The Light of Faith

Edgardo Colon-Emeric

The pope matters. For many years I have been persuaded that Christians of all denominations should pay attention to the teachings of the bishop of Rome. After all, if one is going to be a Protestant, it is probably a good idea to stay up to date on what one is protesting against. More positively, the documents issued by popes and councils have an authority and gravitas unrivaled by anything coming out of Canterbury, Geneva, or General Conference. For these and other reasons I don’t have the time to state, I encourage Protestants of all stripes to read the latest encyclical issued by the bishop of Rome, The Light of Faith or Lumen Fidei (LF). A patient and charitable engagement with this document by Pope Francis reveals numerous areas of convergence with Methodist teaching. I call attention to three.

First, the teaching on faith in Lumen Fidei and in Wesley occur within a polemical context. Lumen Fidei identifies a number of struggles that the church faces in elucidating the doctrine of faith. On the one hand, some reject the light of faith as “illusory.” The light shines too dimly to illumine earthly realities beyond the individual. On the other hand, some reject the light of faith as “totalitarian.” The light is too strong. It dispels all shadows and robs the human of freedom. Like Pope Francis, Wesley’s teaching on faith has to be understood against the backdrop of his struggles against rationalists, Calvinists, and quietists (with whom he associated Catholic mystics). Against the rationalists, Wesley argued that the light of faith exceeds the reach of the light of reason while remaining consistent it. Wesley would certainly agree with Francis’s declaration that “faith and reason strengthen each other” (LF, 32). Against the Calvinists, Wesley insisted that the light of faith can be extinguished. The visibility of God afforded by faith can give way to darkness on account of sin.

Second, the teaching on faith in Lumen Fidei and in Wesley underscores the luminosity of faith. For Wesley, faith is a light, and this light is nothing less than the very light of Christ in whom there is no darkness at all. Wesley would strongly concur with Francis who says: “In faith, Christ is not simply the one in whom we believe, the supreme manifestation of God’s love; he is also the one with whom we are united precisely in order to believe. Faith does not merely gaze at Jesus, but sees things as Jesus himself sees them, with his own eyes: it is participation in his way of seeing” (LF, 18). Faith does not simply fill me with new ideas. Faith fills me with God. At times Wesley understands faith as a spiritual sense that allows one to perceive invisible realities like God’s graced presence in the soul. When the Holy Spirit opens our spiritual eyes, we can see the light of faith as clearly as our physical eyes see the light of the sun. At other times, Wesley understands faith as a holy temper, an infused virtue which purifies and perfects the exercise of reason. Wesley would certainly agree with Francis: “the light of faith is unique, since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence” (LF, 4).

Third, the teaching on faith in Lumen Fidei and in Wesley fails to account for the darkness of faith. In the case of the encyclical, this omission might be explained by the fact that Francis is following in the footsteps of the Augustinian Benedict XVI who was the chief drafter of this Lumen Fidei. By some accounts, the Augustinian tradition does not offer as rich an analysis of the dark aspects of faith as the Thomist tradition. It is perhaps not surprising that John of the Cross, the doctor of the night, though a Carmelite by profession, was intellectually a Thomist. In the case of Wesley, his own unhappy flirtations with various mystical writers led him to reject any aspect of darkness in connection to faith as sinful. For him there is no fellowship between the light of faith and the darkness of doubt. And yet, the experience of Christians like Mother Teresa and John Wesley himself says otherwise.

Not all Protestants reading this encyclical will feel their hearts strangely warmed, but they should. The teaching in this document sheds light on the riches and poverty of our own traditions. Pope Francis’s first encyclical could be read as an extended commentary on Heb 11, which traces the pilgrimage of the people of faith throughout salvation history. In this journey, Catholics and Protestants are fellow pilgrims who must learn from each other. I believe that Methodists would benefit from paying attention to the pope. Whether Catholics would benefit from paying attention to General Conference requires further reflection.

Posted Dec 16, 2013

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