Faith, Belief, and the Trinity
Oblate Father Ronald Rolheiser is among the most respected and prolific writers on Christian spirituality. Though I have never met him, I have profited from his keen insights and captivating stories. In particular, I am indebted to two of his books: The Holy Longing (which I used with undergraduates) and Sacred Fire: A Vision for a Deeper Human and Christian Maturity.
However, a recent article of his, “When Does Faith Disappear?,” left me uneasy. It appears to reflect a trend in theology and spirituality (the two, of course, are inseparable) that is well meaning, but ultimately misleading.
It begins with alarming statistics. Not only has there been a precipitous decline in recent decades in the number of people who go to church regularly. There has been “an equally unprecedented spike in the number of people who claim to have lost their faith completely.” The latter add to the swelling ranks of so-called “Nones,” people without any religious affiliation. In the United States and Canada, “Nones” now comprise over 30 percent of the population!
But have many of them really lost their faith? Rolheiser offers a distinction that has become widespread in contemporary Catholic theology: he distinguishes “faith” and “beliefs.” He asks provocatively: “is ceasing to believe in something the same thing as losing one’s faith?” And responds, equally provocatively, “not necessarily.”
To unpack this assertion, Rolheiser turns to what is traditionally called the “apophatic” dimension of Christian theology and spirituality. He rightly declares: “God is beyond all conceptualization, beyond all imaginings, beyond being pictured and beyond being captured in any adequate way by language.”
In many ways, this recovery of the “apophatic” recalls what the Fathers of the Church and Thomas Aquinas affirmed. Recall Saint Augustine’s si comprehendis, non est Deus – “if you [presume to] grasp, it is not God.” A salutary rebuke to a too rationalistic appeal to propositions, as though they adequately circumscribed the content of faith. Karl Rahner’s insistence on the “mystagogic” nature of dogmatic statements was, therefore, a welcome counter to neo-scholastic overreaching (whatever else may be said of his work).
Image: Santa Trinità by Masaccio, 1425 [Santa Maria Novella, Florence]