During the Summer, Pope Francis issued his first encyclical letter. It has not a surprising title for The Year of Faith; it’s called “Lumen Fidei” (Light of Faith) and you can find the papal work online in a few places, such as the Vatican website. Let’s take a look at what it is about…
As he begins, the Holy Father compares our modern times with ancient pagan times. He notes that in ancient times there was a cult of the Sun, the Sol Invictus or victorious Sun. For ancient cultures, the rising of the sun every morning was interpreted as the light’s victory over darkness. Pope Francis notes, though, that the Sun cannot overcome all the darkness that we face as human beings. It may illuminate the visible, material world around us, but it does not disclose the meaning of our lives nor does it penetrate the darkness of evil and death. Yet, this big fire ball in the sky does give a message–there is a need for light for physical life. So, one can arrive easily at another conclusion: we need light for spiritual, soulful life.
The Holy Father then brings up a modern philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who lived in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Nietzsche, you may recall, was a German of the latter 1800’s who challenged all the foundations of morality, claiming there was no one to answer to, and he was going around a lot in his time saying “God was dead.” Nietzsche got a lot of press for that audacious stand. However, as it the way of man, Nietzsche would die. And he did. In a philosophy book I saw a two-phase cartoon with commentary…
Nietzsche: August 23rd, 1900: “I declare that God is dead.”
God: August 26th, 1900: I can confirm it here, and so can you there: “Nietzsche is dead. P.S. I am still living, and always will be.”
Citing a letter from Nietzsche to his sister, the Pope highlights the distinction Nietzsche drew between faith in God and the search for truth. He told his sister that if she wanted peace and happiness– then believe!–because it is a nothing pursuit, but, if she wanted truth, then she had to seek it, because it was made up of some ‘reality,’ so Nietzsche concluded, but only to man in his private life, and not in any higher sense (like to God or any higher power–thus no absolute truth) .
This is a distinction that still holds in our culture. To seek the truth is considered a noble endeavor. But, it has to me your own truth; what is true for you. We are encouraged, indeed, we are compelled by a kind of moral imperative, to seek our own truth, our own rules, and to construct our own reality. Modern philosophers may not go around saying God is Dead, but say: Our need for soulful absolute truth is dead. We do better on our own, than trusting in God. Therefore, turning to faith in God is seen as a weakness, a failure in taking up this call. That’s the rebellion that some people have now versus God and versus people of the Catholic Church who live by faith.
But, if we are to take their advice and go seek out our own truth without God, where will we look? We have no other choice than this world. The point the pope makes is that in this situation we are no better off than the ancient pagans who were worshipping the Sun. The same lack of light on the meaning of our lives and on evil and death is still there. This world reveals nothing on these questions. Whether the light is the Sun or the light is our own will to power, we will still be in the dark on these central questions of human life. Only faith in God reveals to us the complete truth of who we are and what our lives are about.
We can say that this pursuit of having one’s own truth, and rejecting that there is a God of Truth will better and even excellent principles to follow, is a will to power. Man wants to shake his fist to the sky and say “neh!”
In this introductory section of the encyclical, then, it compares the philosophy of Nietzsche, the “will to power”, with pagan worship of the sun. Both can only illuminate part of our reality. Neither can deal with the questions of sin, evil, suffering, and death. Nor can they open up the horizons of understanding as Faith in God can. The introduction goes on to speak of the future. In our secular society, the future becomes a dream, a dream to which we are called to give our full effort to achieve. This future dream is held out to be inevitable (the right side of history). It is also posited as reason limited to a scientific account of reality. So, there is a kind of moral imperative attached to supporting this dream future. There is also an imperative to leave out any transcendent account of the human person and his destiny.
The future for us, the baptized into Christ, is full of hope. But, this is a hope that transcends what this world can offer. This hope does not negate the call to bring God’s love into the world. It, in fact, frees us to do so in ways that are radical and truly self-denying. Without faith in God, there is nothing left but this life and the things it promises.
Without faith, we would just be going around in circles.
True progress comes from the increase in the manifestations of the Kingdom of God; in the presence in the world of that transforming love of God and of the horizon of understanding that is opened up to us by God’s revelation and self-gift in Jesus Christ. End of Part 1