Lumen Fidei is a fine title for Pope Francis’ first encyclical, but I can’t help but think that After Faith might have been even more apropos. For in this letter to the Christian faithful, the Holy Father does for doctrinal enquiry what Alasdair MacIntyre did for ethical inquiry more than thirty years ago in After Virtue. With a nod to Nietzsche, Pope Francis—primarily through the pen of his predecessor—begins by noting the sterile nature of contemporary understandings of faith, viewed by the modern world “either as a leap in the dark, to be taken in the absence of light, driven by blind emotion, or as a subjective light, capable perhaps of warming the heart and bringing personal consolation, but not something which could be proposed to others as an objective and shared light which points the way.”
Yet like MacIntyre, Pope Francis goes on to argue that there exists a rich tradition, in whose context faith can be understood as far more than either blind emotivism or incommunicable subjectivism, and from whose vantage point the present-day shortcomings of Christian faith become intelligible. This tradition in which faith finds its proper home is the Church. Thus this successor of Peter writes, “It is impossible to believe on our own. Faith is not simply an individual decision which takes place in the depths of the believer’s heart, nor a completely private relationship between the ‘I’ of the believer and the divine ‘Thou’, between an autonomous subject and God. By its very nature, faith is open to the ‘We’ of the Church; it always takes place within her communion… We can respond in the singular — ‘I believe’ — only because we are part of a greater fellowship, only because we also say ‘We believe’… Faith, in fact, needs a setting in which it can be witnessed to and communicated, a means which is suitable and proportionate to what is communicated.”
MacIntyre ended After Virtue, “We are waiting not for Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.” Perhaps, in the person of Bishop Emeritus of Rome Benedict XVI, his prophecy has been fulfilled.
Michael W. Hannon graduated from Columbia in 2012 with a degree in Philosophy, Religion, and Medieval and Renaissance Studies. He is currently studying for the Juris Doctor at NYU School of Law.
As an evangelical and a Baptist, I (quite unsurprisingly) harbor certain quibbles about this first product of Francis’ papal pen. I find unconvincing Francis’ portrayal of baptism as necessary for salvation (but intriguing that he characterizes Baptism as “immersion in water,” paragraph 42), all for the typical Baptistic and evangelical reasons that are widely known. Yet exactly for those Baptistic and evangelical reasons, I found Francis’ brief yet insightful discussion of faith and idolatry to be illuminating to evangelical discourse. Though C.S. Lewis somewhere described such discussions as unwarranted “moralizing,” it is typical of evangelical discourse to hear warnings against idolatry, not defined as the bowing down to a graven image akin to what one might find in the South Pacific, but rather, devoting an exorbitant amount of time or resources to an object whose value is incommensurate with our devotion to it. Tim Keller’s Counterfeit Gods is devoted to dissuading readers from thus devoting themselves to idols, which occurs, in Keller’s argument, “when we make good things into ultimate things.”
Tracing the history of faith through the Bible, Francis pauses upon the Israelites, who are a cautionary tale against deficient faith. Francis summarizes their error: “Here the opposite of faith is shown to be idolatry.” Suffice it to say that this is not the typical persuasion posited as the antonym of faith. More popular contenders to that position include atheism, in its rationalistic or other varieties. Yet Francis’ insight here is keen, and it rests upon a hidden premise.
Human beings will either place faith in the true God or in fragmentary idols because human beings are necessarily worshiping creatures. Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor was not far from the truth when he asserted, “Man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find someone quickly to whom he can hand over that great gift of freedom with which the ill-fated creature is born.” The far truer characterization is that man must surrender not his freedom, but his worship, to the greatest object he can find. Yet in another sense, The Grand Inquisitor is deeply mistaken, for Francis teaches us that it is in worship of the true God that man finds his deepest freedom, while the pursuit of idols confuses and enslaves. Incapable of supporting the full weight of human desires by themselves, idols proliferate in the minds of those whose imaginations are captive to them. They thus fragment and splinter human desires, with the result that “idolatry, then, is always polytheism, an aimless passing from one lord to another. Idolatry does not offer a journey but rather a plethora of paths leading nowhere and forming a vast labyrinth. Those who choose not to put their trust in God must hear the din of countless idols crying out: ‘Put your trust in me!’” But faith in the true God unites human strivings, satiates human desires, and sets us off on the life of faith to which the rest of the encyclical is devoted.
Justin R. Hawkins graduated magna cum laude from Georgetown University in 2011 with a degree in Government. He is now in the Master’s of Arts in Religion program at Yale Divinity School, concentrating in Philosophical Theology. He is from the implausibly small town of Breinigsville, PA, which is every bit as rural as it sounds.
There was a bit of a splash (and much misinterpretation) when Pope Francis gave a homily that mentioned meeting non-believers doing good works in the road of faith. It now seems clear that he had section 35 of Lumen Fidei in mind when he spoke. In the context of describing faith as a unified way of life in which men and women respond to the voice and light of God and learn to walk in his love, Pope Francis has provided a majestic vision of an authentic Christian witness amidst a pluralistic society. Because Truth is ultimately not a creed but a person and a reality, it always shines forth and breaks into human life, even when it is not announced. The image of Christian faith is neither man stepping out towards a silent void nor man firmly grasping whatever dogmas, traditions, or talismans his community prescribes him. Neither of these viewpoints (frankly, those of most other religions) provides any kind of basis for religious dialogue that is not simply acidic and dishonest universalism. But because Christianity proclaims a God who is here, and who already reaches towards us and calls us towards faith, we can share in that walk towards God with others who have not yet learned that the light they seek is the Light of the World.
While Francis’ writing reminded me of satirist Stephen Colbert’s crack that “there are infinite paths to accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior,” I think this encyclical is reaching past the subjective individualism of late modern evangelicalism to a much older and richer humanistic tradition in Christian apologetics, one that holds that Christian truth is ultimately accessible to all because every facet of our being dictates that we are made to love our Creator. Francis is not saying that Christians will tarry alongside unbelievers as fellow travelers on some mystical journey towards transcendence, of which Christ is only one name. He is saying that, when we encounter sincere unbelievers on our path, they, too, are being led towards the same faith that we profess already. Francis highlights the way that the desire to do good sets man on the road to God. Like a distant polestar, man’s sense of justice leads him to the Just One, and if he pursues it, he will encounter Christ, which always provokes a response. This is a very Augustinian treatise. The great Bishop of Hippo wrote in his Confessions that “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Francis knows that there is only one way to enter into this rest. But those non-believers who open themselves to acknowledge the restlessness of their hearts have already begun the journey to Christ Our Sabbath.
Jonathan Askonas graduated from Georgetown with a degree in International Politics in 2013. He is now reading for a MPhil in International Relations at the University of Oxford.
One question that I think is at the heart of our society, post Christendom, is what it means to say that “faith is a gift.” In Lumen Fidei, Benedict and Francis affirm what the modern experience of doubt in God’s existence teaches believers and non-believers alike. Faith is not something we can give to ourselves or take for granted as human beings, since it is always “born of an encounter with the living God who calls us and reveals His love” (4), at a particular moment in history. God must act and address us first, and we cannot see with His eyes apart from the Spirit who is Love. But God’s Word is not reserved for the select few. “What other reward can God give to those who seek him, if not to let himself be found?” (35).
Human responsibility lies in seeking God with a sincere heart, for the one who recognizes that he is not self-sufficient is already a seeker for that steadfast truth to which he can entrust himself. The dependency of the seeker corresponds to the dependency of the infant, and God ordinarily bestows faith at Baptism, through human mediation, in the Church. Faith is a supernatural gift, but as Lumen Fidei affirms, it is meant for all men who are open to God, and Christians are called to be missionaries! They must be God’s instruments to pass on the gift of faith to others, especially to children and all those who are seeking, even as they humbly realize that “there is no human experience, no journey of man to God, which cannot be taken up, illumined and purified by [Christ’s] light” (35), in God’s own time. Christians are also called to place the light of faith at the service of justice, law and peace (51). The light of faith is not the possession of a few: it is an “objective and shared light which points the way”(3); it shows the truth that embraces and possesses all of us (34). Along with many other apparent tensions, Lumen Fidei beautifully holds together the supernatural character of Christian faith with its centrality for all aspects of human existence.
Margaret Blume graduated from Yale University in 2010 with a degree in Humanities. She is currently studying for the Masters of Theological Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
Lumen Fidei, “l’enciclica a quattro mani,” is seed that will bear good fruit. Exhibiting the intellectual clarity of Benedict XVI and the graceful style of Francis, “The Light of Faith” is a timely summons to reflect on the essence and importance of faith in the modern world. Its chief virtue is its imagery, which communicates powerfully and even poetically the vision of Christian faith. The encyclical engages and explores faith’s dynamic relationship vis-a-vis the other theological virtues, truth, freedom, reason, theology, contemporary society, and, most importantly, the full integrity and unity of the Church’s life. It does so with a conversational tone and at a manageable pace.
Lumen Fidei – which completes the recent encyclical triad on the supernatural virtues – is likely to fall on fertile soil because it ably addresses the central problems plaguing our troubled culture. Noting that the world’s prevalent ideologies are “clearly incapable of casting light on all of human existence,” Francis’s presentation of the Church’s faith, whereby man’s journey is illumined so that vast horizons and vistas of thought and experience are made accessible to him, is all the more compelling by juxtaposition. Francis delivers an inviting case for faith as the key to authentic joy and deep communion – goods that Christians and non-Christians alike are seeking but failing badly to find.
Our present pontiff and his predecessor have produced a gem that should thrill us. In this Year of Faith, the fruit of Lumen Fidei will for Catholics be a deepened commitment to the core of the Church’s faith, especially the sacraments; for Christians, a rejuvenated sense of fidelity to the mysteries that express the Love on which our faith is centered; and for all seeking truth, a re- acquaintance with the joyful fruits of faith.
Michael Bradley is a senior studying theology and philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.
[Image of Pope Francis from Wikipedia]