A common and tragically mistaken assumption all-too-many people make when seeking to understand the nature and practice of faith is that it is blind. Lumen Fidei, the encyclical begun by Pope Benedict XVI and completed by Pope Francis, thus making it the latter’s first encyclical, directly addresses this mistake. (An aside is in order. Reading the encyclical, one is readily tempted to the admittedly fun exercise to debate who wrote what, but that is ultimately a distraction from the topic it addresses.) When unbelievers critique religion in general and the Catholic faith in particular, one of their chief attacks is how faith is practiced without any reason to believe or despite overwhelming reasons to the contrary. Often, they will quote Christians, including those in ministry, who proudly boast of their faith in God as the exercise of a blind, uninformed, trust. In Lumen Fidei, two popes provide an ethic for the proper understanding and responsible practice of faith. Primary in an authentic Christian understanding of faith is that it is never blind. The encyclical’s survey of what faith is reveals that those who say faith is blind don’t understand the Christian theological tradition; and that includes wrongheaded interpretations of the Bible on the subject.
Perhaps the main reason faith is often misunderstood to be blind is centered on how we practice the faith in face of the mystery of God, a being who is generally unseen and before whom we do not know all that there is to know. Here a mistake is made. People make the generalization that not knowing all reality is the same thing as blindness. It is based on a modern empirical demand human beings today like to make on ourselves, where we will not commit to a decision or course of action unless we know all the facts. And, human beings pride themselves on knowing all the facts, and therefore think they can control the reality around them as a hallmark of their status as modern, enlightened human beings. The practice of anything less puts us on the slippery slope back to a time of darkness (which many critics of faith center in the medieval period — which reveals their ignorance of the actual history) where our ancestors lived by faith and not by things verifiable through the senses.
The Christian theological tradition is replete with persons able to meet the skeptics with effective counter-arguments. (Blessed John Henry Newman’s Grammar of Assent, with its argument for an “illative sense” as a rebuttal to Hume, for example.) Lumen Fidei dedicates a significant portion of its argument defending faith against its critics. But, here I want to focus on how these popes defend faith against its uninformed friends who insist on its blindness as a quality. Beginning with the use of “light” in the title and its insistence that faith sees God as well as hears God, the reader should be clued that faith is anything but blind. We may encounter a mysterious God, and do not know all that there is to know about who God is or the entirety of what God’s promised future entails, but we know even this reality with eyes and ears wide open, with our intellectual faculties in full employ. Christians see many persons and things, hear many persons and things, and with those persons and things think through and understand why we should possess and practice faith in God and what God has promised. When Nietzsche is brought up in the second paragraph of LF, the battle against faith being blind is joined.
Nietzsche insisted that those who want the truth must seek it, but those who just believe can remain peacefully contented where they are. This uncoupling of belief from the relentless quest to seek the truth is where faith is made to be understood to be a blind alley, an illusion (as Freud and Feuerbach would put it), which distracts and blocks humanity from its liberated future (as Marx would describe it) as creatures in possession of truth. Lumen Fidei flips this reasoning on its head. It is the modern human confidence in itself to reason its way to the truth alone without faith in God that is the blind alley. Humanity’s confidence, its self-centered faith in its ability to reason its way to the truth alone has become transformed into fear of the truth because the binding nature of truth claims makes it a perceived threat to human freedom. And why not? Without God, truth claims are ideas controlled by a single or group of individuals. They are idols designed for the benefit of those who create and control them. The human fear of truth claims is the fear of being controlled by those behind those claims. Therefore, not only does the human faith in reason deteriorate, our confidence in having human relationships based on goodness and truth deteriorate into relationships of power. This happens because our guard is always up against the potential harm our neighbors could do in their projection of power as they seek to control their lives and the world around them, which by extension must include people they know.
Faith, according to Lumen Fidei, opens humanity up to see, hear, and therefore know truth with trust and without fear. This is because faith at the end does not promise a set of ideas to assent to (important as that is), but something better: a relationship with God. God’s goodness, attested through the Word of God, the history of the experience of the faithful in their relationship with God beginning with Israel and continuing with the Church, and our continuing efforts to understand our faith by better knowing God truly, all gives Christians warrants to have faith in God and the promises God made and has fulfilled, culminating in the Incarnation. Among the things revealed by God and reasoned by humanity is that God relates to us in love. God’s trustworthiness and respect for the human freedom to assent to God in faith (or not) makes truth liberating because it is not imposed by God through coercion. God presents truth as an invitation for us to assent to openly and freely. We choose to make that assent knowing much (though not all) of what we’re assenting to, and why we are engaged in this act of trust in God and God’s Word. After that initial assent, our knowledge of truth lived in the light of faith grows because we always seek to better know God truly. LF’s argument may not convince the unbeliever since faith in God’s existence is a prerequisite for agreeing with it. However, the skeptic cannot deny the lack of blindness in such an argument. And, Christians tempted to the falsehood of faith being blind are chastened to accompany their prayers and praise to God with the challenge to “take up and read” and hear the whole of God’s Word, taught and learned in an ecclesial community able with God’s help to see and hear that Word truly.