St. Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century defined ‘Theology’ as “Fides Quaerens Intellectum” or “Faith seeking understanding.” Thus the title of my blog. Some want to dismiss this understanding as somehow superstitious and at odds with science (which we might dare to define as “observation seeking understanding”). Yet, the apparent dichotomy between faith and science is only just that: apparent. Although they have similar methodologies, the subject matter of the two are distinctly different: the scientific method gleans understanding from observations of the natural world; the theological method draws understanding from observations originating beyond the world of nature.
People just assume that they know what ‘faith’ is (people assume a whole lot of things). In most cases, they are mistaken. What they glibly identify as ‘Faith’ is really Hope. When you’re talking about ‘Faith’, whenever you can replace that word with trust, you’re really talking about the theological virtue1 of ‘Hope’. Trust (Hope) is critically important, of course, but it is not Faith. Faith serves as the foundation upon which Hope (trust) is built.
There are innumerable definitions for ‘faith’ (most of them involving the confusion with ‘trust’). For Christians, the most famous definition comes from the Letter to the Hebrews: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”2 If we accept that definition, then ‘faith’ involves “assurance” and “conviction” — these actions are not based on our perception or our will, but on our judgment. We believe not because we want to believe, but because we are compelled to believe by evidence beyond the scope of the physical sciences. How is this possible?
Faith is the inevitable result of a spiritual awakening. It is the result of an experience that transcends the observable and the quantifiable. Each such experience is unique and personal, therefore one is necessarily incomparable to any other. Every spiritual experience is a relational encounter not with a “What” but with a “Who”. Faith is an “assurance” and a “conviction” because it is grounded in that inexplicable spiritual encounter that is powerful enough to alter the personality of the recipient. Faith — as a virtue and not just a system of beliefs — can neither be proved nor disproved. So, “having faith” means that you have encountered a Someone beyond mere personhood; it does not mean that you can define, explain, or even describe that One.
Transcendent experience and the conviction that arises from it (Faith) surpasses understanding. Why did the Magi in the Gospel of Matthew see a star and follow it?3 Why did Moses take off his sandals when he saw the burning bush?4 Why did Elijah cover his face when he heard the “still, small voice?”5 Every person who has had a spiritual experience describes it as sensing a Someone emerging from deep within an otherwise common event. These people have no need nor desire to find an explanation for it. But, when the Faith experience goes deep enough, many of those who have been there spend the rest of their lives seeking to understand what it means for them.
“Faith seeking understanding” . . . an encounter with the Transcendent — with the Thou — that transforms women and men into seekers. We have Faith, now we seek but to understand.
51 Kings 19:2.