April 15-20th Pope Benedict XVI will visit the United States. In preparation for his visit, I have been posting a short series of critical reflections from his writings and teachings which are part of the insightful book The Essential Pope Benedict XVI: His Central Writings and Speeches by John f. Thornton and Susan B. Varenne. Anyone interested in the Pope or the Catholic Church should read this compilation of Benedict's theology and ecclesiology.
It's impossible to write about any Pope, but certainly Pope Benedict, without reflecting on faith. This is what drew me to the essay "On the Meaning of Faith" in the book currently under review. In these few pages Benedict reflects on faith by recounting the story of a correspondence he had with Hans Ur von Balthasar who told him: "do not presuppose the faith but propose it." And the faith that Benedict writes about here is surprisingly simple. "...The content of faith is absolutely simple: I believe in God (213)." Of course, those of us who have faith in God know that the working out of our faith is not simple. Benedict knows that too ("The life of faith has to be constantly renewed. And since faith is an act that comprehends all the dimensions of our existence, it also requires constantly renewed reflection and witness...Faith is not a merely intellectual, or merely volitional, or merely emotional activity - it is all of these things together. It is an act of the whole self, of the whole person...[211-212].")
From here Benedict reflects first on the "who" of his faith, which is God. He centers this, however, more on the person of Jesus Christ (who is God in human form). This is beautiful: "He [Jesus] lets us see with him in faith what he has seen (213)." John 6:56 is quoted, "Jesus Christ is the only one who knows him [God the Father] and can reveal him." It is not surprising that the Pope centers faith on Jesus Christ since Jesus is the flesh and blood of God and the exact representation of God's being (Hebrews 1:3). So this makes sense biblically and theologically. But it also makes sense humanly. From my perspective, one of the major obstacles to faith today is that God is perceived to be far off, distant, irrelevant and uninformed. But critics of Christian faith miss Jesus, the God-Man who lived in our world, ate, laughed and cried, suffered, and died. Genuine belief in Jesus always leads to faith, because to trust and follow Jesus is to trust and follow God. The two cannot be separated.
As the short chapter continues Pope Benedict comes to the question of how we believe. Here the essay gets a little technical theologically, but the main point is that we believe by being "handed over" to God. And this comes through Christ. "We cannot receive his word as a theory in the same way that we learn, say, mathematical formulas or philosophical opinions. We can learn it only in accepting a share in Christ's destiny. But we can become sharers in Christ's destiny only where he has permanently committed himself to sharing in man's destiny (215)." In other words, because of what Christ has done for us we can now enter into a vibrant, real, hard & challenging faith in God.
Ultimately Benedict ends with this (which I love and agree with): "...he who finds God has found all things. But we can find him only because he has first sought and found us. He is the one who acts first, and for this reason faith is inseparable from the mystery of the Incarnation [Jesus' coming to earth] (216)." Very often Christians speak of "coming to faith in God" or of "coming to" or "finding" Christ. They are wrong. It is not we who have found God. It is Christ who has found us! And this week Americans will get to see a man who exemplifies this veracious faith.