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Friday, July 5, 2013

The Light of Faith: Truth for the natural order

[Faith] illumines the material world, trusts its inherent order and knows that it calls us to an ever widening path of harmony and understanding. The gaze of science thus benefits from faith: faith encourages the scientist to remain constantly open to reality in all its inexhaustible richness. Faith awakens the critical sense by preventing research from being satisfied with its own formulae and helps it to realize that nature is always greater. By stimulating wonder before the profound mystery of creation, faith broadens the horizons of reason to shed greater light on the world which discloses itself to scientific investigation. [Lumen FideiSection 34]
What a day in Rome. Pope Francis and Benedict XVI come together to consecrate the Vatican to St. Michael while it is announced that Bl. John Paul II and Bl. John XXIII are on the road to sainthood.

Then there is Lumen Fidei, the much anticipated encyclical on faith. This letter to the Church—begun by Benedict XVI and completed by Pope Francis—is a lofty, profound, tender, and much-needed statement on Christianity and the nature of the Church.

Early impressions are in, such as this one by David Cloutier and this one by James V. Schall S.J., as worldwide discussions are underway among clergy, academics, and the lay faithful. And so the Church grows as these 18,000 or so words begin nurturing and challenging the People of God.

I especially appreciate the lines above. They speak well to Catholics engaged in scientific matters. But then, Lumen Fidei in its entirety is a love letter to the Church filled with passages worth interiorizing, pondering, and—especially—sharing.

I was happy to see a direct acknowledgement of how faith can impact our understanding of the natural environment. In a document that maintains a broad view of earthly affairs without delving into the details of this or that particular issue, words about ecology show how deeply rooted the topic is within the minds of the pontiff and the pope emeritus.

In speaking of the incarnational nature of Christianity—of maintaining the goodness of creation—Pope Francis weaves the natural environment with Christianity’s view of humanity. The pairing is striking, especially since the section ends with a sorely needed quality in today’s divisive world: forgiveness. In speaking of forgiveness, the document calls to mind earlier discussions by John Paul II and Benedict XVI on “human ecology.” Also noteworthy is the opening of the section: an apologetic reminder of what Christianity has brought to human cultures.
How many benefits has the gaze of Christian faith brought to the city of men for their common life! Thanks to faith we have come to understand the unique dignity of each person, something which was not clearly seen in antiquity. In the second century the pagan Celsus reproached Christians for an idea that he considered foolishness and delusion: namely, that God created the world for man, setting human beings at the pinnacle of the entire cosmos. "Why claim that [grass] grows for the benefit of man, rather thanfor that of the most savage of the brute beasts?" "If we look down to Earth from the heights of heaven, would there really be any difference between our activities and those of the ants and bees?" At the heart of biblical faith is God’s love, his concrete concern for every person, and his plan of salvation which embraces all of humanity and all creation, culminating in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without insight into these realities, there is no criterion for discerning what makes human life precious and unique. Man loses his place in the universe, he is cast adrift in nature, either renouncing his proper moral responsibility or else presuming to be a sort of absolute judge, endowed with an unlimited power to manipulate the world around him.
Faith, on the other hand, by revealing the love of God the Creator, enables us to respect nature all the more, and to discern in it a grammar written by the hand of God and a dwelling place entrusted to our protection and care. Faith also helps us to devise models of development which are based not simply on utility and profit, but consider creation as a gift for which we are all indebted; it teaches us to create just forms of government, in the realization that authority comes from God and is meant for the service of the common good. Faith likewise offers the possibility of forgiveness, which so often demands time and effort, patience and commitment. Forgiveness is possible once we discover that goodness is always prior to and more powerful than evil, and that the word with which God affirms our life is deeper than our every denial. From a purely anthropological standpoint, unity is superior to conflict; rather than avoiding conflict, we need to confront it in an effort to resolve and move beyond it, to make it a link in a chain, as part of a progress towards unity. [Sections 54, 55]
There is another section—well, there are many sections, but this one especially—that I suggest goes to the heart of our world’s ecological crises, which are really crises of faith. I offer this as an example of how an authentic Catholic engagement of ecology must never forget the roots of faith: 
There is an urgent need, then, to see once again that faith is a light, for once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim. The light of faith is unique, since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence. A light this powerful cannot come from ourselves but from a more primordial source: in a word, it must come from God. Faith is born of an encounter with the living God who calls us and reveals his love, a love which precedes us and upon which we can lean for security and for building our lives.
Transformed by this love, we gain fresh vision, new eyes to see; we realize that it contains a great promise of fulfilment, and that a vision of the future opens up before us. Faith, received from God as a supernatural gift, becomes a light for our way, guiding our journey through time. [Section 4]
And certainly, rightly guided journeys are vital if we are to steward well the natural world.

There will be much written and said in the days and years ahead about Lumen Fidei and its place in the life of the Church. If you haven’t, add it to your reading list—it won’t take long and it makes for a stirring mini-retreat.

And if you have a moment, spend a few minutes with this video. It’s a beautiful narration of an 1893 essay by the Croation scientist Nikola Tesla (1856-1943). Apparently Tesla’s father, a Serbian Orthodox priest, had some influence on his son. The words you will hear, and the images of the filmmakers, resonate with many themes from Lumen Fidei. They especially call to mind the quote that opens this posting. Whether or not the filmakers or Tesla realized it, what is said in this video speaks to the innate human yearning for nature’s truths and how, like it or not, these truths build up humanity only when illuminated with the light of faith.

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