You Don’t Own It

“Christ at 33” – by Hofmann

“Own Your Faith.”

You’ve probably heard that before.  Or, if you’re like me, you’ve given out the command.  Now, I’m seriously questioning it.

The problem with using the verb “own” is that it means having it all, possessing it, and if  possessing it, then exercising dominion over it.  We know this from daily life.  I own my car.  It is therefore subject to me.  I exercise my intellect and will over it…even when it is broken.  The same would go for my house and property (this example does limp a bit as cars and houses rarely bend to every action of our wills).

At any rate, I certainly do not own my wife.  She, being another human person, is not my property, etc.  Instead, we participate freely in marriage and the self-gift constantly entailed.  But, what can be said about “ownership” of faith?

Now, by no means am I arguing that as one grows older, he or she should not take responsibility for learning the Tradition.  St. Paul speaks of this, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me” (1 Cor. 13:11).  Responsibility and ownership are two completely different things, however.  Responsibility says that I will take account for my action, etc., and that I am accountable to somebody for this (cf. 1 Peter 3:15).  One need not own something in order to be responsible for it – my children for example, or preventing the contagions of my head cold (which actually owns me!) from spreading. But this is all really an aside, because the phrase in question is demanding ownership.

To say that I own my faith, reduces faith to one of three things:

  1. Faith is nothing more than a series of doctrines that I can master with my intellect.
  2. Faith is a litany of rules that I can accomplish.
  3. Faith is ultimately subject to my authority.  In order for it to be true it has to meet my criteria (man, the measure of all things).

These all amount to idolatry in one form or another.  In the first case, faith is subject to the idolization of rational processes alone, resulting, on one hand in a faith that is little more than a string of right answers (like a child masters subtraction with flash cards), or on the other, an esoteric knowledge only attained by the gnostics.

Or, as illustrated second, the faith is reduced to morals.  When this happens – the Pharisees were case in point – the law becomes the idol.  No savior, no faith is necessary, or even looked for, because it is all about will-power, expending oneself, perfecting oneself, – in short, “trying real hard” (ie. Pelagianism).

Finally, and this is perhaps some combination of the previous cases, we have the individual arbiter of the faith – sole authority.  In order for the faith to be true, it must conform or contort itself to fit my requisites.  Should parts of it prove unsuitable, I simply discard those pieces.  I pick and choose.  After all, I am the owner of this faith.  In this case, one crafts for himself his own doctrine with corresponding “Jesus idol” to be worshiped only in private, which amounts to little more than worshiping the imagination.

Perhaps all of these examples illustrate why the Church is so important – because she proposes the faith she was given by Christ 2000 years ago, a faith that has grown and developed, yet remained the same through the apostolic succession.  The Church simply proposes to humanity the Christ who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.  This is her gift to the world, the proclamation of a Savior who is not reducible to the minds and wills of men, or earthly authority (as illustrated in the Gospels).  And in order for a gift to actually be a gift, it implies reception.

The faith is not something we own, but something we receive.  It is not something we subject, but subject ourselves to, because it is True.

This does not mean the faith bowls us over.  Quite the opposite, as stated in Dignitatis Humanae, “The act of faith is of its very nature a free act.”  It is also not the case that the faith is “too mysterious to be known by reason, so I must resort to fideism.”

The real question, here, involves my posture in front of the Church and the faith.  For the “faith is not a ‘religion of the book.’  Christianity is the religion of the ‘Word’ of God, a word which is ‘not a written and mute word, but the Word which is incarnate and living’” (CCC 108).  (Note the lack of past tense here).

To put it another way, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est 1).

The Christian faith, then, is hardly something one can own, because it involves an encounter and a relationship with the Person of Christ, who is not subject to me.  Do you see the shift in thinking?  The invitation put forward by the Church is not a call for individuals to take ownership, but the invitation for human persons to respond to the Answer of the deepest longings of their hearts.  Faith is not subject to my intellect, as if I am the final arbiter of its truth.  Instead, my whole being is subject to Him.  The proper response to truth is surrender and life in accordance with it.

What to make of “owning the faith? 

The concept should be reworked to match diction with semantics.  In this regard, the following passage from Luigi Giussani’s The Risk of Education may prove helpful.  Here, he speaks of the growing child who must examine that (content) that he has received:

In Greek, this action [of examination] is called krinen, krises, from which the words ‘critique,’ ‘criticism’ are derived.  Therefore, to ‘criticize’ means to take hold of things…The young student will now explore the contents of his knapsack [that which figuratively contains all the knowledge he has acquired to date], critically comparing what’s inside of it – his received tradition – with the longings in his heart.  The final standard of judgment must be found inside of us, for otherwise we are alienated.  The ultimate, inner standard of judgment is identical for all of us: it is a need for the true, the beautiful, and the good. (9-10)

This position is not identical to the ones above for several reasons.  While it does stress the importance of critical thought, it does not prescribe a radical skepticism or a “reason-alone” position.  Instead, the faith is about correspondence – to the needs of my heart.  And, correspondence implies a mutual holding, a mutual giving, a mutual receiving.

Indeed, it is this type of faith, one that is neither fideistic, nor purely rationalized, that truly corresponds to man.  It is this faith that arises “from life experience and confirmed by it (and, therefore, relevant to life’s needs) could be sufficiently strong to survive in a world where everything pointed in the opposite direction” (Giussani 11)

In this case, the individual holds the faith, or better-said, is freely held by the faith.


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About the Author

Brad is the Director of Youth Ministry for the growing youth program at St. Gertrude Parish in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is actively involved in planning, leading worship for, and speaking at retreats and youth events in the Cincinnati area. He received his BA in English and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. Following his graduation in 2008, he spent a year teaching English in Denver at Bishop Machebeuf High School. Brad and his wife Katie spend much of the day chasing around their 18 month old daughter. They are expecting their second child in October. In his spare time, Brad enjoys reading classic pieces of literature, writing, playing sports, listening to classic rock, and thinking about how funny he thinks he is.

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