Faith Lights life

by George Weigel
The New Atheists don’t know what they’re missing.

By happy coincidence, Pope Francis’s first encyclical, Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith), appeared at the same time as the July issue of the monthly prayer book Magnificat, which offers as a meditation this bracing interview with the inimitable Walker Percy, the Pelican State’s analogue to G. K. Chesterton:

Q. What kind of Catholic are you — a dogmatic Catholic or an open-minded Catholic?

A. I don’t know what that means. Do you mean do I believe the dogma that the Catholic Church proposes for belief?

Q. Yes.

A. Yes.

Q. How is such a belief possible in this day and age?

A. What else is there?

Q. What do you mean, what else is there? There is humanism, atheism, agnosticism, Marxism, behaviorism, materialism, Buddhism, Muhammadanism, Sufism, astrology, occultism, theosophy.

A. That’s what I mean. . . .

Q. I don’t understand. Would you exclude, for example, scientific humanism as a rational and honorable alternative?

A. Yes.

Q. Why?

A. It’s not good enough.

Q. Why not?

A. This life is too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end and then be asked what you make of it and have to answer, “Scientific humanism.” That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God. In fact I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less. I don’t see why anyone should settle for less than Jacob, who actually grabbed aholt of God and would not let go until God identified himself and blessed him.

Q. Grabbed aholt?

A. A Louisiana expression. . . .

Neither Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who signed and issued Lumen Fidei, nor Joseph Ratzinger, whom Bergoglio credits with writing most of it before his papal abdication, speaks of God “grabbing aholt” of us; bayou-Sprache would be slightly jarring in a papal encyclical. Still, Lumen Fidei is an extended meditation on the truth that Walker Percy articulated decades ago: that life lived within the ambit of faith in the God of the Bible — the God of Israel and the God of the Church — is far richer, far more intriguing, and much more authentically human than any of the agnostic, atheistic, pantheistic, or solipsistic alternatives available in the early 21st century.

Faith, the encyclical teaches, is a divine gift; it is not something we achieve by our own efforts. Yet unlike the siren songs of the imperial autonomous Self, which lure us into the sandbox of self-absorption where the horizon of our apprehension rarely extends beyond the navel, the grateful reception of this supernatural virtue sets everything alight: “Those who believe, see,” Francis writes; “they see with a light that illumines their entire journey . . .”

This light, Bergoglio and Ratzinger note, has grown dimmer in our time. Post-modern humanity has convinced itself that faith is “incompatible with seeking,” with courage in the face of uncertainty — thus the profoundly influential Nietzschean critique of Christianity as “diminishing the full meaning of human existence and stripping life of novelty and adventure.” Determined to assert autonomy and what was understood to be maturity, Nietzschean humanity tried various antidotes to what were imagined to be the crippling effects of faith in the God of the Bible. The most common was the effort to separate faith from reason: Athens trying to make sense of life without the aid of Jerusalem. But that eventually came a cropper, the encyclical suggests:

Slowly but surely . . . it [became] evident that the light of autonomous reason is not enough to illumine the future; ultimately the future remains shadowy and fraught with fear of the unknown. As a result, humanity renounced the search for a great light, Truth itself, in order to be content with smaller lights which illumine the fleeting moment yet prove incapable of showing the way. Yet in the absence of light, everything becomes confused; it is impossible to tell good from evil, or the road to our destination from other roads which take us in endless circles, going nowhere.

Thus when faith dies — when the light of faith flickers — “all other lights begin to dim.” Autonomous reason turns out to be self-cannibalizing. Athens without Jerusalem decays into Berkeley (or, if you like, the New York Times editorial board); reason, no longer confident of its capacity to grasp and discern truths in reality, loses its tether to Things As They Are. The best reason can do is to affirm “your truth” and “my truth”; but that doesn’t work for very long, because “my truth” is, sooner or later, deplored as irrational and hurtful bigotry by the Supreme Court of the United States, or at least by the dicta of Mr. Justice Kennedy.

In a remarkably gentle way that stands in sharp contrast to the bullying bluster of Richard Dawkins & Co., Lumen Fidei suggests that the world is suffering from a false story, and that the story is false because it is too narrow, too constrained, too self-centered, and, ultimately, too dark:

The light of faith is unique, since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence. A light this powerful cannot come from ourselves but from a more primordial source: in a word, it must come from God. Faith is born of an encounter with the living God who calls us and reveals his love. . . . Transformed by this love, we gain fresh vision, new eyes to see; we realize that it contains a great promise of fulfillment, and that a vision of the future opens before us. . . . We come to see that faith does not dwell in shadow and gloom; it is a light for our darkness. Dante . . . describes that light as a “spark, which then becomes a burning flame and like a heavenly star within me glimmers.”

Radical skepticism honed by an ironic sense of life constricts the horizon of human vision and aspiration. We can see only so far through lenses ground by cynicism; and if we view our life through them, our line of sight is sooner or later bent back toward the autonomous Self, in what becomes a wilderness of mirrors. Biblical faith, by contrast, opens up “vast horizons” that suggest a superabundance of life and meaning. Biblical faith satisfies the yearning that led the ancient world to worship Sol Invictus, the sun god; but the sun’s light, however bright, “cannot penetrate to the shadow of death, the place where men’s eyes are closed to the light.” And thus the early Christian apologist St. Justin Martyr could remind Trypho that “no one has ever been ready to die for his faith in the sun.” For centuries, however, men and women have been willing to stake their lives on the light of faith, bearing “public witness to the end” — which is to say, becoming martyrs. And that itself is a testimony to the truth of the light of faith in the God of the Bible.

Lumen Fidei’s review of the story of biblical faith is replete with creative readings of Scripture. Abraham’s faith in the one true God leads him, and the people who are formed from him, to a conviction that is absolutely foundational to the civilization of the West, namely, that life is journey and pilgrimage, not just one damn thing after another: “The word spoken to Abraham contains both a call and a promise . . . a call to leave his own land, a summons to a new life, the beginning of an exodus which points him toward an unforeseen future. . . . [Thus] faith ‘sees’ to the extent that it journeys, to the extent that it chooses to enter into the horizons opened up by God’s word.” That journey is always threatened by idolatry, which Martin Buber, adopting a definition proposed by the rabbi of Kock, described as a situation “when a face addresses a face which is not a face.” Idols, as the story of the golden calf in Exodus reminds us, are gods we can control because we fashion them in our own image and likeness; those idols, as Psalm 115 teaches, “have mouths, but they cannot speak.” And in the West of a.d. 2013, it seems difficult to deny (although many are in denial) where all this leads:

Once man has lost the fundamental orientation which unifies his existence, he breaks down into the multiplicity of his desires; in refusing to await the time of promise, his life-story disintegrates into a myriad of unconnected instants. 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.

For Christians, of course, the fullness of biblical faith, and the fullness of the revelation of the light and truth that radiate into the cosmos and into history from the God of Israel, are found in Jesus, the Son of God come into the world “as the complete manifestation of God’s reliability.” Christian faith does not so much look at Jesus as it looks with him and through him: It “sees things as Jesus himself sees them,” for it is a “participation in his way of seeing.” And this is not, Lumen Fidei insists, a participation that in any way diminishes human maturity or human freedom rightly understood: “In many areas of our lives we trust others who know more than we do. We trust the architect who builds our house, the pharmacist who gives us medicine for healing, the lawyer who defends us in court. We also need someone trustworthy and knowledgeable where God is concerned. Jesus, the Son of God, is the one who makes God known to us. . . .”

And in doing so, Jesus draws us beyond our myopia and cures our astigmatism: “Christ’s life, his way of knowing the Father and living in complete and constant relationship with him, opens up new and inviting vistas for human experience.” Moreover, this new capacity to see draws us into the community of the Church, for “faith is not a private matter, a completely individualistic notion or a personal opinion. . . . Faith . . . enables us to become part of the Church’s great pilgrimage through history until the end of the world.”

Biblical faith, then, is a remedy for “the massive amnesia of our contemporary world.” For, as Lumen Fidei insists, “the question of truth is really a question of memory, deep memory, for it deals with something prior to ourselves and can succeed in uniting us in a way that transcends our petty and limited individual consciousness. It is a question about the origin of all that is, in whose light we can glimpse the goal and thus the meaning of our common path.”

That truth, however, is not truth-on-ice. “Without love,” Lumen Fidei teaches, “truth becomes cold, impersonal, and oppressive for people’s everyday lives.” Thus “love and truth are inseparable . . . [for] the truth we seek, the truth that gives meaning to our journey through life, enlightens us whenever we are touched by love.” Love itself is a “source of knowledge,” a way of seeing the human condition against a more ample horizon, for “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.” Truth and love meet in the person of Christ, who declares himself the way, the truth, and the life; who witnesses to the truth of that claim by laying down his life for his brethren; and who is then vindicated in that salvific act of love by the Resurrection.

And against the indictment that convictions about possessing the truth inevitably lead to arrogance and intransigence, Lumen Fidei reminds both believers and unbelievers that “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.”

As for what all of this has to do with the grave public issues of the moment, Lumen Fidei has a simple answer: Just about everything.

Modernity, the encyclical teaches, “sought to build a universal brotherhood based on equality, yet we gradually came to realize that this brotherhood, lacking a reference to a common Father as its ultimate foundation, cannot endure.” That realization took some time, and some hard experience, as early political modernity tried to force fraternité and égalité into history. The hard experience in question involved experiments with various forms of totalitarianism, from the French prototype rolled out in 1789, through the mid-20th-century models that brought the world Auschwitz, the Gulag, the Great Leap Forward, and the Holodomor in Ukraine, and on to the gentler, but no less democratically destructive, “dictatorship of relativism” (in Ratzinger’s signature phrase) that besets the West today. Ultramundane man, it seems, is terminally lethal man. Or, as Henri de Lubac pointed out in the mid-1940s, “atheistic humanism” proved that, while men could indeed organize the world without God, they could only organize it against one another.       

Biblical faith is also essential for underwriting modernity’s commitment to the unique and inviolable (or, as the Founders preferred, “unalienable”) dignity of every individual human being, regardless of race, sex, or condition of life — the moral claim that is at the basis of the modern political architecture of human rights. Classical antiquity did not see this clearly; the dignity of every human person is a truth that Jerusalem taught Athens. Thus it is precisely in those venues where Athens has broken its tether to Jerusalem, such that a cold rationality of utility is the dominant social norm, that the dignity of the person is gravely at risk throughout the western world.

And there is still more, at the intersection of faith, truth, and public life:

Faith . . . .by revealing the love of God the Creator, enables us to respect nature all the more, and to discern in it a grammar written by the hand of God and a dwelling place entrusted to our protection and care. Faith also helps us to devise models of development which . . . consider creation as a gift for which we are all indebted; it teaches us to create just forms of government, in the realization that authority comes from God and is meant for the service of the common good. Faith likewise affords the possibility of forgiveness . . . [which] is possible once we discover that goodness is always prior to and more powerful than evil, and that the word with which God affirms our life is deeper than our every denial. . . . Faith illumines life and society. If it possesses a creative light for each new moment in history, it is because it sets every event in relationship to the origin and destiny of all things in the Father.

Before and after its publication, it was said (even by Vatican officials) that Lumen Fidei would not be a “programmatic” first encyclical, in the sense that it would not lay out an agenda for Pope Francis’s pontificate. Yet that seems not quite right.

By focusing sharply on the question of a humanism adequate to the challenges of the late 20th century, John Paul II’s first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, announced the evangelical program that he would unfold over the next quarter-century, bending the course of history in unexpected directions: the proclamation of Jesus Christ as the answer to the question that is every human life. By underscoring at the very beginning of Lumen Fidei that his reflections on faith, drawn largely from the draft left him by Benedict XVI, were “in continuity with all that the Church’s magisterium has pronounced on this theological virtue,” Pope Francis has quietly but unmistakably announced that, modest alterations in the “accidents” of papal clothing and residence notwithstanding, the “substance” of the Petrine Office in the Church remains unchanged. For, as he writes, “the Successor of Peter, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, is always called to strengthen his brothers and sisters in the priceless treasure of the faith which God has given us as a light for humanity’s path.” That strengthening comes for a constant proclamation of the truth of Christian faith, which is a constant invitation to friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ and incorporation, through that friendship, into his Church — a communion of disciples in mission.

A pontificate of evangelical reform is underway. Its path will be illuminated, not by Catholic Lite, but by the full symphony of truth that the light of faith reveals.

— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. His most recent book is Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church (Basic Books).


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