Faith and doubt always travel together
Faith is not a leap in the dark but a lamp which guides our steps
Pope Francis on his way to the island of Lampedusa this week. His publication in his name of the work of his predecessor reminds us that it is the witness of others that enables us to know anything. Photograph: Getty Images
If the present age of Christianity were to be given a patron saint, then there is really only one contender: Doubting Thomas. Nobody speaks for us as candidly – or as usefully – as the man who wished to put his hand in the wounds.
St John recorded that Jesus told Thomas: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” This is conventionally interpreted as a condemnation of those who need evidence before believing. But the distinction seems not to be between those who seek evidence and those who accept blindly, but between, as a matter of circumstance, those who saw for themselves and those who didn’t. Since few were present, virtually all Christians would fall into the latter category. Jesus’s words to Thomas were observational rather than moralistic.
Faith and doubt always travel together, but perhaps never as such intimate companions as today, when the ways we come to think in everyday life draw us persistently into the boxes of our own construction, out of the more fundamental realm of existence. In this culture, no argument is adequate, because every contention immediately adopts the contours of the logic it challenges. Increasingly, in the boxes we build, skepticism suggests itself as a healthy disposition, fear and despair become bedrock intuitions, and pessimism often seems the most reasonable demeanour. If we lose sight of mystery, we can begin to see these narrowly-grounded responses as definitive understandings.
Faith, according to the text of the papal encyclical Lumen Fidei, published last week, is neither a leap in the dark nor “a light which scatters all our darkness”. It is “a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey”.
Depending on your viewpoint, Lumen Fidei is either the last encyclical from Pope Benedict XVI or the first from Pope Francis. But from its style and preoccupation, it seems mainly to be the work of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI – although published under the name of his successor.
The encyclical is not, fundamentally, a critique, or an analysis, still less a homily or lecture. It is in essence a testimony, the work not so much of a pope or a theologian or even a priest but of a man who has lived a long time, watched the world and grappled with it, arriving finally to certain clear understandings about what reality amounts to. Out of this unique experience, this man puts a witness before the rest of us in which he brings together everything he believes vital.