On Faith and Docility

G. K. Chesterton once said, “I don’t need a church to tell me I’m wrong where I already know I’m wrong; I need a church to tell me I’m wrong where I think I’m right.” Whatever being a Christian requires, it has to require something. It would be easy to explain one’s Christianity to the world if Christianity required nothing over and above the world’s expectations—but at the same time, Christianity would in that case become pointless, a credo without practical implications. It’s this aspect of Christianity that is simultaneously exciting and daunting. As Chesterton wrote elsewhere, “There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.”[1]

I think the virtue toward which Chesterton’s claim points is that of docility. Today, the docile person evokes the image of a sheep; he apparently lacks conviction and is willing to be pushed around—in the case under our consideration, by an institutional church. One might worry, furthermore, that to believe something on faith is tantamount to believing it without reason. This might seem especially offensive in the case of a religion whose Messiah claims to be “the Way, the Truth, and the Life”—for how could one accord the appropriate respect to the Truth by believing in him without adequate reason?

Etymologically, however, docility just is teachability, that is, the readiness to engage in the sort of self-doubt requisite for learning. Understood in this way, docility is the proper response of the Christian to his existential situation— it’s a reliable way of assimilating oneself to what is true and of growing in virtue. Why this is so, I’ll argue, can be seen by looking at an account of knowledge sketched by Alasdair MacIntyre, and by applying that account to the Christian tradition.

Begin by stepping back, for a moment, to scrutinizing belief in general. A belief is a mental state that seeks to conform to reality, or equivalently, seeks truth, where truth is understood in terms of correspondence to reality. MacIntyre, while reflecting on Pope Saint John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio, argues for this conception of belief and truth.[2] True belief, on this sort of theory, involves a kind of identity between “how things are” and “how one takes them to be” in the sense that “the words that would have to be used to specify the content of his thought are the same words that would tell us how things are.”[3] A mark of the truth of my belief that I am typing, then, is the fact that the same words are used to express what I believe and what is the case (namely, that I am typing). The sort of identity that obtains might be called formal identity; there is no typing literally occurring in my skull, but some sort of sameness obtains between me and what is real, when I both type and believe that I type.

While it’s famously difficult to define knowledge, one can approach the topic of what makes belief warranted less ambitiously. MacIntyre thinks that any theory of truth “needs to explain why we cannot but take truth to be a good, so that ‘false,’ whether predicated of a belief, a judgement, a testimony, or a coin, or a friend, always has the gerundive force of ‘This is something to be rejected.’”[4] A true belief is a good thing to have and to express, while a false belief is a failure qua belief. There is a performative fault in someone who asserts one of his beliefs without adequate ground to think it’s true; thus asserting a belief requires that one can honestly think it true, and this requires that the belief seems to have been formed by the right sort of receptivity with reality. MacIntyre writes, “When we take our assertions to be true, when we take it that their content is identical with how things are, we also take it that this is because our thoughts in the assertive mode have been made what they are by that same reality about which we are thinking.”[5] Beliefs can be accidentally true, but to assert just is to assert that one’s belief is not accidentally true. Thus “the mind is receptive to external reality in such a way and to such a degree that its judgments, at least on this occasion and concerning this subject matter, are true and true because of this receptivity.”[6]

Receptivity is fundamental in the proper formation of belief; beliefs ought to result from channels that make them receptive to reflecting the way the world is. What this amounts to in the case of basic perceptual beliefs—like the belief that I am typing—is plain enough. My visual apparatus is apt to yield states of beliefs with content formally identical, in the sense outlined above, to how things are.

The situation is more complicated when certain beliefs are not formed as a result of such straightforward perceptual mechanisms. This bears on the Christian’s epistemological situation, for the Christian has probably learned what he has about Christ from the Bible, from his parents, and from his church; though he might report seeing and hearing God, he has not seen or heard God as I now see my keyboard and hear the clack of its keys.

Epistemic reliance on others, however, is not uniquely the province of the Christian or even of the religious. If we restrict ourselves to consideration of beliefs acquired through what could straightforwardly be described as perceptual experience, we still lack an account of how someone reading a chemistry or history textbook might acquire beliefs that he is warranted in asserting. The philosopher James Ross writes:

The largest percentage of our knowledge comes to each of us through our habitual trust in the reports, research, and opinions of others whom we take (perhaps by an additional application of faith) to be in a position to know. And we do not require that in order to be in a position to know one must in every case be able to find out for himself. It would be a rare person who could claim to have found out or to have checked (or even to have partially verified) any significant proportion of the things he counts among his knowledge (unless he has adopted an unconventionally restrictive conception of “knowledge” or an uncommonly loose concept of “checking”).[7]

An empiricist might concede that a kind of faith is placed in such sources but insist that these cases are quite distinct from instances of religious belief, for one might believe a chemistry or history textbook because they probably contain the truth—and this, one knows from previous reliance on textbooks of various sorts. This response, however, is wanting, for it inevitably requires further reliance on the same sorts of sources of knowledge—for what confirmation has one that history textbooks do not lie, that does not rely on other human testimony?[8] The phenomenon of believing someone on faith is more subtle.[9]

Scrupulous judgments of probability like those in which the thoroughgoing empiricist wants everyone to engage are rare in practice, indeed, because taken literally they amount to practical irrationality.[10] St. Thomas Aquinas picked up on the practical rationality of faith in his commentary on Boethius’ De Trinitate:

And since among men dwelling together one man should deal with another as with himself in what he is not self-sufficient, therefore it is needful that he be able to stand with as much certainty on what another knows, but of which he himself is ignorant, as upon the truths which he himself knows. Hence it is that in human society faith is necessary in order that one man give credence to the words of another…[11]

In other words, according to Aquinas, the necessity of faith in one’s fellows is something like the necessity of property and exchange. In the strictest of senses, a community lacking the institution of property is possible, but in practice, owing to the limitations of man, some sort of institution of property is indispensable. Likewise, there are no epistemic individualists who pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Someone who attempts such an abstemious feat is epistemically irresponsible.

The necessity of property and of faith referred to here is neither logical (like “Every bachelor is unmarried”) nor causal (like “That which goes up must come down”); it is, rather, what Elizabeth Anscombe called “Aristotelian necessity,” that “by which something is called necessary if without it good cannot be attained.”[12] I have argued previously that the necessities on which the species-specific human good hangs provide the conditions for morally good human actions.[13]

It is in this sense that we can meet the worry raised earlier, that MacIntyre’s account of the propriety of belief meshes well with perceptual beliefs but not faith. For there is a real sense in which the person who puts his faith in those he sees as credible authorities is engaging in an activity that promises to beget beliefs receptive to the way things are.

The practically wise human being, then, will be disposed to place his faith in the rest of his community on a variety of issues. The looming question, then, is whether the practically wise human being might put his faith in such an archaic thing as a religious institution. Of course, there have been thousands of religious institutions, so how could anyone put his faith in just one? The difficulty here is not, in my view, fatal, for the objection does not properly appreciate the practical dimension of trust involved in the above account of faith; the truth of one religion does not necessarily imply the practical irrationality of those who participate in others, nor does the existence of other religions imply that one lacks practical warrant to participate in the one.

The question of whether it makes sense to be a Christian is a complex one. I suspect that most modern persons require something of a “metaphysical rebirth” to accept Christianity, if only because it’s natural for someone growing up today to find Christianity not just evidentially unwarranted but obviously false and unscientific. My personal trust in the Catholic Church has been actuated by a number of other factors which, much as I’d like now to try, are impossible to summarize in any short space. Suffice it to observe that the general principle of the Church’s authority to speak for and as Christ is its historic witness—classically the witness made by the Apostles and the Saints who devoted their lives to proclaiming God’s word, but also its ongoing witness through the present age.

Given that there is a God and that man was created in his image, I take it that the Church is necessary—necessary, that is, in the abovementioned Aristotelian sense. There is a good which “hangs on” the Church: namely, our good, our salvation, and our attainment of God. Man is in such a state that the truth, both the “theoretical” truth and the practical, moral truth, is tough to get at—if not impossible to get at—on his own. If he’s honest with himself, he recognizes that epistemic individualism can be little more than a pretense; the Church promises a way by which this challenge can be met.

This returns me to my original theme. Chesterton, in the quote with which I opened, notices the distinctive point of religion, essentially a response to man’s lonely existential state. One corollary of man’s situation is that there will be some questions pertaining to his conduct on which he is “wrong.” Sometimes—though perhaps not often—he is both wrong and knows he is wrong. However, there will also be points on which, as Chesterton says, “I’m wrong where I think I’m right,” and there is where the Church is needed.

The proper response is not always, in my view, to start defending every dogma as though one now finds it obvious and patently intelligible. The difficulty in such an approach is the one that I outlined above: The truths of Christianity, if they’re anything at all, are most important as truths. The peculiar, culturally and historically contingent existential situation of every human does not always make this sort of defense possible. What does remain possible is adopting the attitude of docility, of teachability.

In a recent interview, the editor of First Things, R. R. Reno, was asked “whether American Catholics were not now ‘cafeteria Catholics.’” He responds along the lines of my present theme:

We’re all at odds with some aspect of the Church’s leadership. It’s not possible for Rome to teach in a way that entirely satisfies the social, moral, intellectual, and spiritual needs of more than one billion people. There’s a hierarchy of truth that helps us understand why some things are obligatory, while others are recommended to us for our consideration. What matters most, however, is our spiritual disposition. Are we docile to our bishops and their fraternal head, the pope? Are we willing to see and learn what they want to teach us? Will we accompany them, to use one of Francis’ favored images?

The Church asks us to be docile. That’s my goal. I don’t need to agree with Francis in all instances, even most. But I need to be open to instruction. I need to try to see what he’s trying to get us to see.[14]

This is, I think, an important attitude to take. It is honest about the cultural prejudices that one inevitably brings into any encounter with the eternal Church; it finds space to give weight to that which is proposed by the Church for one’s spiritual good.

The docile spirit is embodied in St. Anselm’s motto, fides quaerens intellectum—faith seeking understanding. Ultimately, docility hopes for a unity of faith and reason, in which the doctrines that presently seem unintelligible become clear, though it acknowledges that complete unity may not be available on this side of eternity. In the meantime, docility simply requires that one give the teaching its due, that one regard it as something worth trying to understand, on the authority of that which proposed it for understanding.



1. Chesterton, G. K., Orthodoxy (New York: John Lane Company, 1908), pp. 185.
2. MacIntyre, Alasdair, “Truth as a good: a reflection on Fides et ratio,” The Tasks of Philosophy: Selected Essays, Volume 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 197-215. MacIntyre’s account might be called a “correspondence theory of truth,” but he argues that it is distinct from what is often called by that name. See ibid., pp. 198-200, and David, Marian, “The Correspondence Theory of Truth,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, url: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/truth-correspondence/.
3. MacIntyre, op. cit., pp. 200.
4. Ibid., 198.
5. Ibid., 201.
6. Ibid.
7. Ross, James Introduction to Philosophy of the Religion (Toronto: The Macmillan Company, 1969), pp. 79.
8. Johnson, David, Hume, Holism, and Miracles (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999), pp. 93-97.
9. Anscombe, Elizabeth, “Faith,” Ethics, Religion and Politics: Collected Philosophical Papers, Volume III (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981), pp. 113-120.
10. Ross, James, op.cit., pp. 80.
11. Aquinas, Thomas, Super Boethium De Trinitate, trans. Rose E. Brennan, S.H.N. (Herder, 1946), III, 1.
12. Anscombe, Elizabeth, “On Promising and its Justice, and Whether it Need be Respected in Foro Interno,” op. cit., pp. 18-19; Foot, Philippa, Natural Goodness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 15.
13. Brown, Greg, “Morality, Rationality, and Natural Law: A Response to John Lennox,” Peripateo (Fall 2014), pp. 21-28, especially 24-26.
14. Reno, R. R., “No More Tirades,” First Things, 29 September 2015

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