Faith in modernity

A new papal encyclical has just been released and, as its title “Lumen Fidei” (Light of Faith) suggests, its subject is faith. It bears the signature of Pope Francis. But anyone who has been inspired by the short and simple style of the present pope, as against the sometimes ponderous erudition of Benedict XVI, will know at once that this was almost entirely written by the latter. Francis himself says so, affirming the continuity of papal teaching. The encyclical on faith completes the triumvirate on Christian values started by Benedict’s two previous encyclicals, “Deus Caritas Est” (on love), and “Spe Salvi” (on hope).

People who expect a different trend of thought to flow from the Vatican on account of the election of a pastoral pope from the Third World may be disappointed with this encyclical, the first to be issued under Francis’ watch. Indeed, it is silent on the problems of poverty, injustice, inequality, and oppression. As Tina Beattie, a professor of religion and society at the University of Roehampton, sharply puts it: “One searches almost in vain for the hand of the Argentinian pastor whose signature it bears.”

Be that as it may, I think one can fruitfully read “Lumen Fidei” for the issues it urgently raises—the importance of faith in a compartmentalized modern world—instead of finding fault with it for failing to discuss what one thinks are issues close to Francis. It is worth keeping in mind that this is a document promulgated by the head of the Catholic Church, and not one written by a social scientist or secular philosopher. Hence, when it speaks of faith in the context of the challenges of modernity, its reference is to Christianity. It does not speak of the other religions, and so it does seem as if it forgets “that people of faith come in many shapes and forms.”

But, whether one lives in Europe or in the underdeveloped world, the issues that modern society poses for people of faith are the same. Where it survives in modern settings, faith does tend to take the form of privatized spirituality, or “what one does with one’s solitude.”  Thus sequestered, faith is barred from shining light upon the other dimensions of life. The encyclical reminds the faithful: “Faith is not a private matter, 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.”

It is not difficult to see that the author of “Lumen Fidei” is none other than Benedict. The European discourse on modernity is dominated by German intellectuals. Chief among these are the critical Marxist Jürgen Habermas and the systems theorist Niklas Luhmann. Benedict has had a well-publicized dialogue with Habermas on faith and reason. Luhmann died early but one can glimpse traces of his thoughts on modernity in many of Benedict’s writings.

What is it exactly about modern society that Benedict grapples with, and for which he proposes faith as the answer? Modern man seems to have no use for faith anymore; indeed faith is equated with darkness while reason is seen as the source of all light. “Lumen Fidei” counters: “Slowly but surely, however, it would become 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.… [I]n 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 takes us in endless circles, going nowhere.”

This is a familiar lament: in modernity, society loses its moral compass because no single unified moral code governs the conduct of its various functional spheres. The result is what Benedict has consistently railed against in all his writings: the pernicious moral relativism of modern times. For him, only faith can supply the missing light, and only Christ can occupy the missing center.

Luhmann’s writings on modernity are, in contrast, analytical, not prescriptive. He sees modern society as ceaselessly spawning new autonomous and functionally specific spheres of communication in response to growing social complexity. This process radically strips the older institutions—the family, religious system, and indeed the state—of their traditional all-encompassing powers. What comes out of this is an assembly of communicative spheres without a single voice, projecting a polytheism of values that do not cohere around a single purpose.

We need not be sociologists to notice what may happen to a society that is undergoing modernity. Many things considered legal are not always moral. Not everything that is profitable benefits everyone. The quest for livelihood often devalues the family. The state becomes nothing more than an arena for rival groups hungry for power, incapable of representing the common good. The encyclical deploys an abundance of metaphors to describe this phenomenon: “Once man has lost the fundamental orientation which unifies his existence, he breaks down into the multiplicity of his desires; in refusing to await the time of promise, his life-story disintegrates into a myriad of unconnected instants … an endless passing from one lord to another.”

Modernity need not be as bleak as this. If it were so, Luhmann would not be justified to call it an evolutionary achievement. By emancipating people from the limitations imposed by the division of humanity into tribes, races, and social classes, modernity gave rise to democracy. By freeing the state from the Church, modernity made politics more accountable, while prompting the Church to return to the profound spirituality associated with its humble beginnings.

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