Is Faith Objective or Subjective?

Jeff McLeod - Objective Subjective


During the Year of Faith we are asked to understand the nature of faith more clearly. An important question arises: Is the Catholic faith an objective or a subjective faith?

I ask this question because Catholics are sometimes caught off guard in a culture that suspects them of emphasizing the objective aspects of faith (dogma) over the subjective aspect (the inner experience of repentance and conversion). Popular perception of the nature of faith tends to be modeled on the Protestant understanding. Consequently our friends will sometimes ask if we are “saved,” or if we have “a personal relationship with God,” and we’re really not quite sure how to answer. Do Catholics have faith on the inside, or is it expressed primarily in our dogma?

Let’s clarify our terms. Objective knowledge has its origin in external objects, things that we can know without bias in a detached and dispassionate way. Subjective knowledge has its origin in our inner life, our memories, feelings and desires. Both forms of knowledge can lead us to certainty.

Now, the word subjective has come to imply overly emotional, arbitrary, and unreliable knowledge. For purposes of this essay we need to be very clear that we do not use the word subjective in this negative sense. We are defining subjective knowledge in the sense of direct knowledge of our inner life, which may at times and with purity of heart be the most real and most certain knowledge of all.

Does our faith have a subjective aspect? Yes, there are two senses of meaning in the word faith as it is used in the Catholic tradition, and one of them is indeed subjective. St. Augustine in the fifth century A.D. distinguished between fides quae creditur (“faith which is believed”) and fides qua creditur (”faith by which it is believed”). Many theologians refer to these aspects of faith as objective and subjective, respectively. Our Catechism confirms: “’To believe’ has thus a twofold reference: to the person, and to the truth: to the truth, by trust in the person who bears witness to it” (CCC 177).

The faith which is believed, fides quae, or objective faith, refers to the objective body of revelation, tradition, and the teaching of the Magisterium. This external object of our faith, Divine revelation, is handed down to us by the Church and is expressed by our Creed.

The faith by which it is believed, fides qua, or subjective faith, refers to the means by which we come to personally grasp the realities that are expressed by the deposit of faith. This aspect of faith refers to a concrete personal encounter between each one of us and God. This faith is indeed necessary for salvation.

But to fully understand this subjective aspect of faith, we must note that the Catechism states: “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” (CCC 176). In our tradition, intellectual assent is our assent to the objective doctrines of faith. The volitional assent, or the assent of the will, is our subjective assent involving our hearts, our desires, and our trust. We submit to the object of faith not because we can fully understand it, but because God is the source of revelation, and he is trustworthy. We believe because we trust. An analogous dynamic occurs in our loyalty and fidelity to our friends and to our spouse. It is assent based on love, not rational calculation.

Objective faith is to believe the Creed we profess. Subjective faith is to believe it because God has shown us his love and mercy and we have experienced it directly in our lives.

Yet the subjective turn toward faith is not something we can make on our own. The gift of faith is a free gift, given out of God’s plan of sheer goodness through the Holy Spirit. The Catholic Church says so clearly: “Faith is a supernatural gift from God. In order to believe, man needs the interior helps of the Holy Spirit” (CCC 179).

What are those interior helps? Are they the inchoate or confused experiences of subjectivity in the negative sense we warned of earlier? They might manifest themselves psychologically as a feeling of being lifted up, or healed, or saved. And salvation surely ought to feel this way. But these feelings do not by themselves exhaust the objectively real transformation in the Holy Spirit. This transformation is not a feeling. It is enlightenment, perception, or a stroke of clarity that points us to the truth about ourselves and God.

John 16:8 says that the movement of the Holy Spirit will “convince the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” This experience of “being convinced” is precisely our being shown a view of ourselves not as we imagine ourselves, but from an objective perspective. One can find no better psychological depiction of this process than reading St. Augustine’s Confessions. We wake up and realize the sizable gap between who we think we are and who we really are.

In short, there is nothing more objective than seeing the truth about ourselves. It is a humbling experience. The Catholic faith differs from Protestant doctrine in that we do not believe that this moment of enlightenment occurs once and for all. We are asked by the Church, particularly during the season of Lent, to be continually renewed and re-converted. When we bless ourselves with Holy Water by making the sign of the cross, we are spiritually renewing our Baptism. We are always assenting anew to our faith with our heart and our will.

So if the subjective aspect of Catholic faith is sufficiently rich, as I hope I have described, what exactly is the value of the objective aspect of faith, the formulas, symbols and Creeds?

The symbols and Creeds are necessary for the development and transmission of faith.

“We do not believe in formulas, but in those realities they express, which faith allows us to touch. … We do approach these realities with the help of formulations of the faith which permit us to express the faith and to hand it on, to celebrate it in community, to assimilate and live on it more and more” (CCC 170).

When we receive the gift of conversion by the Holy Spirit, we are called to do more. Our personal or subjective faith grants us a degree of contact with the truths of revelation. We experience the fact of our sinful nature. We admit our finitude. We accept that there is a loving God who is greater than we are. We know these things in our hearts. Nevertheless, we avail ourselves of the symbols of dogma and tradition because these formulas give us the language to contemplate and communicate these mysteries to others, as well as to ourselves. This is serious business. When scientists generate a new and promising theory, it is a matter of utmost urgency to express the theory in formal, symbolic language. Scientists know not only that such a formulation facilitates communication, but also that a theory articulated in a suitably rich and well-formed symbolic language (like differential calculus) facilitates the arrival of new insights as the community of inquiry contemplates these symbols and formulas with ever increasing care. In short, the symbolic language draws us nearer to the truth, “more and more.”

Yes, the dogmatic aspect of faith is a sign that we are meant to grow and advance in our faith. We embrace the clearest and truest formulations of our faith so that we can better understand what we have experienced (and re-experience) subjectively in our hearts.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, in formulating our faith in doctrines and Creeds, we gain the capacity to join our personal faith together with the personal experiences of others into the one true faith of the Communion of Saints.

This is a very Catholic idea.

© 2013. Jeff McLeod. All Rights Reserved.

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2 thoughts on “Is Faith Objective or Subjective?”

  1. Pingback: Wounded by Beauty - Big Pulpit

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