Daily Archives: September 8, 2009

Of Faith and “Symbol Systems”

A recent speaker was asked about the difference between faith and belief.

Drawing on Karl Rahner and Paul Tillich, he defined “faith” as “one’s positive sense of life, the way one manages this universe of ours, the positive way we are able to see the world or make sense out of it or find purpose in it”. He defined “belief” on the other hand as “a symbol system that makes sense to you, a symbol system that you accept, like the Christian faith or the Catholic heritage”.

To make clear what was meant by this, he related a conversation he had with Rahner. He asked Rahner: “”Why, Karl, are you a Catholic Christian?” According to the speaker, the answer Rahner gave was this: “Because I was born one, and I haven’t found anything better.”

And there were two criteria for what would be “better”: “One, it would help me to understand the deep questions of life better, questions of love, and freedom and actualisation, identity, purpose, etc. and secondly something that would help me to live more nobly and repsonsibly and effectively in the world. And I haven’t found anything better.” Summing up, the speaker said, “So the system either works for you or it doesn’t”.

In the field in which I work, there is a recurring discussion about the right use of the words “religion” and “faith”. For eg., should we talk about the Muslim “faith” or the Muslim “religion”?

The fact is, that I do not think there is really any practical or etymylogical difference between the words “faith” and “belief”. Is there really a difference between “credo” and “fido”? Greek just has the one word “pisteuo” which serves both purposes. So in reality, the verbs don’t tell us much. What is important is the object to which the verbs are attached and the preposition that is used to join them.

Here’s what I mean. When I first began to study theology, I was taught the difference between “fides quae” and “fides qua”, that is, “Faith THAT” and the “Faith IN WHICH”. As St James wrote (James 2:19), even the demons “believe” THAT “God is one”. But in the Catholic creed, we do not say “I believe/credo/pisteou THAT there is one God”, but “I believe/credo/pisteuo IN one God”. When we confess the creed, we are not saying that we believe THAT God created the heavens and the earth, nor are we even saying we believe THAT Jesus Christ rose again on the third day. We are professing our faith IN (ie. our trust IN) God who created the heavens and the earth, and our faith IN his Son who rose from the dead.

Now both kinds of faith – fides qua and fides quae are important. It is possible to have a fides qua which is misplaced – such as in “I believe in fairies”. That is as silly as a fides quae whose object is fairies (ie. I believe THAT there are fairies). The point here is that we cannot ascribe a separate value judgement to someone’s fides qua – what Rahner seems to have regarded as “faith” as opposed to “belief” – apart from their fides quae. For unless one’s “faith” is grounded in reality, unless it is built upon the solid foundation of things as they really are, unless it is based upon “belief” which, ultimately speaking and not to put too fine a point on it, is TRUE, then our faith is simply an illusory fantasy.

St Paul was trying to say something like this when he wrote to the Corinthians “If Christ is NOT raised from the dead, then your faith is in vain.” Now, Rudolf Bultmann may have been able to have some kind of existentialist faith regardless of whether Jesus of Nazareth really rose from the dead or not, but St Paul couldn’t. And neither, I would hold, can we as Catholic Christians.

Because ultimately, as I think I have said somewhere before, there is only one reason to be a Catholic Christian: because the Catholic Faith is TRUE. And if it is indeed TRUE as we claim, then it doesn’t matter two hoots if it does or does not “work for you”.

Practically speaking, a 24 hour day doesn’t really work for me. I have so often wished it could be just that little bit longer, especially at night. The fact that the sun comes up every day at around 6am in the morning really doesn’t work for me. But it isn’t going to help me explain why I arrive late for work if I decide to ignore this rather essential fact.

One of the things in our Catholic “symbolic system” is a belief in the Last Judgement. On this day, everyone’s faith (or lack of it) will be tested. The object of that faith and the kind of faith you had in that object will be crucial on that Day. Eventually, reality and truth will catch up with us. That is why it is so urgent that we proclaim the Gospel to all people.

I was not “born Catholic” (strictly speaking, none one ever has been, not even Karl Rahner). I found myself forced to become Catholic by simple fact that the TRUTH of the Catholic faith was impressed upon me. Honestly, Lutheranism “worked better for me”. I find being Catholic so much harder. I like to think it makes me a better person, but the jury may still be out on that. But at the end of the day, I couldn’t keep teaching and believing a “symbol system” that wasn’t true.

I am very happy for someone to call my Catholic Faith my personal “symbol system”. But as far as I am concerned, the ultimate value of it as a belief system by which I live my life, on which I hang my “faith” as it were, is the fact that it is true.


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It might sound silly, but I actually am looking forward to retirement. It is still a good twenty years away for me, the standard retirement age for men currently being 65 in Australia – although it might be later by the time I get around to it. Few people regard retirement as the end of their active life – most retirees would see it as finally the opportunity they have always been waiting for: the chance to do the work they really want to do, rather than the work they have to do.

Priests – and bishops for that matter (see the side bar in Cooees) have their retirement age set at 75. Cardinals cannot vote in a conclave beyond 80. The pope is the only one whose office lasts until he dies. All this seems fair to me. The longer working life of priests has nothing to do with the priest shortage. There is simply something about celibacy seems to preserve the priestly caste, so that their working life extends longer than with us mere mortals. But even they need a rest finally, and it would be unjust of the Church to demand they continue full pastoral responsibilities beyond that. Of course, the character of priesthood lasts to the grave (and beyond!), and so a priest can and should still certainly spend his retirement doing priestly things.

Which reminds me of a good joke (best told with the right voice, but you will have to make do with the print version):

It’s Sunday, and Father gets up into the pulpit: “My dear people. The Holy Father has just raised the retirement age of priests to 105. And so, you see, I shall be with you another three years…”

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