God loves us, and He desires everyone’s salvation: “[God] desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:3-6a). Accordingly, we requite His love and sacrifice by pursuing Him in truth. But is there another motivation for this pursuit?
“Our hearts are restless until they rest in you”
We also pursue Him because we must. Our desire for God is “written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself” (1). Pope Benedict XVI described our desire for God as “a thirst for the infinite, a longing for eternity, a quest for beauty, a desire for love, a need for light and for truth which impel [us] to the Absolute” (2). Benedict’s soaring eloquence presents our desire for God as a quest, a profound search with a goal that must be achieved. St. Augustine supplies the motto: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (3).
Every quest follows a path to its goal. But which path is correct, and what will move us along its course? Cardinal Charles Journet wrote a book called, What is Dogma?, explaining how God draws us to Him in faith and assent. “If God loves us, if he wishes to make us love him, he must first reveal to us his mystery, and he must also give us the power to assent to it (4).” Journet calls these two elements, “a twofold light” (5), “inseparable and complementary” (6):
“[T]he prophetic light presents to us what we are to believe, and the sanctifying light, [prompts us to give our] assent to what we should believe” (7) … The prophetic light opens the paths which lead to God; the sanctifying light stirs us to pass over the threshold, and enables us to meet God” (8).
A horse metaphor to illustrate assent
So, God gives us both the pathway to truth and the grace to give our assent. The Catechism breaks down the mechanism-of-assent in this way: ““Believing is an act of the intellect assenting to the divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace” (9). A metaphor might help to break down those prepositional phrases. And because I like westerns, it involves a horse.
Before we embark upon our quest for truth; God supplies us with a horse (grace); He hands us the reins (responsibility); He points us down the correct path (truth); and we understand (intellect) and obey (assent). Then, before we holler, “Giddyup,” He steps aside, giving “free rein” to our will. In other words, He gives us the freedom to veer off the path, to grope in the dark. Why? “Man’s response to God by faith must be free,…nobody is to be forced to embrace the faith against his will” (10).
Every parent knows the dichotomy of, on the one hand, knowing what’s good for their son or daughter, and on the other, to respect their freedom to choose, even to choose poorly. But they choose authentically when they make the choice themselves. Similarly, our assent is weak, our love and desire for God untrue, when we obey by rote.
Why did God give us “free rein”? In addition to honoring free will, God sees the good that might come from our veering and groping. Yet, He always guides, always pours out His grace and truth to enable our return because, above all, He “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of truth.”
The path is personal and unique
The arterial pathway to truth spawns countless veins, reaching out to give everyone access to the main path. These veins also represent the myriad personal experiences that bring us to truth. According to John Henry Newman, real, unconditional assent is grounded in those unique experiences (11).
The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us. Many a man will live and die upon a dogma [a truth of God]: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion (12).
St. Peter lived and died upon the dogma of Jesus Christ and, in the process, represents a fine example of assent. He literally walked the pathway of truth with Truth itself. Prompted by a special grace, he proclaimed his assent when Jesus asked his disciples, “’But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven’” (Matt 16:15-17).
Keep following the pathway to truth; cooperate with grace. And you, too, will finally reach the end of your quest by finding certitude in the truth of God.
1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, #27
2. A School of Prayer, Pope Benedict XVI, 17
3. Confessions, St. Augustine, Book 1, Chapter 1
4. What is Dogma?, Charles Journet, 23
5. Ibid, 23
6. Ibid, 17
7. Ibid, 17
8. Ibid, 31
9. Catechism, 155
10. Ibid, 160
11. Grammar of Assent, Newman, 66
12. Ibid, 71