Dr Ivo Coelho – Faith and Religion

APRIL 2013

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First published in Live Encounters Magazine. A special thanks to Dr Ivo Coelho, Philosopher, Priest and Rector of Ratisbonne Monastery, Jerusalem, for taking time out to write this exclusive.

Is faith the same as religion? Or is it possible perhaps to have faith, to be a man or woman of faith, without necessarily belonging to any particular religion?

Traditionally, at least in Catholic theology, faith and religion tended to be identified: to have faith meant to be a good Catholic. Faith was an intellectual virtue, and the act of faith was a divinely assisted assent of intellect to a set of divinely revealed truths. The Reformation tended to give greater emphasis to faith in its aspect of trust and confidence in God. In contemporary Catholic theology, however, there are at least two thinkers I know of who distinguish faith and beliefs: Raimundo Panikkar and Bernard Lonergan. Just now I do not have access to the books of Panikkar, so let me give a brief outline of the way Lonergan distinguishes faith and beliefs.

Faith, for Lonergan, is the knowledge born of religious love.

The knowledge born of love may be approached by distinguishing between factual knowledge and ‘heart’ knowledge. Factual knowledge is what we attain by experiencing, understanding and judging. Heart knowledge belongs to what Lonergan calls the fourth or existential level of human consciousness, and might be described as the discernment and judgments of value of a person in love. This kind of knowledge goes beyond the judging that yields knowledge of facts to an apprehension of values.

When the love that moves the apprehension of values is religious love – which at least in the Christian tradition might be described as God’s love flooding the heart (see Romans 5:5) – we have an apprehension of transcendent value. This, for Lonergan, is faith: the knowledge born of religious love, where the knowledge in question is not of facts but of values.

Faith may therefore be described as the eye of love. When a person is in love in an unrestricted way, that love is a religious love, and it transforms the person, and her ways of apprehending values.

Now the fact is that love also transforms a person’s ways of apprehending facts. We might put this slightly differently. Among the many values, faith also discerns the value of believing the word of religion, or the judgments of facts and value proposed by religion. In other words, it is through faith – the eye of love – that the beliefs of a religion are accepted. Love – religious love – becomes the moving factor in our acceptance of the beliefs and all the other things that constitute a religion.

But what, we might ask, is religious love? In Christian terms, as we have said, it might be described as the gift of God’s love flooding our hearts. In experiential categories – or ‘phenomenologically’ – it is a state of being in love in an unrestricted way. If being human might be described in terms of a thrust towards self-transcendence – from dreaming to the waking state of experiencing, from mere experiencing to trying to understand and actually understanding, from understanding to asking whether such understanding is correct, weighing the evidence and making judgments, and from judgments of fact to asking what I am to do, exploring alternatives and weighing them, making decisions and carrying them out – being in love can be seen as fulfilment, and being in love in an unrestricted manner as complete fulfilment, of this thrust. We might speak therefore of a cognitional self-transcendence, a moral self-transcendence, and a religious self-transcendence: cognitional self-transcendence when we attain the correct understanding that is truth; moral self-transcendence when we discern true values, and affective / religious self-transcendence when we consistently opt for and live by these values, so that we become ourselves incarnations of value.

Most of us know from experience that falling in love and being in love is something amazing. It is an irruption of an other into our lives. We also know that knowledge usually precedes love: we have to at least see someone in order to fall in love. There is an expression for this in Latin: Nihil amatum nisi cognitum. Still, falling in love, even when it is in some way preceded by knowledge, is a new beginning, a transformation and reorganization of one’s previous world. “Love changes everything,” as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s song goes. But the major exception to the rule is God’s love flooding our hearts: God can love us and we can respond to this love even before we know who it is that has loved us and who it is we are responding to. This is what is meant when we talk of God’s love as a gift, or, in terms of a more traditional theology, grace.

When God’s love floods our hearts, we are in the dynamic state of being in love in an unrestricted manner. We experience deep joy and peace, which comes from the fact that our thrust towards moral self-transcendence has found a fulfilment: now we act morally with the ease and comfort of one who is in love. Our love also leads to a new or fresh appreciation of the values of prayer, worship, repentance and belief. But if we would know what is going on within us, and if we are to integrate what has happened with the rest of our lives, we have to inquire, investigate, seek counsel and direction.

Now if religious love is God’s gift, and faith is the eye of this kind of love, the very beginning of faith is a gift. For me the meaning of grace came through a lovely story that has never ceased to touch me. It is told by Vincent Donovan who for many years was a missionary to the Masai people in East Africa. Donovan reports:

I was sitting talking with a Masai elder about the agony of belief and unbelief. He used two languages to respond to me – his own and Kiswahili. He pointed out that the word my Masai catechist, Paul, and I had used to convey faith was not a very satisfactory word in their language. It meant literally “to agree to.” I, myself, knew the word had that shortcoming. He said “to believe” like that was similar to a white hunter shooting an animal with his gun from a great distance. Only his eyes and his fingers took part in the act. We should find another word. He said for a man really to believe is like a lion going after its prey. His nose and eyes and ears pick up the prey. His legs give him the speed to catch it. All the power of his body is involved in the terrible death leap and single blow to the neck with the front paw, the blow that actually kills. And as the animal goes down the lion envelops it in his arms (Africans refer to the front legs of an animal as its arms), pulls it to himself and makes it part of himself. This is the way a lion kills. This is the way a man believes. This is what faith is.

I looked at the elder in silence and amazement. Faith understood like that would explain why, when my own was gone, I ached in every fiber of my being. But my wise old teacher was not finished yet.

“We did not search you out, Padri,” he said to me. “We did not even want you to come to us. You searched us out. You followed us away from your house into the bush, into the plains, into the steppes where our cattle are, into the hills where we take our cattle for water, into our villages, into our homes. You told us of the High God, how we must search for him, even leave our land and our people to find him. But we have not done this. We have not left our land. We have not searched for him. He has searched for us. He has searched us out and found us. All the time we think we are the lion. In the end, the lion is God.” (Vincent Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered)

Our spontaneous tendency is to think that we are the lion. But in the end, the lion is God. Faith, I learned, is not something I do for myself. It is a gift.

I have been distinguishing, with Lonergan, the gift of God’s love, faith as the eye of that love, and beliefs which are among the values that faith discerns and accepts. But what then of religion? Here again we must clarify, because the word has many meanings. The gift of God’s love, the state of being in love in an unrestricted manner, the experienced fulfilment of our moral and religious striving, is religious experience, the ‘inner word.’ In contrast to this there is the outer word of religious expression, which we might conveniently sum up in the four Cs: creeds, codes, cults and community. Religion, for me, would be not just the outer word but the sum total of inner and outer words. If faith and beliefs can be distinguished as I have been trying to do, then religion does not identify with beliefs. It is faith and beliefs together, and much more.

What then of our initial question? We asked whether faith was the same as religion, and in the light of what we have been saying, we have to say no. Faith is one element within religion: it is the inner word of God’s love enabling discernment and acceptance of the outer word of religious expression. It is the eye of love that discerns and accepts or rejects the values found in the religious expression of some or all religious traditions. So perhaps the initial question needs to be reframed. Instead of asking whether it is possible to have faith without necessarily belonging to any particular religion, I would ask about the value and worth of religious beliefs, and, more extensively, of the whole gamut of religious expression that I have been calling the outer word.

So what then of the worth of religious expression? Isn’t it the religious experience that is the real thing, so that expression is something marginal, secondary, dispensable? Isn’t the mind a deceiver, so that we had best remain at the level of pure awareness, without thinking, without concepts? Isn’t nirvana beyond all categories, so that it is best not to speak about it? Are we not called to go beyond names and forms to the ineffable experience, the supreme experience of the nirguna Brahman, the Brahman without qualities, rather than remaining in the realm of the saguna Brahman? Should we not let go of the boat once we have crossed to the other shore? Should we not kick away the ladder when we have climbed to the top? Should we not shut up when we reach that which cannot be spoken about?

I have struggled long and hard with such questions, but I believe now that that expression is not something merely marginal to religion – not even to the religious traditions that would in the end relativize them. Religious expression is, in fact, an important part of being human. When two persons are in love but have not yet expressed their love to each other, they have not really reached the fullness of love. “Their very silence means that their love has not reached the point of self-surrender and self-donation.” (Lonergan, Method in Theology 112-13).

But once they have expressed their love to each other, there begins a new phase. What holds for human love, holds in its own way also for the love of God and human beings. Like human love, religious love also has to come to expression. “Ordinarily the experience of the mystery of love and awe is not objectified. It remains within subjectivity as a vector, an undertow, a fateful call to a dreaded holiness. Perhaps after years of sustained prayerfulness and self-denial, immersion in the world mediated by meaning will become less total and experience of the mystery become clear and distinct enough to awaken attention, wonder, inquiry.” (Lonergan, Method in Theology 113).

Even at this point, there may not be clear answers. But here the importance of the word becomes clear. Existing religious expression is a help towards expression of my own experience. For I am not the first to have undergone such experience. Through the accumulated wisdom of the religious tradition, and with the help of religious specialists (priests, gurus, spiritual masters, preachers) I can be helped to identify what is going on within myself. Through the word of fellowship I can gather together with others to celebrate the gift. And when I have has identified and named the gift, I can begin to respond to God’s love in a new and more deliberate way. Like a man and woman who express their love to each other, now there begins a new phase.

So the outer word has its importance. But we could still ask, as we have already: do we have to cling to it? Can we not let go of the boat, kick away the ladder? And here perhaps is an area of fundamental differences between religious traditions. It seems to me that some traditions – usually referred to as the ‘mystical religions’ (Hinduism, Buddhism) – are more willing to relativize religious expression than others – the ‘prophetic religions’ (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). I would think that these are differences in attitude towards the outer word: the mystical religions, or at least significant trends within these religions, tend to regard the outer word as human objectification or formulation of the inner word of religious experience, whereas the prophetic religions tend to regard the outer word as somehow God’s word, divine objectification of the inner word.

Obviously, it is easier to relativize merely human objectifications than what one regards as divine objectifications. Thus the Advaitin can easily leave behind the saguna Brahman in favour of the nirguna Brahman, but the orthodox Jew or Christian or Muslim will shudder at the thought of leaving behind the Word of God. And Christians take the further step in believing that God has given expression to his love not only “in many and various ways” through the prophets but also in a particular historical person. If a man and a woman are not fully in love until they express that love to each other, then Christianity believes that God has taken the risk – for risk it is – of expressing his love to us in Jesus.

Where does all this leave us? We have distinguished between faith and beliefs, between inner and outer word, religious experience and expression, and we have been asking about the value and worth of the second member of each of these distinctions. We have proposed that there are constitutively different attitudes within religious traditions towards beliefs, outer word, religious expression. And here is where I must desist.

I am aware that even the very language I have used is derived ultimately from a particular religious tradition, which happens to be naturally my own. I know that not all religious traditions would care to speak of religious experience in personalist terms like I have been doing. I tend to think, however, that there is still much space for dialogue. What I have been calling the gift of God’s love, or the dynamic state of being in love in an unrestricted manner, could well be phenomenologically equivalent to universal compassion (karuna) in a non-theistic tradition such as Buddhism, or even perhaps to the so-called dissolution of the self in certain reaches of Advaita. And perhaps the matter is not all that desperate, for authenticity has a way of recognizing itself wherever it is found. I believe firmly that we are united at the deepest core of our beings, not only because of our common humanity but also because this common humanity has been graced, gifted, loved by a love that knows no bounds and no barriers.

I believe that the gift of God’s love has been given to all, because I believe in a God who loves everyone, at all times and in all places. I believe in the power of that love to move, to heal, to build, to overcome, not immediately, not always in ways that we can see, not without the temptation to despair at the evil that religious persons and traditions have been capable of, but still surely, steadily, “as certain as the dawn” (Hosea 6:3). I believe that this love is moving always, somehow, in ways that I know, in ways that I merely suspect, in ways that I do not even imagine, to bring all humanity together.

I believe that this coming together will not be without an experience of dying, of that death to self that seems to be celebrated somehow in all religious traditions. I believe that faith, hope, love, these endure, but that the greatest of these is love, so that in the end, we will be and even now are united in love. But that love is what enables us to have the eye of faith and the firmness of hope. It is what enables us to believe that the world is not so evil as to be desperate. It is what gives us the possibility of continuing to hope even when there seems to be no room for hope.

So faith and religion. One can be a man or woman of faith even if one does not belong, or does not feel one can belong, to any particular religious tradition – and the criterion of all genuine religious experience and faith is authenticity, the authenticity that St Paul expresses in terms of the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, self-control (Galatians 5:22). But one can very well be also a man or woman of faith while belonging to this or that religious tradition, and there again the criterion is the same: not so much what one believes, not only what one professes to believe, but above all the way one lives. For I believe very much that in the end we shall be judged on love, as Jesus tells us in the Gospel according to Matthew (25:31-46).

What then of Jesus himself, I can hear my co-religionists asking me. That is another and very large question. All I can say here is what I have said already: authenticity has a way of recognizing itself wherever it is found. The problem perhaps is that when we speak of authenticity we think easily of moral authenticity and religious authenticity, of goodness and holiness. We tend to forget – or perhaps our postmodern age will not allow us to remember – that there is authenticity also in the sphere of the intellectual, and here is where, I think, most of our major issues, the issues that divide us, rest. Here, and perhaps also, if not more so, on the plane of the emotional.


Dr Father Ivo Coelho earned a PhD in philosophy at the Gregorian University, Rome, for his work on “The Development of the Notion of the Universal Viewpoint in Bernard Lonergan: From Insight to Method in Theology” (1994). He was principal of Divyadaan: Salesian Institute of Philosophy (1988-90), Rector (1994-2002), secretary of the Association of Christian Philosophers of India (2000-02), and provincial of the Mumbai province of the Salesians of Don Bosco (2002-08). Currently he is Rector of the Studium Theologicum Salesianum in Jerusalem, while continuing to edit Divyadaan: Journal of Philosophy and Education. Among his publications are Hermeneutics and Method: The ‘Universal Viewpoint’ in Bernard Lonergan(2001), “‘Et Judaeus et Graecus e methodo:’ The Transcultural Mediation of Christian Meanings and Values in Lonergan” (2000), and “Lonergan and Indian Thought” (2007). He has recently edited Brahman and Person: Essays by Richard De Smet (2010), and Violence and its Victims: A Challenge to Philosophizing in the Indian Context (ACPI vol. 11, 2010), while Understanding Śaṅkara: Essays by Richard De Smetis in the press.

One Reply to “Dr Ivo Coelho – Faith and Religion”

  1. Pingback: Leave your religion and flip flops at the door, please – markulyseas - My Telegraph

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