Thursday, January 27, 2011

The 'certainty' of ‘adolescent faith’ and the 'uncertainty' of ‘mature faith’ (From Benedict Groeschel's "Spiritual Passages")

The religious belief of adolescence is based on the clarity of ideas, or “what makes sense”. Certitude or clarity in the last analysis is mostly a subjective experience. This may not be philosophically true, but it is unquestionably true psychologically. What is clear to one person is not clear to another. Since clarity is relatively subjective, it is also intrinsically tentative and its tentative quality can be observed in two maladaptive attitudes: fanaticism and chronic uncertainty. When adolescent faith is fueled by fear, it can be a very powerful experience and can precipitate very defensive and paranoid attitudes.

Religious fanaticism (which is really a very threatened paranoid experience of belief) denies the individual’s underlying uncertainty and projects his or her inner conflicts onto others. Usually the target is the devil or those one thinks to be doing his work. Fanaticism is forgivable in adolescents who are threatened by their own inner turmoil and need patient and gentle understanding. It is part of a common understanding of human nature to know that a basically healthy person may experience some paranoid ideation.

To assist the individual in such situations, however, it is necessary to enter his or her somewhat distorted world vision and try to allay his or her fears. Frequently adults who are themselves threatened attract adolescents and magnify their own fears as well as that of young people. Others who have failed to achieve a completely mature faith may join the adolescent in his or her fanaticism, forming a relationship which is doomed to dissolution if the young person continues to move toward a less threatened and more mature faith.

The greatest pitfall in moving toward mature faith, however, is not the false certitude of fanaticism, but a permanent fixation in an endless series of more sophisticated speculation. Some rather intellectually gifted people fall into the trap of repetitive experiences of tentative clarity, and interminable defense of these experiences. This is a particular problem for adults who as children or adolescents endured rejection or scorn because of their intellectual gifts. Understandably, they learn early in life to build their self-esteem on their intellectual powers. Like their competitors who become addicted to athletic achievement, they are overly involved with self-expression through games of the mind. It is not unusual to find Christians of real intelligence and sensitivity wasting years formulating subtle theories and distinctions, yet failing to make the leap of faith which is beyond such experiences.

The traits of both types of believer trapped in adolescence (the fanatic and the overly-speculative) are strangely similar. Although they may fight each other, trading names like skeptic and obscurantist, they are both capable of sincere, intense commitments to religion and spirituality. Each group, however, failing to get beyond adolescent faith, demonstrates the signs of psychological stagnation: bitterness, boredom, and escape into frenetic, unrewarding stereotypic activity.

The solution to the dilemma is the leap into mature faith. This phrase may annoy those who need most to take the leap; thus a psychological analysis of mature faith may be helpful. The faith of adolescence, as we have seen, is based on clear ideas tentatively held until better explanations are found. Mature faith, according to St. John of the Cross, is the exact opposite. Instead of being tentative it is certain because the author of faith is God. In the case of mature faith, divine grace breaks into the ordinary processes of cognition through revelation and personal enlightenment which enables the individual to believe.

One cannot stress enough that mature faith, like the final struggles with moral integration, reveals personally and unmistakably the power of a dynamism outside self, namely, grace. More importantly, mature faith is mysterious and obscure. It transcends ordinary theological speculation, which is based on clear ideas drawn from analogies that are manageable by reason. The source of these analogies used in adolescent faith and in intellectual speculation should be rooted in Revelation. Analogies make possible the task of positive theology. However, the faith of which St. John of the Cross speaks is faith beyond all analogies, and is usually called “apophatic faith”, i.e. faith based on denial of what is not true rather than on affirmation of what is true.

A single example may clarify the distinction between analogous and apophatic faith. It is revealed that God is a living, personal God. The notion we share as human beings of a human person is therefore applied to God as an analogy. It is a useful analogy which every child and adolescent can comprehend, although the young adolescent, newly capable of abstract thought, will do better than the child for whom God is an old man, the Ancient of Days. The theological student will go much further, however; and remove the anthropomorphisms, and come to the most sublime and unlimited notion of person. The theologian can examine the concept of person, and the Scripture and dogma related to the analogy, and proceed to an almost limitless refinement especially as psychology refines its definition of person.

The student or theologian then grows silent in inner prayer and experiences a mysterious relationship with and knowledge of God. The individual experience goes beyond all concepts of ‘person’. God becomes not less than a person nor more than a person, but beyond ‘person’ itself. As St. John of the Cross says:

“Faith is an obscure habit because it brings us to believe divinely revealed truths which transcend every natural light and infinitely exceed all human understanding. As a result the excessive light of faith bestowed on man is darkness for him, because a brighter light will eclipse and suppress a dimmer one. The light of faith in its abundance suppresses and overwhelms the intellect. For the intellect by its own power, comprehends only natural knowledge…Faith manifestly, is a dark night for man, but in this very way it gives him light. The more darkness it brings him, the more light it sheds. For by blinding it illumines him…”

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)