The light of Faith: this is how the Church’s tradition speaks of the great gift brought by Jesus. In John’s Gospel, Christ says of himself: "I have come as light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness" (Jn 12:46). Saint Paul uses the same image: "God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts" (2 Cor 4:6).
The pagan world, which hungered for light, had seen the growth of the cult of the sun god, Sol Invictus, invoked each day at sunrise. Yet though the sun was born anew each morning, it was clearly incapable of casting its light on all of human existence. The sun does not illumine all reality; its rays cannot penetrate to the shadow of death, the place where men’s eyes are closed to its light. "No one — Saint Justin Martyr writes — has ever been ready to die for his faith in the sun". Conscious of the immense horizon which their faith opened before them, Christians invoked Jesus as the true sun "whose rays bestow life". To Martha, weeping for the death of her brother Lazarus, Jesus said: "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" (Jn 11:40). Those who believe, see; they see with a light that illumines their entire journey, for it comes from the risen Christ, the morning star which never sets.
Yet in speaking of the light of faith, we can almost hear the objections of many of our contemporaries. In modernity, that light might have been considered sufficient for societies of old, but was felt to be of no use for new times, for a humanity come of age, proud of its rationality and anxious to explore the future in novel ways. Faith thus appeared 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.
Lumen Fidei 1-2
Reflection – Well, back to regular blogging! After last week’s exciting and exhausting debates here around sex and marriage, it is nice to settle back into my usual form. We got a new encyclical to read and a whole wide world of God and humanity to explore, hallelujah!
I want to start a new institution on the blog. A few years ago the book Tuesdays With Morrie, about a man’s weekly conversations with his dying friend, made the best seller lists. Now, I want us to read the whole encyclical Lumen Fidei together on this blog as a Year of Faith exercise, but it would too much to do it all in one go. So I hereby initiate Tuesdays With Francis, a weekly series where we go through the document in manageable chunks.
We see here in the first two paragraphs the tension set up, the question posed implicitly. Is faith good for us? Is it a light that illumines the true path of man in the world and through the world over the horizon of death into eternity? Or is it a false light that captivates us in fantasy and disengages us from reality and its challenges?
Certainly this latter has been the common charge of modernity: faith detaches us from this world in favor of some remote promise of heaven, and so impedes progress towards a more just and better world. I have never been terribly persuaded by this view, as it is really not supported by any historical evidence. People of faith have always created great works of beauty, towering works of intellectual insight, ingenious works of technological innovation, and heroic works of charity to alleviate the sufferings of the poor. Other people of faith have been selfish lazy jerks, of course, but what are you going to do, eh? Such is the world we live in.
There is simply no correlation, historical or logical, between a life of faith and a life disengaged from this world and its challenges and problems. The question remains, of course: is the light faith gives us illusory, a false light, or a true one? Is it not better to content ourselves with the limited light of our own individual reason and the sure, but weak, light it provides? And how on earth can we resolve the question? It is this tension, this question, and the renewed assertion of the true light of faith that this encyclical will address. Til next Tuesday…