesus Christ the eternal Word made flesh. Christ is the embodiment of eternal hope, eternal purpose, eternal fellowship, and eternal moral guidance envied by all. The death, burial, and resurrection of Christ—that is the gospel concerning Jesus Christ is the only certainty in life. And the more we trust in Christ the more our faith increases in certainty; in Christ faith is always seeking understanding or as St. Paul notes in his letter to the Romans: “The just shall live from faith to faith.” It is a life of ever increasing faith.  Faith seeking understanding does not require a lot of faith, but it does requires an ever increasing faith.

Soli Deo Gloria

G Carl Moore

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