In "new" atheist and secularist circles today, faith is regularly ridiculed. It is presented as pre-scientific mumbo jumbo, Bronze Age credulity, the surrender of the intellect, unwarranted submission to authority, etc.
Time and again, the late Christopher Hitchens, echoing Immanuel Kant, called on people to be intellectually responsible, to think for themselves, to dare to know. This coming of age would be impossible, he insisted, without the abandonment of religious faith.
In standard accounts of cultural history, the "age of faith" is presented as a retrograde and regressive dark age, out of which emerged, only after a long twilight struggle, the modern physical sciences and their attendant technologies.
In accord with this cynical reading, the contemporary media almost invariably present people of "faith" as hopelessly unenlightened yahoos or dangerous fanatics. If you want the best example of this, watch Bill Maher's film Religulous.
It was to counter this deeply distorted understanding of faith that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI composed an encyclical letter, which has just appeared under the name of his papal successor and bears the title Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith). The text – smart, allusive, ruminative, informed by a profound grasp of cultural trends – is, though signed by Pope Francis, unmistakably Ratzingerian.
Though it is impossible in the context of this brief article to do justice to its rich content, I should like to gesture to a few of its principal motifs.
The pope's first move is to confront directly the sort of rationalistic dismissal of faith that I just outlined. Moderns, in love with the illuminating power of technological reason, have tended to view faith, not as light, but as obscurity.
But the pope insists that faith is the proper, indeed reasonable, response to the experience of the living God, who is not an object in the world, but rather the Creator of the world. Precisely because he is the source of all finite existence, God is not one being among many and hence cannot be pinned down on an examining table and lit up with the harsh light of technological reason.
The prophet Isaiah expressed this point with admirable economy: "Truly you are God who hides himself, O God of Israel, Saviour." Isaiah does not mean that God is a worldly reality that is, for the moment, hidden away, like the dark side of the moon. Rather, he means that God is a reality which cannot, even in principle, be seen in the ordinary way.
Further, the hidden God is not an abstract force or a distant first cause. He is, instead, a living person, and this means he cannot be manipulated, controlled or analyzed in an intrusive manner. Therefore, faith or trusting acceptance is the only legitimate response to an experience of such a reality.
The encyclical's second move is to show how the darkness of faith, once embraced, actually turns into light. By accepting God's overture, the faith-filled person finds the supreme value, which unifies and gives direction to the whole of his life; he basks in the light, which illumines every aspect of his existence.
In the absence of faith in the one God, a person necessarily drifts from idol to idol, that is to say, from one fleeting value to another. One of the pope's most brilliant observations is that idolatry, therefore, is always a type of polytheism, a chase after a multiplicity of gods, none of which can satisfy: "Idolatry does not offer a journey but rather a plethora of paths leading nowhere and forming a vast labyrinth."
What an apt description of the spiritual state of so many in our postmodern condition! And how deeply congruent with the biblical notion that the rejection of God conduces automatically to a disintegration of the self. Notice that biblical demons speak typically in the plural.
The pope's third major move is to show that authentic faith is liberating, and he does this by returning to St. Paul's classic texts on justification.
Famously, the apostle argued, in his letter to the Romans and elsewhere, that salvation comes, not through works of the law, but through faith in what Jesus has accomplished. The pope reads this, not in the Lutheran manner, as a demonization of "good works," but rather as a reminder that real salvation comes by way of surrendering to God's purposes.
When we are convinced that our fundamental well-being depends on our efforts and the accomplishment of our plans, we lock ourselves into the cramped quarters of the sovereign self.
But when we acknowledge through faith the primacy of grace, we move in the infinite and exciting space of God's intentions for us. All of the great spiritual masters have acknowledged that our lives are not, finally, about us, and in that realization, we find peace and joy. Dante expressed the idea splendidly: "In your will, O Lord, is our peace."
This encyclical could best be interpreted as Pope Emeritus Benedict's and Pope Francis' challenge to the secularist ideology that already has taken over Western Europe and that now threatens the United States. It is a reminder that faith alone can deliver us from the tyranny and sadness of the closed-in self.
(Fr. Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire (www.wordonfire.org), and the Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary.)