Experimental Science of Faith

“No one becomes learned in the science of God either by the reading of books, or by the inquisitive investigation of history. The science that is acquired by such means is vain and confused, producing much pride. That which instructs us is what happens from one moment to another producing in us that experimental science which Jesus Christ himself willed to acquire before instructing others.”

-Jean Pierre de Cassaude, Abandonment to Divine Providence

Cassaude’s Abandonment to Divine Providence was recommended to me a good while back. I bought in on my Kindle, and since I’ve owned it, I have only read about 50 pages. I like a lot of what he’s had to say thus far. A good portion of the book is now highlighted. As a matter of fact, I posted something referring to his work recently. I love what he said about mystery being the life of faith. To that I say, “YES!” But, flip a few pages and then he hits right an area where I’m most passionate…or, dare I say, prideful.

The above quote hits me where it hurts, right between the ears. I feast on theological/philosophical discussion. I even couch it in very pious terms (but, maybe it is). I often say my quest for Truth is synonymous with my quest for unity with Christ. But, Cassaude offers thoughts that I think are worth prayerfully considering. Could it be the life of the mind and the life of faith are not as compatible as we’d like to think? (And, does it scream irony that I’m using the mind to evaluate whether or not the mind is hindering faith?)

St. Paul starts of his first letter to Timothy saying:

When I left for Macedonia, I urged you to stay there in Ephesus and stop those whose teaching is contrary to the truth. Don’t let them waste their time in endless discussion of myths and spiritual pedigrees. These things only lead to meaningless speculations, which don’t help people live a life of faith in God.” (1 Tim. 1:3-4)

While looking to what St. Paul might have had in mind when mentioning “myths and spiritual pedigrees” would be needed, I wonder if those two terms might encapsulate a good bit of
meaningless speculations”. I can honestly say my own theological pursuits don’t translate naturally to a “life of faith in God.” By “life”, of course, I’m referring to the actions of faith. I have in mind doing the things that Jesus did. Loving our enemies. Praying for our persecutors. Welcoming the stranger. Feeding the hungry. Clothing the naked. Caring for the sick. Am I doing those things? Are we doing those things?

Cassaude even suggested a thought of Christ I had never considered. While I knew that Jesus spent the majority of his life in a practical trade before beginning his public ministry, it didn’t occur to me that those years weren’t merely preparatory in a general fashion, but rather specifically preparatory in that Jesus learned the “experimental science of faith” he calls us to. Jesus didn’t spend time reading books (which I’ve read a fair share) or investigating history (which I’ve started to do more frequently). He spent time with people working on leaky roofs, sharing God’s truth while building a table, and practicing the solitary spirituality that so strengthened him in every trial and tribulation.

To follow Christ might even mean giving up the pursuit of theological/philosophical mastery for the study of humility and mercy. Ouch…I find it much more enjoyable and natural to read my books. Our Lord seemed focused the other way. So did St. Paul and the other Apostles.

Sure, Christ calls us all to our various places of service, and without a doubt academia is a realm under his Lordship. Yet, we’d be fooling ourselves silly if we believed acquiring the right knowledge will automatically, almost as a natural by-product, produce a right, holy lifestyle. I’m not certain I’ve grown in holiness at all as I’ve acquired my little library.

One thing I know I’ve gained in my various studies (and my bride can attest to this!) is pride. Cassaude certainly nailed it when he said studies of such a nature are “vain and confused, producing much pride.” Such study is “vain” because its’ final value has little impact on what’s most important, namely are we holy, honorable, just, merciful, kind, peaceful, gracious, self-controlled, etc. Such study is “confused” because, sheesh, “of the making of many books, there is no end and much study wears you out.” (Ecc. 12:12). Finally, it produces pride because you’ve got something others (maybe many) don’t have. Full disclosure: I have been in situations where I found myself describing the nature of my MA program just so people know my MA lasted 77 hours and included three ancient languages. And, I’m sure I patted my chest when I told them. Apparently, during my years in seminary, I rather missed Jesus, eh? My wife and kids don’t think I’m a good dad because I took 77 hours in an MA and learned to read (and now mostly forget) Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. They do care that I love and lead them with Christ-like humility, love, and patience.

Cassaude’s warning is apt. If you place something other than Jesus as your pursuit, something other than a Jesus-shaped life will be the result. It doesn’t matter if your pursuit is mastery of biblical material, theological dogma, church history, or any other tangentially related topic to Christ. What matters is learning the “experimental science of faith.”

Yet, after all I’ve said, I think it important to add this. I don’t read Cassaude saying to abandon the reading of books and investigation of history. I see him saying strongly, however, “those inquiries are without merit as means of growing in holiness, so keep them in the proper perspective.” What, then, is the proper perspective? St. Paul said it this way “And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:2)

Without love, we are nothing. Without love, despite our impressive academic or professional resumes, we don’t know God at all. For, God is love. (1 John 4:8)

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