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Faith, hope, and charity are, quite simply, the three greatest things in the world; the three legs of a single tripod that supports the whole Christian life. They are the glue that attaches us to God. They are the three-doored entrance to heaven. It is not that God refuses entrance at heaven's gate to anyone; these are heaven's gate.
Faith, hope, and charity are, quite simply, the three greatest things in the world. We cannot possibly overemphasize their importance. Together they make up the “one thing necessary”. We must speak of them in the same imperious and imperative terms Jesus used when he said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” Nothing is more important than faith, hope, and charity because they make the difference between heaven and hell, eternal life and eternal death, and there is no difference as great as that.
They are called the three theological virtues because they have God (theos) as their object. They are the glue that attaches us to God. They are the three-doored entrance to heaven. It is not that God refuses entrance at heaven's gate to anyone; these are heaven's gate. Anyone who has no faith in God, no hope in God, and no love of God cannot go to heaven because heaven would be hell to him. He could not endure or enjoy the presence of God after death anymore than he did before death.
Faith, hope, and charity are the three legs of a single tripod that supports the whole Christian life. Each leg depends on the others. Faith without the works of love is dead, according to Scripture, and false — not real faith at all. Love not motivated by faith is not agape but mere feeling and sentimentality (often masked by the code word compassion), dependent on the whims and winds of human change. Hope without faith is mere wishful thinking, “the power of positive thinking”, optimism. Hope is not the same as optimism; some of the great hopers are pessimists by temperament, like Evelyn Waugh. Hope's opposite is despair, which is a deadly sin, not pessimism, which is a psychological trait. Love without hope is desperation, Stephen Crane's “open boat” of doomed castaways able only to huddle close for warmth before death, the end of everything. Hope without love is isolating and selfish; it is the Phariseeism and self-righteousness of every tyrant and architect of a “brave new world”. Faith without hope is simply impossible, for the God we believe has given us an astonishing bag of promises.
This tripod is the foundation of all other virtues. The other virtues all depend on these three because these are the key to the very life of God within our souls, and all other virtues are characteristics of that life, not self-improvement programs that we whip up within ourselves. Honesty, justice, patience, chastity, self-control, even love of neighbor, all come from the prior presence of God in us, which in turn comes only through faith, hope, and charity. We do not practice the virtues in order to get to heaven; we practice the virtues because heaven has already gotten to us. Love of God, for instance, will always send us to love of neighbor, while love of neighbor will not always send us to love of God, for God always sends you to your neighbor, but your neighbor does not always send you to God. Both commandments are absolutely necessary, but there is an order — not of importance, for love of God without love of neighbor is just as worthless and false as love of neighbor without love of God — but an order of priority, of precedence. First things first. Foundations first. Back to basics.
It is appropriate for us to turn back to these basics of the Christian life now because the society we live in does not understand them. We live in a post-Christian world, and many of us are not sufficiently aware of that fact. Our modern world is in fact a clear countersign to these three virtues. Doubt, despair, and selfishness are the pillars of modern life, not faith, hope, and charity. Our world sees faith as naivete, hope as Pollyanna-style wishful thinking, and charity as weakness. We see around us a growing materialism, which is unbelief in practice; a rising suicide rate and depression, which is despair in practice; and a rising respectability for the me-first philosophy for which charity is a totally unintelligible alternative, a radical foolishness. It is therefore high time for us to go back to our spiritual basics, lest we sink into the dark waters that surround us and disappear into me-tooism, lest our salt lose its saltiness and deserve only to be trodden under foot, like rock salt thrown on snow or ice.
Kant said that there are only three absolutely necessary questions that everyone must answer, implicitly or explicitly: What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope? The three theological virtues are God's answer to these three most important human questions. We can know God and all that is necessary for our salvation by faith in what God has revealed to us; we can know our essential moral obligation as charity to God and neighbor; and we can know what to hope in by what God has promised us.
These three virtues are also called the supernatural virtues to distinguish them from the natural virtues, the virtues that do not require the saving presence of God's own life in the soul for their existence (though they do require that for their perfection). The four cardinal, or “hinge”, virtues in the natural order are prudence (practical wisdom), fortitude (courage), temperance (moderation), and justice (fairness and harmony within and without).
Without the supernatural virtues, the natural virtues cannot flourish. Augustine went so far (too far, I think) as to call the natural moral virtues of pagans like Socrates “splendid vices”. But it is true that, for instance, without charity, which goes beyond justice, it is very hard even to be just, for we cannot fulfill the just requirements of the natural law of fairness to our neighbors except by the power of love. “Love is the fulfillment of the law”, as Saint Paul says, not because love substitutes for the law, as if we did not need to do works of justice once we had charity, but because love fulfills the law, for when we love someone we want them to receive perfect justice.
Another example of the same principle: it is very difficult to be courageous without hope of heaven. Why risk your life if there is no hope that your story ends in anything other than worms, decay, and forgetting? Also, no one can be truly wise without faith, for faith sees higher and farther and deeper than reason or experience can. It sees “through a glass, darkly”, but it sees truly. And no one can practice temperance or self-control without God's grace, for we are all addicted to sin and self-indulgence, and it is very difficult to break an addiction by just trying a little harder without help from without.
The point is simply that without God's grace, which comes only through faith, hope, and charity, no one can be very good. Without love, justice turns to cruelty. Without hope, courage turns to blind despair and rage. Without faith, this-worldly wisdom becomes foolishness in God's eyes.
Faith first, because it is first. It is the root, hope is the stem, and charity is the flower. The flower is the fairest, the stem does the growing, but the root must come first. What is faith?
We can speak of faith (1) in a very wide, general sense, as the world speaks of it; or (2) in a biblical sense, as saving faith, or the condition for salvation; or, finally, (3) in its most technical theological sense as one of the three theological virtues.
1. Faith in the most general sense is simply a feeling of trust in or reliance on someone (or even sometimes on no one, as in the poster where a tiny knight with a tiny sword tremblingly confronts an enormous dragon, and the caption says, in Gothic letters, “Have faith”). This is indeed naivete. “Have faith in me” , says the used-car salesman or the presidential candidate or the incompetent doctor with the divinity complex.
2. Faith in the biblical sense of saving faith is the act by which we receive God's own eternal life (or “sanctifying grace”, in technical theological terms). It is our fundamental option of saying Yes instead of No to God with our heart, our will, our personal center. To believe in this sense is to receive (Jn 1: 12 parallels the two terms), to receive God himself.
Saint Paul argues in Romans that faith (in this sense) was even in Old Testament times the condition for salvation, for our justification with God. Abraham was justified by his faith. Go back even farther: the fall was first of all a fall of faith. Only because Eve first believed the serpent when he told her she would not die if she ate the forbidden fruit, rather than believing God when he told her that she would-only because of Eve's faithlessness within -did she practice the faithlessness without that was the actual act of disobedience, the eating of the forbidden fruit. Faith is the root of obedience; the lack of faith is the root of disobedience. If we totally believed that obedience always worked to our blessedness, we would not disobey. Only because we must pray “Lord, I believe, but help my unbelief” do we sin.
Saint Paul contrasts faith with sin when he says, “Whatever is not of faith is sin." We usually think of sin as the opposite of virtue, and faith as the opposite of doubt. But virtue is a moral term, and doubt is an intellectual term. The opposite of moral virtue is moral vice, and the opposite of intellectual doubt is intellectual belief. Faith is deeper than either moral virtue or intellectual belief. Sin is deeper than either moral vice or intellectual doubt. Faith is a fundamental Yes to God with the center of our being, and sin — the state of sin as distinct from particular acts of sin — is the fundamental No to God with the center of our being. Faith is the opposite of sin. Faith is to sin what light is to darkness.
Belief is an intellectual matter. I believe the sun will shine tomorrow: I believe I am in good health, I believe my textbooks. This is mere opinion. Faith is not mere opinion. Opinions do not save us. Trust is an emotional matter. I trust my surgeon or my psychiatrist or my children. This is a precious feeling, but it is a feeling. Faith is not feeling. Feelings do not save us. Faith, however, results in or expresses itself in both belief and trust, for the prefunctional root that is the very essence of the self expresses itself in the two branches or functions of the intellectual (belief) and the emotional (trust). But faith is deeper. That is why even some people who seem on an intellectual level to be unbelievers may on this deeper level be believers, and we may be surprised to see some famous so-called atheists in heaven. And it is why some people who seem to have very little emotional faith — little trust, serenity, consolation — may nevertheless be people of great, even heroic, faith. Only God sees hearts.
3. The third and most specific, most technical sense of faith is the sense we learned from the Baltimore Catechism. Faith is the act of the intellect, prompted by the will, by which we believe the truth of all that God has revealed on the basis of the authority of the one who has revealed it. This is essentially the definition used by Saint Thomas Aquinas and medieval scholastic theology.
At the time of the Protestant Reformation, each side used a different language system, and the most important and tragic split in the Church's history resulted. Protestant reformers, using faith in the biblical sense, as saving faith, insisted that the Bible clearly taught that faith alone was sufficient for salvation. They formulated their slogan sola fides (faith alone), on the basis of Romans and Galatians. They thought that the Catholic Church's insistence that good works were also necessary for salvation was a pagan doctrine, a compromise of the very essence of the gospel. Most evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants to this day justify their disagreement with the Catholic Church more fundamentally on this basis than on any other. They sincerely believe that Catholicism is another gospel, as Paul called Galatian legalism, and many wonder whether Catholics are even Christians.
But James clearly says in his epistle that faith without works is dead and that we are justified by works (good works, the works of love) as well as faith, working together with faith. James and the Catholic scholastic theologians were using faith in its third, narrowest sense: as just one of the three theological virtues. In this sense, hope and charity must be added to faith for salvation. Paul and the Protestants were using faith in its second, broader sense: as the root or center of all three theological virtues, not as an act of the intellect (as in the Baltimore Catechism definition) but as an act of the heart (in the biblical sense) or spirit or personal center. Both sides were (and are) right, as Pope John Paul II made quite clear to the Lutheran bishops of Germany on his visit there in 1983. In other words, the essence of the Protestant Reformation was a misunderstanding. What hope for reunion lies in that fact!
To clarify the different meanings of faith in another way, remember that we exist on three levels. Saint Paul in two places in his letters refers to them as “spirit, soul, and body”. Body is our relationship with the physical world, the level of reality that is less than ourselves. Soul is our relationship with ourselves (self-consciousness) and with others, our equals. Spirit is our relationship with God, the reality that is greater than ourselves. There is a form of faith on each of the three levels. Faith in the bodily sphere is the works of love and obedience without which, according to James, faith is dead and false. This is the aspect emphasized by the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews in the classic chapter on faith, chapter 11. The faith of each of the Old Testament heroes was defined or manifested in what they did. Faith in the sphere of the soul includes both intellectual belief and emotional trust. Finally, faith in the spirit, where faith begins, is the basic Yes to God that is the condition for salvation. This is an act of the will, but it is not always consciously rational and intellectual.
Saint Thomas, like the New Testament, sometimes uses faith in the technical and intellectual sense, as an act of the intellect. But sometimes he uses faith in the broader and deeper sense, the Pauline sense, just as the Protestant reformers did — for instance, when he says that “the object of faith is not a proposition but a person.” In other words, God himself is the object of faith; the propositions in the creed express its content. We believe not just ideas about God but God. It is essential to know things about God, but it is more essential to know God. “This is eternal life”, says Jesus in his high priestly prayer in John 17:3, “to know Thee, the only true God.” The creeds are like accounting books, God is like the actual money.
Though the root of faith is not intellectual, one of its fruits is. “Faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum) was the operative slogan for a thousand years of Christian theology.
“Unless you believe, you will not understand” — faith first. Then, “In thy light we see light” — understanding follows. How accurately the saints know God; how foolishly mistaken are the unbelieving geniuses! Reason may run ahead of faith, as John ran ahead of Peter to the empty tomb, but faith first enters the secret of understanding, as Peter first entered the tomb. Faith is more active than reason. Reason passively reports data, like a camera. Faith takes a stand, like an army. Faith leaps into God's arms, answering his proposal of spiritual marriage.
There is a kind of faith that Saint Paul lists as one of the charismatic gifts. This is special, miracle-working faith. It is available to all but found in few. When we have this kind of faith, we do not pray from the human platform of uncertainty and pleading but from the divine platform of operative certainty. The word of this kind of faith is not “please” but “be it done.” Many radio and television preachers have confused listeners by confusing this special kind of faith with ordinary saving faith, making listeners think they are guaranteed miracles and if miracles do not happen they just do not have real faith at all. This may be an honest mistake, but it is a cruel one. Jesus' own disciples had faith smaller than a grain of mustard seed, Jesus said. Yet they were accepted. “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” is a good, honest prayer, like the prayer of the publican, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Let us be content to run before trying to fly.
The most pervasive mistake the modern world makes about faith is to subjectivize and psychologize it, as if believers constructed their religion out of their own psyches: “I'm feeling rather religious today; do you have anything for me to believe in?” This mistake occurs because the modern mind has things inside out. It starts with the human rather than the divine. Thus its values are “my values” (don't impose them on anyone else, please!), and even truth is “truth for me”. Both the Bible and common sense say differently. We must conform to reality, not vice versa. We must be honest. There is only one honest reason why anyone should ever believe anything: because it is true. God is, and God has acted, and God has spoken. Now I must respond. That is the true situation. Do I respond Yes (faith) or No? That is the simple question.
Faith is very simple. Saying all this is perhaps too much. Much of what is written about faith is like snowflakes on a bell: it muffles the sound. Just say Yes to God. It's the simplest thing in the world.
Kreeft, Peter. “Faith.” Chapter 28 in Fundamentals of the Faith. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 167-175.
Reprinted by permission of Ignatius Press. All rights reserved. Fundamentals of the Faith - ISBN 0-89870-202-X.
Peter Kreeft teaches at Boston College in Boston Massachusetts. He is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.
Copyright © 1988 Ignatius Press