Sunday, March 23, 2014

Unbelief: A Sunday Rumination

A few days ago, I put the following question to my Gentle Readers:

I've recently begun to ponder the nature of unbelief as distinguished from the more easily comprehended concept of disbelief. To disbelieve is to reject a proposition, either as untrue or unconvincing. Unbelief is a different animal, the nature of which might not be made perfectly clear by the Gospel passage above.

I expect to write about this come Sunday. Until then, please let me have your thoughts, Gentle Readers, on what unbelief connotes to you -- if, indeed, it connotes anything at all. Particularly interesting suggestions will be incorporated into Sunday's Rumination.

A Reader -- interesting choice of moniker -- responded that:

I think unbelief is the precursor to faith. It is the intellectual acceptance that someone may be possible without the spiritual certainty that it can or will be done. I parse the father's prayer, which I have prayed many times, as the desire to see a limited capacity for faith expanded. The Epistle to the Hebrews says: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Another version reads: "Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see." I think the father lacked confidence, knew it was necessary, and had just enough faith to ask Jesus to make up the difference. All in all, his request is not the request of a total non-believer.

Rick White responded that:

Disbelief is as you stated, "the rejection of a proposition..." However unbelief is doubt in the truth of the proposition which will lead to a loss of faith in the proposition. Satan's greatest tool at his disposal is the simple question mark, it is his skillful tool to place doubt in your path to faith and belief. What was Satan's tactic to Eva when he got her to taste the apple, he simply stated, Ge:3:1: Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? Thru this simple question Satan was able to place doubt in Eva which lead to her downfall. And Satan continues to use this skillful trick even today and with doubt he is able to diminish our witness and cause us to have doubts about our faith. Just look at “Time”, “Newsweek” or “US News and World Report” covers over the last 50 years, any time they did an article on Christianity, they usually lead off with a title that ends with a question mark. Creating doubt in Biblical truth is the corner stone to unbelief in our faith.

Doubletrouble replied:

In my daily prayers, I ask for "...relief of my worldly anxieties, and help my faith be increased. I believe, Lord, help my unbelief."

It is my duty, as a Catholic, to put my complete trust in God/Jesus/Holy Ghost, but the human, sinner element precludes me from doing exactly that.

For me, it's less of an issue of 'doubt', as it is one of overcoming my internal human instincts.

And KG, the worthy proprietor of Crusader Rabbit, suggested that:

Unbelief=doubt?

All of these are approaches to be considered. Allow me to add my own, which has been on my mind for some time now.


A believer is one who has accepted the existence of God, and the essential truth of the Gospel narration of the life, ministry, Passion and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God and Redeemer of Mankind. Yet he might still harbor some amount of unbelief, as did the man in the citation from Chapter 9 of the Gospel According to Mark. To combine the two without engendering a contradiction, I look to our conduct and experiences of life-as-lived.

We live in the world, subject to the laws of Nature, especially our own natures. Our thoughts don't remain fixed on anything in particular at all times. More, we move from goal to goal according to satisfactions attained or abandoned, the fluctuations of our priorities, and other influences too numerous to mention. The objectives and constraints that energize and bound our responses to events as they occur can vary widely.

For myself, I've become aware that there's a large region of my life in which my belief and the implications that flow from it play little or no part. At those times and in those circumstances, I am entirely a temporal, secular creature. I'm not afflicted by disbelief, for at any moment, were I asked "Do you believe in God and accept Christ as Lord and Savior?" I would unhesitatingly reply in the affirmative. Neither am I an unbeliever: one who declines to accept those propositions as insufficiently convincing. Yet I might be in the grip of unbelief, which to me means that in that context, my faith and its practical implications are irrelevant.

The father in the Gospel story might have suffered that degree of unbelief. Hear him once again:

And [the father] said, "From childhood. It has often thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!" And Jesus said to him, " 'If You can?' All things are possible to him who believes." Immediately the boy’s father cried out and said, "I do believe; help my unbelief."

The emphasized words make plain that the father's faith seemed (to him) irrelevant to his son's affliction, or perhaps impotent to effect its cure. He clearly accepted that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ. Yet he was uncertain that the Christ bore the power to relieve his son of his torments...or his tormentor. He wanted to be convinced.

That dichotomy might well apply to all of us, though in another form: We are conscious Christians at Mass or during prayer, but become "unbelievers" when wrestling with the challenges and trials of life under the veil of Time. Our faith and its implications doesn't rise to our conscious minds during those periods.

The father in the Gospel story received the demonstration he needed, simply by humbling himself sufficiently to ask for it. So also did Thomas Didymus, the "Doubting Thomas." Might the same apply to us?


A marvelous short story by Anthony Boucher, "The Quest For Saint Aquin," provides a piercing example of the struggle against unbelief, which is to say: the will to accept that faith in God and His Son is relevant to all temptations and all trials, whether of body, mind, or spirit. The story is regarded as one of the jewels of Golden Age science fiction; I exhort you all to read and delight in it.

There is no moment at which God is distant from us, not "answering the phone." There is no challenge to which His Benevolence is irrelevant. Indeed, it's when our temporal trials are most severe that our faith is most relevant, for there alone can we reliably find the sustenance required to endure. His Son has told us that we need only ask:

“So I say to you: Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and the door shall be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks shall find, and to him who knocks, the door shall be opened. What father among you, if your son asks for a fish, will you give him a snake? Or if he asks for an egg, will you give him a scorpion? If ye then, although you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! In everything, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, for this fulfills the law and the prophets.” [Matthew 7:7-12]

Yet in deciding what to want and what ends to seek, we are obliged to remain fully mindful of the Christian ethos:

    And behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?
    And He said unto him, Why callest thou me good? There is none that is good but one, that is God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.
    He saith unto Him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honor thy father and thy mother, and Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. [Matthew 19:16-19]

Through those portals we may divest ourselves of unbelief.

May God bless and keep you all.

2 comments:

  1. Mr. Porretto, I appreciated and enjoyed reading your essay on disbelief and unbelief, and I agreed with your explanation of unbelief. Your example of why the father had unbelief was, in my humble opinion, completely correct. Another perfect example of unbelief comes from the Apostle John when he ask Jesus if he could come on the water with him. M't:14:28: And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water. I've heard all my life from pastors that John sank in the water because he took his eyes off of Christ, but I belief he sank in the water because he showed he had doubt when he said "if it be thou".

    Thanks Again,

    Rick White

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  2. I've always loved Joe Sobran's idea that the opposite of belief is not unbelief but crassness.

    He may have said "faith" but it's the same idea.

    The corollary is that if you dislike a society with many fellow citizens who are believers, wait till you experience secular society. Sweetness and light may not, in fact, be spending eight hours in church of a Sabbath, but it isn't holes carved in the side of your nose and nipple rings either.

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