Friday, February 04, 2011

Believers and non believers

I join in – pray forgive me if a little belatedly – a point discussed in two previous post by the LD.

Since I started studying philosophy and theology about forty years ago, I felt ill at ease with the notion of "faith". I landed, coming from Italy, into an American university which was also a Methodist seminar: Drew University in Madison NJ. Which means that I found myself, Catholic, amidst Protestants, and I found them wavering between a notion of faith as something hanging on the air (a direct gift to you from the Holy Spirit, I suppose, for which you have no way to account) on one side, and blatant rationalism on the other.

I wasn't able to tell why, but I knew that it couldn't be was I had been taught since I was a child, when I heard speaking of faith.

I had to realize with my discomfort, as my studies went on, that faith talk among Catholic philosophers and theologians didn't differ so much from that which I found at Drew University.

Once a colleague in the school where I taught, un comunistone (blatant communist) I'd say in Italian, told me, well, faith is a gift, either you have it or you don't. I suppose that saying so was on his part a way to open a conversation with me, who should have agreed with him that he unfortunately hadn't received such a gift, so accepting that there was no way for me to talk about matters of faith in a reasonably acceptable way.

He tried, in other words, to bring me on his ground: of a world divided in "believers and non believers", in which believing is a kind of optional, to be excluded from the basic model conversation. But I refused to play his game, and pointedly remarked that this thing that he called "faith" I didn't have it, and neither had it, say, a Thomas Aquinas or an Augustine of Hippo.

I had to find, though, that this contraposition of believers and non believers was largely accepted even in the Church. While priests didn't show a real awareness of the confusion tied to the use of the word faith: that may be they said it meaning something, while their interlocutors would probably understand something totally different. To my making, or better trying to make them priest remark this, they usually answered with a countenance that said, we don't know what are you talking about.

In the meantime the archbishop of Milan instituted in his dioceses a "chair of the non believers", to give voice to people extraneous or estranged from the Church – as if they needed such a favor.

I was confirmed unfortunately of the insensitiveness of qualified Catholics on this regard, when I read recently the pastoral constitution of Vatican II Gaudium and spes.

There it was, the heinous expression, "believers and non believers", by which believers accepted to let non believers define them. As if faith were simply a belief that one may hold or not.

Belief is opposed to knowledge, that everyone should hold. But knowledge is thus understood as nothing more than technical competence. For example in building an atomic bomb, or manipulating genes. Independently of what we otherwise thought of nature at large, or of life. This would be a matter of belief, i.e. of opinion.

Hence the remarks that aroused the LD's protest: that abortion is against Catholic faith. Well, of course it is, but just because Catholicism is what the name says, universal, and sets no limits to the universal recognition of human life, refusing to make it depend on acceptance, personal and social – as the pro choice claim it to be when they defend the right to abort.

I was liberated from my perplexity concerning faith by the reading of s. Augustine's De vera religione, where he said that two things are necessary for man's salvation: authority and reason, the one bringing to faith, the other bringing to the intelligence of things.

This brought me back to my earliest study of law, before the aporias I found in it brought me to philosophy and theology. I remembered that, in the tradition of roman jurisprudence still pervading our treatment of legal matters, I already run into faith.

In the analysis of the elements of the contract, it was in fact included, besides the object and capable partners with valid motives, also the bona fides on their part. I remember that the book explained it as the attitude of the good father of the family – presumably knowing what that is. I take it now to mean the reliability of a man, the lack of cheating intentions that makes anyone a trustworthy person.

There I had already the true meaning of faith:
the trust that makes one believe what others say, or at least enter into conversation with them.

The simple conclusion to be drawn from such an understanding of faith, is that it makes no sense to oppose those who have it and those who don't: believers and non believers. Nobody can live without trusting others, believing what they say and holding it true. Only remains, then, the difference between believers, whom they trust and for which reason.

Let me add, to close, that exemplary reason for trust is a liberal way of being: meaning with this nothing political in the current sense of the word, but a magnanimous and generous personality, ready to give and receive from others – ready, in the most heroic case, to self-sacrifice.

I take this to be the core of what the LD called Adamsian conservatism.


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