Sunday, April 8, 2007

Faith and Doubt

Happy Easter - Alleluia!

I came across the following passage that captures something of the deep "ignorance" that a person of faith must acknowledge. At once Socratic and Augustinian, these words of Saint Hilary of Poitiers refute the commonly held view (e.g., of Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins) that faith is a form of infantile self-certainty.

"There are many instances from everyday life where the cause itself is unknown, but the effect decidedly not so. And there is need for faith truly in the religious, supernatural sense wherever there is the ignorance due to my nature itself. For when I raise to your heaven those weak eyes that are my light I believe myself to see nothing other than your heaven. When surveying those circles and spheres carrying the stars, the yearly returns and vigils, the north star, the morning star, all these being given their differing tasks to perform, I perceive you to be at work in matters which my perception is even so very incomplete. When I see the wonderful rise and fall of the sea, it is not the origin of waters alone nor yet the motion of this vast swirling mass that I pursue and ponder, but rather, on apprehending the ground for belief in the cause which I cannot even so observe, that I am mindful, in things my mind does not grasp, of you also.

"When I turn my mind's eye to the earth, what is sown by hidden forces breaks free of what it had received, springs to life, multiplies and flourishes. There is really nothing here that I can understand properly by the light of nature; but then my ignorance itself contributes to my dim understanding of you, as long as I understand clearly that, being unfamiliar and baffled by the nature that serves me, I understand, as I say, that you alone can properly be of advantage or benefit to me. Not knowing or understanding myself either, I feel that all the more for that I am in awe of the fact that I am even a mystery to myself. For aware of, yet not comprehending, the movement of my mind in the act of passing judgment, or its way of functioning, or its life, I am in your debt for the awareness, for your communicating that awareness of nature delighting me, beyond the perception of natural origins. And when I come to understand you, albeit in ignorance of myself, may I respect you with my understanding and not lose my faith in your omnipotence at the thought of my ignorance of your ways: that my mind may be taken up with the origin of your only-begotten and so have something left over of itself, that I may further strive after my Creator and my God."

--Saint Hilary of Poitiers, "A Word In Season, Readings for the Liturgy of the Hours," VII, Ordinary Time, Year II

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