Have you ever been told of someone who had a purely intellectual conversion? The stories I have heard go something like this. So-and-so reads up on some philosophy, debates some atheists, conducts some historical research, then concludes for himself, “Yeah, Jesus is God. I guess I’ll be a Christian now.” These accomplishments are indeed impressive, but if our account of conversion stops there, we are missing perhaps the most important part: grace. St. Paul says to the Corinthians, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3).
Philosophy and research can clear away error and discover many truths, but faith, because it is supernatural, is not constructed out of these activities. Faith is a grace, a gift from God that sheds supernatural light on the mind. When St. Peter confesses in Caesarea Philippi that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus tells him: “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father” (Mt 16:17).
“Flesh and blood” here means all those natural means by which we acquire knowledge, mainly our senses and intellect working together. Now, it is true that God’s existence can be proven through rational arguments. In fact, it is a dogma, defined at the First Vatican Council, that knowledge of God’s existence can be known with certitude through reason alone, without any special revelation from God. Such an assent to the existence of God, however, is not faith.
It is not because of historical research or philosophical investigation that we believe in the Trinity or the Incarnation. We believe them because God has revealed these truths to us, has revealed himself to us. Apologetics can only defend faith from attacks, never establish it within someone. The preaching of the Gospel, the infusion of grace, these are the instruments by which the Lord produces faith in our souls, by which he grants grace to our minds that we might believe.
It can be uncomfortable for us to consider faith as a grace. We want to be able to investigate, to reason for ourselves, then make our educated decision. In order to investigate divine mysteries, however, we first have to accept them in faith. God offers us the grace to believe, to trust that he who loves us reveals the truth to us, even when that truth is beyond our ability to comprehend.
Image: Pietro Perugino, Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter.