To believe or not believe in a person, idea, or thing, requires us to exercise our mind and our judgment. We tend to internalize the beliefs of the people around us, especially in childhood, and many of us believe in the religion we were taught growing up. While we cling to our own beliefs, our beliefs are in a state of flux. What to believe or not, what to add on, and what to take away, is an ongoing process of reconciliation.
St. Augustine in one of his many exhortations says: “Believe in order that you may understand; unless you believe you shall not understand,” and claims the understanding that he had in mind could be achieved only in the vision of God face-to-face in a life of blessedness; but even in life, faith could be—and had to be—intensified in the mind by seeking a deeper insight.
For Augustine, progress in understanding was part of the growth of faith itself and the belief that God is always intimately present to the mind, whether this presence is acknowledged or not. His presence pervades everything and is operative in everything that happens. The only difference between the human mind in respect to the divine presence within it is that the human mind is able to turn freely toward the light and acknowledge its presence, or to turn away from it and forget it. Whether the mind is present to the divine light or not, the light is present to the mind; on this presence is founded all the mind’s ability to know.
St. Thomas Aquinas held that faith falls midway between opinion and scientific knowledge; it is more than opinion because it involves a firm assent to its object; and it is less than knowledge because it lacks vision. Both are intellectual acts and habits of assent: in the case of faith, a person is not sufficiently moved by the object to accept it as true; by an act of will, one inclines oneself to believe. Where objects of belief have to do with divine matters which exceed one’s natural cognitive capacity, the disposition to believe such articles of religious faith is regarded as a special gift from God.
The naturalist Charles Darwin revolutionized much of our thinking in science, philosophy, and theology. He advanced the theory of evolution, and his findings brought about much discussion; the biological sciences of his time were given a new set of principles, and we were given a new and challenging conception of our place in nature.
The popular reaction to Darwin’s theory focused on its religious and ideological implications. In his autobiography, he relates that his religious beliefs underwent a change from naive acceptance of Christianity to being a reluctant agnostic. Yet he experienced moods in which it seemed difficult or even impossible to conceive that “this immense and wonderful universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance.” In the end, however, he concluded that the whole subject is beyond the scope of man’s intellect: “the mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an agnostic.”
In our time, as in the past, when major controversial events occur, subsequent understanding of what actually happened often remains unclear to many. Go back then a couple of thousand years ago in Jesus Christ’s time, where oral reports were common and written records were few, and you come to realize the colossal magnitude of discerning the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Furthermore, trying to obtain the truth from the minds of individuals who have a vested interest in a given situation, is a complex and challenging endeavour that often yields meagre results. One must be careful in not just judging and looking at others as being like this, as indeed in the main, we are all like this. It ain’t easy!