“There is nothing worse than two intelligent people arguing in an ever-diminishing circle because they misunderstand each others’ choice of language. Words can mean different things to different people.”
Two terms essential to the Christian religion are “faith” and “mystery”. While they are essential to Christianity, they are often scandalous to critics of religion—largely because of misinterpretation.
We must, therefore, know what these terms really mean and obtain a proper understanding of them in order to be able to effectively explain them with clarity:
1. We must be able to define “faith”. Let’s begin by looking at what faith is not: faith is not belief in something contradictory to reason—Catholics want no part of such foolishness. We, because we are committed to reality, are opposed to such illogical ideas as square circles and married bachelors. Even God is opposed to such logical contradictions—which are really nothing. It is not that God’s power is limited in creating “a rock too heavy for Him to lift”; He just cannot create nothing because nothing is, by its nature, uncreated. It is nothing—no thing; and as we know, nothing is impossible for God.
Thus, faith is not something we can know nothing about. What then is faith?
Faith, in the Christian sense, is a supernatural virtue—a habit powered by divine love within (see James 2:26). It is not merely something you think, but something you do because Christ is within you. It begins with Christ and ends with Christ. This is why St. Paul, who made the “obedience of faith” the central theme in his letter to the Romans, could write:
“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” ( Gal 2:20).
Again, faith is a virtue—a habit—made possible by God’s life within us. C.S. Lewis writes that faith is “the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.” It is the rocksolid state of acting out your “yes” to the reality of something not fully possessed. Many atheists have never seen Mount Everest in person—but they believe in such a thing, unwaveringly. This is faith. They do not know everything there is to know about Mount Everest. They have never even been there; but they know enough to reasonably accept that its actual existence in reality is plausible.
Many atheists assume science is the only way to obtain knowledge about reality; but this too is an assumption built on faith, for no scientific experiment or academic journal can be named which has concluded so (and such a scientific conclusion would be highly problematic logically). Such skeptics have used philosophy to found their belief in science without knowing it.
No human walks without faith. We trust that the external world is real and not some highly complex illusion or dream. We trust that our past really happened though it cannot be reproduced, measured or directly observed. And we trust our immaterial minds.
G.K. Chesterton understood that faith is required to trust our thinking. He wrote:
“Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.”
Faith propels us into a life of purpose and fulfillment. It is the first step towards sainthood. Boston College philosopher, Peter Kreeft, writes:
“Faith is the root, the necessary beginning. Hope is the stem, the energy that makes the plant grow. Love is the fruit, the flower, the visible product, the bottom line. The plant of our new life in Christ is one; the life of God comes into us by faith, through us by hope, and out of us by the works of love.” (from Fundamentals Of The Faith)
There is so much more to be said about the meaning of this virtue. Two resources I recommend to go deeper on this topic are:
St. John Paul the Great’s encyclical letter on Faith & Reason (Fides et Ratio).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church on what “I/WE BELIEVE” means.
2. We must be able to define “mystery”. A mystery is not something we can know nothing about. Nor is it a logical contradiction. A mystery is something we cannot know everything about. To illustrate, consider Frank Sheed’s imaginitive description of what a mystery is:
“A mystery, in short, is an invitation to the mind. For it means that there is an inexhaustible well of Truth from which the mind may drink and drink again in the certainty that the well will never run dry…” (Theology and Sanity, p.38)
This definition, I think, opens new doors of understanding for believers and unbelievers alike (interestingly and as an example, the clarification of “mystery” was a key step in Dr. Holly Ordway’s conversion from atheism to Christianity). There is power in words.
Thus, when we see a mystery as “something we do not completely understand”, it suddenly becomes clear that both believers and skeptics live together in the same mystery-shrouded world—a sort of “fairyland” as Chesterton mused. He wrote in Orthodoxy:
“You cannot IMAGINE two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail.”
The world is as it is. But why? It seems it could have been differently. As Christians we can answer such a question with “because God loves us” and this would be true; yet there must be more to the story! We accept, however, that in this life we will not know it all because the “secret and hidden wisdom of God” (1 Cor 2:7) has not been made immediately accessible to us.
This applies to spiritual mysteries also—the unseen. We can know something about God, angels, heaven and hell, we just cannot imagine them. It is essential that we understand and point out the difference between the inconceivable and the unimaginable. Our imagination is limited to things we can sense—wardrobes, lions and elves can be imagined because they are physical ideas. But we cannot imagine pure spirits, like angels, because they are non-physical. We can, however, conceive their existence by the light of reason.
Thus, mysteries can be conceived partially, but not wholely. To possess a whole understanding of the “mysteries of the heavens” would be too much to handle in our current state of sin, for apart from a special grace, our feeble selves could not handle such an overdose of divine wisdom. Chesterton understood the importance of accepting (and appreciating) divine mysteries as they are:
“The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” (from Orthodoxy)
The Christian is not repulsed by a world veiled in mystery. She understands that the world is as her all-loving, all-knowing God willed it, and so she joyfully accepts it as it is; she even loves such a world because she loves truth—she loves what really is despite any deficiency in her understanding of why what really is IS.
To be Catholic is to love truth, including truth decorated in mystery. For us, there is beauty in mystery; indeed the central mystery of Catholicism is Beauty embodied—the Holy Eucharist. This is why we so willingly accept miracles, which occur as exceptions to the laws of nature we are so committed to; or why we accept transubstantiation, the prayerfully manifested presence of God hidden in the form of ordinary bread and wine; or why we accept the Blessed Trinity, who is three persons in one Divine Nature (which, properly understood, is a logical combination of personhood and nature and not a mystery of mathematics). These are not matters of blind faith, but bold faith.
Put simply, we believe in mysteries as Catholics—like miracles, transubstantiation and the Trinity—because we have found good reasons to do so.
I recommend you check out Dr. Holly Ordway’s conversion story, Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms.