11 August 2013

Faith: the disposition of the spirit that seeds eternal life

NB. This is an example of a didactic homily.  'Nuff said.

19th Sunday OT 
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP 
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA 

We're rather aggressively challenged by our readings this evening to think hard about what it means to have faith. What is faith? How do we use it? How do we get it? What's its ultimate purpose? Being a sensible, practical sort of people, we generally think of faith in terms of amounts of faith, or degrees of faith. How often have you prayed for “more faith”? Or asked God to “increase your faith”? We also tend to think of faith in terms of “the faith,” as in “the Catholic faith,” or “the Protestant faith,” meaning something like “everything that Catholics and Protestants believe to be true about God, Jesus, Mary, etc.” So, you might say, “I'm a member of the Catholic faith.” If you were a student assigned to write an essay on faith by your religion teacher, you would probably do what every student in the universe does when asked to define a term: grab a dictionary. There we find that “faith” is defined as “confidence or trust in a person or thing; belief that is not based on proof; a system of religious belief.” And if your teacher is any good at all, he/she would write in the margin, “This isn't much help, is it?” No, it isn't b/c a dictionary isn't a human person who lives by the grace and mercy of God. Dictionaries are not asked to sacrifice their children. Dictionaries are not asked to surrender their lives and livelihoods to the providence of God. 

Fortunately, being Catholics, we have someone more reliable than a dictionary to turn to. In his 2007 encyclical, Spe salvi, our emeritus Pope, Benedict, tackles one of the more challenging passages of this evening's reading from Hebrews. That passages reads: “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” Benedict explains that this sentence has been the focus of theological controversies for centuries b/c one of its key terms is almost impossible to translate and interpret. In order to explain the sentence he leaves that Greek term untranslated: “Faith is the hypostasis of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” The Church's early theologians choose to translate hypostasis with the Latin term substantia, thus giving us the more familiar English sentence, “Faith is the substance of what is hoped for. . .” But let's be honest: using “substance” doesn't really clear up the problem. So, Benedict continues, “. . .faith is a habitus, that is, a stable disposition of the spirit, through which eternal life takes root in us and reason is led to consent to what it does not see” (7). In order to see how this definition helps us clear up some of the confusion, we'll need to break it down. 

First, faith is a kind of habit. And a habit is a stable disposition of the spirit. What is a disposition? A disposition describes the nature of a thing. Fish are disposed to swim b/c they are fish. Birds flies. Humans think. Fire burns. Our nature—what we are fundamentally—determines (more or less) how we behave. But notice that this particular habit is a stable disposition of the spirit. Why didn't he say that faith is a habit of the soul? Faith is not a native habit of the human person. Faith is a gift, an additional habit given by God to His human children and shared through His spirit. So, I can't say, “My faith tells me that X and Y are true.” The best I can say is: “Our faith tells me that X and Y are true.” This means that it's possible that I'm wrong about what our faith says is true or false. Faith is not a personal possession, an individualized gift handcrafted just for me. As a disposition of the spirit, faith is lived and shared across the human race and is called in technical theological language an “infused virtue,” a good habit infused into us by God. We do not earn, beg, borrow, steal, buy, or barter faith. Faith cannot be increased, decreased, lost, or found. As a good habit, faith can be either exercised or ignored. We can exercise faith and see it become more and more part of who we are; or, we can ignore it and let it become a wasted gift. 

OK. Faith is an infused disposition given by God to the human person, all persons. Why? Why does God give us this gift? This is the second thing we need to notice: faith is given to us so that eternal life might take root in us. Yes, this implies exactly what you think it does: w/o the gift of faith, eternal life cannot take root in us. When we are infused with faith at conception, we are implanted with the seed of eternal life and then it is up to us—using all of God's freely given gifts—to either nurture that seed, or—refusing all of God's freely given gifts—let it go dormant. The take-away here is that God makes the first move in our journey back to Him. He plants the seed of eternal life in us by giving us faith. But what that part of the sentence from Hebrews that says faith is “evidence of things not seen”? Benedict writes that it is through faith that “reason is led to consent to what it does not see.” In other words, the gift of faith not only plants in us the seed of eternal life, it also allows us to assent to truths that reason cannot deduce from our senses. Think about how you trust a friend, a spouse, or a parent. Do you need empirical evidence to trust someone you truly love? If you do, then we might say that you don't actually trust them at all! We might even say that w/o trust, you don't actually love them. So that we might return to God, He makes it possible for us to love Him here and now by giving us the ability to trust Him even when our senses tell us that we are crazy for doing so. 

Speaking of being crazy for trusting God, let's take a look at Abraham and his encounter with God. Hebrews tells us that “by faith Abraham obeyed when he was called. . .By faith he received power. . .By faith Abraham offered up Isaac, his son. . .” Why did he obey the call, receive power, and offer up his son? Because “he thought that the one who had made the promise was trustworthy.” Abraham exercises the good habit of trusting in God's loving-care and the results speak for themselves. He receives from God an inheritance: though he was “himself as good as dead,” from him and his sterile wife, Sarah, came “descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky as countless as the sands on the seashore.” Because Abraham exercised the good habit of trusting in God's loving-care, he and his wife produced a holy family, a holy nation, a people dedicated to the love and service of the Lord. And some few thousand years later, we honor him still as “our father in faith.” Abraham believed and acted “by faith” and he received a bounty from the Lord. His faith was not measured in pounds or feet or volts. He didn't pray for “more faith,” or “extra trust.” He heard the Lord's call and he acted, knowing that his God would not fail him. 

Though your own faithful relationship with the Lord may not produce “descendants as numerous as the stars,” you are still poised to be the faithful servant who girds your loins and lights the lamps, waiting for your master’s return, “ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks.” We could spend the rest of tonight, tomorrow, and all of next week dissecting the theology of faith and its implications for how we understand our relationship with God. However, in terms of real-life results nothing compares to the day-to-day exercise of trusting in God's love for you, trusting in his care for you, trusting completely that He has willed from all eternity that you spend your immortal life with Him, blessed and preserved as His child. I've spent so much time this evening teaching on the notion of faith so that we might go away from here with a better understanding of what it means to “have faith.” Not a pint of faith and hoping for more. Not seven out of ten degrees of faith and praying for eight. But understanding that we are always, already gifted with faith. God made the first move by giving it to us. We have it already. What we must do now is exercise it. Not as disconnected individuals given unique presents but as one Body blessed with a singular gift: the ability and need to serve the Gift Giver by serving one another. 

Follow HancAquam or Subscribe


  1. "Didactic", but Vintage. 'Nuff said... Is it new?

    1. Yes. . .well, 90% of it is. Parts of the last two paragraphs are massaged re-runs from a daily homily I preached two yrs ago. I got back from MI and had about 2.5 hrs to pound something out for the 6pm Mass.

  2. The final two paragraphs were splendid! Before that point, it was definitely didactic. Which worked just fine. Thanks - welcome home!

  3. Escellent! Thank you for sharing! I may 'borrow' this for our confirmation group starting up this year. Lots of the teens are questioning. Although some are questioning the existence of God (atheism is creeping in ever so slowly down here, but making inroads into those young minds). I will do my best to combat the evil one with the Truth!

    1. God go with you! Nihilistic atheism is a direct response to the despair imposed on us by postmodern scientism--the worship of materialist science and the human intellect. Real science, of course, is no threat to faith b/c it actually uses the human intellect. What passes for science among a lot of non-theists is simply a different sort of religion.