Faith and doubt always travel together

Faith is not a leap in the dark but a lamp which guides our steps

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.

Lumen Fidei begins by peering into the darkness, asking if faith might be an illusory light which prevents mankind from boldly setting out in quest of knowledge. In its second paragraph, it calls to the witness box the archangel of modern cynicism, Frederick Nietzsche: "If you want peace of soul and happiness, then believe, but if you want to be a follower of truth, then seek".

By the coherence of its perspective and the sure-footedness of its language, Lumen Fidei deftly transports us between the different layers of reasoning in which our cultures have latterly come to cogitate. There is a quotation from Saint Gregory the Great: "amor ipse notitia est" – love is a knowledge possessed of its own logic.

'Question of truth'

Loving and being loved are essential conditions for the human capacity to understand mankind’s total situation. Memory is another lamp lighting the path: “The question of truth is really a question of memory, deep memory, for it deals with something prior to ourselves and can succeed in uniting us in a way that transcends our petty and limited individual consciousness. It is a question about the origin of all that is, in whose light we can glimpse the goal and thus the meaning of our common path.”

The text is studded with astoundingly clear sentences, like: “It is through an unbroken chain of witnesses that we come to see the face of Jesus.” Faith is an encounter – a “we” directed at a “Thou”.

As much as it cautions against scepticism, Lumen Fidei warns also of the dangers of a "faith" without reason. It intimates the "massive amnesia" of the contemporary world infects the religious imagination as much as the secular one.

There have been encyclicals in the past in which the weight of the work was done by one pope and completed by another, but none, to my knowledge, in which the witness was of such a personal character and yet almost entirely the testimony of the pope whose signature the final document does not bear.

By putting his name to the final great statement of his brilliant predecessor, Pope Francis does not simply announce his own modesty and grace – he also, replicating the content of the encyclical in the gesture of affirming it, reminds us that the witness of others is what enables us to “know” anything at all.