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The Cardus Daily

A Protestant Appreciation of Lumen fidei

James K.A. Smith  |  July 12, 2013  |  Institutions, Pontificating, Religion

As I noted in my review of Ephraim Radner’s important book A Brutal Unity, Christian witness for the common good requires a common witness. In other words, the fragmentation of the church also fragments our public voice. But as we increasingly feel the effects of a rabid secularism and demeaning pragmatism in public life, old boundaries mean less and less.

In that spirit, I want to add my voice to the chorus of appreciation for Pope Francis’ encyclical, Lumen fidei (“The Light of Faith”). In this beautiful articulation of the Christian faith for our postmodern world, Francis revisits themes from Pope John Paul II’s 1998 encyclical Fides et ratio, with a winsome accessibility that is inviting and charitable. It is surely an expression of what George Weigel has called Evangelical Catholicism (a book that Mark Noll will be reviewing for Comment later this summer).

There are many themes in Lumen fidei that deserve more treatment than I can give them here, but let me highlight just two.

First, the Pope rightly argues that the standpoint of Christian faith is not opting for un-reality—to believe the Gospel is not an irrational escape from “the real.” To the contrary, it is an invitation to participate in the One in whom all reality holds together. And this is an incarnational faith: tangible, sticky, concrete, embodied, in contrast to the vague Gnosticism that too often passes itself off as “Christian.”

Our culture has lost its sense of God’s tangible presence and activity in our world. We think that God is to be found in the beyond, on another level of reality, far removed from our everyday relationships. But if this were the case, if God could not act in the world, his love would not be truly powerful, truly real, and thus not even true, a love capable of delivering the bliss that it promises. It would make no difference at all whether we believed in him or not. Christians, on the contrary, profess their faith in God’s tangible and powerful love which really does act in history and determines its final destiny: a love that can be encountered, a love fully revealed in Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection (§17).

Second, given that Christian faith is tangible, it shouldn’t surprise us that faith matters to our common material life together. Indeed, Francis sounds a note about social “architecture” that resonates with our mission here at Cardus:

The light of faith is capable of enhancing the richness of human relations, their ability to endure, to be trustworthy, to enrich our life together. Faith does not draw us away from the world or prove irrelevant to the concrete concerns of the men and women of our time. Without a love which is trustworthy, nothing could truly keep men and women united. Human unity would be conceivable only on the basis of utility, on a calculus of conflicting interests or on fear, but not on the goodness of living together, not on the joy which the mere presence of others can give. Faith makes us appreciate the architecture of human relationships because it grasps their ultimate foundation and definitive destiny in God, in his love, and thus sheds light on the art of building; as such it becomes a service to the common good. Faith is truly a good for everyone; it is a common good. Its light does not simply brighten the interior of the Church, nor does it serve solely to build an eternal city in the hereafter; it helps us build our societies in such a way that they can journey towards a future of hope (§51).

I can’t imagine a better articulation of the faith that animates our work here at Cardus. The Reformation isn’t over, but the protest that has separated us might not be as significant as the Gospel that unites us. This Protestant is deeply grateful for the witness of Pope Francis to the light of faith for the common good.

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