Faith, as St. Paul wrote in Romans, comes by hearing. But why?
In other words, why doesn’t faith come through reading? Couldn’t reading through the Scriptures, the lives of the saints, or devotional works also bring us to faith? Yet, in Romans 10 and again in Galatians 3, Paul insists that faith comes through what we have heard.
Certainly the limits of technology at the time of Paul meant that the earliest Christians would have heard Scripture read aloud at the liturgy, rather than read the books of the Bible alone at home. But Paul was writing for the ages, not just his time. His words in Romans and Galatians have all the character of bold statements about an important truth, rather than a trivial comment about contemporary technological realities. (Read the texts in Romans here and Galatians here.)
The answer begins by going back to Abraham, the classic biblical model of faith, as Pope Benedict XVI writes in the encyclical Lumen Fidei. We first meet Abraham in Genesis 12 and his first recorded act is to hear the voice of God: “The Lord said to Abram: Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).
There is no burning bush here. No pillow or cloud of fire. Just a voice calling out to him. And so it is for the rest of the story, which reaches its memorable climax with a voice telling the then-renamed Abraham to sacrifice his only son.
The story of Abraham illustrates a crucial truth about the difference between hearing and seeing (or reading). The word that is heard implies a relationship between the one hearing and the one speaking. While reading is a solitary act, involving one person and a text, hearing always involves another. As Benedict puts it in Lumen Fidei:
Faith thus takes on a personal aspect. God is not the god of a particular place, or a deity linked to specific sacred time, but the God of a person, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, capable of interacting with man and establishing a covenant with him. Faith is our response to a word which engages us personally, to a “Thou” who calls us by name.
It is through the act of hearing that this personal relationship grows, Benedict writes. As we listen we become familiar with the voice of the speaker: we really begin to know the other person in a way that is not possible with the printed word, according to Benedict. This takes time—and that’s a good thing:
Faith is also a knowledge bound to the passage of time, for words take time to be pronounced, and it is a knowledge assimilated only along a journey of discipleship. The experience of hearing can thus help to bring out more clearly the bond between knowledge and love.
This is the difference between faith that comes through hearing and what we get solely through reading. Both bring knowledge but only hearing brings knowledge that leads to love. Faith through reading (or sight), on the other hand, is faith that has become mere intellectual assent, a faith that does not blossom in love. (For more on this, see my previous discussion of the faith of the demons.)
In the New Testament, the supreme example of faith is Mary. The words of God she received from the angel were as awesome and terrifying as anything said to Abraham—she had been filled with grace, she was to give birth to a son of God, a king like David, not through normal means of reproduction, but by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. Mary accepted this—and nine months later gave birth to God Incarnate.
Mary did not just hear the word of God. Through her the Word became flesh. As then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger puts it in Mary: The Church at the Source: “Mary welcomes the Holy Spirit into herself. Having become pure hearing, she receives the Word so totally that it becomes flesh in her.”
The Incarnation, as well as Mary’s perpetual viginity and fullness of grace, are, of course, unique. Yet Mary is still a model for all of us. How?
This brings us back to our starting point: the liturgy. At Mass, we hear the Word of God read to us in the liturgy of the Word. Then, in the liturgy of the Eucharist, we receive the Word made flesh, under the species of bread and wine. We are thus called, like Mary, to bring Christ to others. As St. Paul wrote in Galatians 2, “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me.”
This is not to say stop reading your Bibles, or shelve those devotionals and saint biographies. But it is a call to remember how we should be reading them, especially Scripture. It is a call to “read” Scripture in such a way that we “hear” the words of God. Praying through Scripture, meditating on the gospel stories, saying the rosary—all are ways to read the Bible in the spirit of hearing it. And perhaps, if we listen attentively to what the word of God has to say, we will hear the still soft voice of the Holy Spirit speaking in the silence of our hearts.