By happy coincidence, Pope Francis’s first encyclical, Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith), appeared at the same time as the July issue of the monthly prayer book Magnificat, which offers as a meditation this bracing interview with the inimitable Walker Percy, the Pelican State’s analogue to G. K. Chesterton:
Q. What kind of Catholic are you — a dogmatic Catholic or an open-minded Catholic?
A. I don’t know what that means. Do you mean do I believe the dogma that the Catholic Church proposes for belief?
Q. How is such a belief possible in this day and age?
A. What else is there?
Q. What do you mean, what else is there? There is humanism, atheism, agnosticism, Marxism, behaviorism, materialism, Buddhism, Muhammadanism, Sufism, astrology, occultism, theosophy.
A. That’s what I mean. . . .
Q. I don’t understand. Would you exclude, for example, scientific humanism as a rational and honorable alternative?
A. It’s not good enough.
Q. Why not?
A. This life is too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end and then be asked what you make of it and have to answer, “Scientific humanism.” That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God. In fact I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less. I don’t see why anyone should settle for less than Jacob, who actually grabbed aholt of God and would not let go until God identified himself and blessed him.
Q. Grabbed aholt?
A. A Louisiana expression. . . .
Neither Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who signed and issued Lumen Fidei, nor Joseph Ratzinger, whom Bergoglio credits with writing most of it before his papal abdication, speaks of God “grabbing aholt” of us; bayou-Sprache would be slightly jarring in a papal encyclical. Still, Lumen Fidei is an extended meditation on the truth that Walker Percy articulated decades ago: that life lived within the ambit of faith in the God of the Bible — the God of Israel and the God of the Church — is far richer, far more intriguing, and much more authentically human than any of the agnostic, atheistic, pantheistic, or solipsistic alternatives available in the early 21st century.
Faith, the encyclical teaches, is a divine gift; it is not something we achieve by our own efforts. Yet unlike the siren songs of the imperial autonomous Self, which lure us into the sandbox of self-absorption where the horizon of our apprehension rarely extends beyond the navel, the grateful reception of this supernatural virtue sets everything alight: “Those who believe, see,” Francis writes; “they see with a light that illumines their entire journey . . .”
THE DIM LIGHTS OF POST-MODERNITY This light, Bergoglio and Ratzinger note, has grown dimmer in our time. Post-modern humanity has convinced itself that faith is “incompatible with seeking,” with courage in the face of uncertainty — thus the profoundly influential Nietzschean critique of Christianity as “diminishing the full meaning of human existence and stripping life of novelty and adventure.” Determined to assert autonomy and what was understood to be maturity, Nietzschean humanity tried various antidotes to what were imagined to be the crippling effects of faith in the God of the Bible. The most common was the effort to separate faith from reason: Athens trying to make sense of life without the aid of Jerusalem. But that eventually came a cropper, the encyclical suggests:
Slowly but surely . . . it [became] evident that the light of autonomous reason is not enough to illumine the future; ultimately the future remains shadowy and fraught with fear of the unknown. As a result, humanity renounced the search for a great light, Truth itself, in order to be content with smaller lights which illumine the fleeting moment yet prove incapable of showing the way. Yet in the absence of light, everything becomes confused; it is impossible to tell good from evil, or the road to our destination from other roads which take us in endless circles, going nowhere.