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Papal Encyclical Lumen Fidei: Chapter 2 faith and truth

(Vatican Radio) In our continuing five part series on Pope Francis’ first Encyclical letter Lumen Fidei or Light of Faith, Msgr. John Kennedy, an official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, takes a look at Chapter II.

Msgr. Kennedy tells Tracey McClure that the Pope “explores the intrinsic connections between faith and truth” in this chapter whose subtitle is “Unless you believe, you will not understand” (Isaiah 7:9.).
Listen to the conversation: RealAudioMP3
Msgr. Kennedy: He reminds us that faith enables us to see reality more deeply, to know the good, and — secure in this knowledge — to stand firm in the course of our lives.

Indeed, the deepest knowledge of the truth comes through the love of God and of others which faith enables.

Our faith then allows us to have a unique trustworthy knowledge, stimulating a constant dialogue between faith and reason.

The Pope notes in the end that the truth of faith is not some totalitarian imposition. It is a true gift for the common good.

Question: Let’s explore the dynamic between believing and understanding. What can you tell us from the text of the encyclical?

It is very simple really. Believing is linked in an intrinsic way to understanding. Think of children for a moment. They often ask questions because they want and need to know things. We need knowledge, we need truth, because without these we cannot stand firm, we cannot move forward. A court cannot hand down a verdict unless it gets the truth.

Faith without truth does not save. If faith did not have truth then it would remain nothing more than a beautiful story, an empty shell, or even the projection of our deep yearning for happiness, something capable of satisfying us to the extent that we are willing to deceive ourselves.

If this were faith, then it would be incapable of sustaining us on our steady journey through life.

Question: Isn’t it often the case that many today tell us that only science and technology can give us truth?

In contemporary culture, we have often heard those who might tell us that the only real truth is that which comes from science and technology: truth is what we succeed in building and measuring by our scientific know-how. Truth is what works and what makes life easier and more comfortable. In the legal world, the truth of what we want in society is often measured by what we vote for by means of a majority.

Nowadays not so many are concerned with the sort of truth we used to base everything on in the past. What we have today or what we create today 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. In discussions people sometimes no longer feel free to say I am a Catholic and I believe this to be true because all those kinds of truths have been banished from public discourse.

So it seems that we don’t know about or don’t want to think about the existence of one truth.

Yet at the other end of the scale we are willing to allow for subjective truths of the individual, which consist in fidelity to his or her deepest convictions. In other words we hear that there are many truths, each of them is valid only for the individual and not capable of being proposed to others.

But Truth itself, the truth which would comprehensively explain our life as individuals and in society, is regarded with suspicion. Surely this kind of truth — we hear it said — is what was claimed by the great totalitarian movements of the last century, a truth that imposed its own world view in order to crush the actual lives of individuals. It seems that society today is too sophisticated to believe in one truth.

And it is here that we return to a theme that was often spoken about by Benedict XVI. In the end, what we are left with is relativism.

Question: Can you explain relativism?

Let’s explain this because this is a word that is important to understand.

Relativism is the concept that points of view have no absolute truth or validity, having only relative, subjective value according to differences in perception and consideration. The term often refers to truth relativism, which is the doctrine that there are no absolute truths, i.e., that truth is always relative to some particular frame of reference, such as a language or a culture. Another widespread and contentious form is moral relativism. So it means that if one thing is right because it is right for me or for someone else, then this ultimately this means the question of God — is no longer relevant. There is no bond between religion and truth.

Question: This being the case, can the Christian faith provide a service to the common good with regard to the right way of understanding truth?

To answer this question, we need to reflect on the kind of knowledge involved in faith. Here a saying of Saint Paul can help us: "One believes with the heart" (Rom 10:10). You could pass over this passage of scripture really quickly but it really does give us a key to understand our lives.

In the Bible, the heart is understood as the core of the human person, where all his or her different dimensions intersect: body and spirit, interiority and openness to the world and to others, intellect, will and affectivity.

If the heart is capable of holding all these dimensions together, it is because it is where we become open to truth and love, where we let them touch us and deeply transform us.

Faith transforms the whole person precisely to the extent that he or she becomes open to love. Through this blending of faith and love we come to see the kind of knowledge which faith entails, its power to convince and its ability to illumine our steps.

Faith knows because it is tied to love, because love itself brings enlightenment. Faith’s understanding is born when we receive the immense love of God which transforms us inwardly and enables us to see reality with new eyes.

Question: Doesn’t the Pope then quote the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who puts forward an explanation of the connection between faith and certainty?

Yes. For Wittgenstein, believing can be compared to the experience of falling in love: it is something subjective which cannot be proposed as a truth valid for everyone. Indeed, most people nowadays would not consider love as related in any way to truth. Love is more connected to emotions but not to truth.

But the Pope wonders about this and asks is this an adequate description of love?

Love is more than emotion. Love opens us to another person, leads us away from self-centredness in order to build a lasting relationship.

The goal of love is union with the person you love. Here we begin to see how love requires truth.

Only to the extent that love is grounded in truth can it endure over time, can it transcend the passing moment and be sufficiently solid to sustain a shared journey. If love is not tied to truth, it falls prey to fickle emotions and cannot stand the test of time.

Unless there is truth, there is no bond.

And here is the wonderful thing:

If love needs truth, truth also needs love. Love and truth are inseparable. Without love, truth becomes cold, impersonal and oppressive. The truth we seek is the truth that gives meaning to our journey through life.

In the Bible the people of Israel came to understand that God had a plan: it was that truth and fidelity go together: the true God is the God of fidelity who keeps his promises and makes possible, in time, a deeper understanding of his plan. At first they thought the promise was just for them but later saw that this divine "truth" extended beyond the confines of its own history, to embrace the entire history of the world, beginning with creation.

Question: Tell us what the encyclical says about faith in terms of hearing and seeing.

Pope Francis quotes from Saint John’s Gospel where to believe is described both in terms of hearing and seeing. We need to hear and see in order to know. Think of a child who is learning to speak. The child will listen to your words and watch your lips at the same time.

The kind of hearing in faith is when we recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd is calling his sheep. He is calling us to follow. Remember that shepherds did not drive their sheep but rather led them.

In the Gospel of Saint John we notice that those who heard became disciples: "Hearing him say these things, they followed Jesus" (Jn 1:37).

But faith is also tied to sight. Seeing the signs or the miracles which Jesus worked leads at times to faith, as in the case of the Jews who, following the raising of Lazarus, "having seen what he did, believed in him" (Jn 11:45).

When people saw for themselves they became disciples of Christ. Think of the centurion who saw Christ on the cross and exclaimed that this was truly the son of God.

Question: Is there a synthesis between hearing and seeing, or are both separate things?

It is possible through the person of Christ himself, who can be seen and heard. He is the Word made flesh, whose glory we have seen (cf. Jn 1:14). Think of the encounter of the disciples with Jesus after he had risen from the dead. With their own eyes they saw the risen Jesus and they believed; in a word, they were able to peer into the depths of what they were seeing and to confess their faith in the Son of God, seated at the right hand of the Father.

Question: How does this take place for us today? It would be great for us if we had been disciples and could have experienced the Lord, but we live in different times. Does the encyclical touch on this?

By his taking flesh and coming among us, Jesus has touched us, and through the sacraments he continues to touch us even today; transforming our hearts, he unceasingly enables us to acknowledge and acclaim him as the Son of God.

In faith, Pope Francis tells us that we can touch him and receive the power of his grace.

Saint Augustine, commenting on the account of the woman suffering from haemorrhages who touched Jesus and was cured (cf. Lk 8:45-46), says: "To touch him with our hearts: that is what it means to believe".

Question: A constant theme of our time is the dialogue between faith and reason. Does this encyclical discuss this question?

Yes. I think an experiment from science will help us to grasp this more clearly. We once did an experiment in school where we shone light through a prism and saw all the different colours that made up white light.

In the same way, once we discover the full light of Christ’s love, we realize that each of the loves in our own lives had always contained a ray of that light, and we understand its ultimate destination.

That fact that our human loves contain that ray of light also helps us to see how all love is meant to share in the complete self-gift of the Son of God for our sake.

We can say in conclusion that the light of faith illumines all our human relationships, which can then be lived in union with the gentle love of Christ.

Question: What effect does the light of love have on us for our times? How does it affect our lives?

The light of love proper to faith can illumine the questions of our own time about truth.

As we mentioned earlier, when people speak about truth they often reduce it to sometime subjective.

But if truth is a truth of love, if it is a truth disclosed in personal encounter with the Other and with others, then it can be set free from its enclosure in individuals and become part of the common good. This kind of truth, since it is born of love, can penetrate to the heart, to the personal core of each man and woman.

Question: Can we then say that faith leads us to search for God?

The Pope concludes the second chapter with the account of the Magi who were seeking God. We remember from the Gospels how these familiar wayfarers were led to Bethlehem by the star (cf. Mt 2:1-12). In them we can see how faith and light are fused together. For them God’s light appeared as a journey to be undertaken, a star which led them on a path of discovery.

Pope Francis tells us that religious man is also a wayfarer; he must be ready to let himself be led, to come out of himself and to find the God of perpetual surprises. Look out next week for part 4 of our five part series on Lumen Fidei when Msgr Kennedy examines Chapter III….