A reader responds to the Pope’s new encyclical:
I’m not surprised how much of the media coverage of Pope Francis’s Lumen Fidei has focused on the curious circumstances of its composition – “the work of four hands,” as the pontiff himself noted. Its an interesting element to the story, and relieves the media of having to grapple with the encyclical’s actual content. And, to be fair, it is a rather fascinating intellectual puzzle, playing the game of who-wrote-what and sifting through the document’s various emphases. Yesterday I read the entire encyclical, and its tempting to understand it through the lens of its joint Benedict-Francis authorship. You almost can feel the pen pass from Benedict to Francis, as it moves from a more “existential,” individual focus – rife with references to Wittgenstein and Dostoevsky, the Church Fathers and Greek philosophy – to its concluding chapters on our life together, both in terms of Church and society. The structure of the document almost is an emblem of the two men’s differences. The passages near the end on finding (and showing) God among the poor and the suffering almost certainly were written by Francis and point ahead to what I expect will be a major theme of his papacy.
Beyond all this, what most impressed me about the encyclical was its recovery of what faith might mean in our current context. I found it to be an open, searching document that seemed designed to reach out to those who are searching or doubting, as well as to prod the faithful to a more generous, nuanced understanding of their own religious commitments. Too often, “belief” or “faith” has come to mean a kind of intellectual assent to certain propositions. Faith comes to be about rigid doctrines, or, say, arguments about the existence of God. Christians debate atheists on our public stages, as if God’s existence or the truth of Christianity could be proven on philosophical or scientific grounds. We live in an age of debased religious “apologetics,” assuming that the faithful must meet the scientist’s arguments on the scientist’s own terms, that the “data” of a religion is on par with the data of laboratory. What is fundamentalism but a rendering of religion that treats its doctrines as literally true, shorn of myth, mystery, the numinous, or the ineffable? The fundamentalist believer and the modern atheist merely are two sides of the same epistemological coin. All truth is literal. And so, for example, the Bible gets read for insight into biology, creationism pitted against evolution, a holy text read and interpreted like a textbook. God becomes an object among other objects, to be spoken of and argued about like we would any other topic.
The brilliance of Lumen Fidei is that faith becomes less about “belief” than about a stance toward reality. For Benedict and Francis, faith is not in the first place about assent to certain doctrines, but trusting the Goodness and Love that undergirds and sustains our existence.
I’m tempted to put it this way: the document asks us which is deeper, love or violence? Faith means trusting that deeper than the suffering we see and experience, deeper than the war of all against all, deeper than the survival of the fittest, is love. When we love, when we help the suffering, when we live with compassion, we are moving with the grain of the universe. The glimpses of love, beauty, goodness, and wonder we see and feel point beyond themselves to the source of all things. The most striking passages in the encyclical grapple precisely with this theme. Consider these words from section 32: “Once we discover the full light of Christ’s love, we realize that each of the loves in our own lives had always contained a ray of that light, and we understand its ultimate destination.” Or this from section 35: “Because faith is a way, it also has to do with the lives of those men and women who, though not believers, nonetheless desire to believe and continue to seek. To the extent that they are sincerely open to love and set out with whatever light they can find, they are already, even without knowing it, on the path leading to faith.”
“Open to love” – what a beautiful phrase. For Christians, that is where faith begins, trusting that all the little loves we know in this vale of tears come from and point to the God who is love. And we see in Jesus himself, the suffering servant, who so loved the world that he allowed himself to be brutalized and killed for our sake, the Love that sustains all life made Flesh. When Pontius Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?”, he didn’t reply with an argument or apologetics. The truth is not a proposition, it’s found in a person. And the way he showed us was a life lived according to love. Faith is saying “yes” to that way, and seeing in it the ultimate meaning of our nature and destiny. I hope Lumen Fidei can help a world that sorely needs it recover this understanding of faith. It proved to be a moving, helpful document for this reader.