What’s an on-ramp for?
To bring you to the road that will take you to your destination, of course. Maybe you were once on the right road but left it because you thought another route would be better or easier. Maybe you got lost and drifted from the right road without realizing it. But all that’s over now: you’re ready to reorient yourself and start heading in the right direction.
And that’s easy when you’re on an actual highway in a fast-moving car. It’s more difficult when you’re dealing with things deeper than direction and speed.
The on-ramp that brings us to real faith might be a little longer than we expect. That’s because traveling on it means discarding old and erroneous ideas and replacing them with concepts that are not just true but capable of leading us to ultimate truth. Here’s the goal as we travel these particular on-ramps, and it’s very specific: to learn to see things as they are rather than as the world often thinks they are.
First, we have to understand that we live in a culture that doesn’t just influence what we think—it often determines the way we think. Sometimes it even dictates what is possible to think. Our secular culture’s ideas about religion, and especially about Catholicism, are usually nothing short of toxic. Yet these ideas have been seeping into our minds for a long time—so long that we often don’t even notice how foreign and damaging they are.
A Kind of Sickness
Materialism, the belief that there is nothing more than what meets the eye, is the default position for many. Relativism, the belief that values and morals are grounded in nothing more solid than emotion and personal preference, is taught on most college campuses and is the stuff of every sitcom we watch. Belief in God is considered a relic of the past—an irrational, unreasonable, and even bigoted relic. All these things add up to a problem, not just for our spiritual lives but for our entire Church. In fact, they add up to a kind of sickness.
We’ve all heard that the Church is a body, the mystical body of Christ. We comprise that body, you and I and countless others. Jesus is always the head, but we—frail and fallible as we are—remain the body. Like all living things, bodies can be invaded by pathogens and become ill. Sometimes those pathogens actually affect the DNA of the body they attack.
In a way, we’re facing a change in the Church’s DNA that results in mutations of important truths and doctrines. Profound religious ideas are flattened out; their holiness is drained away, drop by steady drop. Something that was once overflowing with significance becomes an empty shell.
In our culture—which is sometimes called post-Christian—this mutating process has run deep into the minds of Catholics, and it has affected our understanding of some fundamental concepts. Yet often we’re unaware of these transformations, mistaking mutated forms for the real thing. When that happens, our spiritual lives become deformed. One really basic concept that has undergone a particularly troubling mutation is faith.
What word could be more basic to our understanding of our relationship to God? Yet what does it really mean?
If we listen to a new atheist like Richard Dawkins, we learn that faith is nothing more than belief without evidence. If we listen to someone who thinks in relativistic terms, we’ll get a definition that is no better and may be worse: “Faith is just one of many possible interpretations of reality, a private belief in some invisible realities that have little or no bearing on how the world works or how you live your life. Faith has and should have no effect on the way you live your life.” It’s a textbook example of how to empty something important of its vibrancy and meaning and leave it ready for the trash heap.
So what does the Church tell us faith is?
Here’s a definition that I borrow from my colleague, Fr. Pierre Ingram: “Faith is what gives us access to the truth. Faith plugs us into God’s understanding of reality. Faith is opening my being to a word that has the power to transform all aspects of my life. Faith puts my entire life at God’s disposal.” Or as Fr. Francis Martin once summed up, “Faith is God’s work in me to which I respond.”
What a difference! Here faith is dynamic, multifaceted, and multidimensional. It’s also profoundly relational and transformational. Faith is not something private that we dream up on our own, and it’s not something arbitrary. In fact, it’s not rooted in us at all! It’s rooted in God and God’s work in us.
That definition differs drastically from the ones the secular world prefers. In the secular world’s mutation, faith is subjective, a personal choice based on . . . on what? On whatever we choose to base it on, apparently. It’s disconnected from anything outside us. This kind of “faith” can have no knowledge of the object of faith—God. In the mutation of this word, faith is turned into wishful thinking, a house built on sand. No, it’s even worse than that: it’s a shot in the dark.
Notice something else: it’s very lonely. The relational element of true faith is missing. The idea that God’s presence can have an effect in our lives isn’t there. In the mutated idea of faith, each one of us is alone, hoping against hope for whatever might seem best to hope for. And that’s not a great place to be.
Faith Is Man’s Response to God
Look at yet another definition of faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that faith is “man’s response to God, who reveals himself and gives himself to man, at the same time bringing man a superabundant light as he searches for the ultimate meaning of his life” (26).
Do you notice a theme? In Fr. Martin’s definition, we learned that faith is “God’s work in me to which I respond.” The Catechism tells us that faith is “man’s response to God.” In both these definitions, faith is an answer to something that comes from outside us and beyond us.
I’m sure we’ve all heard the term “the gift of faith.” Well, this is what it means. It’s always God who freely initiates the relationship, to which we respond in faith. Faith is a human response but one made possible by the divine love and the divine will. God draws the response of faith from us—the response that brings us into ever-deeper communion with him. Faith transforms us, allowing us to live not for ourselves alone but for God and others.
In this sense, faith is a gift of love—one that includes God’s self-disclosure to us. As the Catechism tells us, the gift of faith is meant to guide us to “the ultimate meaning” of our lives. And what can the ultimate meaning of our lives be but God himself.
So faith is the definitive on-ramp. It illuminates the path home, but it does more than that. It becomes the path home.
A gift demands a response. We can accept it, reject it, or ignore it. What is the proper response to God’s gift of faith?
To answer that, let’s remember our Blessed Mother—the most perfect example of faith we have—at the Annunciation. Mary has no idea what lies ahead when she hears the angel’s confusing message. Yet she ponders that message and even asks a question about it, allowing God to work in her, perhaps allowing herself time to respond to God’s invitation in perfect faith. “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38), she then says, accepting the will of God with her whole being, entrusting herself totally to another. And that’s what faith ultimately does for us. It allows us to act totally, to be truly “whole beings.”
There are a hundred ways of describing how faith transforms us, and it doesn’t matter which way we choose to express it. It only matters that we respond to God’s gift of faith and let that gift do its work in us. Let it permeate your life in such a way that you can learn to trust as Mary did, as God is calling each of us to do.
This is a selection from Rerouting: Finding Our Way Back to God and His Church by Fr. John Riccardo (The Word Among Us Press 2018). Available at wau.org/books