Sunday, July 14, 2013

Lumen Fidei, The Highlights

I've received feedback indicated that my reviews of papal documents would be better served by hitting the high points rather than sifting through the whole thing, so that's what I'm going to be doing this time around.

Let me preface all this by making it clear that I'm not going to engage in the speculation that's kind of rampant about which-pope-wrote-which-parts. Pope Francis's name is on it, so as far as I'm concerned, he owns it.

Even just hitting the highlights, Lumen Fidei is not short. Granted, it's also not a monster like Caritas in Veritate or some of JPII's mammoth-sized writings. We'll do our best to boil it down, though.

Here are the points that I liked the most, with some comments as to why they struck me as being significant.

In modernity, that light [of faith] 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.

I almost wish there would have been a whole section on atheists and Nietzsche. The latter is the only real honest example of the former anyway. This is the modern caricature of faith, though. It's the remnant of our time as primitives and has to be dustbinned in our more enlightened age if we are ever to be all we can be.

In the process, faith came to be associated with darkness. There were those who tried to save faith by making room for it alongside the light of reason. Such room would open up wherever the light of reason could not penetrate, wherever certainty was no longer possible. Faith was thus understood 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. Slowly but surely, however, it would become 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.

Here is the first example we see in the encyclical of faith being an objective reality as opposed to a subjective belief. This is a recurrent theme, which makes a lot of the criticisms of the encyclical weird because they claim it isn't mentioned enough. Other than re-typing it over and over, I'm not sure what more Pope Francis could have done.

More than that, he describes faith as superior to all the other pursuits one might engage. He is also very explicit that, without faith, the alternative is moral chaos. Sure, you can find folks who have some discernment of the natural law, but there's only so far you can go with a darkened intellect and weakened will.

The light of faith is unique, since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence.

Every aspect. We'll come back to this later.

At this point, the encyclical hits the rewind button and begins to trace the development of faith from the Old Testament to the current age.

As a response to a word which preceded it, Abraham’s faith would always be an act of remembrance. Yet this remembrance is not fixed on past events but, as the memory of a promise, it becomes capable of opening up the future, shedding light on the path to be taken. We see how faith, as remembrance of the future, memoria futuri, is thus closely bound up with hope.

Considering the modern error of conflating faith and hope, I really wish there would have been some more material here to flesh out how they are bound up.

Gothic architecture gave clear expression to this: in the great cathedrals light comes down from heaven by passing through windows depicting the history of salvation. God’s light comes to us through the account of his self-revelation, and thus becomes capable of illuminating our passage through time by recalling his gifts and demonstrating how he fulfils his promises.

I will be remembering this passage for all eternity. With all the portrayals of Pope Francis as a guy who hates the beautiful things of the Church, throwing in a passage that praises Gothic architecture and the role it plays in forming the faith of the worshiper is very, very nice to see.

Idols exist, we begin to see, as a pretext for setting ourselves at the centre of reality and worshiping the work of our own hands. 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. Those who choose not to put their trust in God must hear the din of countless idols crying out: "Put your trust in me!" Faith, tied as it is to conversion, is the opposite of idolatry; it breaks with idols to turn to the living God in a personal encounter. Believing means entrusting oneself to a merciful love which always accepts and pardons, which sustains and directs our lives, and which shows its power by its ability to make straight the crooked lines of our history. Faith consists in the willingness to let ourselves be constantly transformed and renewed by God’s call. Herein lies the paradox: by constantly turning towards the Lord, we discover a sure path which liberates us from the dissolution imposed upon us by idols.

Now we come to the first remark that, in my opinion, sets this encyclical apart from a lot of the recent stuff we've seen come out of Rome. The overall tone of this document is very critical of false religions. Here, the Holy Father is talking about idolatry and polytheism as distinctly negative items. Belief in these things isn't faith, a salvific alternative, or even a reasonable substitute. They are just plain bad.

Regardless of anything else that that the Pope might have written, this (and the subsequent comments like it) is one of the most pressing messages that must be proclaimed to the world. Faith isn't just believing in some kind of deity or having some kind of vague religious sense. St. Pius X warned against this kind of stuff in Pascendi. Cardinal Ratzinger and Blessed John Paul II distinguished faith and religious belief clearly in Dominus Iesus, which said:

Faith, therefore, as “a gift of God” and as “a supernatural virtue infused by him”, involves a dual adherence: to God who reveals and to the truth which he reveals, out of the trust which one has in him who speaks. Thus, “we must believe in no one but God: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”.

For this reason, the distinction between theological faith and belief in the other religions, must be firmly held. If faith is the acceptance in grace of revealed truth, which “makes it possible to penetrate the mystery in a way that allows us to understand it coherently”, then belief, in the other religions, is that sum of experience and thought that constitutes the human treasury of wisdom and religious aspiration, which man in his search for truth has conceived and acted upon in his relationship to God and the Absolute.

This distinction is not always borne in mind in current theological reflection. Thus, theological faith (the acceptance of the truth revealed by the One and Triune God) is often identified with belief in other religions, which is religious experience still in search of the absolute truth and still lacking assent to God who reveals himself. This is one of the reasons why the differences between Christianity and the other religions tend to be reduced at times to the point of disappearance.

Lumen Fidei keeps hammering this point by mentioning the supernatural origins of faith three times and taking a decidedly negative view of other religions. Of course, we haven't seen the outcry that DI garnered because that will expose a side of Pope Francis that the media doesn't want to show.

More to come....

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