Though issued under Pope Francis’ name, Lumen Fidei, was begun by Pope Benedict XVI and appears largely to have been written by him. The encyclical probes the many dimensions of faith, in particular: the nature of faith as a pathway to knowledge of God, its relationship with love and reason, and why the Church is necessary for passing on a living faith from one age to another. These are hardly new topics, but they gain renewed vigor and urgency in Lumen Fidei.
Faith as a spiritual vision: Faith comes by hearing, but it also gives us a special sort of vision, the ability to see what would otherwise be unseen. “The light of faith is unique, since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence. A light this powerful cannot come from ourselves but from a more primordial source: in a word, it must come from God,” Lumen Fidei states. Faith ‘sees’ in the sense that it “journeys … into the horizons opened up by God’s word.” But faith is more than just a vision of the world and the life after that is granted, as a gift to us, by God. Faith is also a sharing in the vision of Jesus, who sees the Father, according to Lumen Fidei, which quotes John 1:18: No one has ever seen God. The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him. It is the Incarnation which allows us to share in Jesus’ vision: by fully taking on human nature, Jesus opened up the divine vision to us. At the same time, in being fully human, he could share in the deep longings of the faithful for the beatific vision that awaits them in heaven, Lumen Fidei says.
Faith as the opposite of idolatry: Faith, the willingness to see beyond the physical, is the opposite of the idolatrous impulse, which aims to make the divine manifest in the visible here and now. In the words of Lumen Fidei, referring to the Golden Calf episode at Sinai: “Here the opposite of faith is shown to be idolatry. While Moses is speaking to God on Sinai, the people cannot bear the mystery of God’s hiddenness, they cannot endure the time of waiting to see his face. 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.”
Confusion of unbelief: Lumen Fidei draws a contrast with the clear-eyed vision of faith and the disorientation and confusion that result from unbelief. “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,” the encyclical says.
Faith is connected with an objective reality: This is a reminder all too important for anyone who has ever experienced doubt, in other words, just about all of us—faith is not some private affair in which the individual expresses his wish for a loving God and a better world. To paraphrase Lumen Fidei, faith is not just a “beautiful story, the projection of our deep yearning for happiness” or a “lofty sentiment which brings consolation and cheer.” Instead, faith, as something that brings us into contact with the truth, is described as certain and reliable, in Lumen Fidei, which uses an analogy from Isaiah 33:16, where it’s prophesied that the baptized will be established in a “fortress of rock.”
A wide angle lens on the world: Lumen Fidei constantly speaks of the new “horizons” which faith in God opens up to us. Faith thus draws us out of the “desert of the selfish and self-enclosed ego” and into a relationship with God. The broad vision of faith contrasts with the tunnel vision of the modern age, which ties truth to technology: truth, according to the modern view, is only what we can construct or measure through scientific knowledge, Lumen Fidei says. It is precisely this wide angle lens which faith affords us that makes it so compatible with reason, the encyclical concludes: “By stimulating wonder before the profound mystery of creation, faith broadens the horizons of reason to shed greater light on the world which discloses itself to scientific investigation.”
Faith is sacramental: Faith needs a medium, a setting, in which it is communicated in a way that is true to its nature, the two popes write. For “purely doctrinal content” a book or set of repeated messages might work, but not for faith, which is “the new light born of an encounter with the true God.” In other words, faith is not knowledge lodged in the head. It is not a feeling. It is something that engages our whole being because it sets us in a relationship with another person. Lumen Fidei concludes: “There is a special means for passing down this fullness, a means capable of engaging the entire person, body and spirit, interior life and relationships with others. It is the sacraments, celebrated in the Church’s liturgy. The sacraments communicate an incarnate memory. …” This makes sense given the twofold nature of a sacrament, which involves a visible sign which communicates grace unseen. In like fashion, faith is a sort of double vision, involving both the physical and the spiritual. Through the eyes of faith we see divine purpose and presence in the midst of a material world that is fallen and fragmented: whereas the world only sees a leper, the Christian also sees the wounded Christ.