The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 59, No 4, July-Aug. 2006

Theology for the Laity


By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.


       Knowledge and study can take us quite far. At some point, though, our hard mental work can take us no further, and our judgment must yield to something we can neither see nor understand.

       If we visit a museum, we can analyze brush strokes, composition, colors, perspective, and any number of technical features in a painting. Each of these helps explain why the painting looks the way it does, but none of these qualities (or even all of them together) explains why the painting captures our imagination, or why we think it a masterpiece.

       Similarly, in our spiritual lives, we can look at the created world and make some valid judgments about a Creator (ST I. 12, 12). But knowing that a Creator exists is different from knowing what the Creator is like. That understanding, like the awe we experience in the presence of great art, comes from outside us. We call this understanding faith, and we receive it as a grace.

       The Letter to the Hebrews tells us (Heb. 11:1) that "faith is the evidence of things that cannot be seen." This means that we choose to believe what we do not know, or do not know fully (ST II-II. 2, 1).


       Belief does not exist independently of an object. This means we do not simply believe, we believe in something. Faith is belief in the truths revealed by God (ST II-II. 6, 1), and St. Thomas tells us faith confers four benefits: union with God, help in time of temptation, guidance in this life, and an introduction to eternal life.


       Faith unites us with God in a number of ways, and we may see a correspondence between our life of faith and the growth in love we experience in our families. When we were young we learned to obey because we discovered that we would be punished if we did not. Later, we discovered that spankings and "time out" in the corner were less painful than the realization that we had disappointed our parents by misbehaving.

       The same is true in our spiritual lives. At its most basic level, faith reveals the punishment that befalls those who disobey God. As our life in faith increases we realize that a worse punishment is separation from Him that results from our disobedience.

       But faith purifies our hearts (Acts, 15:9), and as we mature, our fear of God yields to love (ST II-II. 7, 2). Marriage, in which a man and a woman live (and love) so intimately that they become "one flesh" provides a good analogy for the union of the mature soul and God. Indeed, God Himself uses the image of marriage to describe His covenant with His people. He tells the prophet Hosea, "I will espouse you to myself in love" (Hos. 2:20).


       We identify the world, the flesh and the devil as sources of temptation. Faith enables us to withstand the blandishments of all three. When Jesus faced Satan after His forty-day fast, the devil offered Our Savior the wealth of the nations if He would fall down in worship. Jesus scorned the offer by reminding the devil that we are commanded to worship God, and God alone. Faith reminds us of this commandment and strengthens us to follow the example of Christ.

       We do not have to look far to discover the allurements of the flesh. Advertisers use skin to sell everything from soft drinks to laundry detergent. The virtue of justice reminds us that we owe one another more than a lascivious glance; faith purifies our motives and enables us to see in our relations with one another, here and now, a sign of the eternal happiness we look forward to in heaven.

       Likewise, faith teaches us that there is a life after the one we enjoy on earth, and a better one. The Beatitudes call us to a poverty of spirit by which we look beyond the material goods of this world. Faith fulfills this vision by helping us resist the attraction of prosperity and the fear of adversity.


       Left to our own devices, we could discover how to live well by trial and error. However, as anyone knows who has acquired a skill on his own, experience is neither the speediest nor the friendliest of teachers. St. Thomas tells us that Faith offers a shortcut to growth in virtue. "...the things to which faith assents... include not only God, but many other bearing some relation to God" (ST II-II. 1, 1). Thus, we need not ponder every truth exhaustively before we assent to it. Knowing that something is revealed by God suffices to elicit our faith.

       One of the prophets said, "The just shall live in his faith" (Hab. 2:4), and St. Thomas illustrates this with a charming example. In his Lenten sermon the Angelic Doctor preached


       St. Thomas tells us that we look forward to two things in heaven: "...the secret of the Godhead, to see which is to possess happiness; and the mystery of Christ's Incarnation" (ST II-II, 1, 8).

       When Jesus prayed for His disciples after the Last Supper He said, "this is eternal life: that they may know You... and Jesus Christ whom You have sent" (Jn. 17:3). Faith reveals the truth about God: that there is but one God, that there is a Trinity of Persons in this God, and that God works in diverse ways in the world. These works include the truths of nature, the sanctification of the human race, and the resurrection of the dead.

       Faith also reveals the truths of Jesus' conception, virginal birth, death, resurrection, and eventual return as our judge. We will comprehend the magnitude of these truths in heaven, but faith presents them for our (admittedly limited) consideration even now.

       Thus, although we cannot hope to know God fully until we know Him in heaven, faith brings us knowledge of Him even now, and this knowledge is an opportunity for us to enjoy on earth a small part of the glory we look forward to enjoying fully after we die.

       What is more, the knowledge we have of God by faith, here and now, is essential to our knowing him in the future. St. Thomas warned, " man can obtain the happiness of heaven, which is the true knowledge of God, unless he knows Him first by faith."

       We may be tempted to imagine that our life in heaven will be an unending enjoyment of the things that give meaning to our life on earth. However, we are probably wiser to believe that the blessings of heaven provide the pattern for the things that delight us here.


       In his sermon on the Creed, St. Thomas says

       St. Thomas invites us to look about the world and apply to our spiritual lives the examples we draw from nature, including (like the man who deduced a fire from the heat he felt on approaching a building) our capacity to look at effects and infer their causes. The earth is filled with wonders, but the heavens are more beautiful and noble than the earth.

       This, he argues, is because they are closer to their Maker. We are not obliged to share St. Thomas' aesthetic opinions, but simple observation will argue that the multitudes of ordered systems we can see around us make a powerful case for the existence of an orderly Creator.

       The more we investigate and study something - anything - the more we stand in awe of its unique complexity. From soap bubbles, which teach a great deal about the surface tension of water, to nuclear fission, the world is a textbook that proclaims the infinite wisdom and imagination of God.

       Here St. Thomas reminds us of the distinction between making something and creating it. Human hands control only the form things take because humans can make nothing except from matter that already exists. To acknowledge God as "Creator of heaven and earth" is to acknowledge that God not only determines the forms things take, but creates the matter from which they are formed.


       When we studied geometry we learned that the whole is equal to the sum of its parts and greater than any of them. God is infinitely more than all of creation put together, but we can nonetheless apply this principle to our faith. When we profess our faith in God as Creator we acknowledge that He is greater than anything He has made.


       The awe we feel as we consider the endless variety in creation comes as no surprise. However, what might be less obvious, is to consider that awe ought to lead to gratitude. As we investigate Nature, we realize that we are part of God's creation. So is everything we use and enjoy in this world. St. Paul asks, "What do you have that you have not received?" (1 Cor. 4:7) and this counsels us to offer thanks for whatever we have.


       Odd as this may sound, acknowledging God as Creator also encourages us to be patient in the face of trial. Whatever comes from God is good, as far as its nature goes. We may balk at hardship, pain and disease, but human parents know that they occasionally must discipline their children - even to the point of causing pain - for their own good. Insofar as a hardship is God's creature, it serves the same end, although its value may be just as hard for us to discern as the punishment a child cannot comprehend when he receives it.


       When we acknowledge God as Creator we learn to use properly the gifts God gives us. This is because God created Nature for two reasons: for His own glory, and for our profit. We have the use of creation, but we must never forget that creation is God's. We do ourselves no service, nor do we give God any tribute, if we misuse His gifts. These gifts include our planet, of course, but also our minds and bodies. St. Thomas warns, "...whatever you have, be it knowledge or beauty, you must refer all and use all for the glory of God."


       None of us was very old when we learned we must treat others the way we would like them to treat us; Justice demands no less. But as we grow in grace we learn that the reason underlying the Golden Rule is our belief in God as Creator. The Book of Genesis teaches us that God made us to look like Him. "Let us make man to our own image and likeness" (Gen 1:26), He said.

       God said this of no other part of creation, and if we are willing to rejoice in the gift of seeing God in ourselves, we must learn to see Him in others, too. St. Thomas warned

       If we are forbidden to sin by stooping to misuse the good things that resemble God less than we do, how much more careful must we be in our relations with one another, who share the same reflection of God that is our glory?

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