Like many Americans this past holiday weekend, I was exploring the landscape of our great country. And hiking in one of our national parks provided an unanticipated opportunity to ponder the theme of Pope Francis’s first encyclical, “
or “Light of Faith.”
The metaphor of light has been used to capture ultimate realities as far back as history allows us to see. Light from the sun, the blaze of a fire, and the flame of a candle feature prominently in figurative passages from multiple religious traditions. “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path,” sang the Psalmist. Jesus calls his followers not to hide their light under a basket but, in the words of the American spiritual, to “let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.” For early Christians initiation was an “illumination,” while “enlightenment” also captured the spark of complete awareness longed for in Buddhist traditions.
Even in the realm of accepted scientific theory which constitutes the religious doctrine of many modern individuals light dominates the field. Since Einstein’s famous E=mc2, light itself became recognized as a universal constant relating mass to energy. Both literally and metaphorically, scientifically and spiritually, light unifies our best human attempts to perceive the truth.
To grasp this more adequately, it helps to enter the wilderness, far away from the ever-present but unrecognized light pollution of modern electricity and technological devices. Here one can regain one’s orientation, so that one’s life does not, in Francis’s words, “disintegrate into a myriad of unconnected instants.” In the encyclical’s section on idolatry, from which that line is drawn, Pope Francis has, perhaps unwittingly, described well the disorienting relationships many of us have with the light-bearing screens of our phones.
He is not against technology or science overall, but later, when addressing theologians, Francis does reject comparisons between one’s perception of God and the knowledge acquired by “the experimental sciences.” “God cannot be reduced to an object,” but is a subject who reveals itself. God is like the sun, which cannot be seen except by its own light, or a solitary candle in a dark room, which alone can provide the source of its own revelation.
Or, when hiking on a moonless night, the “light of faith” is like a solitary headlamp illuminating the path and, dimly, the horizon in the distance.
In fact, the encyclical is resplendent with metaphors appropriate to a journey such as a nighttime hike. “But what is it like,” Francis asks, “this road which faith opens up before us? What is the origin of this powerful light which brightens the journey of a successful and fruitful life?” The light of faith is “God’s free gift, which calls for humility and the courage to trust and to entrust; it enables us to see the luminous path leading to the encounter of God and humanity.”
If one wanders the wilderness, “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.” Pope Francis instead recommends that the best path is the system of trails blazed by tradition “the path trodden by believers” which has been charted on maps and disseminated for other travelers.
And yet Francis emphasizes the journey more than the map. Drawing on the primal narrative of Abraham, he writes: “faith ‘sees’ to the extent that it journeys, to the extent that it chooses to enter into the horizons opened up by God’s word.” Later, when addressing those who do not believe in the Christian light of faith, Francis affirms that “faith is a way,” and “anyone who sets off on the path of doing good to others is already drawing near to God, for it is characteristic of the divine light to brighten our eyes whenever we walk towards the fullness of love.”
Faith is both a way and the light which illuminates it a true paradox that nighttime hikers, like believers, understand.
Michael Peppard is assistant professor of theology at Fordham University in New York.