The National Catholic Review

Cambridge, MA. One of my duties as an In All Things blogger is to keep up on Church teachings on religions, and one relatively easy way — even if not sufficient or exclusive — is to keep up on papal teachings. Thus my interest in the new encyclical, Lumen Fidei. We know that it is benefits (or suffers) from the mind and hand of two popes, Benedict and Francis, so we should not make too much of this transitional document as indicative of the new Pope’s style. But still, we can see what it tells us about interreligious matters. Read the whole of it for yourself, of course, but for our purposes here, the relevant section is n. 35, under the title, “Faith and the Search for God.”

The initial thesis of the paragraph is stated at the beginning of n. 35: “The light of faith in Jesus also illumines the path of all those who seek God, and makes a specifically Christian contribution to dialogue with the followers of the different religions.” What follows is largely given over to examples of “those just ones who, before the covenant with Abraham, already sought God in faith.” Melchizedek — that Canaanite priest who met and blessed Abraham — is not mentioned, but other figures are prominent. We hear of Enoch, of whom "it was attested that he had pleased God" (Hebrews 11:5). This, the encyclical says, is something impossible apart from faith, for "whoever would approach God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him" (Hebrews 11:6). Again drawing on Hebrews, Abel is praised as well, since his offerings were pleasing to God. (Hebrews 11:4)

[I cannot help but add: It is odd, to me at least, that the assessment of Abel and Enoch is mediated entirely by Hebrews, but the positive intention of the exegesis is clearly positive. It is also a little disappointing, even if predictable, that even in this century a Pope still cannot bear to draw on examples from the living religions that flourished and flourish “after” Abraham: the Prophet Mohammed; rabbis and intellectuals who kept the Jewish faith alive in the darkest periods of European history; Hindu saints through the ages, who most obviously have sought God with great love and intensity; modern saints, ranging from the Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama to brave defenders of native traditions in the Americas and Africa. The Old Testament “types” serve an invaluable purpose, to be sure, but some Pope will have to push beyond that style of openness and draw examples from more recent millennia.]

One example in n. 35 is drawn from the New Testament. We hear of the Magi, since “for them God’s light appeared as a journey to be undertaken, a star which led them on a path of discovery.” The lesson of the Magi is cast in very positive, nearly universal terms that pertain to nearly every human being, in a religion or not: “Religious man is a wayfarer; he must be ready to let himself be led, to come out of himself and to find the God of perpetual surprises.” “Religious man” as human, in herself, is already in encounter with God, over and over. The very fact of the journey and the seeking indicates what seems to be primal, deep faith: “Because faith is a way, it also has to do with the lives of those men and women who, though not believers, nonetheless desire to believe and continue to seek. To the extent that they are sincerely open to love and set out with whatever light they can find, they are already, even without knowing it, on the path leading to faith.” A corollary, I would think, is to say that Christians too must in a certain way remain seekers of this kind; Christian faith does not end the search, as if to leave us only with answers.

It is interesting that after the preceding examples of seekers “before” Abraham - Abel, Enoch, the Magi - now it is Abraham himself, read by an early Christian theologian, who serves as an example of faith “before Abraham:” “Saint Irenaeus of Lyons tells how Abraham, before hearing God’s voice, had already sought him ‘in the ardent desire of his heart’ and ‘went throughout the whole world, asking himself where God was to be found,’ until ‘God had pity on him who, all alone, had sought him in silence.’” In a sentence that reminds us of Francis’ informal remarks, on which I blogged a few weeks ago, on the Catholic common ground with atheists and humanists, we hear these firm words: “Anyone who sets off on the path of doing good to others is already drawing near to God, is already sustained by his help, for it is characteristic of the divine light to brighten our eyes whenever we walk towards the fullness of love.”All of this is exceedingly generous, and meant clearly to disavow the notion of a high wall separating “our” faith from “their” belief. Even if faith is ultimately grounded in Christ, it does not respect religious boundaries; all of us are on the same journey, before, with, and even after Christianity.

All these lights of faith come together in Christ, but without any of them being obscured or extinguished. Divine light, the light of Christ, does not overwhelm the spiritual lights by which people already walk: “This respect on God’s part for our human eyes shows us that when we draw near to God, our human lights are not dissolved in the immensity of his light, as a star is engulfed by the dawn, but shine all the more brightly the closer they approach the primordial fire, like a mirror which reflects light.” This might be taken as a positive, forward-looking gloss on the words of Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate: “The Catholic Church rejects none of the things that are true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere attentiveness those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless by no means rarely reflect the radiance of that Truth which enlightens all people.” This reflection, we can now understand, is not a faint or fading one, a glimmer obscured by our condescension. The lights that do not belong to the Church are lights that shine all the more intensely when Christ encounters these people of faith who walk by other paths. It seems then to follow that designations such as “before Abraham” or “after Christ,” even if of important theological weight, are not absolutely fixed markers by which we can relegate other people’s faith to our past.

A final challenge in n. 35 of Lumen Fidei is to Christians. Since “there is no human experience, no journey of man to God, which cannot be taken up, illumined and purified by this light,” we are challenged to go deeper into Christ - in order to get beyond a closed, fearful religiosity: “The more Christians immerse themselves in the circle of Christ’s light, the more capable they become of understanding and accompanying the path of every man and woman towards God.” Faith pushes us outward, beyond the comfortable, to uncertain places, thus reaffirming the words cited above: “Religious man is a wayfarer; he must be ready to let himself be led, to come out of himself and to find the God of perpetual surprises.” As I noted here a few weeks ago, this too is a theme of our new Pope.