Fall 1984, Vol. 36, No. 3, pp. 243-255.

William Reiser:
      Thinking about God and Believing: The Companionship of Mind and Heart on the Way to God

Whether it is homespun or professional theology, our understanding of who God is does not depend upon rational proofs for God's existence but upon our life of faith as prophet or lover or pilgrim.

Father Reiser, S.J., teaches at College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts. He recently published another of several books -- Into the Needle's Eye (Ave Maria Press).

The catechism is not enough, theology is not enough, formulas are not enough to explain the Unity and Trinity of God. We need loving communication, we need the presence of the Spirit. That is why I do not believe in theologians who do not pray, who are not in humble communication of love with God. Neither do I believe in the existence of any human power to pass on authentic knowledge of God. Only God can speak about Himself, and only the Holy Spirit, who is love, can communicate this knowledge to us. (Carlo Carretto, The God Who Comes)
SHOULD retreat meditations, catechisms, and theological treatises begin with reflection on creation and then lead into consideration of the mysteries of Jesus' redemptive life? They frequently followed that order in the past. That approach suggested to me that the mind has to be eased from the way of reason to the way of faith, from natural theology to theology proper, from what the mind can know "naturally" about God by the use of reason to what we know about God in faith through revelation. A number of years passed before it occurred to me that the whole retreat enterprise was a prayer from the start. Creation itself is a grace, and to contemplate creation is to reflect upon God's goodness and love, which is quite different from reflection on the philosophical arguments that might add support to Christian belief.

Still, some people cannot get beyond the threshold of prayer. They find it difficult to praise God for the gift of creation because their minds are not convinced of the reality of the "You" who is to be addressed in prayer. As a result, they attempt a great deal of reasoning before entering into a relationship with God, and they often find themselves frustrated or dissatisfied by the mind's poor showing when it comes to proving to the heart that God is really there.

But is it really possible to think about God without believing in God and praying to God? Although reason and faith are theoretically distinguishable, how easily can they be distinguished in a person's life? In response to these questions, I want to discuss three things in the following pages. First, I should like to explain why the attempt to know God by reasoning alone before venturing into prayer may be impractical. Secondly, I should like to propose three ways of being-in-faith which affect our thinking about God and in which relationships with God develop. Thirdly, I want to offer some thoughts on the spirituality of thinking about God, whether one thinks about God in a simple, spontaneous, unsystematic manner or in a highly refined, technical, theological way.


Christian thinkers draw attention to the distinction between reason and faith, or between reason and revelation, for several purposes. Sometimes they wish to underline the fact that God's selfgift to his creatures is absolutely gratuitous. "No one can come to me," Jesus says, "unless the Father who sent me draws him" (John 6:44). Sometimes Christian thinkers, regarding reason and revelation as distinct but complementary, come to the distinction as a result of asking why the question of God arises within human thought and experience.

The distinction between reason and faith, or between reason and revelation, can mean various things, depending on how the terms are defined. Sometimes reason refers to the "truths of reason," those things which the mind comes to know on its own. These are contrasted with "truths of faith," those things which the mind comes to know because God reveals them. Today it is more common to define truth, faith, and revelation in personal terms. Truth is less a matter of correct propositions about natural or supernatural realities and more a matter of that kind of knowledge which transforms people in the direction of greater freedom, life, and selfless love. Revelation is less a matter of divinely disclosed facts about supernatural things and more a matter of God's freely and lovingly communicating himself to his creatures. Faith is less a matter of assent to religious beliefs and more a matter of the Christian's trusting surrender to God.

Yet even when truth, revelation, and faith are taken in more intellectual and less personal terms, one must realize that human thinking is already a gift and that grace has been knit into the innermost fibers of our minds and wills. Thus, whatever the mind comes to know, even in a so-called natural way, about the things of this world, would be impossible without God's grace. The mind's ability and readiness to recognize the truth of religious belief rests upon the same grace. Without God's grace, the mind could never arrive at the truth, natural or otherwise. The absolute gratuity of God's love accounts for everything we are and everything that we might yet become. Perhaps then we should not try to locate the mark of grace in the eminence of revealed truths over natural truths but in the transformation of heart and mind.

Although nature and grace, the natural and supernatural, are to be distinguished, nevertheless the reality of grace pervades the whole of creation. And this insight arises from Christian experience, for when Christians turn to prayer, the distinction between faith and reason grows less and less consequential. The God of creation is also the God of Jesus, and so how could the Christian discern a real difference between the God who is present in Jesus and the God who is present in creation? How significant, for the Christian who prays, would the difference be between the God of faith and the God of reason?

The same minds which study the world in order to clarify what can be known about God through human reasoning also study what is known about God because of his presence in Jesus Christ. Whether thinking about so-called natural knowledge of God or about God's revelation in Jesus, the same mind is at work. Authentic human thinking, it seems to me, always draws upon contemplation. And so Hans Urs von Balthasar writes: "It is only the man who has encountered the living God in the particular form of revelation chosen by him who can really find God in all things and, thus, who can truly and constantly philosophize."

At the end of his treatise On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius remarked: "He that would comprehend the mind of those who speak of God must needs begin by washing and cleansing his soul, by his manner of living, and approach the saints themselves by imitating their works; so that associated with them in the conduct of a common life, he may understand also what has been revealed to them by God." One cannot understand even what those who try to understand God are talking about unless one's way of life has been set in order. Today we would say that knowing the truth requires doing the truth, genuine knowledge is not achieved without asceticism, and there is no access to the God who is Father of Jesus Christ without prayer and love for others.

From still another point of view the distinction between faith and reason seems somewhat artificial. After all, believers need to use their heads just as much as nonbelievers do. I have found that I cannot bracket my experience of God from my efforts to think about God, since faith cannot be isolated from intelligence. What would be the advantage in acting as if one did not know God in order to think more objectively about the nature of one's belief? That would be like trying to understand a close friend by pretending that one could temporarily suspend one's feelings, affection, and memories, indeed, as if one could suspend the relationship itself.

It may be, of course, that the way we start thinking about God is misdirected. For we tend to begin by looking for evidence in our experience that there really is a God; and if we manage to locate enough resonance of mystery in our experience, then our faith will have some "proof' to rest upon. The trouble is that we can never be sure enough.

We may be raising our questions with the idea that in a well-ordered world the act of believing would no longer be necessary: if we had evidence, proof, and certainty, then we could dispense with believing altogether. We would be able to see clearly. But the genuine development of freedom would never take place unless men and women learned how to trust. The created spirit which each of us is would remain stunted in its growth toward fully human being unless we developed that spiritual freedom which makes us what we are, namely, our freedom. Freedom will not develop, however, unless we learn to trust one another and make that trusting surrender of ourselves to God, which is the meaning of faith.


Faith takes various forms depending upon what sorts of things people believe. On a very simple level, faith and reason do not happen separately; no human mind survives without belief. We believe our teachers, textbooks, the research of reputable scholars, evening news broadcasts, and so on. Sometimes belief proves to be unfounded, yet by and large one has to agree that human knowledge would make little progress unless people trusted what others have learned or discovered. The mind has to make its act of faith. On another level, we can observe that no friendship, no love relationship would mature unless people were willing to trust the words and actions of their friends. Anyone who constantly looks for and demands proof of another person's love will find his or her personal relationships crumbling under the weight of doubt, suspicion, jealousy, and mistrust. The heart has to make its act of faith too. Furthermore, human beings also have to learn how to trust the universe, to trust that human existence is meaningful and worthwhile. Otherwise, we would never feel at home on the earth and at one with creation. The human spirit has to make its own act of faith.

In short, every life situation includes large elements of believing, for to believe is an eminently reasonable thing for human beings to do. Faith and reason may be distinguishable, but they come together in the natural movement of the human mind. For some Christian thinkers, believing in Jesus Christ completes the natural orientation of our minds, hearts, and spirits toward faith and thus toward the fullest realization of human freedom.

Since the time of the church fathers, there have been theologians convinced that all of creation speaks to us about God, though all things do not speak in the same way. What the mind grasps by reasoning and what it grasps by faith are thus linked because a single divine intention pervades creation, giving the world its meaning and beauty. God's intention is to communicate himself to fragile creatures like us. The notions of reason and revelation, while distinct, are interrelated. The cause for wonder is why some people let their lives be taken over by the revelation of the mystery of God while others do not.

Coming to grasp the interrelation of reason and faith is perhaps like developing a proficiency in language. Syntax, grammar, vocabulary, and accents must be mastered, but the only way to appreciate a language fully is from inside the language -- reading it, writing it, speaking it. If one is content only to learn the grammar, one will never understand the language. And this would be unfortunate, for God is the true conversation partner of the human race. The authentic development of the human being includes the growth of a person into faith, that is, becoming a person who both thinks and prays, reasons and believes, discerns and loves. One learns how to read, to write, and to speak the language which is human living. Prayer is what human beings do when they think about life.

There is a way of thinking about God which does not throw faith and revelation into even a temporary suspension from reason, a way which is roughly Anselm's and that of the church fathers. Theirs is hardly the only way to begin theology, but it is an alternative. Rather than start theology by discussing the limits of "natural" reason and what the mind comes to know about God without the assistance of propositional revelation, or by explaining and defending the act of faith by which theological reflection is initiated, suppose we start right in the middle of the experience of being a believer. After all, what is most important is to understand what happens to men and women who really believe in God. And here I would call attention to several things.

First, people who believe in God are transformed by their faith into human beings who are lovers in the best sense of the word. Secondly, many people who grow in God discover a kind of darkness overtaking their thoughts about God. Images and words with which they have been familiar appear to lose their capacity to express what is going on inside the heart and mind. They find it difficult to distinguish knowing God from not-knowing God. These people do not actually doubt God's existence, but they may find it meaningless to speak about God's existence; somehow in the very act of speaking about God, words distance the mind from what it knows more surely in a non-verbal, non-expressible way.

The darkening of the mind -- to draw for a moment on the imagery of writers like Gregory of Nyssa and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing -- is like the crippling of reason that one experiences when trying to figure out why God should be believed in at all. There is a stumbling block preventing the mind from moving smoothly from natural knowledge to faith. And as I pointed out, a major part of that difficulty arises from the way the problem has been conceived. We cannot slide from reason to faith because reason and faith do not happen separately. Why? Because we are already "in" God from the outset, even though many people remain unaware of the mystery which encloses them. We ought not to imagine God as being beyond the human world, outside our minds and hearts, waiting for us to figure out reasons for his existence. If such were the case, no one would ever arrive at knowledge of God, natural or otherwise. Instead, the mind must already be in God, and thus at the moment of grace one sees how close, how all-embracing the mystery of God is. The language of prayer may talk about God coming to us; we may ask him to incline his ear, to look on us with kindness, to draw near and touch us. But God does not move; God is always here, always attentive and ever seeing. We are the ones who become aware of God, who learn how to see and hear him; we are the ones who come close. The reason why some people believe in God and others do not has little to do with the process of reasoning, but it has much to do with spirituality.


For a number of years, I would find myself imagining that I was on a ship which was sailing over a vast ocean. In the image, God was the ocean and I was a passenger aboard a religious community. When the waves grew too high or the seas too rough, I could retreat below deck to escape. Or I might be driving a car through a storm, and God would be the elements raging outside. To protec myself against the wind and rain I had only to roll up the window Or I might be on a plane passing through the air. God was like the open space outside me, and my journey through time could be described as the story of my passing through God.

The images were appealing, but they proved terribly incorrect The images need to be turned inside out. We do not pass through God like ships passing over the sea, or planes through the air, of cars through a storm. Rather, it is the living God who passes through us. God is making a journey through human hearts and minds. Sometimes his presence may leave us confident and con soled; at other times it may leave us exhausted or fearful. God' passing can tear across the fibers of the mind like the prow of a ship cutting into the waves. After all, how can we roll up the win dows of our souls against the unrelenting pressure of God's pass ing through our lives? There is no escape from the mystery which we are, and there is no protection against that other Mystery which wants to fashion us into its image and likeness.

The mind's challenge, therefore, is learning how to think abou God from inside one's experience of God.

Three descriptive categories can help to assemble more or less precisely many of the major ingredients of religious experience There are prophets, there are lovers, and there are pilgrims. I do not mean to suggest that each Christian will fall neatly into one of these three categories; human experience resists such tight definition. A person generally manifests elements from each of these categories, if not at the same time, then at different stages of his of her spiritual life. Still, Christians can be identified in terms of on( of these groups insofar as their experience approaches that of the prophet, the lover (or mystic), or the pilgrim.

Who are these people? The prophet is perhaps the rarest kind of Christian. I would suggest that the label "prophet" has been applied too loosely in recent years. It has come to include anyone who witnesses to his or her belief, people who expose themselves to ridicule, rejection, imprisonment, or death, for the sake of gospel values. Such witness is welcome and necessary; it is a sign of the Spirit's presence in the world. But Jesus expected his disciples to bear witness to what they believe. Being called upon to testify to our faith by words and by example follows upon our acknowledging Jesus as Lord. A prophet in the stricter sense, however, brings a further dimension to religious witness. The Old Testament prophets best illustrate this sort of witness, although for cultural and historical reasons we probably should not expect to see more Joels and Jeremiahs walking the city streets of today in exactly the same way they walked through ancient Israel. At any rate, the Old Testament prophet is remarkable, not so much because he protested against injustice and infidelity, but because he drew attention to the quality and the intensity of God's own experience.

Abraham Heschel suggested that there are two basic forms of prophetic sympathy. The prophet feels with God, that is, he feels what God is experiencing; and he also feels for God. The prophet's outrage over injustice and religious infidelity disclose the depth of divine feeling. God himself grows outraged and angry with his people, and the prophet makes them aware of that fact. But the prophet also shows sympathy for God. He is saddened or disappointed because God's people have turned faithless and ungrateful, or the prophet feels confident and hopeful when God has been moved by pity and love.

The prophets, then, are people who have been summoned to share in God's experience. Participation in that experience deepens their existence; their lives dramatize a particular feature of God's own way of experiencing the world. Indeed, they bear witness to what they believe, sometimes to the extent of laying down their lives. But I call them prophets, and not only martyrs for their faith, because they demonstrate what human living is like when it is intensified by divine feeling. This is what renders the burning words of an Amos or Hosea so unforgettable, or the maternal imagery of Isaiah so reassuring. What attracts us back to texts like these is our hope that the prophet really reflects what God feels: "Can a woman forget her suckling child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold I have graven you on the palms of my hands .... As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you" (Isa. 49:15-16; 66:13).

Identifying people as prophets in the stricter sense is difficult. The brilliance of Christians boldly living their commitment to the Lord captures our attention, yet we are not always led from admiring their example to learning what God is like. Prophets are those who experience in their own souls both the range and the depth of God's feeling for the world. Their feeling for God is like the feeling one friend has for another.


The second category is that of the lover. There are some men and women whose lives can be described as stories of being in love with God. One might prefer to call them mystics, but the word mystic often summons up too many fuzzy notions about God. Indeed, great mystery surrounds God. Karl Rahner writes of the "incomprehensible mystery of God," "the holy mystery"; but there is nothing intrinsically obscure about God. Mystics often speak about a certain darkness that covers the soul and its thoughts as a person ascends the holy mountain which is the divine presence. But the trait which most meaningfully and adequately describes the experience which mystics share is love; so I refer to them as lovers.

Such people are madly in love with God, and they have stumbled into the realization that God has been madly in love with them. Their hearts have no other desire than to be possessed by the love they cannot control. Their living dramatizes and intensifies the basic desire for life which is implanted in every human being. But whereas the lives of most of us become confused about what exactly we want or what we are really living for, the lover leaves no room for doubt that clearly and simply only one love truly matters. They neither ignore their neighbors, nor do they devote themselves to serving their brothers and sisters in order to prove their love for God. They know, often implicitly, that God is not like another person who exists alongside everyone else. God is the holy mystery pervading everything we do, touch, think about, and hope for. The lover has not encountered a God who competes with human beings for time and affection, nor does the lover reduce human beings to means by which love for God is demonstrated. God is altogether different. God is what a person knows from being fully in love. The "object" of that love is personal, pervasive, and inclusive. It is personal without being absorbed by one individual being, not even by a being that is supreme. It is pervasive and cannot be switched on and off, depending on the lover's mood or inner disposition. It is inclusive and incapable of being restricted only to certain people; the lover knows neither enemies nor strangers, only friends. The lover recognizes all as brothers and sisters.

As a person is drawn ever more deeply into the experience of loving God and of knowing that inexplicable goodness wherein God loves us, the whole of life looks and feels rich with possibilities, ever fresh, unified, even transparently holy. The situation in which he or she lives precludes any thinking about God which might isolate reason from faith, ideas from life, nature from grace. The situation of being in love lends a coherency to thought; it confers unity and wholeness on daily life. One sees integrally in a world where there are reasons but where reason does not speak the final word. For the final word is love; reasons are merely the words by which a lover manages to greet the holy mystery of God and to embrace it.

Finally, there is the category of the pilgrim. Real lovers exist, but most of us are probably not such thoroughgoing lovers that our lives turn into dramatic expressions of being in love with God. So we narrate the situation in which we find ourselves in a humbler way. "Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage," wrote the Psalmist (84:5). And the Sufi saint, Sharafuddin Maneri, observed: "Even though he may not be able to travel to Mecca, a believer who has prayed has also gone on a pilgrimage." We are pilgrims, men and women slowly making their way along the journey of faith. We love, but our loving still needs a lot of growing up and purifying. We trust God, but not with the absolute confidence which comes from having allowed God the freedom to love and accept us even in our sinfulness. We bear witness to the religious values that we cherish, but without the intensity and singlemindedness of the prophetic witness. We are pilgrims, and the situation in which our thinking about God unfolds is affected by a certain dullness of understanding, by hesitation and suspicion, and by an appetite for reasons and proofs. The same features also characterized Jesus' first disciples.

Christians will think and speak about God, of course, because God -- the actual God -- has been revealed to us as personal, as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. But we cannot allow God to fall into our language as a mere concept around which the mind might wrap itself. Human reason was in, of, and toward God even before theologians learned to distinguish reason from faith. The human mind is enclosed by the mystery of God from the start. In fact, being enclosed by the mystery of God is what makes the mind what it is. That explains why Karl Rahner's analysis of the human person as a "hearer of the word" is so illuminating. For Rahner, human beings are put together in such a way that God -- the Holy Presence which is our origin, our life, and our only real love -- is in us from the start. This is a central Christian insight. There is no way of thinking about human being, or about God -- in fact, no possibility for thinking whatsoever -- without presupposing divine grace. As von Balthasar writes: "Christian existence is demonstrated and proven as an existence that 'rings true' because it is an existence in faith, which is to say in the continuous act of surrender to him who has first surrendered himself to us."

The fact that we have been loved by God is not merely an item of pious information for religiously minded people. If it is the case that we have been loved by God and that only God's loving us accounts for the way we are, then this fact will reach into every dimension of being human, whether we realize it or not. It falls to theology so to render a description of human being as to leave as little doubt as possible that no other fact does full justice to who and what we are. Finally, theology comes to the assistance of spirituality in confirming the experience which knows God to be a lover.


Reflection about God proceeds most fruitfully when it is carried on from within one's religious experience. This is simply a matter of respecting the way human knowing occurs. It does not make much sense to bracket religion when trying to understand what it means to be human any more than it would make sense to bracket our humanness when trying to understand what it means to be religious. Reason and revelation, being human and being religious, necessarily happen together. In the laboratory-like conditions of a theology seminar, a considerable amount of bracketing takes place. The same kind of unreality can invade the atmosphere of a retreat or damage the quality and integrity of Christian prayer. For the day-to-day lives of men and women are already enclosed by the mystery of God. Theology can help them to notice that mystery, to describe how it makes itself felt, and to relocate their minds and hearts with respect to the presence of God. But theology does not make the mystery of God present the way a magician springs a rabbit from his hat. Theology merely attends to and articulates what is already there.

Religious knowing presupposes situations of faith, and I have related three experiential situations -- the prophet's, the lover's, and the pilgrim's. I do not mean to exclude the mind from having its own kind of experience. After all, that is what theology represents, namely, the experience of the theologian's mind. Thinking too can be experienced, and genuine thinking does for the mind what long distance running does for the heart.

Thinking is not daydreaming. It is not idle speculation; it is not a matter of giving free rein to one's doubts or continually feeding on one's own bright ideas. Genuine thinking puts us in touch with the axis of our inner world. As the twentieth-century philosopher Martin Heidegger put it, genuine thinking plows furrows into the soil of Being. Genuine thinking proceeds from an encounter with one's own spirit and it leads us to recognize that fuller Spirit in which all human beings share, without which we would have no stories to tell, no history to record, no possibility for hoping that we are even now being drawn by a power which transcends all our words and images describing who we are.

The mind has its own experience. It seizes upon, or is captured by, thoughts which enlarge its existence and carve deep lines into its knowledge, thoughts which chart the course of the mind's ascent to God. The mind has its way of loving. It shows affection for ideas, relishes clarity, and yet is soothed by mystery. By "standing underneath" things, the mind becomes the place where the world displays itself in order to delight our sensibilities and intrigue our imaginations. The mind loves and, as St. Augustine observed, it especially loves being a mind.

The mind also engages upon its own kind of journey. It experiences the burden of ignorance, the thirst for understanding, the humiliation of having spent time thinking over things which are not worth knowing, the joy of discovery, and the satisfaction of being united with what it has spent years attempting to understand. In short, the mind exhibits a spiritual life of its own. Genuine thinking is the mind's way of praying.