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Lumen Fidei: A First Look

If you do not take a stand, you will not understand. Understanding requires standing, it requires a ground.

These are the culminating themes of the account of the concept of faith in Joseph Ratzinger’s 1968 Introduction to Christianity, in which faith is named as “taking up a position” and “to take one’s stand on something.” Ratzinger is trying to identify faith with a certain type of stance toward reality, rather than with any formulae, claiming that faith is the prerequisite of all real human understanding. Without faith, he suggests, all understanding eventually is reduced to “making” – that is, not to standing somewhere, but to remaking the world in one’s own image. (By “faith” here, I hasten to add that Ratzinger is speaking more broadly that about “the Faith” – he’s showing that understanding is really only possible if there is acknowledgment of meaning in the world that is PRIOR TO my own definitions, and to acknowledge such meaning is to trust, have faith.

Chapter 2 of Lumen Fidei quotes Isaiah 7:9, “Unless you believe, you will not understand,” the very verse on which Ratzinger bases his reflection in his 1968. The hand of Benedict is very much present here, weaving a complex reflection on how love, the senses, and reason all work together in fruitful concert when grounded in faith, a faith that itself must be embodied in the community of the Church (chapter 3) and in service to the common good (chapter 4).

The overall outline of the document suggests its central concern, set out in the initial paragraph, to counter the idea that religious faith is in fact a form of “darkness.” Rather, faith means standing somewhere, taking a stand, one that illuminates rather than darkens. In the first chapter, the existential or dynamic (rather than propositional or doctrinal) aspect of what faith means is vividly described, in particular using Abraham. The first chapter is filled with an exploration of these dynamic experiences – call, response, promise, love – and all of this oriented toward the salvific communion with God and others that is the Church. The second, third, and fourth chapters then extend this experience of faith into the areas of intellect (chapter 2), ecclesial community (chapter 3), and social community (chapter 4).

Like Spe salvi, this encyclical offers few practical fireworks that will attract headlines, but is a remarkably rich foundation for theological work and for spirituality. Intially, I would highlight three important emphases. First, like Spe Salvi, as I have written over at dotcommonweal, Lumen Fidei emphasizes the communal nature of faith:

It is impossible to believe on our own. Faith is not simply an individual decision which takes place in the depths of the believer’s heart, nor a completely private relationship between the “I” of the believer and the divine “Thou”, between an autonomous subject and God. (39)

Faith needs a “setting” (40), just as hope was given settings in Spe Salvi. The image emphasized most strongly in chapter 3 is church as “mother,” another favorite of de Lubac. Privileging this image is important; on the one hand, it makes clear that faith is in some sense receptive and prior to us (I am not going into gender claims here!), but on the other, it also suggests the importance of seeing the Church more in terms of caring relationship, rather than just as creedal teacher or sacramental manager. That is, the sacraments and the creed make sense if we understand the Church in a fundamentally non-juridical fashion.

A second point: faith is not merely a matter of waiting or of getting somewhere else, but, Francis says, of “building”:

That faith is not only presented as a journey, but also as a process of building, the preparing of a place in which human beings can dwell together with one an­other. The first builder was Noah who saved his family in the ark (Heb 11:7). Then comes Abra­ham, of whom it is said that by faith he dwelt in tents, as he looked forward to the city with firm foundations (cf. Heb 11:9-10). (50)

Faith has not only an ecclesial “setting” but a social “setting” – not only ecclesial tasks, but social tasks. This is the quote that opens the fourth chapter on the social responsibilities of faith. This is a forthright rejection of a faith that is overly bound up in ritualistic piety or therapeutic self-regard. Faith means there’s work to do.

A final point, though, highlights the very unique character of this work. At one point, faith is described in this way:

Faith does not merely gaze at Jesus, but sees things as Jesus himself sees them, with his own eyes: it is a participation in his way of seeing. (18)

We are told later (46) that the essence of the Lord’s Prayer is learning “to share in Christ’s own spiritual experience and to see all things through his eyes” (46). This is lovely; it brings together the fundamental experiential, intellectual, and social tasks explained in the encyclical. Faith is seeing everything as Jesus sees it. Hopefully, that will be illuminating for all of us.

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  1. Joseph Ratzinger proposes that faith is taking up a position. If I understand him, he seems to be saying this position building leads to “the preparing of a place in which human beings can dwell together with one an­other.” If this is his meaning, it seems reasonable to ask…

    Where is the evidence that the taking of positions is helping the Catholic community dwell together?

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