What Is Faith? Nicolas of Cusa thought it was God’s greatest gift

In Dignity of the Person on October 12, 2012 at 6:51 am



It would seem that between faith and reason, that faith is the weaker.  Rather, it would seem that reason, the mind, the intellect, these are man’s greatest strengths.  Isn’t it through the mind anyway that we come to know nature, the world and our identity?  Isn’t reasoning with the mind responsible for so much of our knowledge of science, mathematics, nature and the universe?  Isn’t it through the intellect that we come to know indubitably both the interior world of our mind and the exterior world of the world?  So, with such prolific evidence of the great power of reason, it would seem that faith is opposed to reason and a less powerful faculty.

Faith and Reason Together

Well, Nicholas of Cusa, the 15th Century philosopher and theologian, looks at how faith and reason could work together rather than separately, according to what Karl Jaspers says in his book Anselm and Nicholas of Cusa (Edited by Hannah Arendt, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich:NY. 1966). Nicholas of Cusa implies that faith could be a problem for the philosopher when he says, “Faith produces conflict in the mind.  The mind assents necessarily to what has been proved.”(p.56) This is entirely understandable, the philosopher wants to use his mind logically, going slowly in his reasoning process in order not make a single mistake, as Descartes said.  In Aristotelian terms, when the mind abstracts the universal, learning takes place and the mind has therefore assented, induced the universal from the particular phenomena.  But, faith, works with divine revelation, revealed truth, divine reasoning, not man’s reasons or reasoning, therefore a conflict of possible answers could cause a dilemma for the philosopher.  He says, “But faith must struggle.  The improbability of its content clashes directly with discursive reason.”(p. 56) This doesn’t mean that a person doesn’t have to work mentally to assent to the proofs that reason provides, but rather the person of faith assents to divinely revealed proofs through belief. Whereas, the mind assents to proofs through reason, no belief is necessary to struggle through because the logic has been worked out in the mind, whereas the clash between faith and reason arises between the sources of the proofs: human versus divine.  The person of faith has to struggle, in a sense, to fight, to figure out for himself his belief in the divinely revealed truth, rather than simply accepting the assent of his mind as with a logical proof.  Instead, with faith, his will has to assent to the truth of faith: that is the struggle, the clash that Nicholas of Cusa speaks of, it seems.  He says, “Without courage in the struggle that faith must wage, there is no victory. (p.56)  In other words, faith requires fortitude order in to believe, to trust the testimony of a predecessor without all of the discursive reasoning, without extensive rationalist proofs, but based upon simple and profound faith.  Just as a soldier risks his life based upon the commands of a commander, or a child trusts his mother completely, the believer entrusts his or her life now and in the next life to the truth of the revelation of God, completely.  Nicolas of Cusa continues, “Because of its weakness, discursive reason looks for points of support in demonstration and proof.  Because of its inherent strength, faith needs no external support.”(p.56) What could be insightful here is Nicholas of Cusa’s famous doctrine that “all oppositions are united in their infinite measure, so that what would be logical contradictions for finite things coexist without contradiction in God, who is the measure of all things…”(The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Ed. Robert Audi. Cambridge UP: NY. 1995, p. 531).  Faith and reason seem to be logical oppositions, but given infinite time, which is the realm of God, things can coexist without contradiction.  We live in time currently, we live in a realm that inheres in space and time, where the law of non-contradiction applies, in reason, but given that faith takes the timeless view, and the person is the composite of the two, time with the timeless, reason and faith, taken together seems to be the perspective of God, from what Nicholas of Cusa says. This is the modus operandi for the believer, he says, “Christians believe in God’s revelation without it [discursive reason].”(p.56)  Protagoras and rationalists, believed man to be the measure of all things, if man can know it, it exists, if he can’t it doesn’t.

Nicholas of Cusa analyzes faith from a philosophical perspective.  He says, “The believer’s self-understanding is called knowledge of faith.” (p.56) In other words, faith is knowledge.  Faith is not non-knowledge, anti-reason or irrational.  It is knowledge of revealed wisdom, knowledge of divine revelation, of divine truth, and it is through this knowledge, knowledge of faith, that a believer truly “knows thyself.” He says, “Only by reflecting upon faith do we achieve clarity about it.”(p. 56) Faith is not unthinking, faith is not blind but rather, faith is open to the contemplation of the truth of God who is the ultimate measure of all things; rather than judgment by man’s measure, his reason alone, encapsulated by space and time, which is its “weakness” as Nicholas of Cusa calls it.

A Person’s Will and Faith

Maybe the most interesting ideas Nicholas of Cusa has to say about faith are about its relation to the will.  He says, “The humble man, however, does not understand unless he believes.”(p.57)  We can be reminded here of Anselm’s famous statement, “I believe so that I may understand.”  Here too, the believer starts with his will open to belief, not a-critical, but also not pessimistic or skeptical, but rather, open to all possibilities of knowledge, including faith.  This humility is critical to understanding as Nicholas of Cusa says, because he “…does not understand unless he believes.”(p.57)  It seems that we could say the same thing but in reverse, that “The prideful man, however, does not understand because he does not believe.”  It is almost frightening to think that because of one’s faults, bad character, erroneous conscience or poor disposition, that one could be closing oneself off to the most important source of man’s knowledge, faith.  Nicholas of Cusa says, “The ability to believe is our greatest virtue; it is the power of the will, God’s greatest gift.”(p.57)  It seems that what he is saying here is that the “power of the will” or our individual human freedom as a person is exemplified in our faith, in our ability to believe, not in our ability to reason alone.  It seems appropriate that he uses the word “virtue” here, because it reminds us of the other virtues, and like all virtues, human, intellectual and theological, they all have to be worked at, they all take time, effort, diligence, perseverance to obtain their reward, so too with the faith, which he calls our “ability to believe.” Believing is also an ability, a skill, a mental openness to the Word of God.  It makes sense that reception of the most important gift, what he calls “God’s greatest gift” requires constant virtue, constant work, a continual earning of it, regularly maintaining it, and showing our gratitude for the gift throughout life, not a simple one time acknowledgement and getting on with life.  Nicholas of Cusa calls faith “the power of the will” which we should consider more closely.  When we think of reason, we wouldn’t call it the “power of the will” necessarily but rather the power of the mind.  Reason, as he says, assents to proofs, but it seems that what he is saying is that faith is “the power of the will” to assent to Divine Revelation.

Nicholas of Cusa says, “Faith is the light of the soul…the light of the living faith surpasses ‘the natural light of the senses and even the intellect, as we see in the sacrament of the Mass, where the senses are vanquished by faith.  In this faith the visible coincides with the invisible.”(p.57)  Similar to Robert Grosseteste’’s metaphysics that God is Light, and that just as in the physical world we know being via light, so too, we can say that in the spiritual world do we know God via spiritual light, revelation.  Gregory of Nyssa says we know God via two manifestations, creation and revelation.  For Nicholas of Cusa, he seems to be saying that, “faith” itself is the vehicle through which the soul transmits itself, through which the soul shines.  Just as Nicholas of Cusa’s reference to light, that it is through light we know being through the senses, thus analogously, in the Mass, through the light of faith our soul learns knowledge of God.  As a consequence, the person of faith can see the world from the perspective of God’s knowledge of the world through his faith, in addition to his knowledge of the world through his senses and his mind.

Contrariwise, the atheist rationalist is always confronted with the problem of insufficient knowledge, yet he continues to believe that preferencing reason alone will lead him to his ultimate answers, only to discover he needs more knowledge, again, again and again, ad infinitum.  Whereas, the believer reasons that there will always be a knowledge deficiency for man when comparing his capacity for knowledge against God’s infinite knowledge, and therefore, he preferences God’s knowledge through faith.  The believer sides with not presuming to be able to know everything himself, but recognizes the limits of his reason and his own ability to understand, and instead entrusts his lack of knowledge to God, who really does know all things completely.  Whereas, the rationalist sides with not recognizing his own inherent limits of knowledge and understanding but believes his system of knowledge can surpass his own limits, when he can’t possibly know anything completely through reason alone through all of space and time.

Faith as Power

The rationalist sees faith as devoid of power, whereas the faithful see faith as power.  Nicholas of Cusa says, “Faith surpasses nature by what it itself is and by the goal it has in view.  It also surmounts the power of nature, for nothing is impossible for the believer. “(p.57)  The person of faith has real, human knowledge from his senses and can process it in his mind just like the rationalist, however, the person of faith adds an additional dimension to his knowledge by attempting to learn the perspective of God on the things he knows with the aid of communication with God: prayer.  The rationalist lacks this dimension.  The rationalist assumes that this dimension is neither real nor valid, even imaginary.  But the difference is that the person of faith sees nature timelessly, whereas the rationalist cannot escape the urgency of his present because the present is his only knowledgeable perspective on nature, on being.  Whereas, the person of faith seeks to return all materiality and interiority to its source in its entirety, back to God, as gift.

Faith seeks God, who is infinitely beyond the confines of space and time.  Whereas, man, by nature, with his reason alone, is always limited to and immersed in the confines of space and time.  The person of faith has humility not fool himself into thinking that he has the ability to know all things.  The person of faith knows with certainty that God knows with certainty and prudently hesitates to conjecture about what he himself knows with or without certainty.  Whereas, the person without faith and puffed up with pride has imprudently fooled himself into believing that he can know all things and thus brashly conjectures about what he thinks he knows with certainty while also conjecturing about the things he doesn’t know with certainty, especially the past or the future.

Nicholas of Cusa says, “Faith raises us above every limitation.”(p.57)  It raises us above every limitation because the faithful person believes in the God, the Infinite Being, the Eternal Being, the unlimited Being, unchanging Being, whereas the rationalist is always working with finite being, temporal being, which are highly limited and ever changing.  Reason limits, while faith unlimits: together the person struggles with and attempts to make sense of both.  Nicholas of Cusa says, “The believer knows what he wants.  His knowledge of God is both his strength and his power (potentia).”(p.57)  The believer knows a priori that God knows all things with certainty and completely: that is the believer’s strength and power; that God really does know even when he himself doesn’t know or no one else knows. God knows.  The person of faith knows that God knows  and therefore he knows that it is not merely knowledge of things that he wants, but he wants to know the source of all things, the cause of all things, the essence of all things, the origin of all things, the ceaseless goodness of God.  Just as Aristotle correctly says, in his Metaphysics “All men desire to know,”  one could say that all believers’ preferentially desire to know God, who by definition will never be entirely knowable to us, but He who quenches our thirst also teaches us that there are still infinite oceans left to drink.  Whereas, the man of reason alone is not only ignorant a priori but also only knows a posteriori yet incompletely, neither stepping in the same river twice nor once.

Nicholas of Cusa concludes his disquisition by saying, ” He who knows what he desires to know, and who is what he knows,’ has achieved ‘the peace that passeth understanding.'”(p.57)  The believer has a goal, his goal is God.  The rationalist has a goal, his goal is more knowledge and knowledge as power, a sort of gnosticism, and consequently, he is ever weaker in his own knowledge of himself, because he specifically excludes knowledge of God who is his source of life and being.  The faithful person knows what he desires to know, God, ineffable knowledge, and as a consequence comes to know his true self in relation to his knowledge of God who is his final destiny.  The common problem with more knowledge is that it does not necessarily lead to more understanding or peace.  Whereas, as Nicholas of Cusa said, the humble, faithful person who constantly seeks more understanding of God through his faith certainly receives more peace. Who doesn’t want more peace?  So it seems fairly reasonable to say, that the one thing we really do need more of in this life, is faith.


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