In a college course I took, I was blessed to learn an important insight from St. Anselm about a good approach to the things of faith that we don’t understand: “faith seeking understanding.” This key insight has been so helpful to me because previously I would come from the disposition of “I need to understand first and then I will believe (have faith).” The problem with my former way of thinking was that I needed to learn that faith is a gift from God.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) speaks of faith as the “theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself” (CCC 1814).
Unlike some parts of our daily life, many things we believe by faith can’t be proven through our human capacities, i.e. external and internal powers such as touch, smell, hearing, taste, imagination, intellect, etc. Those capacities are the tools by which we most commonly learn. For example, we experience wood and its hardness, and that gives definition to the concept of wood.
Spiritual realities, on the other hand, require a supernatural power in order to understand them because we can not know them through our internal and external powers alone. Is it any wonder then that as humans we tend to struggle with the spiritual mysteries of our faith? We tend to go right to our human powers and think this is the only way to know something that is spiritual, but it doesn’t work this way.
We know from the Bible the many examples in both the Old and New Testaments of people struggling to believe the prophets and even Jesus himself when they called people to have faith. Even today, it is so common to struggle with the spiritual reality of faith, partly because we are so prone to limit our understanding and willingness to believe something, and then do so only when our human powers on their own can come to know and believe that the thing is true.
To complicate it even more, in our culture today, many believe there are no objective truths but rather there are different truths for different people. This error in thinking leads to confusion and uncertainty and denies the objectivity of what is really true.
What I’ve learned is that “faith seeking understanding” (about spiritual matters God has revealed to us) opens wide the doors for us to receive supernatural (God’s) spiritual powers. For example, if we ask God and are honestly open to the reality of spiritually good things from him (grace), then we can attain the potential of using both natural and supernatural powers.
In my own life, there were many times in my teen and young adult years when I struggled believing in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. I struggled because I kept trying to understand this mystery of our faith only through my own human powers of knowing rather than turning also to what Jesus so clearly revealed to us in Scripture. This could be the same reason that a 2019 Pew Research poll of Catholics reported only 30 percent believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist—we’re trying too hard to believe it under our own power and knowledge.
“Faith seeking understanding” helped me turn to God and ask for the supernatural gift of faith and then choose to receive and believe the mystery of faith. The result has been that the veil of doubt and confusion was replaced with a spiritual knowledge and belief that the Eucharist is truly the body and blood of Jesus.
Oh what a difference turning to God and asking for faith, or whatever supernatural gift we need, makes to learning what is objectively true as God has revealed, as He knows and desires for us to experience by being open and dependent upon his grace.
Let’s pray that we all can humbly ask God for the gift of “faith seeking understanding” so all people can come to know and love the objective truth of natural and supernatural powers that God generously has and desires to give to us.