(This is the second reflection over Lumen Fidei in a series. This installment covers Chapter One: We Have Believed in Love. For the introduction, please see Lumen Fidei: Part I, Illusion and Illumination).
We received a perfect inspiration to return to studying Pope Francis’ encyclical, Lumen Fidei, The Light of Faith, during last Sunday’s mass. During last Sunday’s second reading, we heard one of the most cited scripture passages on faith, from St Paul:
Brothers and sisters: Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen. (Heb 11, 1-2, 8-19).
Many wise theologians over the centuries have unpacked that sentence – it is one that often riddles me. But what I can say of my own experience is this: First – faith is the realization of what is hoped for in that when we hope for something with all our hearts, we are compelled to trust that God will work out His plan towards our hopes – and faith is that trust, that deep bond of confidence with God. And in asking with trust, we are told that we will receive, thus faith is the realization of that which we hope to receive. Second – we have as human beings ways of knowing beyond the reception of information through our senses. Our souls and our minds and even our experience of feelings in our inner corporeal reality are access routes to knowing. Haven’t you ever intuited something “in your gut” for which you received no confirming external stimuli? Haven’t you ever understood something in your mind that was incomprehensible to your senses? Haven’t you ever felt an emotion so clearly in your heart in response to something, or someone, whom you could not at that moment see with your own eyes? Faith, that deep bond of trust, that illuminating insight, that source of powerful energy, is real evidence, felt, known and experienced, of “things not seen.”
“Abraham, our father in faith”
Paul then illustrates what a life of faith looks like by talking about Abraham, a father of our faith. Returning to Lumen Fidei, we see that Pope Francis takes the very story of Abraham as his starting point. Immediately Pope Francis draws us to this deep bond between God and Abraham – because in Abraham, God becomes “personal,” the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, capable of interacting with man and establishing a covenant with him.” Pope Francis calls faith a “response” to a person, to a “Thou’ who calls us by name.” (Paragraph 8).
Abraham’s experience of faith was not some external, extra thing he puts on like a borrowed coat, but rather an internal resonation with the “core” of who he is. Pope Francis says, “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” (Paragraph 11). This is where God is always calling us on our journey of faith – to the core of our being. Even when the path of faith takes us to new places, or brings totally new experiences or people into our lives, true faith will resonate with the primordial God-given sense of “I” at the core of our authentic being. Pope Francis explains this saying that “ For Abraham, faith in God sheds light on the depths of his being,” and enables him “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” (Paragraph 11).
What does Abraham’s faith, as described by Francis, tell us about how we experience faith? If we understand faith as primarily an intellectual statement of beliefs (a creed or a set of dogma), or if we use faith as an illusion to stay comfortable (as Pope Francis challenges in the intro to Lumen Fidei, see Lumen Fidei, part 1: Illusion and Illusory), then it will not have to power to “shed light on the depths of our being” or awaken us to the truth of our existence, as it is “the fruit of a personal call and a personal love.” It will become rather like that borrowed coat, to be cast off when it pleases us, having everything to do with external appearances, and nothing to do with our inner life.
“The Faith of Israel”
Pope Francis then goes through the story of the People of God, the Israelites, and their journey of faith. He describes how through the Israelites, how the light of faith is connected to “concrete life-stories” and a great journey towards promised freedom (Paragraph 12). Pope Francis also says that through the Israelites, we understand the temptation to the “opposite of faith,” which is idolatry. He describes idolatry as the opposite of faith in that idolatry refuses to wait for revelation, thus refusing mystery, and instead creates something to worship (which then has no mystery, since we know its origin from our own hands). In worshipping our own creations, we really worship ourselves, and put ourselves “at the center of reality,” and we become splintered, since lacking the unifying “fundamental orientation” towards God, we are pulled in a million directions by all the idols that clamor for our trust. As we see with the Israelites then, faith is a constant experience of conversion, or turning back. “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” (Paragraph 13).
“The fullness of Christian faith”
Pope Francis then transitions from Abraham’s faith to the “fullness of the Christian faith,” saying that “all the threads of the Old Testament converge on Christ; he becomes the definitive “Yes” to all the promises.” For Christians, the life of Christ is “the locus of God’s definitive intervention, the supreme manifestation of his love for us. The word which God speaks to us in Jesus is not simply one word among many, but his eternal Word (cf. Heb 1:1-2)” (Paragraph 15). Pope Francis goes on to say the proof of the manifestation of that love lies in Christ giving us absolutely everything, holding nothing back. “Jesus offered his own life for all, even for his enemies, to transform their hearts” (P 16) And in this offering everything unto death, in Christ’s dying for us, our faith receives “a dazzling light;” revealing Christ’s love, and engendering our own trust in His love: “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” (P 16). It struck me how Pope Francis shows his own voice so clearly here: this love is something I can believe in, he says. How perfectly he shows us his humanness, and encourages our own. There is something in our nature to protect us that would make us suspicious of giving ourselves to someone who would hurt us or be less than worthy – how do we know Christ’s love is real? Because out of love He gave us everything, and in response, I am able to entrust Him with everything. The Father, whose love causes Christ to rise from the dead, makes this love complete; thus this love is always “reliable, capable of illuminating also the gloom of death” (P. 17).
So does that mean as Christians we must believe in a literal (physical) death and resurrection of Christ? Or can we just believe in the death and resurrection as an idea, a symbol or an analogy? Pope Francis ends this section with an important quote that I can’t begin to paraphrase and must display in it’s entirely, that addresses that question:
“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.”
So yes. Pope Francis reminds us that if God’s love could not reach into our physical reality as corporeal beings, it would make no difference whether we believed in Him or not. But that is not the case. As Christians, we affirm our faith that God’s love is “powerful and real,” that God’s love is embodied on earth in the physical death and resurrection of Jesus, and that we actually can encounter this love through Christ today.
As we encounter Christ, and see with His eyes, so we encounter God the Father. Pope Francis brings back in that element of faith that is a trusting bond with a person, as he talks about the human phenomena that happens every time we trust someone to help us, who knows more about something than we do (doctors, lawyers, etc). Likewise, we trust Jesus, who knows God the Father more perfectly than any human, to give us knowledge of God and open up a relationship to God through Himself. Because God made Himself knowable to us in Christ, and entered into our corporeal reality through Christ, our faith does not live in the clouds as an idea, but rather is firmly rooted in our natural reality. Pope Francis says, “Far from divorcing us from reality, our faith in the Son of God made man in Jesus of Nazareth enables us to grasp reality’s deepest meaning and to see how much God loves this world and is constantly guiding it towards himself. This leads us, as Christians, to live our lives in this world with ever greater commitment and intensity.” Clearly, Pope Francis shows us how the authentic Christian person is thus not disconnected from reality, nor does he/she avoid living in the world, but rather embraces it with “commitment and intensity.”
Salvation by faith
Pope Francis continues by saying that when participate in Christ’s sight, we become the new man, a new creation in Christ as children of God, as St Paul describes. So living in faith is living as a child of God. As children of God, we see how everything comes from Him – not from ourselves. We are not the “source of our own righteousness.” Pope Francis says, “The life of faith, as a filial existence, is the acknowledgment of a primordial and radical gift which upholds our lives” (filial meaning sonship or being a child of). That is why we say we are saved by faith – because in faith, we recognize that nothing comes from ourselves, but rather everything, including our existence, comes from God. “The beginning of salvation is openness to something prior to ourselves, to a primordial gift that affirms life and sustains it in being.” Seeing beyond ourselves to recognize this gift, Pope Francis says we can “be transformed, experience salvation and bear good fruit.”
Through faith, we are opened thus to a love greater than ourselves, and “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.” Thus we first experience faith on this extremely personal level of our own salvation, meaning the transformation of our selves through our relationship with Christ, through knowing his love – and then our life is never the same again.
The ecclesial form of faith
But this faith cannot remain merely individual, because it is a lived, filial relationship. We are naturally drawn together with others who believe. Pope Francis says, “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.” Pope Francis reminds us that faith is lived in community, and not disconnected from others. He also reminds us that when Christ call us parts of His “body,” He does not mean that we are “a mere cog in a great machine,” but that we are organically united into one being, in the same way body parts are of one body – “it brings out the vital union of Christ with believers, and of believers among themselves.” And yet paradoxically, we do not lose our individuality but rather become more ourselves. Participating in an authentic communion of believers, with each one serving the others, each one’s own originality should flourish as “they come into their own in the highest degree.” We know our true selves in Christ, and we find our true selves by giving our selves away to others in communion with them – just as Christ did.
To conclude this first chapter, Pope Francis says, “Faith is not a private matter, a completely individualistic notion or a personal opinion: it comes from hearing, and it is meant to find expression in words and to be proclaimed” (P. 22). Those are strong words. We are told often that our faith should be a “private matter,” or that we should regard our faith or that of others as mere “personal opinion.” Yet Pope Francis reminds us that faith is something that is meant to be expressed. We cannot keep it to ourselves, merely because it impregnates our entire being in such a way that we cannot help but communicate it. I do not mean that we cannot help yelling from street corners or forcing Christ on people at dinner parties – I mean that we cannot help, being transformed by love through faith, to express and proclaim this love in every situation where we find ourselves, however that situation calls for it.
Thus we are transformed by the gift of love we have received in faith, we come together to live our faith in relationship with each other in Christ, and “for those who have been transformed in this way, a new way of seeing opens up, faith becomes light for their eyes.” The more we grow in our faith, the more we share in Christ’s seeing, thus the more clearly we will see ourselves and our reality through Christ’s eyes; ultimately enabling us to respond to life with ever-increasing love.
In closing, JJ Heller gives us a great reflection on this faith, the evidence of things unseen, revealed in Jesus.
“The truest things I know/Are those I cannot see/From my birth to my dying day/I believe” – JJ Heller