What Faith Is Not by John Powell, SJ

   What Faith Is Not by John Powell, SJ

All the passages below are taken from John Powell’s book “The Challenge of Faith,” published in 1998.

A professional baseball player, who enjoyed playing only on grass, said: ”If cows can’t eat it, I don’t want to play on it.” It is a truism of faith that, “If you can reason to it, it isn’t faith.”

As I mentioned earlier, I taught students for thirty years. When I asked them if they believed, a great majority would say they did. It was when I got around to asking them why they believed that I got a variety of answers.

Some said: “I’m Italian . . . I’m Irish . . . I’m Spanish . . . I’m American.” It was almost as though faith ran along blood lines. I suggested that this was not true faith.

Others thought that faith was a good hunch. If you believe, you don’t have to put in a great deal of effort, and if there is a God, you’re saved. It not, it is not a great deal of wasted effort. The late George Jessel, an after-dinner speaker, said he talked at Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish dinners, because “it doesn’t hurt to hedge your bets.” This attitude of openness to all beliefs was easy to demolish as true faith.

The third set of answers, which I think a majority of students held, was that reason can find God. This, strangely enough is true. Thomas Aquinas thought that there were five ways in which reason can lead to the existence of God. The simplest is his theory of causality. For every effect there is a proportionate cause. If I see a billiard ball move, I know that something moved it. To explain the effect of this complicated world there also has been a proportionate cause: An uncaused cause. True, but not faith. Aquinas felt that there were very few minds which could follow his logic, but insisted that faith is never the conclusion of a line of logic.

John Cardinal Newman, in one way or another, is forever stressing the same thing. Faith is not the result of a natural, logical process. It is precisely not a conclusion from premises. In the next chapter, we will be talking about what faith is. For now it is enough to say that faith is not in acquisition of the natural mind alone.

For this reason if you find two people debating the reality of faith, the only conclusion one can come to is that they are both “lightweights.” Faith can never be proved or disproved.

I remember when I was in high school, walking one night with a classmate. The moon was swimming through the clouds, and it was a very beautiful sight. My friend remarked, “It is difficult to see how there could be an atheist.” I was impressed at the time.

But faith remains an acceptance of God’s word to us. I can reason that there is an “uncaused cause” but the fact that God has spoken to us, that God cares about us, remains in the realm of faith.

Once I was sitting in the room of a fellow Jesuit priest. I noticed trees were painted on his walls, and inquired about the artist. “Oh, I did that,” he responded factually. “You see, I had a near-death experience, and after that I have been afraid of nothing. I thought that if I made a mess of this, I could splash more paint on the walls, or paper them.” When I inquired about his near-death experience, he told me of his open-heart surgery. 

“While I was under the anesthetic, I was in a room with a man, who never identified himself as Jesus, but who knew everything about me. He kept a consoling hand on my shoulder, assuring me that we were not ready for the ‘big trip’ yet. The poor doctors could not get my heart beating again after they had replaced it, and were trying everything: electrical stimulation, massage, and so forth. When I finally emerged from the anesthetic, I felt very calm. The poor doctors were standing around me sweating profusely. ”We thought we had lost you,” they said. By contrast I felt very confident and calm.”

When a girl was attacked and killed on her wav to this university, my priest-friend said he was standing alone on a platform with a microphone. It was his job as a University Minister to calm down the students. Later, a young man known for his holiness, asked the priest: “Who was that man standing at your side tonight?” The priest demurred, “There was no one at my side tonight. I was alone.” “Oh, Father, c’mon. He had his hand on your shoulder.” The priest then asked, “What did he look like?” The young man described the person who had been in the room with the priest during his open-heart surgery. 

When Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross heard of this, she advised the priest to tell his story to the world. “It is very important, you know.” Dr. Kuhler-Ross thinks that this is not an age of faith, and that people today will not believe unless preternatural events are proved to them. Near-death experiences are one way to help some persons acknowledge God’s existence. It may be that near-death experiences can prove to people that there is an afterlife, but still this is not faith. Anything that can be proved is not faith. [49-53]

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