Lumen Fidei: a reason to read it

LUMEN FIDEI encyclical provisional cover_ B 13.inddAdd this to the “Spooky” file: I begin teaching a class on the Philosophy of God, and before the week is out Pope Francis publishes his first encyclical letter Lumen Fidei (“The Light of Faith”). Even spookier is that this is a “two-Pope encyclical.” Whoever heard of such a thing? As Francis notes in §7, he received a nearly complete first draft of the letter from Pope Emeritus Benedict and then added a few contributions of his own. Perhaps there are historical precedents for this kind of thing, but if there are, I am unaware of them.

At any rate, I fully intend to present all of this to my students Monday morning as divine approbation for our class.

Will we then read the encyclical in class? Probably not, simply because it is not addressed to my class, meaning to a mixed group that includes Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Agnostics, and Atheists (a quite promising philosophy class, in other words). Although the popes don’t seem to mind who reads the encyclical letters–that is to say, you don’t need a special secret Catholic login code for the Vatican website–encyclicals are explicitly addressed to bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated persons, and the lay faithful.

If you fall into one of those categories, then you know what I am going to say: go read it. But maybe it sounds like a bit much to do. Let me then tell you just one thing about the encyclical that might encourage you to check it out: it tends to be concrete, rather than abstract. By that I mean that it tends to discuss “abstract” issues in terms of particular people.

For example, §2 sets up the problem of whether faith is really just some kind of wish-fulfillment, a refuge for the mentally weak who care more about feeling good than achieving truth. Yet the encyclical brings this point across by quoting one of the early letters of Nietzsche:

“<He> 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.”

Or for an even better example, consider §32 which discusses “the dialogue between faith and reason.” I approached this paragraph thinking that this was going to be an abstract discussion of whether faith presupposes reason. I expected hear a bit on how arguments for the existence of God can serve as preambles to the faith, or something along those lines. But I what I received instead in §33 was a discussion of how this dialogue played out concretely in the life of St. Augustine of Hippo:

“33. In the life of Saint Augustine we find a significant example of this process whereby reason, with its desire for truth and clarity, was integrated into the horizon of faith and thus gained new understanding. Augustine accepted the Greek philosophy of light, with its insistence on the importance of sight. His encounter with Neoplatonism introduced him to the paradigm of the light which, descending from on high to illumine all reality, is a symbol of God. Augustine thus came to appreciate God’s transcendence and discovered that all things have a certain transparency, that they can reflect God’s goodness. This realization liberated him from his earlier Manichaeism, which had led him to think that good and evil were in constant conflict, confused and intertwined. The realization that God is light provided Augustine with a new direction in life and enabled him to acknowledge his sinfulness and to turn towards the good.

All the same, the decisive moment in Augustine’s journey of faith, as he tells us in the Confessions, was not in the vision of a God above and beyond this world, but in an experience of hearing. In the garden, he heard a voice telling him: “Take and read”. He then took up the book containing the epistles of Saint Paul and started to read the thirteenth chapter of the Letter to the Romans. In this way, the personal God of the Bible appeared to him: a God who is able to speak to us, to come down to dwell in our midst and to accompany our journey through history, making himself known in the time of hearing and response.

Yet this encounter with the God who speaks did not lead Augustine to reject light and seeing. He integrated the two perspectives of hearing and seeing, constantly guided by the revelation of God’s love in Jesus. Thus Augustine developed a philosophy of light capable of embracing both the reciprocity proper to the word and the freedom born of looking to the light. Just as the word calls for a free response, so the light finds a response in the image which reflects it. Augustine can therefore associate hearing and seeing, and speak of “the word which shines forth within”. 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.”

That is good writing, the kind of thing I am always advising my students to do: don’t just make abstract points, but also illustrate your abstract points with concrete examples. This not only prevents confusion, but it keeps readers awake, especially unfortunate teachers with large stacks of papers to grade.

But if you are a lover of abstraction, don’t despair: there is some heady stuff in there as well, especially concerning the temporal dimension of faith (see §8 and §57). If you figure out what all that stuff about time vs. space means, please post a comment explaining it to me.

In the meantime, Happy Reading!

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2 Responses to Lumen Fidei: a reason to read it

  1. Greg Ward says:

    Your “spooky” comment reminded me of Elizabeth Scalia earlier in the year as her book on modern idols was published and then Pope Francis began speaking often of idols. If you haven’t read her blog at First Things, I recommend.

    As for the time/space challenge, I had hoped for a ray of insight, but am largely at a loss. 8 I think is a refutation of deism, but honestly 57 makes my head spin. Illuminate us please!

    • alexanderschimpf says:

      I read something by her recently and liked it, but I can’t recall what it was. You are right, though–I should start reading her stuff with more regularity.

      Rest assured, if I figure out the time/space thing, I’ll write a blog post on it!

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