Pope Benedict XVI’s long-awaited encyclical on faith (completing the trilogy of encyclicals with those on love and hope) and Pope Francis’ equally eagerly awaited first encyclical are out - and they are one and the same - the encyclical entitled “Lumen Fidei” - “The Light of Faith.” As Francis puts it, “It’s an encyclical written with four hands, so to speak, because Pope Benedict began writing it and he gave it to me. It’s a strong document. I will say in it that I received it and most of the work was done by him and I completed it.”
I couldn’t agree more - it is a very strong document indeed, and one rich in insights that merit reflection and repeated analysis. It is a document that is beautifully written, in rich yet purposeful language, with razor-sharp logic and with a tremendous openness to the world as it is today. The references alone are worth highlighting, as they range from theological classics like the works of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, through ancient non-Christian texts like the writings of Celsus, up to more recent and also critical voices like Nietzsche, Wittgenstein or T. S. Eliot. This is not a piece of propaganda, but a carefully thought out presentation of what faith means to a Christian, from a Catholic perspective, and how it relates not only to matters internal to the Church but to secular thought as well. As such, if you are not a Christian and curious about what we mean when way talk about faith, I would recommend a reading of Lumen Fidei (a recommendation I don’t make lightly).1
Since Lumen Fidei is a hefty document, and one where “padding” is minimal, I won’t even attempt an overview of the topics it touches upon and will instead just highlight the section where Benedict and Francis talk about how faith, truth, knowledge and love are related.
This train of thought starts already in the introductory chapter:
“Faith […] appear[s] to some as an illusory light, preventing mankind from boldly setting out in quest of knowledge. The young Nietzsche encouraged his sister Elisabeth to take risks, to tread “new paths… with all the uncertainty of one who must find his own way”, adding that “this is where humanity’s paths part: if you want peace of soul and happiness, then believe, but if you want to be a follower of truth, then seek”. Belief would be incompatible with seeking. From this starting point Nietzsche was to develop his critique of Christianity for diminishing the full meaning of human existence and stripping life of novelty and adventure. Faith would thus be the illusion of light, an illusion which blocks the path of a liberated humanity to its future.”Faith is here portrayed as an illusion that at best can be an anxiolytic, but that is opposed to a seeking of truth and to free human fulfillment. This is certainly a view I have come across in person and I was pleased to see it be the position with which Lumen Fidei sets out to contrast it’s understanding, where it first declares what it understands by faith, before then considering its consequences:
“Christian faith is […] faith in a perfect love, in its decisive power, in its ability to transform the world and to unfold its history. “We know and believe the love that God has for us” (1 John 4:16). In the love of God revealed in Jesus, faith perceives the foundation on which all reality and its final destiny rest. […] Our culture has lost its sense of God’s tangible presence and activity in our world. We think that God is to be found in the beyond, on another level of reality, far removed from our everyday relationships. But if this were the case, if God could not act in the world, his love would not be truly powerful, truly real, and thus not even true, a love capable of delivering the bliss that it promises. It would make no difference at all whether we believed in him or not. Christians, on the contrary, profess their faith in God’s tangible and powerful love which really does act in history and determines its final destiny: a love that can be encountered, a love fully revealed in Christ’s passion, death and resurrection.”To my mind the above does two important things: first, it underlines that faith is all about love and second, that this love is real here and now - that it is an incarnate, material, tangible love and not some ethereal, abstract, wholly otherness. Lumen Fidei goes on to underlining these important features of faith:
“Far from divorcing us from reality, our faith in the Son of God made man in Jesus of Nazareth enables us to grasp reality’s deepest meaning and to see how much God loves this world and is constantly guiding it towards himself. This leads us, as Christians, to live our lives in this world with ever greater commitment and intensity.”Having established the focus of faith on love and on its incarnation in the world, Lumen Fidei, proceeds to linking it to truth:
“Faith without truth does not save, it does not provide a sure footing. It remains a beautiful story, the projection of our deep yearning for happiness, something capable of satisfying us to the extent that we are willing to deceive ourselves. Either that, or it is reduced to a lofty sentiment which brings consolation and cheer, yet remains prey to the vagaries of our spirit and the changing seasons, incapable of sustaining a steady journey through life. […] Only to the extent that love is grounded in truth can it endure over time, can it transcend the passing moment and be sufficiently solid to sustain a shared journey. If love is not tied to truth, it falls prey to fickle emotions and cannot stand the test of time. True love, on the other hand, unifies all the elements of our person and becomes a new light pointing the way to a great and fulfilled life. Without truth, love is incapable of establishing a firm bond; it cannot liberate our isolated ego or redeem it from the fleeting moment in order to create life and bear fruit.”This, to me, is both a beautiful and a particularly lucid way of putting faith’s dependence on truth, knowledge and honesty. Looking back to the quote from Nietzsche’s letter to his sister, the above agrees with him on the deficiency of the kind of faith Nietzsche criticizes as being divorced from the truth and points to a (Hegelian dialectic) resolution of the initial, seeming opposition.
Lumen Fidei then goes further and emphasizes that it is not only “love [that] needs truth, [but that] truth also needs love.”:
“Love and truth are inseparable. Without love, truth becomes cold, impersonal and oppressive for people’s day-to-day lives. The truth we seek, the truth that gives meaning to our journey through life, enlightens us whenever we are touched by love. One who loves realizes that love is an experience of truth, that it opens our eyes to see reality in a new way, in union with the beloved. […] It is a relational way of viewing the world, which then becomes a form of shared knowledge, vision through the eyes of another and a shared vision of all that exists. [… F]aith-knowledge does not direct our gaze to a purely inward truth. The truth which faith discloses to us is a truth centred on an encounter with Christ, on the contemplation of his life and on the awareness of his presence. Saint Thomas Aquinas speaks of the Apostles’ oculata fides — a faith which sees! — in the presence of the body of the Risen Lord. With their own eyes they saw the risen Jesus and they believed.”Since they derive from love, faith and truth are neither a private matter, nor are they oppressive, imposing or colonizing:
“But if truth is a truth of love, if it is a truth disclosed in personal encounter with the Other and with others, then it can be set free from its enclosure in individuals and become part of the common good. As a truth of love, it is not one that can be imposed by force; it is not a truth that stifles the individual. […] Clearly, then, faith is not intransigent, but grows in respectful coexistence with others. One who believes may not be presumptuous; on the contrary, truth leads to humility, since believers know that, rather than ourselves possessing truth, it is truth which embraces and possesses us. Far from making us inflexible, the security of faith sets us on a journey; it enables witness and dialogue with all.”The above is a great manifesto not only for a Christian’s understanding of their own faith but of its inherent pointing outward towards others, with an openness and a welcoming disposition aimed at profound dialogue.2 Unsurprisingly, the above faith sees science as a great good and sees itself as being a source of wonder that is also the motivational root cause of scientific endeavor, as readily agreed to by atheist and religious scientists alike:
“Nor is the light of faith, joined to the truth of love, extraneous to the material world, for love is always lived out in body and spirit; the light of faith is an incarnate light radiating from the luminous life of Jesus. It also illumines the material world, trusts its inherent order and knows that it calls us to an ever widening path of harmony and understanding. The gaze of science thus benefits from faith: faith encourages the scientist to remain constantly open to reality in all its inexhaustible richness. Faith awakens the critical sense by preventing research from being satisfied with its own formulae and helps it to realize that nature is always greater. By stimulating wonder before the profound mystery of creation, faith broadens the horizons of reason to shed greater light on the world which discloses itself to scientific investigation.”I have barely scratched the surface of Lumen Fidei here, but what I have found has been a joy to read, reflect on and try to share with you here. Thank you, Benedict and Francis, for such a beautiful piece of thinking!
1 Plus, if you are interested, take a look at the second paragraph here for a suggestion of how to read both this blog and the Lumen Fidei encyclical.
2 I can’t not mention again one of Benedict XVI’s most astonishingly beautiful insights that is echoed here: “As far as preserving identity is concerned, it would be too little for the Christian, so to speak, to assert his identity in a such a way that he effectively blocks the path to truth. Then his Christianity would appear as something arbitrary, merely propositional. He would seem not to reckon with the possibility that religion has to do with truth. On the contrary, I would say that the Christian can afford to be supremely confident, yes, fundamentally certain that he can venture freely into the open sea of the truth, without having to fear for his Christian identity.” (Christmas Greetings to the Roman Curia, 2012)