Is Faith Genetic?


A church historian speaking to our adult Sunday school class yesterday used the phrase “apprehension of pre-existent faith” and attributed it to Henry Cardinal Newman, the great 19th-c believer/thinker. I found the phrase pregnant and have spent a hunk of time this morning trying to see how Newman uses that phrase. Turns out “apprehension” is an important word for Newman, but also quite technical. I didn’t set aside the morning to parse it all out, so I’m going to apologize to Newman and simply inspect the thoughts that come to me from having heard it. Don’t blame him for my ramblings, which are likely unrelated to his own careful thought.

I am intrigued both by “apprehension” and “pre-existent faith.” I think of two different but possibly related ideas: the lingering influence of a faith a person once had but has now abandoned, and the influence of the faith of an ancestor in a family that somehow predisposes someone later to adopt faith himself or herself.

Both kinds are fairly common. People who have experienced a serious season of faith in their lives are marked. Faith is harder to eradicate than one might think. I hesitate to use a disease metaphor, but since this is only a blog post and I’m lazy, I will compare this to an infection. One is “infected” with faith, it permeates one’s body and consciousness and, yes, soul. One is “cured” of this faith by the call of secularism, rationalism (not rationality, which is a different thing), pain in one’s life, sloth, ad infinitum.

Yet, though seemingly cured, the infection is never entirely eliminated. God lingers in the corners of your mind, even in your little finger. That “pre-existent faith” lies dormant, but not completely dead. If you are not careful—if, for instance, you think and feel and read too much—you may well have a relapse and take up the life of faith again. It happens.