Francis Bacon, the 16th century philosopher not the 20th century painter of grotesques, coined the phrase ‘idols of the tribe’ to mean characteristic ways in which the human mind goes wrong. Perhaps one such error is the tendency to treat a thing which is only known indirectly, via something else, as if it were better known than the thing we experience directly.

Some examples of what I mean can be found in popular science. Someone tells us, say, that grass is not really green. Why not, we ask? Because, the wise man replies, grass actually reflects the light waves whose frequency corresponds to the colour green, but absorbs the waves of every other frequency: so it would be truer to say that grass is every colour except green. What has happened here? Something which is primary, being the object of direct experience, the colour green, which is that by means of which the relevant light wave is defined, has been treated as if it were less well known than what is really secondary and which can only be known by means of it. That which is known indirectly is treated as if it were more certain, and indeed able to discredit, that which is directly known. The cart has been put before the horse.

Or again, the populariser of science tells us that solid objects are not really solid. Why not?, we gape. Because, he kindly explains, they are made up of atoms, and atoms are mostly empty space. Here again the same thing has happened. Solidity is an object of direct experience: we recognise it without inference. Atoms, nuclei and electrons are only secondarily objects of knowledge; our knowledge of them depends upon our prior knowledge of familiar things. This indirect knowledge cannot be used to discredit a knowledge which is more basic.

I wonder if the same tendency has been found in theology in modern times. Take, for example, the notion of sanctifying grace. The theologian characterises it as ‘a supernatural entitative habitus’. Nothing could be more true: yet such a thing is not an object of direct experience; nor is grace, defined in this way, a datum of revelation. What is given directly in revelation is the fact that we become a new creation through a living faith in Christ; that this faith makes us partakers of the divine nature, justified and friends of God. The theologian starts with these revealed truths and then, rightly, elaborates the definition of sanctifying grace already quoted.

The problem comes when we forget that we only know about sanctifying grace through knowing that a living faith in Christ makes us just and a new creation. Then we begin to speculate that those who have no faith in Christ may yet have sanctifying grace. We forget that this concept was only elaborated in order to explain as precisely as possible what happens to those who ‘believe and are baptised’. We have begun to put the cart before the horse.

Perhaps the same thing can be said about the virtue of faith. We may characterise it as a supernatural operative habitus seated in the intellect by which we assent to the first truth on account of itself; and this is a true and beautiful definition. But again, defined in this way it is not a primary object of knowledge. What is primary, in the Scriptures, is assenting to the apostolic preaching. We find people submitting their minds to the preaching of the apostles and their legitimate heirs, the first bishops of the Catholic Church, and to explain this phenomenon as precisely as possible we elaborate our definition of faith. But when we forget how we got to this definition, we then begin to speculate that those who hear the apostolic, Catholic preaching and do not assent to it may nevertheless somehow have the virtue of faith. We have begun to treat a secondary object of knowledge as if it were primary. This is no doubt a danger, per accidens, for scholastics. St Thomas himself was too great a contemplative to fall into it.