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Faith: A Perspective From Hebrews 11 – Derek Jeter

September 17, 2012

David is a life-size marble sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The sculpture was part of a commission to decorate the villa of Bernini’s patron Cardinal Scipione Borghese – the Galleria Borghese – where it still resides today. It was completed in the course of seven months from 1623 to 1624. The subject of the work is the biblical David, about to throw the stone that will bring down Goliath, which will allow David to behead him. Relating to earlier works on the same theme, it is also revolutionary in its implied movement and its psychological depth.

Hebrews 11 is a discussion of faith with citations from the Old Testament of those who served as exemplars of the faith.

The opening statement of Hebrews 11:1 is used often as a definition of faith “Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.” “Assurance” elsewhere translated as the “substance” of things hoped for, connotes that the faith in a believer’s soul, a gift of God’s grace, actually brings this reality into his existence for him. The things hoped for are all of those blessings, temporal and eternal, that make up the inheritance of the faithful, the deposit of faith that rests with the Church: fides quae creditor, the objective content of faith.

The “conviction of things not seen” is one of the recurring themes of Hebrews 11 as “the invisible.” The creation was made of things “invisible”; Noah was warned of “things not seen as yet”; Abraham’s inheritance was invisible at the time he went out; the eternal city is invisible. So it was also for the blessings of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, as conveyed in succession to their sons, and always with regard to things invisible; and here it is recorded that Moses’ epic adventures of faith were achieved by means of a faith in the invisible God.

Thus, this roll-call of faith is presented for the primary purpose of showing the means of their triumph, faith in the invisible, which is but another way of saying faith in the supernatural. The modern Christian too is confronted with exactly the same challenge: Christ is invisible The result of Moses’ faith in the invisible God was that the king of Egypt no longer inspired him with fear, thus proving that the more people fear God the less they fear any man, however powerful.

The “conviction of things not seen” are also echoed in these words from St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:6-13 about the wisdom of eternal life:

“The true wisdom of eternal life is the contemplation of the profundities of God, which the Spirit of God alone knows and of which, through faith and in faith, God causes a mysterious knowledge to come down upon us when we have reached the perfect age of the Christian.

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written:

‘No eye has seen,
no ear has heard,
no mind has conceived
what God has prepared for those who love him’
But God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.”

John Paul II in Fides et Ratio comments on a twofold order of knowledge that the gift of faith creates within us, this “mysterious knowledge” that Paul was speaking of previously:

“The First Vatican Council teaches then, that the truth attained by philosophy and the truth of revelation are neither identical nor mutually exclusive: “There exists a twofold order of knowledge, distinct not only as regards their source, but also as regards their object.

With regard to the source, because we know in one by natural reason, in the other by divine faith. With regard to the object, because besides those things which natural reason can attain, there are proposed for our belief mysteries hidden in God, which, unless they are divinely revealed, cannot be known. Based on God’s testimony and enjoying the supernatural assistance of grace, faith is of an order other than philosophical knowledge which depends upon sense perceptions and experience and which advances by the light of the intellect alone.

Philosophy and the sciences function within the order of natural reason; while faith, enlightened and guided by the Spirit, recognizes in the message of salvation the “fullness of grace and truth” that echoes from John 1:14: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

There follows in Hebrews 11 a number of citations beginning with a reference to creation and then moving in verse four to a consideration of Abel. In this and all subsequent references to the Old Testament exemplars the words are intoned “By faith…” I read a commentary on Hebrews 11 that reviewed not only what was in Hebrews 11 but on what was left out, “the glaring omission of the name of Adam, the mighty progenitor of the human race.”

God walked in the garden in the cool of the evening and called, “Adam, where art thou?” And where is he? He is lost, disinherited, sentenced to eternal death, tortured by the knowledge of what he should be haunting his pitiful consciousness of what he is. It is not of Adam that we speak, but of his race. “Where art thou?” The words live forever, calling people to consider, to view their hopeless estate, and to move toward that reconciliation that is possible through Christ.”

Our peril, and the peril of our race, is that the human intellect is free to either destroy itself or to reject God’s grace as the pitiful Adam did by trying to hide.  There is a great deal written about the relationship of faith to reason. My favorite, G.K. Chesterton, begins by telling us that

“Just as one generation could prevent the very existence of the next generation, by all entering a monastery or jumping into the sea, so one set of thinkers can in some degree prevent further thinking by teaching the next generation that there is no validity in any human thought.” I would submit that we are part of several generations now that does precisely that; witness how our current secular orthodoxy embraces the relativism of the age.

Chesterton saw this happening, too, in his time. He pointed out that “It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. 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. If you are merely a skeptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, “Why should ANYTHING go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? Aren’t they both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?” The young skeptic says, “I have a right to think for myself.” But the old skeptic, the complete skeptic, says, “I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to think at all.”

In Verse 6 the author of Hebrews 11 states “And without faith it is impossible to be well-pleasing unto him; for he that cometh to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that seek after Him.” In Pensées 781, Pascal notes that in Isaiah 45:15, the prophet speaks of a hidden God: “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel.” Pascal explains the Hidden God concept in Pensées 149:

“If God had wished to overcome the obstinacy of the most hardened he could have done so by revealing himself to them so plainly that they could not doubt the truth of his essence, as he will appear on the last day with such thunder and lightning and such convulsions of nature that the dead will rise up and the blindest will see him. This is not the way he wished to appear when he came in mildness.

Because so many men had shown themselves unworthy of his clemency, he wished to deprive them of the good they did not desire. It was therefore not right that he should appear in a manner manifestly divine and absolutely capable of convincing all men, but neither was it right that his coming should be so hidden that he could not be recognized by those who sincerely sought him. He wished to make himself perfectly recognizable to them.

Thus wishing to appear openly to those who seek him with all their heart and hidden from those who shun him with all their heart, he has qualified our knowledge of him by giving signs which can be seen by those who seek him and not by those who do not. There is enough light for those who desire only to see and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition.”

Peter Kreeft in his commentary on Pascal elicits three answers as to why God is not more obvious:

  1. He wants to give us time to repent. Scripture says this in several places, Luke Chapter 13: 6-9: “Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He (the gardener) replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
  2. He wants to effect a true relationship with us, not one merely of intellectual belief but of personal faith, hope, love and trust. Dulles’ says that the principal act of Faith is to believe. Here is a thought from Kreeft that I love: “The propositions of lovers are different from the propositions of syllogisms.” So, you see it’s not all Reason in some sort of scientific, philosophical or logical sense. Romano Guardini tells a story of a friend to whom he would turn for help when being challenged by a scriptural passage or caught up in trying to understand his faith. The friend would tell him: “But Love does such things!” and they would both laugh, because they knew they were back to the truth.
  3. God is both love and justice; if he manifests himself truly it cannot be without love or without justice. His love led Him to save all who will have Him, and his justice led him to punish those who will not have Him. Thus He respects our free choice. He deprives the damned only of the good they do not desire. Hell is contained in God’s claim that “you will find me when you seek me with all your heart” [Jeremiah 29:13] This claim is not refuted or fairly tested if we do not fulfill our part of the experiment by seeking.”

    More than anything else, God wants us to care. It may be even more important than to know, “For it is the only way to know the most important things: yourself, your soul, your identity, your purpose, your destiny and your immortality. If we are indifferent instead of seeking we simply will not find, that is, we will not be saved.” I submit to you with all my heart an observation I just absolutely know to be true: Hell is not populated by passionate rebels but by very nice, bland, indifferent, respectable people wearing tasseled loafers and pants suits who simply never gave a damn.

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