What does religious faith mean in a secular age, when many people have no religious affiliation or belief, when atheism and agnosticism are commonplace among thinkers?
An important answer comes in the first official statement by Pope Francis, "The Light of Faith." Unlike his many remarkable and refreshing impromptu remarks, this is an encyclical, thoughtfully begun by his predecessor, the pope emeritus, and completed by the new bishop of Rome.
Although I have not read the entire document, the excerpts published this month, and the many published reactions, give me a good sense of its importance. It is (in the words of an anonymous reader) an "open, searching document" designed to "reach out to those who are searching and doubting."
An existential, Kierkegaardian encyclical?
Well, perhaps not. But this work "by four hands," as Francis says, sees faith as more than assent to fixed doctrines or arguments about the existence of God. The papal text moves beyond secular vs. religious, science vs. apologetics and all forms of fundamentalism and literal-mindedness whereby God becomes an object to be argued about.
"Lumen Fidei" (to give the encyclical its proper title) indicates that faith is not rigid but an expansive stance toward the goodness and love basic to the spiritual life. In other words, faith becomes a trust: that beneath and beyond the horror of the daily suffering and pain there is meaning, there is compassion. When we love, as Dante knew, we move in harmony with the energy that drives the universe.
As Charles Taylor has written, even in a secular age of religious choice, most people are not capable of being indifferent to the transcendent, which they may find in the beauty of art or nature. This philosopher's work is relevant to what the two popes have written.
Faith is a journey, they write, which deals with "the lives of those men and women who, though not believers, nonetheless desire to believe and continue to seek. To the extent that they are sincerely open to love and set out with whatever light they can find, they are already, even without knowing it, on the path to faith."
So we are given here an expansive, hopeful view of faith that does not deal with abstract truths or theological propositions but a path of trust that is "open to love." This seems to me a solid foundation for what is becoming a papacy significantly concerned with social justice.