Church, Faith, Pope Francis

The Light of Faith

Whilst teaching evening, masters-level courses, one of my professors was fond of saying, “No dogma after dark,” as a way of acknowledging that end of the day exhaustion can inhibit clear theological thinking.  With due respect to him, this night owl is more wary of reading encyclicals at dawn, as my own theology tends to percolate much longer than it takes for a pot of coffee to brew.  Here I offer some early, under-caffeinated thoughts on themes from Pope Francis’ first encyclical, Lumen Fidei.

Voice and Scope.  As Francis states in the encyclical itself (and was widely known prior to its promulgation) this is a “work of four hands,” begun by Benedict XVI and continued by Francis as a “supplement” to Benedict’s work on charity and hope (7).  Future encyclicals and ongoing discovery of Francis’ own theology will offer interesting opportunities to compare which sources from the tradition Francis most favors when making his points.  Nevertheless, Francis’ own style of writing comes through the text, as he works with metaphors from the tradition to create a theological  palette of ideas.  It is not difficult to find in the encyclical the same authorial voice we have heard since March.  That left me with a mixed reaction to the encyclical as a whole.  While it seems to me we are truly gaining Francis’ perspective (rather than a lightly edited version of Benedict), the encyclical’s broad scope provides an impressionistic landscape of faith.  It’s in many ways a beautiful view, but more specificity might have produced a better sense of the scene.  From one perspective, I think that is positive—the encyclical does not lend itself to narrow definitions that can be superimposed without regard to context.  On the other hand, given the recent Synod on the New Evangelization, Francis might have provided a more diverse, contextual view of faith as it is lived throughout the universal church.  It’s my hunch that the post-synodal exhortation due out by the close of the Year of Faith will provide a richer, more contextually-engaged description of faith vis-à-vis evangelization.

Memory of the Past and Future.  The encyclical emphasizes that faith requires memory of both the past—what God has already done—and the future—the promises into which God calls us.  This fits in nicely with Francis’ reliance on the image of faith as a pilgrim journey.  We look back on our origins both in the triune God from whom we have the goodness of our existence and in all those who have sought and responded to God’s call in the past.  We also look into the future, to a path that leads forward into communion with God and others.  In Francis’ metaphor, faith is not so much the path itself, as the lamp that guides our way, allowing us to see clearly and move forward with trust and hope:

“Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey. To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything; rather, his response is that of an accompanying presence, a history of goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light. In Christ, God himself wishes to share this path with us and to offer us his gaze so that we might see the light within it. Christ is the one who, having endured suffering, is ‘the pioneer and perfecter of our faith'” (57).

I appreciated the acknowledgement of the insecurity, pain, and uncertainty experienced by the pilgrim church, as well as Francis’ insistence that God does not merely await us in the distance, but rather accompanies us in Christ:

“Yet it is precisely in contemplating Jesus’ death that faith grows stronger and receives a dazzling light; then it is revealed as faith in Christ’s steadfast love for us, a love capable of embracing death to bring us salvation. This love, which did not recoil before death in order to show its depth, is something I can believe in; Christ’s total self-gift overcomes every suspicion and enables me to entrust myself to him completely” (16).

With the lamp of faith raised, it is possible to see the “history of goodness” present even in the midst of pain, providing us with a memory that empowers us to walk into the future trusting in its goodness as well.  Without naming it, Francis seems to be writing here of an eschatological hope—the fullness of God’s kingdom that we realize partially now even as we await for its future fulfillment.

Seeing and Hearing.  Francis’ key analogies for faith itself—seeing and hearing—are deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  He clearly connects the imagery of sight with the source of light itself.  We are to be drawn to the light and not simply to what the light illuminates:

“Faith by its very nature demands renouncing the immediate possession which sight would appear to offer; it is an invitation to turn to the source of the light, while respecting the mystery of a countenance which will unveil itself personally in its own good time” (13).

God, as the transcendent light, is dazzling.  Francis relates this to the opposite side of faith, idolatry, in which we are tempted to trust in what the light allows us to see rather than the light itself:

“In place of faith in God, it seems better to worship an idol, into whose face we can look directly and whose origin we know, because it is the work of our own hands. Before an idol, there is no risk that we will be called to abandon our security, for idols ‘have mouths, but they cannot speak’ (Ps 115:5). 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”  (13).

Thus for Francis, God as the light is the “fundamental orientation” uniting our existence, making sense of our historical journey.  Our temptation is to think of ourselves as “possessing truth” rather than humbly acknowledging that “it is truth which embraces and possesses us” (34); we “cannot bear the mystery of God’s hiddenness” and so create the idols that disintegrate our trust in God (13).  If our histories, daily and epic, are to be integrated through trust in God, our faith must also be personal—a word that is spoken and heard within the midst of our experiences.

“Our culture has lost its sense of God’s tangible presence and activity in our world. We think that God is to be found in the beyond, on another level of reality, far removed from our everyday relationships. But if this were the case, if God could not act in the world, his love would not be truly powerful, truly real, and thus not even true, a love capable of delivering the bliss that it promises. It would make no difference at all whether we believed in him or not. Christians, on the contrary, profess their faith in God’s tangible and powerful love which really does act in history and determines its final destiny: a love that can be encountered, a love fully revealed in Christ’s passion, death and resurrection” (17).

Throughout the encyclical Francis touches upon faith in relation to our embodiment, as an “incarnate light” (34) that is communicated and experienced tangibly through our histories.

“A final element of the story of Abraham is important for understanding his faith. God’s word, while bringing newness and surprise, is not at all alien to Abraham’s experience. In the voice which speaks to him, the patriarch recognizes a profound call which was always present at the core of his being . . . . For Abraham, faith in God sheds light on the depths of his being, it enables him to acknowledge the wellspring of goodness at the origin of all things and to realize that his life is not the product of non-being or chance, but the fruit of a personal call and a personal love. The mysterious God who called him is no alien deity, but the God who is the origin and mainstay of all that is” (11).

The encyclical turns to Augustine as an example of the integration of seeing the transcendent light and the personal response of hearing the word:

“The light becomes, so to speak, the light of a word, because it is the light of a personal countenance, a light which, even as it enlightens us, calls us and seeks to be reflected on our faces and to shine from within us. Yet our longing for the vision of the whole, and not merely of fragments of history, remains and will be fulfilled in the end, when, as Augustine says, we will see and we will love.  Not because we will be able to possess all the light, which will always be inexhaustible, but because we will enter wholly into that light” (33).

The Communal.  Lest we think that “personal” means “individual,” the encyclical emphasizes consistently the importance of faith through, in, and with the church’s communion.  Here Francis is rooted deeply in the transformation that comes from being adopted daughters and sons of God, sisters and brothers of Christ who are not only able to see Christ, but through filial relation to God are also transformed in our ability to see through the eyes of Christ, to participate in God’s way of knowing and loving (18; 27).

“Those who believe are transformed by the love to which they have opened their hearts in faith. By their openness to this offer of primordial love, their lives are enlarged and expanded. ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’ (Gal 2:20). ‘May Christ dwell in your hearts through faith’ (Eph 3:17). The self-awareness of the believer now expands because of the presence of another; it now lives in this other and thus, in love, life takes on a whole new breadth. Here we see the Holy Spirit at work. The Christian can see with the eyes of Jesus and share in his mind, his filial disposition, because he or she shares in his love, which is the Spirit. In the love of Jesus, we receive in a certain way his vision. Without being conformed to him in love, without the presence of the Spirit, it is impossible to confess him as Lord (cf. 1 Cor 12:3)” (21).

The filial relationship not only enlarges and expands our lives with regard to God, but also with each other.  These relations within the church serve as essential mediations, and Francis links them back to Israel:

“In the faith of Israel we also encounter the figure of Moses, the mediator. The people may not see the face of God; it is Moses who speaks to YHWH on the mountain and then tells the others of the Lord’s will. With this presence of a mediator in its midst, Israel learns to journey together in unity. The individual’s act of faith finds its place within a community, within the common “we” of the people who, in faith, are like a single person — ‘my first-born son’, as God would describe all of Israel (cf. Ex 4:22). Here mediation is not an obstacle, but an opening: through our encounter with others, our gaze rises to a truth greater than ourselves. Rousseau once lamented that he could not see God for himself: ‘How many people stand between God and me!’ … ‘Is it really so simple and natural that God would have sought out Moses in order to speak to Jean Jacques Rousseau?’  On the basis of an individualistic and narrow conception of conscience one cannot appreciate the significance of mediation, this capacity to participate in the vision of another, this shared knowledge which is the knowledge proper to love. Faith is God’s free gift, which calls for humility and the courage to trust and to entrust; it enables us to see the luminous path leading to the encounter of God and humanity: the history of salvation.”  (14)

Within the Christian tradition the community’s mediation continues to be essential:

“Those who believe come to see themselves in the light of the faith which they profess: Christ is the mirror in which they find their own image fully realized. And just as Christ gathers to himself all those who believe and makes them his body, so the Christian comes to see himself as a member of this body, in an essential relationship with all other believers. The image of a body does not imply that the believer is simply one part of an anonymous whole, a mere cog in great machine; rather, it brings out the vital union of Christ with believers, and of believers among themselves (cf. Rom 12:4-5) Christians are “one” (cf. Gal 3:28), yet in a way which does not make them lose their individuality; in service to others, they come into their own in the highest degree. This explains why, apart from this body, outside this unity of the Church in Christ, outside this Church which — in the words of Romano Guardini — ‘is the bearer within history of the plenary gaze of Christ on the world’— faith loses its “measure”; it no longer finds its equilibrium, the space needed to sustain itself. Faith is necessarily ecclesial; it is professed from within the body of Christ as a concrete communion of believers. It is against this ecclesial backdrop that faith opens the individual Christian towards all others. Christ’s word, once heard, by virtue of its inner power at work in the heart of the Christian, becomes a response, a spoken word, a profession of faith.”  (21)

Francis highlights faith in relationship with community and seeing through others’ eyes not only within the church, but also in the church’s pursuit of the common good.  By yoking truth and love, he believes faith can be unshackled from oppression:

“But if truth is a truth of love, if it is a truth disclosed in personal encounter with the Other and with others, then it can be set free from its enclosure in individuals and become part of the common good. As a truth of love, it is not one that can be imposed by force; it is not a truth that stifles the individual. Since it is born of love, it can penetrate to the heart, to the personal core of each man and woman. Clearly, then, faith is not intransigent, but grows in respectful coexistence with others. One who believes may not be presumptuous; on the contrary, 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” (34).

There is, of course, much more in the encyclical than I’ve commented on here–I’ll be percolating some more on it as I’m sure many others will as well.  Feel free to share your own thoughts, questions, and quotes below.  What are your own reactions?  Also, I’ve been concentrating here mostly on what is in encyclical–are there ideas that were left out that surprise, encourage, or disappoint you?

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