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Lumen Fidei and Taking the Right Stand

If you do not take a stand, you will not understand. Understanding requires standing. These are the culminating themes of the account of the concept of faith in Joseph Ratzinger’s 1968 Introduction to Christianity, in which faith is named as “taking up a position” and “to take one’s stand on something.” Ratzinger is trying to identify faith with a certain type of stance toward reality, rather than with any formulae, claiming that faith is the prerequisite of all real human understanding. Without faith, he suggests, all understanding eventually is reduced to “making” – that is, not to standing somewhere, but to remaking the world in one’s own image. (By “faith” here, I hasten to add that Ratzinger is speaking more broadly that about “the Faith” – he’s showing that understanding is really only possible if there is acknowledgment of meaning in the world that is PRIOR TO my own definitions, and to acknowledge such meaning is to trust, have faith.

Chapter 2 of Lumen Fidei quotes Isaiah 7:9, “Unless you believe, you will not understand,” the very verse on which Ratzinger bases his reflection in his 1968.

The hand of Benedict is very much present here, weaving a complex reflection on how love, the senses, and reason all work together in fruitful concert when grounded in faith, a faith that itself must be embodied in the community of the Church (chapter 3) and in service to the common good (chapter 4).

The overall outline of the document suggests its central concern, set out in the initial paragraph, to counter the idea that religious faith is in fact a form of “darkness.” Rather, faith means standing somewhere, taking a stand, one that illuminates rather than darkens. In the first chapter, the existential or dynamic (rather than propositional or doctrinal) aspect of what faith means is vividly described, in particular using Abraham. The first chapter is filled with an exploration of these dynamic experiences – call, response, promise, love – and all of this oriented toward the salvific communion with God and others that is the Church. The second, third, and fourth chapters then extend this experience of faith into the areas of intellect (chapter 2), ecclesial community (chapter 3), and social community (chapter 4).

Elsewhere, at, I’ve posted some of the insights that jump out of the encyclical, but here I want to mention the “affirmative orthodoxy” that John Allen highlights as a distinctive continuity between Benedict and Francis. I have always thought that there is no necessary conflict between a strongly Christocentric conception of faith and a conception that appreciates the broad experience of non-Christians. Ultimately, this is a false dichotomy that leads to a real dead end for both Christians and non-Christians. We need to figure out ways of speaking, and more especially acting, in which "taking a stand" does not somehow mean "standing against" - and in particular, standing against those who really do live out a dedication to love, service, and beauty. The encyclical nicely weaves these affirmations:

"The more Christians immerse themselves in the circle of Christ’s light, the more capable they become of understanding and accompanying the path of every man and woman towards God."

It insists that maintaining the distinctive faith in Jesus in fact allows recognition of the content of those who are not “believers.”

"Because faith is a way, it also has to do with the lives of those men and women who, though not believers, nonetheless desire to believe and continue to seek. To the extent that they are sin­cerely open to love and set out with whatever light they can find, they are already, even with­out knowing it, on the path leading to faith. They strive to act as if God existed, at times because they realize how important he is for finding a sure compass for our life in common or because they experience a desire for light amid darkness, but also because in perceiving life’s grandeur and beauty they intuit that the presence of God would make it all the more beautiful. Saint Ire­naeus of Lyons tells how Abraham, before hear­ing God’s voice, had already sought him “in the ardent desire of his heart” and “went through­out the whole world, asking himself where God was to be found”, until “God had pity on him who, all alone, had sought him in silence.” Any-one who sets off on the path of doing good to others is already drawing near to God, is already sustained by his help, for it is characteristic of the divine light to brighten our eyes whenever we walk towards the fullness of love." (35)

On the one hand, we can only “take a stand” on love, beauty, and peace insofar as we recognize that it is Christ who manifests this content. We can only know that the “object of faith” is not an object, but a subject, because we have encountered God in the face of Christ. On the other hand, it is unfortunate that Christocentrism often expresses itself in exclusivist ways. What Christocentrism should make clear is the anti-deistic claim that we encounter God as love because God acts in history:

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. (17)

The claim that “God acts in history” has been misused, by Christians and by other religions alike. But the response – to remove God from history – is not an answer. Rather, the key argument must be how we recognize God acting in history. For this, it seems to me, we must always place our trust in Jesus as the revelation of the nature and intent of God’s activity. To focus on Jesus is, I think, to be able to have a trustworthy standard for where and how God is acting, in all people. The “Christian difference,” such as it is, might be captured in this notion of “radical openness":

 "Faith’s new way of seeing things is cen­tered on Christ. Faith in Christ brings salvation because in him our lives become radically open to a love that precedes us, a love that transforms us from within, acting in us and through us." (20) 

While this openness to all that precedes us is seen in the broad human experiences of wonder, love, and commitment, Christians are called to radicalize this openness. Do we manifest this? Do we allow this love to be active in and through us? The encyclical suggests that, if and when we do, we are indeed the light of the world. But if not, perhaps we contribute to the darkness.



Commenting Guidelines

'Ann, much of what you seem to be seeking is covered in Lumen Fidei, for example:

'It might seem that the Greek version of the Bible, by translating “be established” as “understand”, profoundly altered the meaning of the text by moving away from the biblical notion of trust in God towards a Greek notion of intellectual understanding. Yet this translation, while certainly reflecting a dialogue with Hellenistic culture, is not alien to the underlying spirit of the Hebrew text.'

"The passage from Isaiah 7:9 being discussed uses two related Hebrew words to underline the connection between believing and being established. Clearly the Greek translation was adopting and augmenting the concept of faith. It was not substituting a different term with a different meaning, but layering new understanding on an important basic concep"

Jim McK.==

My main problem with LG is that it doesn't do *enough* detailed analysis of how the different instances of the word "faith" and related words express new and valuable understandings of the original revelations. But, three cheers!, he does say that individuals' faiths can differ in some ways without the individuals' being heretical, and I'd say that's a step towards a fuller theology of "faith".

Unfortunately, he seems to make an old-fashioned Platonic assumption about what the singular noun "faith" means.  The way he uses the term (at least at the beginnings of sentences when he says "Faith is…"), he seems to be assuming that its referent is one constant eternal reality that all believers are somehow plugged into. However, his point that "it" can have new meanings added to it is, I think, a step towards a fuller understanding of what constitutes "faith" in its many different instantiations. (I really, really wish he would get more into Wittgenstein and the other analysts.)  But to think of this as "layering" a term doesn't help.  If you assign a new layer (i.e. meaning) to the old term, then next time you use the term (unless the context makes it clear) your reader won't know which use you're intending -- the original term or the layered term. 

My other big problem with the text is that he doesn't explain what sort of unity the various elements in a person's faith can have, nor does he explain how we can speak of *the* Catholic faith of many individuals without turning Platonist. 

I say there are as many Catholic faiths as there are believers. Just as our individual faiths change from childhood to old age, so different individuals start out with at least slightly different faiths and also end up with somewhat different faiths.  So to be  accurate, we should be more careful about how we speak about one singular "it".

Yes, I'm a nominalist of some sort, but nominalism has the advantage of encouraging us to seek out differences while at the same time looking at the ways somewhat different faiths can still be said to be "one faith".  The old Platonic presupposition of the single eternally unchanging referent named "Faith" leads too often to the trads accusing others of being "unfaithful" or downright heretical.


I am excited that you ordered Leon-Dufour! You are going to love it. I refer to mine all the time. It doesn't tell you everything in the world, and it certainly doesn't rival Kittel's monumental multi-volume Dictionary of the New Testament, but for a one-volume work in tune with Catholic theological concerns it's very helpful. There is the problem that it's translated from the French, and occasionally an ambiguity results, I think, but that is a minor cavil. 

I find this question of yours fascinating:

I wonder if the ancient Jews ever doubted the prophets and/or their teachings,  They ignored the prophets, certainly, but I wonder if they ever doubted them.  And if they didn't, was it perhaps because they had no word for doubt?

You may be on to something. How would one test this question? Is it that doubt is a psychological state, and such conditions are not described in the Old Testament, or that this specific one is omitted? If faith is trust, is the act of will betokened by putting one's faith in a false prophet or in princes in effect a manifestation of doubt without using the word? My concordance has no word that is translated as doubt in the Old Testament. I wonder how one would go about exploring the texts in a more nuanced way, to see if analogous concepts and other vocabulary serve the same function however.


In the OT even Job, in spite of his troubles, still believes that God exists.  And that most cynical of men, the author of Ecclesiastes, still believes that God exists.  If a writer was an agnostic or atheist his work would not get to be included in the OT, but in a book not written by a skeptic there might be stories about people who stopped thinking that God exists, though I can't think of any (which means nothing -- I don't know the Bible!).  "Doubting Thomas" denied only that Jesus had resurrected, not that God didn't exist.


"he seems to be assuming that its referent is one constant eternal reality that all believers are somehow plugged into."

OK. Is there something wrong with that? Are you questioning whether all believers believe? What can be wrong with asserting that the faithful have faith in common? If you are going to follow that line, and assert the absence of commonality in people's faith, you create an unmanageable morass.

Lumen Fidei takes a different approach, uncovering what Scripture says about faith. He uncovers faith in the story of Abraham, probably because St Paul et alia praise Abraham for his faith. He explores the concept in Moses and Isaiah. He expamines these "instantiations" to discover what is common, what is useful for people of faith. If he acts as if faith is "one constant eternal reality", it probably is because faith is, with love and hope, something that lasts, (1 Cor 13), according to another giant of faith.

You probably would appreciate Avery Dulles' book on models of faith. It describes different ways that people see faith, from intellectual assent to loving trust. Lumen Fidei is probably better read as developing a single vision of faith than as a comprehensive analysis like Dulles, pulling together disparate elements to propose a helpful understanding to the faithful.


the question in Job is whether he has faith, but the question to the reader is whether his friends have faith. Very complex book.

Hosea is a rich exploration of faith and infidelity, which touches on doubt even if it does not name it.

Jonah explores fidelity and doubt, not to mention all the cows.

Jeremiah has times of uncertainty, and faces people who do not believe him. "You duped me Lord, and I let myself be duped."

Doubt appears in the Torah, in the people who would have stayed in Egypt, in those who cast a bronze calf, in Lot's wife and even in Sarah's laughter.

the Wisdom literature contrasts the faithful and others. There probably is not much of an examination of intellectual doubt, since wisdom, even when it is portrayed as the object of study, is described like a spouse.

My impression is that doubters do not look very good in the Hebrew books, but there are probably exceptions.

 "Are you questioning whether all believers believe?"

Jim McK. --

Not at all.  I'm just asking an extremely simple question about the referent of the term "faith" in the sentences which begin with "Faith is...".  It's a purely semantic question.  I think the answer is that the author is making a very Platonic assumption about the meaning of common nouns -- that they refer to some objective, unchanging reality which exists imperfectly in things in this world.

YOu also say:  " If you are going to follow that line, and assert the absence of commonality in people's faith, you create an unmanageable morass."

I reply, in fact i do think that the question of the faiths of Christians has historically been a morass.  And that helps to explain how Christians can go to war with each other over the meanings of revelation.  

I"m familiar with the Dulles.  But he doesn't get into the metaphysics and semantics.  He is very enlightening about some things, but his concern is the metaphorical.

Jim McK. --

I think that the word "doubter" is ambiguous.  It can mean either someone who wonders whether or not something is real but suspects that it might not be (see the agnostics), or it can mean someone who definitely thinks that something which others think is real is not real (see the atheists).  We have some very refined terminology for the types.  What I have been wondering is whether the ancient Hebrews had a word or words which clearly meant "doubt" in either the weak or strong sense.



The referent of the term "faith" is pretty clear in lumen Fidei, starting from the first sentence: "The lighTof faiTh: this is how the Church’s tradition speaks of the great gift brought by Jesus." "Those who believe, see..." I think he is making the point that faith is what makes the faithful, faith is what believers do. He examines those who are upheld as exemplars of faith to gain understanding of and to explain the implications of faith.

i don't see the platonizing trend at al, not that there is anything wrong with that. "Faith is born of an encounter with the living God who calls us and reveals his love, a love which precedes us and upon which we can lean for security and for building our lives." While eternal, faith is clearly part of individual relationships, not an abstract quality. The experiences and remarks about faith described in Scripture and encountered in those who believe are the basis for his explorations.

If you can use ther term "believers", you have grasped the meaning and referent of faith. This encyclical is meant to specify and illuminate the qualities and working of faith. I cannot grasp the problem you have with that task.


Jim McK. ==

Your understanding of "referent" and of "Platonist" are apparently so different from mine understadings of the terms that i don't think we'll ever have a meeting of minds about what "faith" means. 



About the Author

David Cloutier is associate professor of theology at Mount St. Mary’s University and editor of He is the author of Love, Reason, and God's Story: An Introduction to Catholic Sexual Ethics (2008) and is working on a book on the moral problem of luxury in contemporary economic ethics.