You can bet your eternal life on it

I remember from several years ago my wife and I discussing our doubts about religion, and even the possibility that God did not exist. But we discovered at least one belief which we shared, and that turned out to be the Real Presence in the Eucharist. From which point very simple logic told us that we must believe in Christ, and thus in God – and everything fell into place.

The other occasion that comes to mind is about thirteen years ago when I had a heart bypass operation. I had great faith in the surgeon because he was a follow parishioner, and he had a reputation to keep up. My concern was that, given the real – if small – possibility of my non-survival, would my disappearance under the anaesthetic be my last conscious thought, and the rest be silence?

I fell back on “Pascal’s wager”. Many of you will be familiar with this. Being a gambling man, he took the view that if God existed it would clearly be in your interests to follow him. Otherwise, damnation. If he does not exist you have nothing to lose. That made sense to me, I made a general confession received the Last Sacraments, and went under the anaesthetic with peace and confidence.

I was a little surprised to be told by a friend later that he thought that I had trivialised faith by relying on Pascal’s wordplay. And indeed Voltaire described it as “indecent and childish”. That may all be true, and my only defence is that it gave me comfort at a time that I needed it. And, even nowadays, I sometimes find it a consolation.

I would be interested to know how contributors experience faith, or define it. Do you have, as I do, moments of doubt? If so, how do you cope?

As a starting point, the Penny Catechism defines faith as “A supernatural gift of God which enables us to believe without doubting whatever God has revealed.” I find this a little thin, and like much better the new Catechism’s emphasis on man freely committing his entire self to God (1814). This is confirmed by the preferred use of “trust” rather than “faith” in the Hebrew and Greek scriptures (אמון and πιστις), although in the English and the Vulgate the secondary meaning of “faith” is used.

You might be interested in looking up Pascal’s wager on Wikipedia. There is some good stuff to think about.

Post script. I have just read today an important article on the potential psychological effects of abortion on the mother. It’s at:

About Quentin

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66 Responses to You can bet your eternal life on it

  1. st.joseph says:

    I too had a similar experience facing an operation and wondering if everything was going to be blank if I didn’t come around after the operation.Sometimes I think of that at night but have always be given a little assurance,
    I always wore a brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel -being enolled since age 7, and asking the nurse when I came around where is my Scapular? I didn’t have it round my neck, obviously. I knew a young priest years ago and he used to say that all these things were a sign of weakness and a crutch -and not necessary.But then I believe he had a protestant view of all these things.
    The Blessed Sacrament was what gave my husband an understanding and of course The Holy Spirit, when he accepted that ,he became a catholic-and with no pressure from me over the years.
    He studied all religions first,but always came to Mass!
    When my father got old, completely deaf-no eardrums, and practically blind, he walked around

    all day saying My Lord and My God,a truly a repentant man. People thought he was a little simple,but I knew why he was a sorrowful man.


  2. I’m full of doubt, but take the existence of God etc. as a working hypothesis and try to live accordingly, which I suppose is a form of Pascal’s idea. I’m not even sure that I want an afterlife; the traditional idea of some everlasting cantata appals me! (Anyone who has heard me try to sing would probably agree.) However, I imagine that the blessed would be given some more constructive function, though what it might be is of course beyond speculation.

  3. st.joseph says:

    Quentin ,what is Wikipidea?

  4. John Nolan says:

    “There is more faith in honest doubt / Believe me, than in half the creeds” wrote Tennyson. Reading all the comments on ‘The Devil rides out’ , and very interesting they were too, not least Rahner’s (who may not be a troll after all) I am struck by the fact that that it is in some ways easier to believe in the Devil, whose works are manifest, than to believe in God; yet evil does not triumph, which presupposes God’s existence. A rather naive argument, I know.

  5. claret says:

    St Joseph,
    permit me to answer for Quentin that Wikepdia is the internet version of the encyclopedia. You can type any question into the search engine ( usually Google) and get a Wikepidia explanation of it that is factual and non-biased.
    As for faith and God I think doubt can be healthy ( even if banned !) in that it can make you re-appraise why you believe and so take you out of your daily existence into something more spiritual.
    I tend to look at extremes and marvel at the most innocuous of things in nature. Everything that is unaltered is perfect and it does not have to be so. A blade of grass is perfect. The smallest of insects that cannot even be seen by the naked eye has a purpose of its own and an intelligence of some complexity. Is this nothing more than evolution ? Surely there is more to it than just natural selection.
    At the other ‘extreme’ is Christ. Why would a saviour die an ignominious death on the cross? What was it about him that inspired his followers to spread the gospel?

    • tim says:

      ‘Unbiased’? Up to a point. ‘Neutral point of view (NPOV)’ is the cry – sometimes what the contributors consider neutral is not necessarily objectively so. Try contributing to the article on Abortion, and see how you get on.

      But there are great advantages in an open document to which anyone can contribute. But what you write must be supported by existing documents – no ‘original research’ or unsupported opinion.

  6. Bob says:


    The problem I have flows from the fact that God is said to be a loving intervenor.

    Christianity is a beautiful religion. I love and respect it. It espouses wonderful principles of peace, love and compassion. I practiced it for twenty years. I am married to a Christian. One of my closest friends is a Catholic.
    And yet, the insidious internal struggle that I have experienced which manifested itself in acute periods of doubt eventually grew into cynicism and ultimately rejection about three years ago. What happened ? I think two things: firstly, a rude awakening in relation to hypocrisy in the Church I was attending [I guess confusing God with one’s Church may not be a healthy approach]. Secondly, and far more fundamentally, the real difficulty that arose from the fact that the Christian God is asserted to be an omnipotent, intervening God. At first blush, this is a wonderful characteristic whose ultimate expression came in the form of Christ – the ultimate act of intervening love, God in the form of man descended to Earth.
    However, when one considers the question of intervention in the context of healing one is left to ponder some pretty difficult questions, the most important of which could be exemplified by this crude scenario –
    Two Christians suffered from the same disease, and both prayed fervently for divine intervention and healing. God chose to heal man A. The fact that he did meant that he was intimately acquainted with the nature of his condition, realised that it caused suffering to himself and his nearest and dearest and lovingly responded to prayer by removing the pain. Man B, however, was not healed. Why was man A healed and not man B ?
    I am reminded of Gloucester’s words in King Lear – “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.”
    This scenario is not uncommon in my experience. It has plagued me. The answer that comes back is invariably this – no-one can discern God’s will, we can’t understand everything, all will be revealed. I can understand that position but it offers little comfort when the existence of a dynamic which cannot be explained has the effect of rocking one’s faith to its core.
    I would love the comfort that flows from unquestioning faith. Who wouldn’t ?
    In ‘The Problem of Pain’ C.S. Lewis summarised the problem in what he considered to be its simplest form – “If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what he wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore, God lacks either goodness, or power, or both”.
    As I say, there would be no problem if God did not chose to intervene on occasions.

    On a lighter note, I applaud this discussion board for encouraging a debate about such matters. I have left a tradition which appeared to adopt an almost fascistic approach to questioning which would almost invariably result in some form of rejection or other. All power to your elbows. This is very healthy stuff which I thoroughly commend.


  7. st.joseph says:

    Thank you Claret, I have just seen your reply.I am not used to all things on the computer yet, but learning.

  8. JohnBunting says:

    Bob, the case you put reminds me of a piece from The Mikado:
    “See how the fates their gifts allot;
    For A is happy while B is not.
    Yet B is worthy, I dare say,
    Of more prosperity than A”.
    Well, who said life was meant to be fair? But Jesus himself said that suffering a misfortune did not mean that one was being punished by God. (Luke 13:2; John 9:2)
    As for faith being “to believe without doubting what ever God has revealed”; well, this seems to me almost a triple example of ‘begging the question’ (a much misused expression these days!): basing your conclusion on something which itself cannot be taken for granted. It assumes (1) that faith entails an absence of doubt; (2) that God exists; (3) that He has revealed something to us.
    Regarding (1), I think the theologian Paul Tillich said “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith”. I find that rather reassuring; and it helps with (2) and (3) as well. It comes close, for me, to Peter Wilson’s idea of God as a ‘working hypothesis’; or Paul’s “Now we see as in a glass, darkly”. And I don’t think you need fear being bored in an afterlife, Peter. As I see it, the whole of creation will be redeemed and perfected. “Behold, I make all things new”. Or, as Blake put it, “Eternity is in love with the productions of Time” (Proverbs of Hell !)

  9. Rahner says:

    What is faith? Faith encompasses doctrine, prayer and ritual, mystical experience and provides a basis for action and community. But more fundamentally it is a framework for the exploration of the mystery of our being here; an exploration of that which we find ineffable. There is a poem by Clough:

    To spend uncounted years of pain,
    Again, again, and yet again,
    In working out in heart and brain
    The problem of our being here;
    To gather facts from far and near,
    Upon the mind to hold them clear,
    And, knowing more may yet appear,
    Unto one’s latest breath to fear
    The premature result to draw–
    Is this the object, end and law,
    And purpose of our being here?

    The poem suggests that exploring the “problem of our being here” can be painful. But it can also be captivating and life enhancing.

  10. st.joseph says:

    I love reading the Psalms, I have read them for years.
    We have them always at Holy Mass, but I think to read them on ones own- to give time to ones self to reflect, can be a wonderful enlightening experience,also to sing them at Vespers. They have so much wisdom to show us.
    I think young people are so tied up with fast music, on ear phones, there does’nt seem to be much room for their spirit to be moved. I maybe wrong.
    I think of the times as a teenager listening to ‘pop’ and not seeing the beauty in the Classics until late teenage years.Then entering the classical world -at the Royal Festival Hall and Royal Albert Hall.
    When our daughter was 4 and the first sterio arrived. We bought Tchaikovsky Symphony No 6 and my husband sat her on the settee and told her to listen ,and she did. In the end she started to cry and I thought she was up.set to have to sit there-but no she said Daddy I liked that’ Consequently she has alway loved classical music and joined a High Shool Choir, and still enjoys it. But my son and grandson while they will go to concerts-still prefer their drums,

  11. Quentin says:

    Bob, I am glad to see that others have responded to the difficulty you raise; and I hope we shall get more contributions to this. I don’t know of anyone who has solved the problem, but I do do know some who have come to terms with it. There is a difficulty here because the explanation or thought which enables us to cope differs from one person so another. All I can do is to tell you what works for me.

    I remember discussing this with my father many, many years ago. Basically he said that we have three choices. The first is that God does not exist; the second is that he does exist but is arbitrary and unfair; the third is that he is good, and that we must simply trust that what he does is consistent with divine love even though we are too minuscule to know how this can be.

    If the first is true then we still have no explanation. Suffering (or happiness for that matter) has no meaning. The second is perhaps worse, we are indeed the playthings of an unbelievably wicked God. Only the third gives us some kind of answer so that we can say with Dame Julian of Norwich “And al shal be wel, and al shal be wel, and all mannerof thyng shal be wel.”

    And at least Christianity takes suffering seriously and gives a meaning to it so that we can respond to “take up your cross and follow me” And in Col (1) Paul describes himself as filling up with his suffering “those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ”. It’s an extraordinary idea that our sufferings actually contribute to the redemption of all.

    But what I, personally, find most consoling is that the son of God himself accepted suffering so great that on the cross he experienced the final desolation of abandonment by God. If he not only talked the talk but walked the walk that’s enough to convince me that he knows what he’s doing – even if I don’t!

    On the precise question of why this man and not the other, I think we are expected to be guided by the parable of the labourers in the vineyard – where some received a full day’s pay when they had not worked the full day. He says to the other workers who complained “Is your eye evil because mine is good?” The master had kept his agreement with the complainers, why should they be concerned if the others receive additional bounty?

  12. claret says:

    The question of ‘why a loving God allows suffering’ is one that is perpetually asked in differing tones by those who believe and those who don’t. In many ways we live in a perfect world that is full of imperfections ! We would all be dead in a few days if it were to stop raining but yet a child can drown in a inch of rain water.
    Without extremes of weather that bring untold misery to thousands the earth would soon become like a stagnant soup unable to sustain life. The weather therefore has been designed perfectly unless you are in the eye of a storm !
    It seems to me that God intervenes is our human existence in the same way. Without suffering there would be no charity, no humanity, no love even.
    How would we like to live in a world without love ?

  13. st.joseph says:

    Years ago, and I know it is used now no different, but there was a priest in a local parish who repeatedly used in his homily.’God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son’
    This used to irritate my husband and he would say ‘why does Fr keep saying that!’. I often thought it was getting to his conscience, and something was stirring in his soul amongst all his doubts!

  14. st.joseph says:

    I have gone into Zenit, but can only come across Abortion and mental health an am not able to take it any further.
    Can someone help please.

  15. Bob says:

    Quentin and Claret,

    Thank you both for taking the time to respond and for your patience. I warm to the inherent compassion in your words. On many levels I am a work in progress. I can’t deny the spiritual dimension that pervades the obvious beauty around us. Who knows, I may yet put aside what my friend Mike calls an obsession with a small point (he may well be right) and focus on the bigger picture so eloquently depicted by Claret. Talking to compassionate Christians is very helpful for me, even though I know that I sound like a stuck record sometimes. Here’s to open and honest discussion ! Thank you

  16. st.joseph says:

    Thank you Quentin,for telling us of that post.
    My arrow would not change into a hand, dont know why. But now I have read it.
    I think when the article says that a women would be suffering mental problems before their abortion because of abuse or other reasons ,drugs,unhappy marriage, fear of going it alone, parent pressure and numerious other causes, is understandable.
    I dont believe that it alters the fact that they had an abortion,they can be cured of the other mental illness but I believe an abortion will stay with them forever- until they can find comfort in the Lord.
    ‘Rachaels Vineyard’ gives a lot of testimonies of examples of this -and has been a wonderful example of bringing it to the surface,and undersdanding the Love that God has for us.
    When I had my miscarrriages and went down to 6 stone it was a very traumatic experiences-especially seeing my unborn child at 3 months.It was only my trust in God that kept my sanity, and in the belief that their souls were in Heaven. Thank you for that.

  17. st.joseph says:

    Also I know of some priests who will not speak about abortion, and again I can understand this
    It is not the case that they believe it to be right,but are sometimes not aware that we can help by trying to change the law-it is more difficult to change peoples mind.
    Sympathy is the cause of a lot of this,and again that is understandable-but neverthless these things can not be pushed under the carpet
    A clinic in Bristol has been closed down, but has now moved to Stoke Gifford next to the NHS experimental Clinic. How true that is I am not sure, but it is commonly thought to be so.
    We do have a few priests who will come and pray with the group,and girls do turn around and go home.
    One lady has persistantly written to our bishop for the building in Bristol to be blessed or something like that if there is such a thing,but never has she received a reply not once!
    It is so sad!

  18. mike Horsnall says:

    We know suffering, all of us know it to one level or another. Suffering is suffering and it is common though its degrees vary: Pain, loss, misery, anguish, sickness, loneliness…we are all touched by these.
    But why should the experience of suffering lead to this thing called ‘doubt’?

    When things go against me the pavement does not collapse nor the sun turn green- no objective changes occur because of my own mishap and I do not cease to believe in gravity or physics …I think we have our own conception about God and when that conception seems threatened we have a kind of sulk and call it doubt. The psalms state perfectly clearly that life is full of anguish and suffering-I find no reason to deny this but what has that to do with the existence of God?
    By and large I think doubt is an expression of pride or self pity – unless of course it is related to that temporary atheism which quite reasonably follows on from being struck a hard blow in life.
    There are times when I have no perceived benefit from being a christian-but who said I should be surrounded in a kind of Ready Brek glow simply because I deign to believe? Equally my ‘faith’ may mean little to me or even become a bitter taste in my mouth. …yet to link these many experiences to ‘doubt’ and then call this feeling something objective seems strange and if I’m honest, a little glib.

    • st.joseph says:

      Mike, I would find it difficult to believe in God if it wasn’t for knowing Jesus., and all things relating to Him through the Gospels.
      Especially Our Blessed Mother.
      My first revelation of Jesus was at the age of five,my thinking started there.
      Then reading a poem- Upon a hill called Calvary they nailed Him to a Cross ,and there were those who never knew their overwhelming loss! And there are those who live today in ignorance and in shame-who do not honour or respect the Glory of His name.
      For He was God who died for us-with thorns around His head-He was Jesus Son of God who suffered and who bled
      So let us kneel before the Cross. ..cant remember……………………………..
      And ask forgiveness for our sins- of which Our Saviour died.

      I have tried to find what I dont remember- I even wrote to the Irish Independant years ago as that is where I read it in my grandmothers daily paper..

      I think we all have doubts, and I sometimes wonder if its emotion or imagination- too good to be true.But deep down in my heart I believe it is.
      I wrote in an earlier post on SS that if it isnt I dont want to die ,as I am so happy knowing Him in this life and would like it to continue
      You see I dont mind it being like St Johns vison in the last Gospel, I would be quite happy as it strikes me as being the Mystical vision of Holy Mass..

      I was taken up so much with that at an early age-my love for Him began and went on from there.Wanting to know Him better

    • Bob says:


      Ouch !

      I would like to think that pride and self-pity are not the drivers for me, rather, cold, hard logic which my profession tends to instill in me. I am not proud of my doubting, nor am I self-pitying about it. It’s just happened. I don’t want sympathy or praise or comfort. I am not owed anything by anybody. I’m simply being honest !!

    • Rahner says:

      “The psalms state perfectly clearly that life is full of anguish and suffering-I find no reason to deny this but what has that to do with the existence of God?” Well, theologians and philosophers have been discussing the problem of evil for centuries. Are you suggesting they have been addressing a pseudo-problem?
      “By and large I think doubt is an expression of pride or self pity” Oh dear, this is such an awful old cliché. In some cases pride etc may be relevant. But I am sure doubt can also arise in reaction to the crackpot fundamentalism, including Catholic fundamentalism, of some believers. In any case, doubt also has a role to play in the dialectical development of theological doctrines.

  19. mike Horsnall says:

    PS John Nolan…. I think Rahner has become a ” born again” sort of troll, suddenly and most welcomely pitched into eloquence and elaboration.
    Rahner I’m still pondering your fascinating last post concerning salvation and the position of the church. I think you are right that the mechanics are not clarified (Gosh how can they be!!) I am coming to see that there are two or three possible contenders theologically none of which neccesarily compromise the deity of Christ. I’m going to come back to you sooner or later when I have read and pondered a bit more.

  20. mike Horsnall says:

    Would it be possible, in the midst of all this sound and fury signifying so far very little, to ask what you all mean by doubt?

    The reason I take a strong stand on this is because it seems to me that doubting God existence arises when we place ourselves above both God and the Church of God. Certainly we may despair of our own lives or of the lives of others, I have been driven that way myself to the degree that, at times, I have been forced to admit to myself that I have come completely away from the track of disciple ship and faith and have spent protracted periods of time living as an unbeliever. It is common to fall away, it is common to run away -the prophets and the evangelists all did it and so have all of you have you not?

    But all these things are to do with our hearts and our internal states,psalm 1 or 2 says quite simply:
    “The fool says in his heart thee is no God”
    This seems to me one of the most nakedly true phrases in the entire of scripture. Doubt your own heart, doubt your hearing, doubt your interpretation of life, doubt your integrity, doubt your sanity or your intellect-doubt all you like but the man who doubts God is a fool. This does not apply of course to atheists or those who’s souls hve been struck numb by personal devastation.

    • st.joseph says:

      Mike let me just share a little thought as to my reply to Rahner.There are other examples but I will just say one.
      The theologians doubted HumanaeVitae and look what happened to the Church’s teaching on contraception!
      I can quote more but only one is necessary!

    • Mike,
      I’m afraid I find your attitude to doubt incomprehensible. For me, doubt is the proper attitude to any proposition that is neither proved by valid argument nor incontrovertibly demonstrated. All the arguments for the existence of God boil down to an incompatibility between His non-existence and our normal ways of thinking. Unfortunately some things equally incompatible with them, such as the ability of an atomic particle to manifest itself in two distinct places at once, appear to be true. Consequently our normal ways of thinking are themselves to some extent unreliable. Criticising doubt as placing the doubter above God is thus a circular argument.

      • mike Horsnall says:

        I wonder did you listen to the 10 minute discussion on believing and belief I give a link to? I would like to hear your view of it.

        We seem to have stumbled into mutual incomprehension rather like the two fighter pilots in the famous Monty Python sketch who couldn’t speak each others ‘lingo’ I think there are several strands to this but the one I’ve chiefly been bashing away at is the one which sees some aspects of doubt as a kind of self inflicted mistrust- as opposed to a kind of neutral value free scepticism about anything around us that we cannot fathom out.

        “All the arguments for the existence of God boil down to an incompatibility between His non-existence and our normal ways of thinking.”
        This sentence has me completely foxed, try though I may I cannot get the sense of it.

  21. st.joseph says:

    Yes Rahner, you are entitled to your opinion too, but opinions are not always the Truth!

  22. Bob says:


    You have hit upon something profound and right at the heart of this emotive and charged issue, viz – “all these thing are to do with our hearts”.
    I agree with you but would add three words – “and our heads”.
    You talk of definitions – I think terms do need to be defined here
    OED definition of faith – ” 1 complete trust or confidence 2 firm belief esp. without logical proof”
    OED definition of doubt – “1 a feeling of uncertainty; an undecided state of mind 2 an inclination to disbelieve.”

    There are two ” sources” of faith – head and heart, intellect and emotion.
    The two sources of doubt emanate from the same places.
    Throughout our lives, due to the complex interaction between head and heart we are liable to experience different levels of belief and doubt at different terms. These positions are doubtless influenced very heavily by our emotional state and our experiences at any given moment, coupled with our intellectual position. What a complex mix !

    In those circumstances, there is, surely, a “sliding scale” of faith experienced by all which ranges from utter disbelief at one to and total confidence at the other.
    In my particular case, the confidence that flowed from the heart has been overruled by the doubt that arose in the intellect.

    I don’t believe that fault is at play here.
    Inevitably the intellectual reasoning of person A coupled with his/her emotional state allows for faith, whereas the intellect and emotional condition of person B may not. I suppose this is why faith is said to be a divine gift bestowed upon some and not bestowed on others for whatever reason.

    Who would not be desirous of a state of complete trust or certainty ? Not a single human being. The fact is that sadly not everyone’s circumstances will permit of it – internal and external circumstances that is.

    I think, essentially, we are simply dealing with the ancient problem of head versus heart !

  23. JohnBunting says:

    What do I mean by doubt? Maybe something similar to what was felt by the man who said to Jesus, “Lord, I believe: help thou my unbelief”. For me, an element of doubt comes with anything that one feels instinctively to be true, but which cannot be proved by strict logic or demonstration.
    There are people who will say that it’s not honest to believe in something you can’t prove. I would say that that is precisely when ‘belief’ is the right word. I don’t say I ‘believe’ that 2+2=4, because I know that is true by definition. Nor do I say- for example- that I ‘believe’ that Ohm’s Law is true for electrical circuits under normal conditions, because I know by experience, and beyond all reasonable doubt, that it is.
    As Chesterton pointed out, any argument, pursued to its roots, rests on an assumption that cannot be proved. Ultimately we are all believers, but not all believing in the same things.

  24. st.joseph says:

    When I was a landlady in the Licensed Trade. Lots of subjects were discussed ( it was a family pub so we had time to talk and get to know our customers).I have mentioned this before on the SS.But a man said to be ‘He believed in God but didn’t believe in anything else’.
    Frank Skinner was having a discussion with the Archbishop of Canterbury on Radio 4 this morning , and a few of his comments were mentioned , Frank Skinner said, he believed in God and to believe in that- he would also believe in the Red Sea Crossing and mentioned other extradionary things.
    And it strikes me that God is such an amazing thing to believe in the first place – why wouldn’t we believe in everything else
    Maybe we ought to make clear what it is we are doubting. Is it God- Jesus-or the Church? Or can we pick and choose what suits us?

  25. mike Horsnall says:

    Good, we appear to be getting down to business!

    For those interested in the subject of ‘believing and belief’ there was a marvellous 10 minute radio slot today -Points of view at 8.50 on sunday am -you can get it online by going to BBC Radio 4 Here is a link:

    When we come to discuss issues of faith and doubt we come, by and large, from the tradition of the church to which we belong. The topic is christian doubt and christian faith is it not? I say this because the OED dictionary definitions given by Bob do not help very much because they are not within the Christian tradition. For us faith is not a product of the head or the heart because ‘faith’ is the gift of God-we do not produce faith though we may choose to exercise it to a greater or lesser degree.
    The general thrust of scripture is that Faith is given as a gift freely to pretty much all who will receive it as gift. There are a few strange occasions in the Old and New testaments where God purposefully ‘blinds’ the heart to faith – but generally faith is a freely available gift. It might also be worth mentioning that the Old Testament -and particularly the psalmists use of the word ‘heart’ is synonymous with ‘self’; the argument that seeks to divide us into head and heart really makes little sense in terms of the bible being a relatively recent emphasis. Its also worth mentioning that despite the fact that theologians e.g Aquinas have attempted by reason alone to develop sytematic theories of God -the general run of individual ongoing and deepening conversion is affective in nature-in other words it if considered as being of the heart having the nature of a deep and profound reciprocal attachment of love. You will be hard put to find many whose ‘love’ of God and of Christ is purely of the intellect-even the man who claims so will usually admit to some form of consolation or warming of the heart.
    Doubt, on the other hand, is an emotion based in the heart and mind of man-it is a feeling or a sense.One may doubt the truth of a story or the safety of a bridge-depending on ones level of experience of bridges or stories there may be truth in the sense of doubt. This kind of doubt -as John Bunting has said generally relates to the thing doubted probably being real-we heard the story and we walked on the bridge-we do not waste time worrying about the safety of a non existent bridge wich we will never walk on.So Christian doubt is usually to do with some aspect of God or ones relationship with God-it comes from a sense of ones own weakness or vulnerability or isimple apprehension. Genuine Christian doubt-as with Thomas and as with all those who risk relationship with God is based in experience of God not in abstract reasoning.

    When human beings come to the God of Jesus Christ they come sooner or later in humility or on bended knee because the encounter with God forces one to ones knees. Cold logic, pure intellect or philosophical analysis have no place in this encounter-I can think of no scripture or spiritual work which reccomends that a man apply logic to get to heaven-I can think of plenty which emphasise trust,humility,love, childlikeness.So though we may legitimately doubt some things we cannot legitimately doubt Gods being-if we do so then we are most likely concealing, from ourselves, another deeper truth which is that we prefer the status quo of our lives as they are and we do not wish to place ourselves on the altar of God- we like ourselves too much or are afraid of what may come.

    • Rahner says:

      Mike, I am not entirely clear as to what you are claiming. Are you suggesting that our response to an atheist/agnostic is to say “your lack of faith arises from your being trapped in your own ego” or something like that? If so,this does not strike me as being a very helpful starting point for dialogue or conversion.

      You also refer to Aquinas. Of course he did provide arguments for the existence of God. But he was also aware that the arguments of natural theology were likely to be of limited value:

      “For truth about God, such as reason [ie through philosophical arguments]can know it, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors. (S.T. Ia, q. 1, a. 1)” He makes a similar claim in the SCG.

      He also argues that:

      “Faith does not involve a search by natural reason to prove what is believed. But it does involve a form of inquiry unto things by which a person is led to belief, e.g. whether they are spoken by God and confirmed by miracles” (ibid., 2a2ae.2, 1, reply)


      “The assent of faith….has as its cause God, moving us inwardly through grace” (2a2ae.6.1)

      • mike Horsnall says:

        Hello Rahner,
        I remember someone posting a comment on this site awhile ago and then adding as an addendum something like
        “Having made my case I now step back and prepare to repel boarders!”

        I like the last quote by Aquinas-it chimes well with the catechism on faith.

        Firstly No these my thoughts on faith and doubt currently being probed would not be for an agnostic/atheist-if you read my posts carefully I have made it clear that atheism is another category -not much to doubt in atheism is there…
        You have a point though in that some things are best not said in front of the children, our views and experiences change us and the path to spiritual maturity, as we all would agree, is a long long trudge.

        When I talk of pride and self pity I am simply talking of the vagaries of the human heart-look in any spiritual classic such as De Salles, Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, St John of the Cross, The Exercises of Loyola… and you will find descriptions far less temperate than mine regarding the inner life. The terms I have used here I apply to my own heart first- as Quentin says in his blog on sin-the sins of our fathers- anyone wanting to know about original sin need only to look inward.
        At one time I would have lambasted anyone who held the view I now put forward-of the highly suspect nature of certain forms of doubt and its root in selfcentred ness-so do understand the pitfalls and the cautions. Also the complexity, for example we currently have running about 5 kinds of doubt:
        Quentin- The honest doubt and uncertainty facing a believing man who may die tomorrow-similar to John the baptist in prison sending to Jesus just to check his bet was on the right man.
        You: From the poem you quote- the uncertainty and the mystery of life as a whole
        Peter, A kind of disciplined and open enquiring into the nature of things
        Bob: A highly specific complaint as to the failure of a percieved attribute of God
        John: The doubting which is more akin to that of the risk of commiting to a relationship-something along the lines of trust.
        For me, as should be clear by now, doubt is a human attribute which needs careful handling. In relation to God we need to accept that if our doubt turns to cynical rejection then it is probably a corrosive form and should be recognised as such-this kind of doubt has a bitter root, we do need now and then to open up our gardens for weeding.
        By the way did you listen to the Point of View I gave a link to?

  26. st.joseph says:

    An interesting change in the New Translation in the Mass says ‘When it comes to the Creed we will notice the first change immediately- ‘I believe’, not We believe’, We have become used to praying the Creed together as a parish. The trouble is,when we say ‘we believe’ it could suggest that between us all we believe everything that is said. It is not clear that we all believe everything that is said.
    To say ‘I believe’ makes it quite clear that each one of us believes everything we are saying.
    This is taken from Sunday News letter.Our Faith on Sunday.

  27. st.joseph says:

    Mike I have just listened to the Points of View that you mention.
    I thought his last statement rather contradicted what Jesus said ‘ Anyone who believes in Me will live,and anyone who lives will never die!
    Now we ‘heard’ what John Gray said, but we didn’t hear what Jesus said- so to make a ‘point of view ”Who do we believe’?

  28. mike Horsnall says:

    St Joseph:

    John Gray doesn’t seem to be a member of any particular faith group As far as I know he is a philosopher.His chief aim in what I thought was a truly excellent discussion seemed to be an attempt to make the point that abstract ideas in themselves are not particularly effective or appropriate when it comes to the real encounter with God, God already knows our thoughts and really is unimpressed by most of them!!

    There is as we all know the aspect of faith which simply ‘rubs off’ on us and grows by proximity to believing others. Gray effectively challenges us at the end of his discourse-in the same way as in his opening cameo of the conversion of Graham Greene- ”Who cares what you ‘think’? ..get down to church/synnagogue/mosque and get on with it. Jesus in effect calls us to the same path when he says ‘Follow me’ This is also why following Christ is such a radical thing- because sooner or later God comes round to look at us, face to face as he did with his disciples. When this face to face business takes place it becomes clear that by and large we have been going round whistling in the dark and enjoying the echo and cadence of our own thoughts; yet God is God and can only be God….God’s ways are not our ways.

    I believe the encounter with God is going on pretty much all of the time. God comes gently and courteously to us, aware of his power and the truth that we are really very very small in his hands though greatly loved. For Christians generally and for Catholics particularly we recognise God most when we assemble and break bread together regardless of our own inner concerns. The person who lives in the folly of their doubting- preferring to stay away and linger in the depths of their cave as it were- does so, not because God has objectively fallen short of that persons standards, but because that person sits alone, back to the door, staring resolutely at a mirror hypnotised by what they see there.

    • st.joseph says:

      Thank you Mike, as I said it was the last sentence that concerned me.
      I thought he was a Catholic and it struck me as a little of atheism,and was very surprised when he said it! Thank you again for your very clear explanation.
      One never finds anything out unless they ask-thats my motto.
      And the fact that we are Christians we can barter and ask each other and get an ‘answer’,and love each other which is the most thing!

  29. Bob says:


    Faith – a free gift given to all those who will receive it ? Yes, that’s my understanding of scripture.
    However, is one’s ability/inclination to accept the gift not heavily influenced by one’s intellectual and emotional state ?Therefore, is one’s faith not similarly influenced ?

    I think it is very difficult to divorce the concept of faith from the characteristics of the individual believer or would-be believer.

    • mike Horsnall says:

      Bob, The shape of each heart is unique which means that the shape and timbre of faith resonating within it will be unique. I guess one could say there are as many songs of faith as there are strings to the human soul. However faith is not dependent on the instrument so its not possible, I don’t think, to argue that some persons are incapable of faith on account of their structure, this it seems to me-though I may be wrong- is the subtext of your argument and I refute it.

      For Catholics faith is, if you like, a substance capable of being defined:

      ” Faith is a personal adherence of the whole man to God who reveals himself. It involves an assent of the intellect and will to the self-revelation God has made through his deeds and words..” Catechism of the Catholic Church 176

      There comes a stage I think when the whole person has to choose and persons are capable of choosing. The personal expression of this choice will vary.

  30. Mike,
    Yes, I did listen to the “Point of View” to which you gave a link, and agree that practice is more important than dogma. I’m sure St. James would agree, too. On the other hand, some basis in belief is important when the practice becomes difficult.

    I’m sorry to have been obscure about arguments for the existence of God. Perhaps a specific example will help to explain my thought. The most nearly convincing, in my view, is that there must be some ultimate cause for the existence of the universe (I discount the hypothesis that it is all an illusion). This depends on the principle that no event occurs without a cause. That is common experience, yet there are some events that do appear to occur quite spontaneously. For instance, it is just as likely as not that any particular atom of ruthenium-106 (chosen only because I used to work with it) will decay within the next year; however, the event could well occur ten minutes hence or not in the next ten million years, and nothing we know will precipitate or delay it.

    I find quite ludicrous the notion that the universe could have sprung spontaneously into existence according to laws of chance that themselves presumably did not exist beforehand, yet that is the scenario seriously maintained by people with impeccable credentials, and I cannot be absolutely certain that they are wrong. That is the nature of my doubt.

    • mike Horsnall says:

      Thanks for the elaboration-I’m afraid my need for context gets the better of me rather a lot. I really like your summing of Grays Point of View re the primacy of practice over dogma and the allusion to the book of James. I wonder if the decay rate of ruthenium as an example could be used to throw a spanner in the way we conside the rate of time’s passing? I have a bit of a thing about this because I have a good friend who is a geologist. About 15 years ago I asked him how we measured the timeline of fossils, he answered:
      “By the rocks”
      I asked him next how we measured the timeline of the rocks, a twinkle came into his eye and he answered:
      “By the fossils!”
      I’ve been puzzling about this ever since!
      Would it be fair to say that ,for you doubt is a neccesary parameter of existence?

      • Mike,
        It hadn’t occurred to me that doubt might be a necessary parameter of my existence, though it could be an acquired characteristic after seeing so much of what I was taught as a child shown to be at best an instructive fable.

        The unpredictability of decay in any individual unstable atom can’t be used to undermine geological dating, which relies on vast numbers in which the decay of a specified proportion in relation to time can be reliably calculated within very fine limits. I suspect your geologist friend of mischievously referring to two different kinds of rock. Igneous rocks, formed by a process of crystallisation from the melt in which radioactive elements may be separated from their daughters, can be dated by the subsequent extent of decay. Fossils however occur in sedimentary deposits, formed from mineral grains much older than themselves. If they lie between igneous layers that can be directly dated, their own age may be taken as intermediate and the type of fossils contained in them taken as an indication where similar types are found elsewhere. I think that is what your friend meant.

        Incidentally, some care is needed to beware of disturbing factors. For instance, the strata in the Ben Lawers area of central Scotland are so seriously folded that older rocks lie above the younger.

  31. mike Horsnall says:

    Dear all,
    After having being so heavily broadsided on all fronts I limp into port and call for the fleet!
    Here is a word from our sponsor: CCC on Faith and Doubt:

    2087 Our moral life has its source in faith in God who reveals his love to us. St. Paul speaks of the “obedience of faith”9 as our first obligation. He shows that “ignorance of God” is the principle and explanation of all moral deviations.10 Our duty toward God is to believe in him and to bear witness to him.

    2088 The first commandment requires us to nourish and protect our faith with prudence and vigilance, and to reject everything that is opposed to it. There are various ways of sinning against faith:

    Voluntary doubt about the faith disregards or refuses to hold as true what God has revealed and the Church proposes for belief. Involuntary doubt refers to hesitation in believing, difficulty in overcoming objections connected with the faith, or also anxiety aroused by its obscurity. If deliberately cultivated doubt can lead to spiritual blindness.

    May I say what a stimulating debate this has been so far.

  32. st.joseph says:

    Jesus did say ‘Blessed are those who have seen and have believed,but more Blessed are those who have believed and not seen.
    But then one has to believe in Jesus , and who has seen Him?

  33. st.joseph says:

    Peter I was thinking about the fables I remember as a child.
    Grimms Fairy tales was lovely to read.
    Years ago I remember a newspaper story about someone had seen a fairy in Phoenix Park Dublin.
    I guess some people believe that.
    I pretented for a long time thatI believed in Father Christmas, because I thought if I said I did’nt the excitement wouldn’t be the same.
    But I can honestly say I never thought for one moment that God was a myth, even when I was Confirmened at nine years old, my friend and I walked around, shoulders back, we were soldiers for Christ. The only disappointment being that everyone else- must have been 50 or more, (girls)had white dresses on and a veil.I had a grey costume and straw hat-but really it wasn’t important. I felt my mother was making a point.I wore my costume a long time after that, my Sacrament lasts till I die.

  34. Bob says:

    Can a human being ever be 100 % certain about anything ?

    Surely, we all experience doubt.
    For some it utterly disables the ability to believe.

    For others, it may challenge their faith, but it ultimately remains intact ( and is often rendered stronger by the challenge).

    These two groups can co-exist quite happily provided Kipling’s advice is adhered to – “make allowance for their doubting”.

    I think that tolerance and compassion are the watchwords.

  35. st.joseph says:

    Bob you are right,but can we be 100% sure who or fathers are-but we believe our mother-so why should we disbelieve the Apostles?

  36. mike Horsnall says:

    If we think that doubt is capable of overriding the capacity of belief then we have begun to worship it. It is rather like saying a brief shower of rain can dissolve the Spirit. Doubt is merely a faculty not an illness, a magician, a judge a general or a con merchant. For most of us, when applied to the religious sphere, doubt is merely a convenient excuse or a cosy chair to sit in rather than do the serious work of belief..

  37. claret says:

    In daily life I observe what appears to me literally hundreds of people who momentarily enter into my existence and of who i know nothing but I assume that their lives are, for the vast majority, untouched by any kind of belief. What will become of them? Sometimes the sheer number of them can be a source of doubt especially when one adds all the millions that have died and all the millions who are yet to arrive.
    I don’t reason this for too long but I do sometimes idly wonder if heaven is reserved for those who believe in its existence. I wouldn’t like to conjecture about hell for those who don’t.

  38. I suspect that an atheist who tried earnestly to live according to his own ideas of virtue would be deemed to have the faith necessary for heaven without knowing it.

  39. mike Horsnall says:

    Peter, I think that is is a fairly clear, accurate and unambiguous statement of truth. We live according to our light. This I suspect is the basis of the doctrine of purgatory. Claret I too share that doubt quite often,in the face of numbers the Christian Faith can seem quite absurd. But this is a case when doubt should, like these lovely autumn mornings, give way to wonder. Because it works the other way too. CS Lewis was fond of speaking of the Church, splendid as an army with banners streamed out through time and Space-the countless millions of Heaven including, as Peter mentions-all those, unthinking lovers of what was true- wide eyed and blinking with surprise!!
    The whole question of doubt cuts both ways. There is the simple truth that believers may only have a fragile kind of certitude-that is, in truth, based in hope. On the other hand therre is that quiet still voice-most often heard in prayer that says,
    “Go on, do not falter I am here”

    I have an excellent Spiritual director and when we last spoke on this subject he said that the daily condition of the Christian is a kind of doubting wonder which often just translates as hard work-it will be thus until we die- when all shall be changed.I guess faith is not proved but by testing.

  40. Bob says:


    I have very similar feelings. I would love to think that Peter is correct – surely a loving God would indeed approach the question of eternal life in such a ‘generous’ fashion ?

    However, the passage about the harvest being great and the workers few makes me question this.

  41. mike Horsnall says:

    Its an interesting passage but one that simply calls us to work. The passage does not say that the harvest will not be safely gathered in but simply points to the responsibility and intent of the farmer. The promise of a rich harvest safely gathered in-of fish or of wheat – is one of the most enduring biblical images.

  42. Quentin says:

    Just dropping in on this interesting exploration – I find that my understanding is helped by looking at the experience of faith and trust in our ordinary lives.

    When I meet someone in conversation I know that all I am receiving from him are connections through the senses – light waves, for instance. Yet I experience a direct contact to him as a person. Intellectually I could justify this by recognising that I am a real person, yet I am only sending out these “sense signals”myself. In fact I don’t do this – I do not need to make a rational inference because my perception of the other person is direct.

    While I realise that it is possible that the other person is an illusion or a dream, this is only a theoretical possibility. In practice I believe with certainty that I am connecting directly.

    Trust is another example. The degree to which I trust the other person is, to some extent, affected by my natural tendency towards trust or towards scepticism. But I am consciously aware of judging trustworthiness by experience. Thus my level of trust in person X is influenced by seeing him in action over a number of experiences. In fact it will never reach certainty because I don’t even trust myself. God is a different matter. If I believe in him then I must necessarily believe that his love for me and for all is absolute. Thus Bob’s opening difficulty about God’s apparent arbitrariness in granting favours is not, for me, a problem.

    A third, and rather different, approach is exhibited by Kant when he says that certain truths are essential even though they cannot be proved. His main example was time and space. If we deny the passage of time or the extension of space we deny that we can know anything about the material world. Thus we are obliged, so to speak, to accept their truth. In a similar way, we have to believe that man has free will – because, if his choices are determined, he cannot affirm the truth of any proposition since he is obliged to produce it through determining causes over which he has no control. Of course there are plenty of people who claim that we do not have freewill nonetheless. However they necessarily snag themselves by their contradictory claim – so we can ignore them.

  43. st.joseph says:

    Like Claret says, I wonder too.
    I meet people every day in all walks of life,and unless they wear a Cross or Crucifix, we cant tell no more than anyone will know I am a catholic.
    Worshipping in a parish tells us ‘ When one or two are gathered in My Name I am Truly Present!
    Does that mean goods works, acts of mercy,forgiveness etc.,
    Jesus wants to draw everyone unto Himself-so we have to be His Disciples,
    and be the bridge that does that. A person can do good works etc., without being baptised.
    We can put people off religion unless we are tactful in our approach.
    Jesus said ‘I have come to call sinners’. I recognise the fact that there are some who have felt with the scandals that the church has let them down-and they doubt,but their faith will not have been strong enough for it to last. A bit like the parable of the sower and where the seed falls!

  44. mike Horsnall says:

    After being so kindly dissuaded from my attack dog approach to doubt I have some less visceral thoughts on the subject to offer… Mostly these come from a book I am reading
    “Deep calls to Deep” by David Foster-Benedictine Master of Novices at Downside Abbey:
    Here Foster is relating to the wonder of walking home on a starlit wintes night:
    “..The sense of greatness of it all that makes you feel small, yet part of something immeasurably huge, something incredibly wonderful. The shher fact of the existence of anything at all, the existence of all this- this is ,I think, simply wonderful. Even with all the horrors which mar our experience of life, I find it impossible to conceive of the beauty and goodness which clearly is part of life, except that goodness and beauty be the ultimate truth of everything. I can best make sense of evil as a corruption of the way it all should be; but to envisage goodness as part of a grand deception (even a self- deception) in an ultimately evil world, I have to say simply does not ring true to my experience. So I think that the goodness of the world is more fundamental than the evil in it. Nor can I really understand my experience as of a morally neutral world in which some things happen to be good and other things happen to be evil. Wonder is of something real ‘out there’; it cannot only be a comment on my way of feeling….”

    When it comes right down to it it is probably fair to say that the capacity for doubt is simply a faculty-most likely rooted in neurology.Thus we can have ‘healthy doubt’ built on an awareness of the flux of our existence coupled with the capacity for enquiry. However we may also experience a more neurotic doubt which lines up with pessimism worry,anxiety etc.

    Yet over and above these tendencies there are external realities to which we are related. Further, some degree of freedom from our shifting internal states must exist or we are not persons in the true sense. I have in my mind a picture of a boat on a dark night surounded by stars and the lights of distant land- drifting is inevitable but we must, rip currents notwithstanding, set our sights on a certain light and sail this beautiful night, heading for home….and if the wind drops we must get out our paddles!!!

    • st.joseph says:

      I find this Second Sight Blog a wonderful experience – how we can communicate our feelings and learn from them. It doesnt only help listening to other comments but be an experience for ourselves to get to know ourselves deeper by thinking about something and bringing it to the surface.
      I like your comments Mike -a lot I dont understand in as much that I am not that much educated in subjects I dont really have had any experience in, a small sample- I switch a light switch on and electricity makes things work, thats all I know about that. I believe i
      I heard an interesting homily on the Feast of St Matthew, a part of it was very true of my life and for many more I would say.And got me thinking It went..

      The Tax man at the Tax office said to Matthew ‘Where are you going’? And Matthew said
      ” I am going to follow Him. ‘And where will He leave you?. ‘I dont know said Matthew.
      And the man in the tax office said’ If you dont know where He is going to lead you, why are you following Him?.And Matthew said “Because I know somehow that He is offering me what I desire above all”.
      And so it is with us, we knew a call and we followed . And so the Homoly went on, and I found it very inspiring, when looking back on my own life-following Jesus isn’t always easy we would like to know the next 25 steps at least-. Imay take us to the foot of the Cross at Calvary.
      Divine Wisdom is something we find in the first Apostles, we find it in Our Blessed Mother when at the Annunciation to Gods Will. She pondered on Divine Wisdom by the Cross on Calvary.
      She penetrated that Divine Wisdom which saved the world through the foolishness of the Cross.
      She is called The Seat of Wisdom.
      In the search of the Wise Men we see the prophetic image of the many who have had to make that persevering search for the supreme Truth.
      Perhaps the prayer written by Blessed John Henry Newman long before he became a Catholic summarises that fidelity to the light of God’s Grace.

      “Lead kindly light amid the encircling gloom.

      Lead Thou me on.

      The night is dark and I am far from home

      Lead Thou me on.

      Keep Thou my feet

      I do not ask to see The distant scene

      One step is enough for me””

  45. mike Horsnall says:

    Thats my favourite prayer St Joseph-and the hymn they have made of it.
    Thanks for your kind words..

  46. Iona says:

    Another thing Cardinal Newman said, relevant to this topic:

    “Ten thousand difficulties do not make a doubt; they are not commensurate”.

    By “difficulties” I understand him to mean, problems obstructing our faith, but not preventing us from holding it.

    With regard to something Bob said earlier, about our ability to accept faith being influenced by our emotional state, St. Terese of Lisieux suffered from intense depression and a feeling that God was absent or non-existent in her life, for at least some months before she died. This did not shake her faith; she recognised it for what it was, just a feeling. Indeed, she treated it as a trial sent by God, who wanted her to hold on to her faith even in complete darkness, and in a sense she had invited it, since it began immediately after she had said to God that she was prepared to suffer even the absence of any sense of Him, if that was what He willed.

  47. mike Horsnall says:

    Yes I think thats the nub of it Iona, there is a qualitative difference between despairing of Gods existence- and the experience finding oneself very hard pressed to the extent where faith gives no perceived comfort. I’ve had one or two,thankfully brief episodes of depressive illness and they did not disturb my belief-they just made living very difficult. I’ve noticed this with many individuals too.

    Certainly character structure must make some difference to the way we live our faith but personally speaking I couldnt doubt the existence of God I don’t think-the presence of the Church,temple and synaggogue across the face of the earth must surely mean something!

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