What does it mean to believe in God?

Question 27.

This article is a reflection on Q 27 of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "What does it mean in practice for a person to believe in God?"

See also Catechism 150-152, 176-178.

1. Belief as a Way of Life

We have already considered obedience as the proper response to God who reveals himself (Q. 25-26). Now we consider how that obedience becomes a way of life. It does so through vocation. We already considered the difficulties in trying to balance obedience and understanding (Q. 25-26). Vocation puts belief into practice by bringing it into the practical substance of life. I learn what it is to believe by doing it - through belief-in-action.

This has two aspects. Firstly, belief contributes to our understanding because beliefs have a cognitive content. They involve something we can think about. We need this understanding because a vocation entails concrete acts.

You can't just live a life of faith 'in general'. Each life of faith is lived 'in particular'.

Reflection on the Word of God cannot remain at a generic level, but must become by degrees more detailed. It is not that we can always draw straight lines from what the Gospel says to what actions we must take. But we need to keep learning so as to be able to meet the challenges our vocation throws up.

Secondly, the faith involves authoritative beliefs, which gain their authority from Christ who taught them, and the Church which has the authority to teach what Christ taught. So living one's vocation also involves the obedience of faith.

Life has momentum. We must often act prior to having all the understanding we need.

We need the prior orientation and guidance of trusting faith to enable us to take these steps into the unknown.

2. God Does Not Want Blind Obedience

Since God wants our free cooperation, not blind obedience, we have to think about what we are to do as a response to faith. Otherwise we cannot discern the particulars of our mission, all the decisions we have to make, and how we should respond to circumstances.

The path of faith involves some tension and puzzlement, so that we wonder if our beliefs are adequate in practice.

The authoritative teaching of the church is for the whole world and for all time, so it cannot address in detail everything I must do. I cannot abandon my own discernment, but must walk the path of faith.

3. Vocation Is Founded on Revelation

Our first response then is to seek a balance, to seek a deeper understanding of the truths of the faith. In order to do this we need to explore the particular beliefs and how they are related. These beliefs of necessity need to be expressed in ways understandable to our culture, our level of education and particular abilities. Education is needed to help us develop our understanding to lift it to a level that does justice to the faith, and to our own vocation in particular.

A vocation in its full sense is founded on revelation. God shares something of who he is that fits who I am and the mission to which I am called. If I never gain an adequate understanding of this I will never be able to wholeheartedly embrace my vocation as the personal expression of my faith. I could end up instead taking an ‘off-the-shelf’ vocation that does not ‘fit’ who God is calling me to be. This might happen through lack of understanding, or I might reject a call that I can hear clearly enough.

Society presents us with ready-made options, and for many people these can be a reasonable approximation to the sets of tasks associated with their intended vocation. The challenge then is to grow into the job or role by discovering how it corresponds to God's plan for you. Faith throws light on what is good and bad in the situation.

As a job becomes more truly a vocation it will reveal shadows and contradictions. This is why God wants you there - to bring the light of faith into this situation.

But how will you do it if you do not become more deeply formed in faith?

4. Obstacles to Vocation

For some people, none of the available options seem to fit. One feels like a square peg in a round hole. It could be that society is at fault, that its priorities and systems are skewed and impoverished of meaning, so that it becomes less welcoming to the gifts God wants to share through particular individuals and communities. Some people, and I suppose all of us to a degree, resist their vocation, because they can see what it is and are afraid to embark on the path of obedience. We all tend to want assurances first that it all makes sense and will turn out all right in the end. But God's call does not promise this kind of detail. It does promise that faithfulness will be rewarded, but it does not promise easy going.

5. The Church Nourishes the Vocation to Believe

In situations where the call to vocation and the readily available options are in tension the Church can stand as a challenge to society.

The Church can provide a more hospitable home to unique vocations, helping them to germinate and flourish.

For example, the numerous forms of consecrated life are a witness to the charisms God gave to individuals, revealing to them the life-giving power of something new and necessary for the world. Even in a more general way, the ordinary structures and ministries of the Church provide, or should provide, a hospitable environment for people to discover how their roles and jobs can be transformed into genuine vocations.

To believe in God in practice also requires that we believe his promises. One of the most important is the promise of forgiveness. God does not expect a mistake-free life. Considering God expects obedience before understanding, we can hardly avoid making mistakes as to understanding, performance and judgement. In the process we will also have times where our faith weakens, we doubt, or even act without love. Repentance is intrinsic to a genuine vocation. If we are so cautious and excessively prudent that we never make mistakes, never test ourselves, we will never rise to the real challenge God is putting to us. We will make the one big mistake of not obeying the call, and walking the path of faith. God's mercy is lavish on those prepared to have a red hot go. (c.f. Revelation 3:16, ‘How I wish you were either hot or cold…')

It is not for us to forgive ourselves in advance. That is a sign of mediocrity. In practice we are formed to be like Christ through many small steps, so that eventually, when we have to make particularly big leaps of faith, fear will not paralyse us.

'Tactical ignorance’ is also part of God's plan. We often need to act before we have had time to understand all the consequences, otherwise we would never take the risks.

The priority of obedience implies that we can make definitive decisions about the kind of person we will become prior to having full understanding or knowing the consequences.

6. Understanding Plays a Supporting Role

The big obstacle to vocation is a mentality that establishes understanding as in principle a higher value than obedience.

The adventure of faith is trimmed to fit into what we can already handle.

If the Church is affected by this spirit it saps the life from evangelisation. We lose the momentum of faith and instead of introducing people to Jesus we only introduce them to ourselves, and stop there.

7. Belief Means Sharing the Faith

In practice, believing in God means sharing the faith. And it means sharing it before we have fully understood it; before the freshness and excitement is lost. This does not mean mindless rashness, which brings us back to the usual cautions about lack of balance. But ordinary balance can only take you so far.

There is a new kind of balance still to be discovered on the other side of rashness.

It would be hard to characterise St. Paul's life as prudent. But there is a deeper prudence which is measured against the possibility of losing eternal life. Then something that looks like ordinary recklessness seems as prudent as putting money in the bank. Consider the life of St Francis of Assisi.

8. The Saints Show the Way

There is a lot of darkness that can only be dispelled with a very bright light. This is why the Church needs saints.

We could say that vocation is transcended in sainthood.

Another way of saying it is that a vocation is the illuminated part of the journey of faith, and that sainthood is where the obedience of faith is so deep that the person is led through darkness, beyond vocation and into ‘unknowing’. Here the balance is lost in the normal sense, and all the balance comes directly from God.