Monday, July 22, 2013

Lumen Fidei

The light of Faith. The subject (and title) of Pope Francis' first encyclical. Drafted by his predecessor Benedict XVI, as the completion of his series of encyclicals on Faith, Hope and Charity, added to and edited by Francis. Since it is impossible to know who wrote what, I'll refer to "the popes" as authors.

It is about what one expected, breaking no new ground, providing no new insight into the modern conflict between faith and reason.

Certainly, the popes are cognizant of the conflict. In the second paragraph they note of "the objections of many of our contemporaries." In particular they refer to the critique of faith by Nietzsche. "If you want peace of soul and happiness, then believe," Nietzsche wrote to his sister, "if you want to be a follower of truth, then seek." Faith, for Nietzsche, is an illusion of light, an illusion that blocks the path of a liberated humanity to its future.

But only the light of faith can illuminate "every aspect of human existence," say the popes. "A light this powerful cannot come from ourselves but from a more primordial source: in a word, it comes from God."

And there you pretty much have it: seeking vs. assertion. For the rest of the encyclical, the popes buttress their case in the necessity and legitimacy of faith by quoting the Bible, which is (for them) the revealed word of God, forgetting, as always, that to believe in scripture as revelation itself requires a leap of faith. Have faith in the Bible, say the popes in effect, and you will see why faith trumps reason. "Unless you believe, you will not understand" (Isaiah 7:9): quoting the Bible to show that the Bible is true.

The popes go on at some length to convince us that faith leads to truth. Faith without truth does not save, they say; it may be a beautiful story that makes us happy to the extent that we are willing to deceive ourselves, but unless the repository of faith is Truth, then faith is in vain.

"In contemporary culture, we often tend to consider the only real truth to be that of technology: truth is what we succeed in building and measuring by our scientific know-how," write Benedict and Francis dismissively. "it is what works and what makes life easier and more comfortable. Nowadays this appears as the only truth that is certain, the only truth that can be shared, the only truth that can serve as a basis for discussion or for common undertakings."

Aside from conflating science and technology, which may be fair, and calling scientific truth "certain," which no scientist believes, we have here a pretty good summary of the issue: truth is "what works" vs. truth is what the Church says it is. So we are where we started, with an essential conflict that is not readily resolved because we don't have a common basis for discussion or for common undertakings.

For people of faith, the encyclical states self-evident truths. For the rest of us, we follow young Nietzsche's advice to his sister: take risks and tread new paths "with all the uncertainty of one who must find one's own way."