Three Myths about Faith

We don’t usually think of papal texts as being apologetic in nature.

However, the first pope famously wrote, “Always be ready to give an explanation [apologian] to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope” (1 Pt 3:15), and many papal writings contain passages that are apologetic in nature. Lumen Fidei (“The Light of Faith”), the papal encyclical released by Pope Francis on July 5, is a wonderful case in point. The encyclical contains several points of significant value for the apologist. Here are three apologetic-oriented points made by Pope Francis (and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, whose original draft was completed by his successor) about myths regarding the nature of faith.

Myth No. 1: Faith is blind and irrational. In “speaking of the light of faith,” writes Francis, “we can almost hear the objections of many of our contemporaries” (No. 2). The first objection is that faith — specifically Christian faith — is outdated precisely because it is irrational, offering “an illusory light” to a rational, modern culture. Faith is said to be fine for those wanting blind assurances, but it supposedly collapses under the pressure of facts and reason. The erroneous assumption made by so many skeptics and self-professed freethinkers is that faith is just a “leap in the dark” that is “driven by blind emotion” (No. 3). The Pope notes that one problem with this belief is that “the light of autonomous reason is not enough to illumine the future.” The reach of reason is itself limited, and these limitations indicate that rational thought, which is a great good, can only go so far in answering the deepest questions of the human heart. Reason is like a tall building from which we can view many vistas, but it cannot show us the entire picture. The light of faith, however, “is unique, since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence,” precisely because it comes from God himself.

Myth No. 2: Faith is private and individualistic. This myth, unfortunately, is found among non-Christians and Christians alike. Many nonbelievers say, for example, that Christians should keep their beliefs to themselves. Since a pluralistic society welcomes (or at least tolerates) a wide range of competing beliefs about God, man, society and everything else, absolute statements should be avoided. Of course, that premise itself reflects an absolute belief in man’s inability to know absolute truth, which is inherently contradictory. The key issue here is truth: Does it exist, and can it be known? Yes and yes! Faith is intimately related to truth, for faith is only transformative and saving if it is rooted in objective, transcendent Truth. But the absence of faith opens the door to relativism, “in which the question of universal truth — and ultimately this means the question of God — is no longer relevant” (No. 25). Yet Lumen Fidei also focuses on the notion, held by some Christians, that faith is entirely or primarily individualistic. “Faith is not a private matter,” writes Francis, “a completely individualistic notion or a personal opinion: it comes from hearing, and it is meant to find expression in words and to be proclaimed” (No. 22). No one comes to faith on their own. Faith, then, is relational and oriented to communion, with others and with the Other, the Triune God who gifts us with faith. Thus the need for the Church and the God-given authority of the magisterium.

Myth No. 3: The opposite of faith is skepticism. Pope Francis explains that what really opposes faith, in the end, is idolatry. We either seek God or we seek, knowingly or otherwise, to replace God with false gods. History certainly bears this out, as do our own struggles with temptation and sin. Idolatry, the Pope explains, “is always polytheism, an aimless passing from one lord to another” (No. 13). This profound observation helps the apologist make sense of the sometimes bewildering array of false paths chosen by those who reject or ignore the true way of Jesus Christ. But faith “consists in the willingness to let ourselves be constantly transformed and renewed by God’s call. Herein lies the paradox: by constantly turning towards the Lord, we discover a sure path which liberates us from the dissolution imposed upon us by idols.”  

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Ignatius Insight (www.ignatiusinsight.com). He and his family live in Eugene, Ore.