Finding Faith

The religious life requires faith, but what is ‘faith’? One of the greatest misunderstandings among believers and non-believers alike is the concept of ‘faith’. Let’s rattle through the misconceptions before we try to say what ‘faith’ really is.

First is the idea that faith is ‘blind’. The non believers often blame believers for believing something which we know isn’t true. We are accused of not only having blind faith, but demanding it of others. We are accused of not allowing questions, that the ‘faithful’ must simply go along with what they are told and should they question or challenge they will be shunned, blackballed, exterminated or excommunicated in some way.

No doubt there are some religious groups that do operate in this fashion. No doubt there are some Catholic families and sub groups that operate in this way. This, however, is not faith. It is domination, spiritual and psychological abuse. The result is nothing like faith. It is mind control and personality control. This is not faith.

The second misconception is that ‘faith’ simply involves trying very hard to believe something that is hard to believe. So the person of faith grunts and squints their eyes and tries ever so ever so hard to believe something and if they just believe enough it will come true. This is like clapping your hands when Tinkerbell dies. If you believe enough and clap hard enough and so does everyone else, then it will come true. The result is, at worst, like magic and at best like a form of individual or corporate positive thinking. This is faith as ‘the little engine that could.’

Again, I have no doubt that there are many believers and non believers who think this is what faith is, but this is not faith. This is wishful thinking and positive thinking and when non believers scorn this sort of ‘faith’ I am on their side.

The third misconception is that faith is simple, unquestioning adherence to a set of religious and moral principles and precepts that have been handed down by an authority figure. A person says, “I have kept the faith” and by this they mean they have obeyed the rules of their religion and signed on the dotted line–a bit like one of these ‘agreement to the terms of service’ boxes you have to check  before they let you download an app to your phone.

Once more, no doubt there are many who think this is what faith is. However, this is not faith. This is simply an agreement of terms. It is a signing of a contract in order to do a deal.

The fourth misconception is that faith is living a certain way–trusting in God’s providence and being carefree and footloose–a bit like St Francis.  In this idea ‘faith’ is the ultimate ‘chillaxin’. No worries man. God will provide. Just trust in him and everything will take care of itself. This usually means somebody else pays the bills, somebody else picks up the pieces, somebody else picks up the trash.

There are more misconceptions: Faith is helping people. Faith is being God’s little success story. Faith is living the beautiful struggle. Faith is having all the knowledge. Faith is being edgy and subversive. Faith is overcoming the devil.  You name it, we have about as many different versions of what faith actually is as we have people who want faith.

So what is faith? Faith is a process that is similar to the scientific process. The person of faith observes the world around him. He observes certain inexplicable factors. He observes human behaviors. He observes human tradition–the human story. He concludes that there is an unknown quality–something ‘other’. He looks into the traditions of religion which seem to answer or at least deal with this unknown quality. He examines the traditions. He tests the proposed answers. Then the faith comes in. At some point he begins to trust the reliability of the tradition. He knows enough to trust the veracity of the answers given. He does not know everything, but he knows enough.

Based on that knowledge, experience and trust he begins to take certain decisions and live life in a particular way. He accepts the precepts of the religion and the principles of moral behavior as the best structure for his world view and the best map for his life journey. He uses the doctrines and the rules of religion to chart his life an live in a certain way. This life lived–based on beliefs accepted is what we call faith.

It should be noted that this process encourages–yea demands questioning. It demands that the traditions be intellectually and experientially challenged. There are two other responses that individuals have to the demands of this process of faith. When confronted with the challenges that this process demands one can respond with what we call ‘polite conformity’ or with what we see as ‘rebellion.

Both of these are adolescent responses. On the one hand the adolescent (of any chronological age) smiles and realizes that the easiest way is to conform politely to what the authorities suggest. This person goes through the motions of religion, but never really questions it and therefore never really ‘gets’ it. The second type of adolescent rebels against the religion, and in a biased way rejects everything the religion offers and goes his own way.

The third way is the way of faith–in which the person considers the claims of religion and questions them intelligently and sympathetically and then decides to move forward despite the difficulties in order to understand more fully–having come to realize that one believes in order to fully understand–one does not understand fully in order to believe.

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  • Tim Martin

    I’m confused. Your final explanation of what faith is sounds like just a weaker version of Misconception #2. You didn’t write that a person asks questions and tests explanations *and then he or she is convinced.* You wrote that a person asks questions and tests explanations, and “then faith comes in.” Which means what? It sounds like you expect a person to bridge a logical gap by “just believing” after a certain point. Why should a person do that? Everything we know to be true about the universe we have learned through rational assessment of evidence. Why can God not be more convincing than plate tectonics?

  • Steve from Long Island

    My Faith is a gift. When I wasn’t seeking, wondering, considering or even concerned about it, and happily going along as a convinced athiest, God gave me the most beautiful gift I have ever received, in an instant. He filled the room with His Presence and I knew in an instant the He is real.

    Then I asked about Jesus and prayed for understanding and wisdom and guidance. Then I went on my quest to find what religion was the real worship and expression of that Faith, and came back to the Church. I put my self before Jesus in the Tabernacle and during Exposition and came to know very quickly, deep within and inexplicably in words, that He is truly present, which I know is another great gift, and not something that I could have convinced myself of or blindly accepted.

    I have come back to the Church, rediscovering the treasures I knew as a child, except now I believe because of what I have learned, discerned and been given. It is not a blind acceptance, and I still struggle through difficult times and doubts. But when I don’t understand or accept something, I have turned the question and quest upside down, and start from the premise that I have made a wrong turn, go back and try to find where I have gone wrong, not the other way around. And I have always found that point. The key for me is that I know that God gave me that most important first gift and that knowledge means that I cannot go back. And these things have come, through my questioning, through my doubts, through my intellectual pursuit, through my reasoning, with the aid of the great intellects in the Church, and through the grace that has given me understanding.

    I have taken the plunge into the Scriptures. I have read completely and continue to read again the Catechism. I have read and continue to read the writings of the Church Fathers, the saints and the writings of the Magisterium, and I pray regularly and receive the Sacraments. I have now moved to challenge Jesus: I have told Him that I don’t want to just know about Him, but that I want to actually know Him. And, somehow, I know He is giving me that, but I can’t express that intellectually.

    This gift came to me nearly eight years ago, and I have not become tepid, but my zeal has only increased. When I had that moment, I knew that I would have doubted it if I had been pining, or seeking, or wondering or had been in desperate straits at that time, and I would have explained it all away by saying that I had wished it was so. But I wasn’t in that state at all at the time, and I know what happened. No, I didn’t see Him or hear His voice, but He just filled the room and left no doubt. I literally sat up straight on the edge of my seat and said, “Oh, you’re real.” So, Faith is first a gift, then the other intellectual applications kick in.

  • Ashley

    Why doesn’t everyone get this gift? Why do some people get gifts from other gods? Why does the gift of faith correlate so closely to the religion that a person is born into?

  • Selah

    Fr.L ,
    I am also confused and then looking more closely at your comments, I noticed you did not quote any scripture to back up what your saying. You could have saved us all this ” confusion ” by just going to God’s Holy Word and find out how faith is nicely described in the 40 verses of Hebrews 11. !

  • Bender

    If I may, but I would suggest that a certain clarification is needed here. What Father writes is about Christian faith specifically. Many of those misconceptions that are listed here are still valid for some other non-Christian faiths. But Christian faith is different, just as Jesus Christ is different from any other religious figure before or since. Christian faith is the faith of the Logos, Creative Reason itself, so it must necessarily be consistent with reason.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker


  • jose

    Little to do with science, really. Science takes you where the evidence takes you, even if you have to challenge millenia of statu quo. With religion, you already know where it should take you from start: to the tenets of catholicism. If your exploration of the tradition and all that takes you somewhere else, like another religion, catholicism will be there to tell you your experience is wrong and your thinking is flawed. So you need to adapt your thinking and modify your experiences in order for them to fit catholicism better. Or else.

    Not judging catholicism, just commenting on that unfortunate comparison with science.

  • Dymphna

    I really identified with the various misconceptions about faith, especially the ones about not questioning, trying very hard to believe, and unquestioning adherence to a set of rules. These misconceptions are so very common.

    I think maybe a separate post on what faith actually *is* would be helpful, though, because, like others, your explanation left me confused.

  • Tim Martin

    Father Longenecker? May I get some clarification?

  • RAY FRANCIS – Portsmouth, England

    Faith is a gift!! Absolutely right, Steve of Long Island.
    And Jesus Christ Himself said so! When He asks Peter (in particular) in Matt. 16 ‘Who do you say that I am?’, Peter answers, ‘You are The Christ, the son of the living God.’ Jesus answers, ‘Simon . . . . you are a happy man . . . . . for it was not flesh and blood who revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven.’
    No amount of digging around in what man perceives as proper scientific investigation is ever going to reveal something so precious!
    Further, when in John 20 Thomas says. ‘I will not believe unless I can put my fingers into His wounds.’, and then does so and believes, Jesus says, ‘Blessed are those who have *not* seen but have yet believed.’
    And there are very many more scriptures which make it quite clear that faith comes first – and from that, understanding.
    Which is why I am also confused, along with a number of other posters, that you, Fr Longenecker, after your very long and unnecessarily wordy explanation about what faith is *not*, finally tell us the simple conclusion that St Anselm came to when he said in his ‘Fides Quarens Intellectum’ (‘Faith Seeking Understanding’), ‘I do not understand in order to believe but I believe in order to understand.’
    He argues (very powerfully, in my humble opinion) for the existence of God, in a way that depends upon thought and intellect alone, by defining God as “that than which nothing greater can be thought.” In this way, Anselm reasons that God *must* exist.
    As a very simple man myself, I take great comfort from Our Lord’s own words when He also says, in Luke 10:21, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.’ That surely must be a *gift*!
    Long may I remain a ‘babe’ in Christ!
    God Bless

  • RAY FRANCIS – Portsmouth, England

    After posting my original thoughts, I feel I would like to make a comment to Ashley also.
    But the wonderful news is, everyone *is* given the gift, Ashley. But as with all other gifts, you can’t have it unless you put out your hands and take it from the giver. God is offering this wonderful gift of faith to *you*
    today. Do accept it, take it in your hands, then thank God for it – and He *will* reveal Himself to you. If it can happen to people like my humble self and Steve of Long Island – why not you?
    However, then, like all other gifts, it’s no good just leaving it in the drawer and forgetting about it, you must put it on and wear it and use it
    Then to make it last and grow, you must nurture it and I go all the way with Selah, (above) and would commend heartily to you a prayerful reading of the whole of Hebrews chapter 11. The first verse says, ‘Only FAITH can guarantee the blessings that we hope for, or prove the existence of the realities that at present remain unseen.’
    Given Fr Longenecker’s apparent evangelical background, I am somewhat surprised that he does not recommend this also.
    Have faith in Jesus and God will be with you always.
    God bless.

  • Dan E. in Mesa

    Faith is man’s response to God, who reveals himself and gives himself to man, at the same time bringing man a superabundant light as he searches for the ultimate meaning of his life.

  • Steve from Long Island

    I have struggled to understand and have asked God why He gave me the gift of Faith and others have not been given that same basic, profound understanding that He is real. This has brought tears of gratitude and also pain, because I know I have done nothing to deserve such a wonderful gift, and in fact believe I deserved to be left blind and stupid, while ohers who I believe are better people than me have not been given what I have. I don’t have an answer, other than that perhaps all are given the gift, but, as Ray Francis says, we have to be open to receive it.

    And Scripture is replete with passages that explain that not all are given or open to receive this gift. Of course, we don’t want to accept this fact, as we don’t want to accept other Scriptural truths, because it isn’t “nice”, like the reality of Hell and the reality that many souls are there and will be there, and that we must “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.”

    When Jesus tells the people that we must eat His body and drink His blood, St. John tells us that many of His disciple walked away because this was too hard to accept. ” [65] But there are some of you that believe not. For Jesus knew from the beginning, who they were that did not believe, and who he was, that would betray him. [66] And he said: Therefore did I say to you, that no man can come to me, unless it be given him by my Father. [67] After this many of his disciples went back; and walked no more with him. [68] Then Jesus said to the twelve: Will you also go away? [69] And Simon Peter answered him: Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. [70] And we have believed and have known, that thou art the Christ, the Son of God.”

    From Zacarias Chapter 13: “[6] And they shall say to him: What are these wounds in the midst of thy hands? And he shall say: With these I was wounded in the house of them that loved me. [7] Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, and against the man that cleaveth to me, saith the Lord of hosts: strike the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered: and I will turn my hand to the little ones. [8] And there shall be in all the earth, saith the Lord, two parts in it shall be scattered, and shall perish: but the third part shall be left therein. [Zacharias (Zachariah) 13:8] [Latin] [9] And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined: and I will try them as gold is tried. They shall call on my name, and I will hear them. I will say: Thou art my people: and they shall say: The Lord is my God.”