01-06-2009 - Traces, n. 6

inside america
The Scandal of Faith
Neither a system of values, nor religious experiences expressed in symbols and myths, the Christian faith offers itself as perfectly correspondent to the  demands of the heart and of reason. This is what St. Paul is still teaching us, the Gentiles of today.

by lorenzo albacete

“At the end of the second millennium [now the beginning of the next millennium], the Church finds itself, in the region of its original spread [which is in Europe], in a profound crisis, based on the Church’s claim to know truth…. [Today] many ask with ever-growing insistence whether it is correct to apply the notion of truth to religion…”
These words are the words of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in MicroMega, an Italian journal dedicated to the promotion and defense of atheist humanism, which sponsored a public discussion in 2000 between its editor Paolo Flores d’Arcais and Ratzinger. I believe that these words help us to understand why Pope Benedict XVI thought it important to declare this the “Year of St. Paul.”
In the Pope’s homily at the beginning of the Pauline year on June 28, 2008, the Holy Father said that the reason for it was to learn from St. Paul the “faith and the truth” needed for unity among Christ’s disciples and thus respond to the present challenge.
Indeed, in Ratzinger’s discussion with Flores d’Arcais, it was the atheist himself who first appealed to St. Paul to support his argument that as long as the faith of Christians is understood only as a source of values, a fruitful dialogue between believers and non-believers can take place; it is possible, welcome, and necessary. But when faith claims to be a way of knowing reality, it will intrinsically pose a threat to religious liberty. Even St. Paul, he argues, realized that faith was a scandal to reason.
In his reply, Cardinal Ratzinger recognizes the importance of St. Paul’s view of faith as a “scandal.” This “scandal” is true, he says, and it is present in all generations, including today. But Paul, in spite of this, is the same one who preached at the Areopagus, and engaged in a dialogue with the philosophers whom he also quotes favorably. These were pagans who had come to see the religion of the Jews as the “rational religion,” the authentic religion not invented by philosophers but truly born from the heart of man and the light of the one God that was in profound correspondence with the desires of the human heart.
This correspondence with the demands of reason is what St. Paul teaches us, the Gentiles of today. The Christian faith cannot be reduced to a system of values, nor to religious experiences expressed in symbols and myths. The Christian faith offers itself as corresponding perfectly to the demands of the heart in every human being, including the demands of reason. This is so precisely because of the Church’s  faith in the identity, mystery, and mission of Jesus Christ. This comes first.  And this is why tolerance and the Christian faith are not incompatible, because this conviction about Christ that occurs first is pure grace; it is an experience of being loved unconditionally, and love cannot be imposed. Freedom is an inseparable part of authentic love.
In his homily opening the Pauline Year, the Holy Father said, “All of Paul’s actions begin from this center. His faith is the experience of being loved by Jesus Christ in a very personal way. It is the awareness of the fact that Christ did not face death for something anonymous, but rather for love of him—of Paul–and that, as the Risen One, He still loves him.” Thus, the Holy Father continues, “the Church is not simply the continuation of the cause of Jesus on earth.” The Church cannot be defined in terms of values or cultural expressions. “The Church is not an association that desires to promote a specific cause. In her, there is no question of a cause. In her, it is a matter of the person of Jesus Christ, who also as the Risen One remains ‘flesh,’  and Christ and His followers become one Body in the new world of the Resurrection.”
Finally, for Paul, with the call to be the teacher of the Gentiles, his vocation “is, at the same time, and intrinsically a call to suffering in communion with Christ. In a world in which falsehood is powerful, the truth is paid for with suffering….There is no love without suffering….” It was this suffering, argues the Holy Father, that made Paul “credible as a teacher of the truth who did not seek his own advantage.”
In the latest collection of lectures, speeches, and notes by the Pope, he insists once again on the present need  to discover what exactly is at the core of Christian life. His answer is: “Whoever loves is a Christian.”  But if this is so, why is faith needed? And his answer to this is equally simple: because ultimately we are incapable of authentic love. Something must awaken us to the unconditional love of God in Christ. That which awakens us is the experience of an encounter with Him in the communion of saints, that is, the Church. The  challenge from St. Paul to us today is to live as witnesses to this event.