Tuesday, January 31, 2012


How does an act of faith (our personal acceptance of an item, or a system, of beliefs) come about? It will surprise no one that I turn, in questions such as these, to Bl John Henry (Cardinal) Newman and his theological insights and analysis. From him, I perceive two essential steps in leading one to make an act of faith: a stimulus of the imagination, resulting in the desire to share a vision; and an examination of conscience which attunes the soul (or not) to the content of the vision the imagination has presented. The end result is a choice which Newman described in one place like this: “One can believe what one chooses. But one will be held accountable, in the end, for what one chose to believe.”

This is already getting heavier than most folks would like! I hope I can be more straightforward in presenting what I think is important here.

The short version (from the quote at the end of the 1st paragraph) is that I am responsible for my own convictions—holding them and living them. I am emphatically NOT responsible for forcing my (or anyone else’s) convictions on another. This is the distinction Newman makes between “faith” and “bigotry.” When struggling with whether or not to leave the Church of England, he would write, “Can I (it is personal, not whether another, but can I) be saved [refusing to become a Roman Catholic]?” But to answer such a question properly, without falling back on excuses like “It’s what I want to do,” or “I think I’d like it better,” or some other such evasion, one must explore the depths of one’s conscience—where God’s word is spoken to us who are willing to listen. “Conscience is the aboriginal vicar of Christ,” he would write.  We must actually listen.
Still, we must first feel the call. It is why I have often referred to an essential ingredient of evangelization as offering others the “attractive confrontation” of Jesus Christ. They must be drawn; drawing must lead to openness to conversion…

And we are drawn by a vision offered to us by someone who is attractive, or whose vision is attractive. Newman writes: “The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination… Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us.” And the key is falling in love: “The sheep could not tell how they knew the Good Shepherd; …yet doubtless grounds there were: they, however, acted spontaneously on a loving Faith.” St Peter (John 6:68) said as much at the end of the Bread of Life discourse, when Jesus asked if the Twelve also wanted to leave: “Lord, to whom shall we go?” Peter admitted he had no understanding of Jesus’ words, but he’d fallen in love with the Master and would not let such a small thing as a lack of comprehension divide them.

One can believe what one chooses. But one will be held accountable, in the end, for what one chose to believe.” What we believe is a function both of to whom (and to what) we are attracted, and how we listen to the voice of our true conscience, rather than the urgings of our own desires. In this way we will discover what, and how, and why, we believe.



  1. Rev. Randy JonesJanuary 31, 2012 6:02 PM

    I am not at all familiar with the writings of Bl. Cardinal Neumann. So, I may not understand what he means by conscience. With that said I offer the following.

    I personally am a reticent to involve my conscience in the procession toward faith. My conscience is too subjective; mostly because it is subject to caving into my own selfish desires. I, like Adam and Eve, want to be my own god.

    Being an old engineer type, I like the way CS Lewis made his move to faith; he couldn't disprove the Christian claims concerning Jesus and so he was left with no other option except to believe. Of course his process assumes that one is willing to place one's rational thought processes before and over one's emotions and selfish desires.

  2. There needs to be a clear distinction between "conscience" in Newman's (and the Church's) sense and the use of that word in colloquial American English (= "what I feel like doing"). May I suggest a quick glance at "Gaudium et Spes," Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, paragraph 16, as a good summary of the former sense...

  3. Rev. Randy JonesJanuary 31, 2012 9:51 PM

    Yes, yes. Conscience and the Holy Spirit and natural law. I am always reminded of this when I read St. Paul's letter to the Romans. "So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!"

    St. Paul was a pretty smart dude wasn't he?

  4. To both Reverend pastors, your penetrating discussions about
    conscience led me to peruse C.K. Chesterton - but not particularly about the matter of a conscience but about the subject of orthodoxy..
    Of the numerous works that Chesterton wrote, his masterpiece entitled
    "Orthodoxy" manifested his personal philosophy and deeply religious
    faith. He was a pagan at age twelve and an agnostic by sixteen. As a seeker, he developed a personal, positive philosophy that became
    orthodox Christianity. I believe C.S. Lewis found this book an enlightening step in the formation of a Christian faith.
    How his conscience must have evolved as a result of his experiences with a continual study of all phases of life! Morally, he took the God-given ' high road', which led to his conversion.