Faith!? You Can’t Teach Faith!

Coming from a Thomistically inspired perspective, as is my wont, faith is not something that can be taught.  Rather, faith is a gift from God, one of the many ways in which God communicates God’s very self to us.  The grace of faith builds from our natural ability to know reality by enabling us to really and truly say “yes,” or assent, to those aspects of reality that are not naturally apparent – and hence are revealed – to our unaided reasoning.  The key word here is “build,” the grace of faith does not destroy our natural reasoning abilities; faith is not contrary to our nature or status as human beings but instead builds in concert with our natural abilities to reason.  It directs, elevates, and ultimately fulfills the purpose for which we were given these abilities in the first place: To know (and to love and to serve) God and neighbor in this life, and to be happy in God’s immediate presence (what is meant by the symbol “heaven”) in the next.

If faith is a gift that we cannot attain on our own, then where does that leave the question of faith in the classroom?  Again, coming from a Thomistic perspective, the answer lies in trying to prepare our students (and continuing to open ourselves) to receive the gift of faith.  This means that while faith itself cannot be taught, we can help remove those stumbling blocks to belief that our natural reasoning abilities might have picked up along the way, for instance: superstition; scientism; rationalism; fideism; confusions in logic; psychologism; deism; materialism; positivism; etc.  Such twists and turns in reasoning can come from: poor religious education; religious illiteracy; popular cultural (mis)understandings and (mis)portrayals of religious beliefs; ideas from nineteenth century atheists (e.g. Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche) that continue to circulate in society at large; etc.  Helping to untie these conceptually dysfunctional knots, what the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein called the process of “intellectual therapy,” does not itself bring about faith, but it does help clear the blockages to belief that natural reason might be putting up against God’s loving desire to grace us with faith.  God will not force God’s gifts on us, to do so would not only nullify the very meaning and intention of gift-giving, it would render us without the freedom to receive or refuse; a freedom necessary in any relationship of love.

My own experience with trying to help clear away the intellectual brambles and thorns that threaten to choke the seed of faith God desires to implant has involved bringing out into the open the very twists, turns, and dysfunctional knots inherited from both secular and religious cultures.  Taking up philosophy, philosophical theology, and a neo-Thomistic metaphysics, I have tried to help students appropriate the reasoning behind the claims of both belief and unbelief.  I have tried to lead them in a process of “intellectual therapy” such that they are able to consciously know and understand the larger sources and histories underlying the implicit philosophical assumptions and general worldviews of the claims to belief and unbelief.  Indeed, many of the claims to unbelief circulating in the world today are not at all self-appropriated; that is to say that the mostly implicit and assumed philosophical and logistical reasons people have for not believing are often simply ideas they have inherited from various sources without really thinking about them critically.  Oftentimes they even think they have come up with such ideas all on their own, e.g., the student who triumphantly and eagerly thinks they are blowing your mind when they tell you that they think God is just imaginary, a human projection (an idea with an origin that can be traced back to at least the 19th century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach).  At the same time, many student’s claims to unbelief also stem from the overly literalistic, pietistic, or all around poor theological thinking to which they have been subjected and of which they have likewise not been consciously critical, e.g., the student who claims not to believe in God but thinks that the word “God” is meant to refer to an old white man with a beard who sits in clouds and rules over a kingdom whose streets are paved with gold and whose gates are made of pearls.

In the end, I think, all one can do as a teacher is to offer students opportunities to become more aware, to think through what might be tripping them up, and probably most importantly, to help them see that their implicit thinking in relation to claims of belief or unbelief is not entirely original, that it has a history based in a wide range of sophisticated (and sometimes not so sophisticated) philosophical and intellectual engagement.  If we, as teachers, can continue to prune away the weeds blocking the freedom that comes from knowing why you think the things you do and whether the things you think are actually reasonable or not, we will have done our students a great service.  Again, it is only in such freedom that one can truly be open to receiving (or refusing) the gift of faith that is God’s offer, and it is our vocation as Christian religious educators to foster the freedom and dispositions necessary for what, in the end, is God’s work.  To use a somewhat tired metaphor, we are the gardeners who plow, irrigate, plant, and weed, but it is only through God’s gracious gift of effective love that the seed itself shoots open and into the light.