Faith Lights life
The New Atheists don’t know what they’re missing.

Pope Francis


George Weigel

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. . . .”