August 2017

Thinking and Believing

I am sometimes referred to as a “hyphenated priest”, as in a priest-professor. Because of that dual identity, I often have dual experiences. For example, when I am at the university, I am often perceived as conservative; but when I’m in a parish, I am often perceived as liberal. Despite these differing and often contradictory labels, I think I am just one person with a single identity.

In our culture, thinking and believing are often pitted against each other. Some might say, “If you are really smart, you don’t believe any of that supernatural stuff.” However, the intimate relationship between thought and belief goes way back. The prophet Isaiah (7:9) wrote, “Unless you believe, you will not understand.” Really? Such a statement today would be interpreted as blind faith, believing without thinking first.

But Isaiah is not the only one to address what looks like a paradox. I was struck by a very succinct text of St. Augustine (354-430) who towards the end of his life put it memorably this way: “No one believes anything unless one first thought it to be believable. Everything which is believed should be believed after thought has preceded. To believe is nothing other than to think, to ponder while assenting. One can think without believing, and often people think in order not to believe. If faith does not think, it is nothing.”

Put simply, for Augustine, believing and thinking are intimately connected. In his classic study, Varieties of Religious Experience, William James asked how one should think about a religious doctrine which no human being could claim to know. He wrote that three questions should be asked: First, does the teaching help us to understand our lives? Second, is it consistent with the way we know things are? And third, what are the fruits or benefits for those who believe? For James, being able to answer these three questions made religious beliefs sensible.

Augustine and James’s explanations are neither liberal nor conservative. They make sense to me as both an academic and a believer. Still, were I to present these reflections in a secular academic setting, I’d probably be perceived as a conservative (a believer), or in a parish setting as a liberal (an academic). Allow me to give the last word on believing, again by Augustine: “We move towards God not by walking but by loving (non ambulando, sed amando).” Loving is a special way of thinking. Loving is not blind, but bound. But that needs still another reflection.

Recent Oxford Publications

Learned Ignorance: Intellectual Humility Among Jews, Christians and Muslims

“This explicitly theological and exceptionally engaging collection of scholarly essays represents trilateral dialogue in its most refined yet attractively challenging form.”
— John Borelli, Georgetown University