Courage and Faith; Doubt and Fear

The Gospel reading for Mass yesterday is one of those texts that simultaneously comforts and discomfits. On the one hand, it tells a story about the precise sort of self-abandonment that is required of the Christian disciple: Our Lady's fiat is the model for all Christian prayer and every proper response to God's presence in our lives. When I hear such a story, I am reminded of God's promise, and I find strength in knowing that I am not called to do something unattainable. On the other hand, however, I sometimes find myself acting a little like, well, the Harold Bloom of my post of 16 December. The exegetical scholar in Bloom is not something that is entirely foreign to me, having spent the last 30 years as a classical scholar of one stripe or another, and I am not immune to the allurements of that line of work. In particular, I suffer from a disease that I suspect many scholars suffer from, a potentially dangerous combination of intellectual pride and skeptical doubt. In short, when I hear a story like the one from Luke about the Annunciation, I find myself wondering whether it is meant to be taken as literally true.

I put the phrase "meant to be taken" in there deliberately: in antiquity it was not uncommon for authors to make use of certain literary forms as vehicles for telling stories that were never meant to be taken literally even if the chosen vehicle looks remarkably like what we would call "history". I have absolutely no doubt, for example, that whoever it was who first compiled the stories that make up the first few chapters of Genesis would be amazed to find that there are folks walking around today who both (a) have opposable thumbs and (b) think that Genesis is intended as literal history. So at least a part of my doubt has to do with what this text from Luke was originally intended to be. Perhaps it was intended as history; but perhaps not.

If it was intended as literal history, that raises several questions. How did Luke come to know the details that he records in his history? Did Our Lady pass on an account of these events to others during the course of her lifetime? It would seem that she was the only person there capable of such a thing, unless we are to speculate that Gabriel himself, or God, passed on the knowledge to others. If Our Lady preserved the account, how reliable was it thirty or forty years after the fact? And how reliable could Luke's account be, since even if the story ultimately had its origins with Our Lady, Luke's account is probably no earlier than 85, give or take a few years--half a century after the death of Our Lord. Even if such a thing as Q ever really existed, the account of the Annunciation does not appear to come from such an early source.

If it was not intended as literal history, then what, precisely, is its value as a Gospel text? Certainly it illustrates some central Christian principles (obedience to God's will, as I remarked above, for example), but just as surely one wants to know the veridicality of some of the claims, since among the things that Gabriel announces is that Jesus is going to be the Son of God. If that is a claim that was only manufactured later by a nascent Christian community vying with competing interpretations of the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth, then the overall value of the account, it seems to me, is somewhat less: why believe Luke's extravagant claim rather than someone else who claims only that Jesus was a remarkable prophet?

I do not raise these issues for the sake of discussion, but rather to illustrate what I take to be a flaw in my own character as a Christian: as a scholar, I tend to have the doubts that are typical of the scholar, and I wonder--sometimes to the point of worry--whether my doubts are an impediment to my faith.

Our Lady, according to the story, appeared to have only rudimentary doubts. She wondered how it would be possible to accomplish what Gabriel announced, since she had not yet been with a man. Once he explained things to her, she simply acquiesced. If she went off and suffered from reductive materialist puzzlement over the precise mechanics involved in impregnating a fully material human being without the aid of either another member of the species or indeed even of another material being, we are not told about it by Luke or anyone else. And I have known--perhaps we have all known, at one time or another--folks of various Christian stripes who claim to have no doubts at all about their faith. In my own personal experience, which is somewhat limited, the folks who most commonly talk this way out loud tend to be fundamentalist protestants, but I have known plenty of Catholics who also appear to have few, if any doubts, and who are quite positivistic and indeed triumphalistic about their faith. So perhaps my own doubts are pathological.

So I began to wonder about the nature of the relation between faith and doubt. "Faith" as it is used in connection with Christian belief is a translation of the Greek word pistis, which can also be translated as "trust". To have faith in God, as I have learned only very slowly over time, is not merely to commit oneself to believing that this or that doctrine is true, nor is it merely to commit oneself to believing that, say, God exists; it is to have trust in his promise, the promise of redemption that is the Good News of the Gospel. Can this mental state co-exist with a mental state of doubt?

In thinking about this problem I was reminded of Aristotle's account of the virtues in his Nicomachean Ethics. In particular, he says of the courageous person that he is not without fear. To be confronted with a dangerous situation in which your life may be at risk and feel no fear is not the mark of a courageous person, but of a foolish person. The courageous person differs from both a fool and a coward precisely in the fact that he knows enough about the situation to see that it is, indeed, a fearful one, but at the same time he knows how to control and subdue his fear, so that he can act in the right way, as circumstances require. Perhaps, in this regard, it would not be unfair to say that the faithful person is not someone who has no doubts whatsoever, but rather a person who understands that what he is committing himself to is difficult, if not impossible, to prove, but who is willing to trust in the authority of someone, or something, else when it comes to granting intellectual assent. Someone who has absolutely no doubts whatsoever may not fully understand the nature of the doctrine on offer; someone who doubts too much is someone who has lost his faith. Like Aristotle's virtues, the correct attitude may, I hope, be something of a mean between two extremes.

If I am right, then most Christians not only will, but they certainly ought to have at least somedoubts, though I suppose much work needs to be done to establish what things are, and what things are not, open to what sorts of doubts. I commit myself to believing that God is Trinitarian in nature, for example, but I confess that I have little notion of what that actually means. Is that a doubt that goes too far? I doubt it (if you will pardon the expression), since it would be the mark of a fool to claim to understand the Trinity perfectly. But suppose I were to doubt that Jesus really rose from the dead, and my doubts were grounded in a reductive materialism according to which such a thing is quite simply impossible. In short, if I were to doubt it to the point of trying to demythologize it (that is, explain it away), then it seems to me that I have gone too far. I certainly find myself wondering, sometimes, how such a thing could happen. But when, in my darker moments, I find myself wondering whether it ever really did happen, I make a conscious effort to snap out of it.

The question of how one snaps out of such things is also one that is often on my mind, because these doubts are. Sometimes it requires precisely the attitude of Our Lady: abandonment of self. I cannot understand, right now, how this could be so--but perhaps it does not matter whether I understand it perfectly, or even at all. Trust that it is so, and leave it for now. Perhaps at some later time I will understand it better; perhaps I will never understand it at all--why get all worked up about it? Perhaps this perplexity is part of the cross that I have to bear, and to accept a teaching at face value in spite of nagging doubts is to deny myself one of those little creature comforts that is really just a manifestation of my own pride. In this way I try to be faithful rather than foolish.


Tom said…
Like Aristotle's virtues, the correct attitude may, I hope, be something of a mean between two extremes.

I'd say, yes and no. Yes in the sense that faith can devolve to the "left" and to the "right," if you will. St. Augustine defines the act of faith as thinking with assent. So you could think without assent, or you could assent without thought.

But no, you can't have too much faith. This is a key difference between the theological virtues and the moral virtues: the former are not, strictly speaking, means between extremes, and in fact the more extreme the better. "No greater love" is our model, our end, and our means.
Scott Carson said…
This is a mistaken notion of what it means for a virtue to be a mean between extremes, but it is not an uncommon misunderstanding, so I'm glad you've raised the point.

The moral virtues, for example, are exactly like the theological virtues in the sense that you cannot have too much of them. There is no such things as too much courage, too much truthfulness, too much justice. The foolhardy person is not a person who is overly courageous--he is someone who is not courageous at all but, rather, foolhardy.

So what you're getting at here is not what is meant when we say that the virtues are means between extremes. The mistake lies in thinking of the word "mean" as having an arithmetical meaning, but it does not: it is merely an English version (perhaps not the best one, given this common misunderstanding) of the Greek meson, which means "middle": courage lies in the middle between foolhardiness and cowardice, but there is no suggestion at all that what courage is is somehow the sum of foolhardiness + cowardice then divided by two.

So too with the theological virtues, you will find that St. Thomas speaks of them in exactly the same terms: they lie in between different sorts of vicious states that represent failures to meet the necessary and sufficient conditions of the virtuous state.

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