In today’s Gospel reflection, Jesus asks Nicodemus “If I tell you about earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” Here Jesus helps us understand the ascent of the mind to the articles of faith.
Contrary to how it is frequently caricatured, by both Christians and non-Christians, faith is not subrational. It is not beneath or antithetical to reason. By ‘reason’, I mean those things that are known and understood through our interaction with the world and the logical ordering of what we understand via the human intellect.
An article of faith is something we believe because God has told it to us. But the basis of our assent is antecedent truth about the world. We must first believe earthly things in order to believe heavenly things. I would submit these earthly things involve what have been called the preambles of faith. One example would be the existence of God. The entirety of special revelation presupposes, in a certain sense, that God exists. It is not an article of faith to believe in the existence of God. Surely, God is not ‘earthly’, but we can arrive at the conclusion that theism is true based on natural theology. Natural theology being the truths about God known through interrogation of the natural, physical world. We can know about the Creator through our study of creatures.
What would be an article of faith, on the other hand, is that Jesus Christ is truly God and truly man. This is a conclusion we could not arrive at without God telling us. Another article of faith is that God exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One God in three divine Persons. Yet another example is what Jesus is telling Nicodemus in John 3. In order to enter the Kingdom of God, we must be born of the Spirit. Spiritual rebirth is not a conclusion man could ever arrive at on his own, no matter how deeply we could penetrate the intricacies of the natural world. No matter how insightful our natural theology, we could not know this profound truth about God and ourselves. We believe it because of the source of the information. The source of this information, we have good reason to believe, based on our knowledge of the world, is divine. Thus we assent despite the fact that we did not discover or deduce the proposition given. We receive the truths of the faith with gladness, for they elevate and perfect our minds.
Returning to the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, if Nicodemus (or anyone else, for that matter), would not believe the commonalities and starting points of discourse on God, the earthly things, then the heavenly things would not be received. It would be like giving a pallet of shingles to a person who had not yet built the foundation of the house. Or, perhaps giving the same shingles to a person who had a completely different concept of house construction that did not involve roofing altogether. Without assent to the starting point, such as that God was acting decisively in the world in Christ and Christ was speaking in the very Person of God (the Son), Nicodemus would not be able to apprehend what Jesus was telling Him about being born again. The ‘earthly’ things were happening right in front of Nicodemus. He had plenty to go on, but he is somewhat reluctant to follow the evidence where it is leading. This is where the will comes into play in the act of faith. Assenting to the articles of faith is not merely an intellectual exercise. The will is involved in moving the person to assent to what God proposes to us for belief. Part of the work of God the Holy Spirit is prompting and moving our will to this assent in aid to the intellect.
If we do not believe in earthly things, we will not believe in heavenly things. We do well to keep this in mind in our evangelization efforts. Sometimes people are not at the same starting point or do not acknowledge any common ground. We can work to build a dialogue around the preambles of faith, or at least articulate them, to help another person understand why we believe and what faith means. We can work toward common ground and sharpen our natural theology to better assist in these exchanges.