[“The Sacrifice of Isaac” by Caravaggio, 1601-02]
In speaking about the spiritual life, one of the most common words used is the word “faith.” Jesus speaks about faith repeatedly throughout the Gospels. He says to the woman who was suffering from a hemorrhage, “Daughter, your faith has saved you” (Luke 8:48). He tells His Apostles as He approaches His Passion, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me” (John 14:1). In the Letter to the Hebrews, which we heard from in today’s seconding reading, Abraham is referred to as our father in faith. Clearly faith is an important spiritual and theological concept. However, do we really understand what faith is?
Too often people see faith as something opposite of reason. It is almost as if they see faith as something they believe even though it is not reasonable. A cursory reading of the first verse that we read from the Letter to the Hebrews today might be used to support such an understanding of faith; “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). I would propose, however, that this is a wrong way of understanding what faith is. In fact, instead of being something of the opposite of reason, I am going to propose that faith is a method of reason, a method for knowing something.
First we need to keep in mind that there are many different ways by which we “know” something. We can know something through our senses, through empirical research, through experience, through logical analysis, and many other ways. Faith is just another way of knowing something. We might define faith as coming to know something through the mediation of a witness. This might sound rather philosophical, but it is actually very simple. Imagine you are going on a trip, and as you get on the plane you realize that the person sitting next to you is Ann, a high school classmate that you have not seen or spoken to in over 10 years. As you fly to Chicago, you and Ann catch up on what has been happening in your lives. You also talk about some of your other classmates, and you mention Joe, the class clown. You wonder aloud if Joe has ever gotten serious about his life. Ann tells you that she has kept in touch with Joe over the years, and that he has settled down, is married with three kids, and is a successful corporate lawyer. As the plane arrives in Chicago, Ann gets off and you continue on to Denver. In Denver you are met at the airport by Jennifer, who is also a high school classmate. As you wait for your luggage, you tell Jennifer about the surprise of sitting next to Ann for the first half of the flight. You tell her that Joe, the class clown, is now married with three kids and a successful lawyer. Jennifer says, “Wow, I never thought he would settle down.”
Why does Jennifer believe, or in other words — has faith — in what you have told her about Joe? How do you know that Joe is really settled down and a successful lawyer? Did you speak to him? Did you observe him? No, you know what you know about Joe based on the testimony of Ann, who is a witness of Joe’s new life. Since you have no reason to think that Ann would want to lie to you, and since she has been keeping in touch with Joe, you have faith in what she has told you. In fact, given that you have judged Ann as being someone you knows what she is talking about and as having no reason to try to deceive you, it would be UNREASONABLE not to believe what she has told you. And Jennifer, who has no reason to believe that you would lie to her, also has faith in what she has learned about Joe from you. This is just one example of faith being a method of knowing something.
If you stop and think about it, most of the things we know we know by faith. Sure, the lab technician who does your blood test is using the method of science to know if your cholesterol is high, but when your doctor tells you that you have high cholesterol you know it because you have faith in your doctor — that she is in a position to know, and you trust that she is not lying to you. When the waiter brings you your meal, you have faith that the food is not poisoned.
Now when we look at the passage from the Letter to the Hebrews, “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1), we see that instead of proposing that faith is opposed to reason, we see that it is just stating what kind of method of reason faith is. It is not based on things that we see, but it is known by the testimony of witnesses. Then the author of the Letter to the Hebrews starts to review the history of faith by talking about the witnesses of God’s Word.
Abraham had an encounter with God. It was so profound an encounter, one that was so exceptional and corresponded so well with the deepest desires of Abraham’s heart, that Abraham left his native land to follow God. He recognized that God was the creator of the heavens and earth, and that God loved him, thus it would be unreasonable for him not to place his faith in what God told him. He trusted, had faith in God’s promise. This faith in God’s promise Abraham passed on to his son Isaac, and knowing that his father loved him and wanted the best for him, Isaac had faith in what his father Abraham told him about God’s promise. Because of his faith in the witness of his father, Isaac opened his heart to God and he had his own exceptional encounter with God which affirmed his knowledge that God loved him and desired his happiness. Isaac in turn bore witness to his faith in God’s promise to his son Jacob, who accept by faith Isaac’s witness and in turn he had his own exceptional encounter with God. Jacob then bore witness to his twelve sons, the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel.
These elders in the faith, “died in faith. They did not receive what had been promised but saw it and greeted it from afar and acknowledged themselves to be strangers and aliens on earth…” (Heb. 11:13). They recognized that God’s promise was not ultimate in this life, but in the life to come, and that all creation was awaiting the Messiah.
The Apostles lived with Jesus and came to recognize Him as the Messiah, the fulfillment of God’s promise. Following His command, they became His witnesses to the world. Through their words, their witness, many other people came to have faith in Jesus Christ. They saw the Apostles as reliable witnesses, and put their faith in what the Apostles said. And with this faith, they encountered the Risen Christ themselves — in the Scriptures, in the Eucharist, in their hearts. Then they became the witnesses of Christ to the next generation.
Now, many generations later, we are the witnesses of Christ Jesus. We have received a great heritage, a great gift, from our parents and grandparents. We have received our faith in God. If we truly have faith in the testimony of these witnesses in our lives, those who love us and seek what is best for us, then we will open our hearts so we too will encounter the Risen Christ — in the Scriptures, in the Eucharist, and in our hearts.
Now it is our turn to be witnesses of Christ’s love. Honor what we have received, and pass it on!