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Ratzinger on the Anthropological Structure of Faith

July 14, 2009

Yersterday we said that Ratzinger considers the manner of our reception of faith to be critical in determining whether our faith will bear integral Christian witness or be reduced to contradictions in the cafeteria. Before we move forward to consider precisely how this reception can differ and what its implications are, we should consider what we mean when we say that a man has faith. Again, we shall be following Ratzinger closely.

Faith is one of the capacities of man which set him apart from the rest of creation. Because man (homo sapiens) can grow in wisdom, knowledge, and understanding, he can also be convinced that something is a truth or a falsity. He can believe. Generally, when we speak of knowing something, we mean we are certain of its truth. We have assented to it. In many cases, this certainty is gained through a convincing experience, or set thereof, or by some scientific demonstration, which presents enough evidence to compel us into assent. However, faith must always be a free response of the will, not a forced reaction to evidence. Therefore, the assent of the believer occurs differently in the structure of faith, than assent to other forms of knowledge.

A Concise Dictionary of Theology refers to three different types of assent, taking its distinctions from John Henry Cardinal Newman. Many of today’s Christians “believe” with notional assent, meaning they accept the abstract ideas of the Truth, but without fully being touched and changed by it, or, put more practically, without living according to the Truth. However, the belief of true faith requires “full assent to truth, especially concrete rather than abstract truths”.[1] This real assent is the assent of faith which the early Christians claimed when they stated “I believe.”

When the Church fathers composed their statement of faith, they used the Latin word credo, “I believe.” Etymologically credo comes from the Latin words cor (heart) and do (to give).[2] Therefore, when they stated their belief in Jesus as Christ, they were giving their heart to him. Moreover, biblically, the word for heart corresponds with what St. Thomas Aquinas refers to as the will.[3] In other words, the ancient Christians testified that in believing in Jesus, they were giving their hearts, their wills, indeed their entire selves, to him, God enfleshed. But from what does this assent of faith come? To what exactly are we assenting?

Contrary to scientific knowledge or other types of certainty, the assent of faith comes from a personal encounter with God. He reveals himself to us, and we respond with the assent of faith. “Through being touched in this way, the will knows that even what is still not ‘clear’ to reason is true” and it assents to faith in God. “When the heart comes into contact with God’s Logos, with the Word who became man, this inmost point of his existence is being touched.”[4] Or, put another way, “just as a person becomes certain of another’s love without being able to subject it to methods of scientific experiment, so in the contact between God and man there is a certainty of a quite different kind from the certainty of objectivizing thought.” [5]

Therefore, Cardinal Ratzinger rightly explains, “in the act of believing the assent comes about …by an act of the will, in connection with which the thought process remains open and still under way.”[6] In other words, although the heart has assented to give itself fully to the truth, because the assent has not come by means of reason, the thought process, the search for understanding, must strive to catch up with the assent of the heart and is therefore open, and, furthermore, spurred on, to search for deeper understanding. Within this search, what Thomas calls a contrary motion (motus de contrario), arises, which can “be the challenge summoning forth a deeper knowledge.”[7]

Reviewing the good Cardinal’s thoughts and reflecting on our own experiences of faith, we can see the uniquely human structure of faith, which requires those human capacities which indicate to us that we are indeed made in God’s image: willing, loving, and knowing. God has spoken his Word into our hearts. In response, we, being unable to deny the depth of his love, assent in our heart, our will, to faith in him. But, because our assent has been given by our heart and not based upon reason, our thought is ever striving to catch up to our assent of faith. In order not to get lost in our search, we must always refer back to the light of faith and Word of Truth, lest our seeking of understanding become errant. For, any movement which is contrary to the Eternal Word of Truth, which therefore will inevitably be of worldly thought, will, whenever viewed in perspective of the Eternal Word, be “motion in reverse after all.”[8] Consequently, the assent of faith, which jumps ahead of thought inexorably “challenges thought and sets it in a restless motion that produces results,” that produces theology.[9]

Based upon the above we can anticipate how Ratzinger might differentiate different types of assent: the assent of the heart and the assent of the mind. In the next part of our series we shall explore this distinction in more depth. Hopefully, in doing so we will be better prepared to bear integral Christian witness to the world.

[1] Gerald O’Collins, S.J. and Edward G. Farrugia, S.J., A Concise Dictionary of Theology, rev. and expanded ed., (Macwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2000): 20.
[2] Galen Guengerich, Galen. “Living by Choice” [sermon on-line] (New York, NY: All Souls NYC, 2003, accessed 19 September 2006,); available from http:// ggsermons/living-by-choice.html; Internet.
[3] Joseph Ratzinger, Ratzinger, “Faith and Theology,” Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2005), 23.
[4] Ibid., 24.
[5] Ibid., 19.
[6] Ibid., 22.
[7] Ibid., 28.
[8] Ibid., 26.
[9] Ibid., 27.


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