In the fourth installment in his series of lessons on the Creed this Wednesday, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of finding pathways to God in today’s world where faith is often considered irrelevant or useless. Remembering, always, that it not is we who seek God, but God who seeks us out and posses us.
Below is a translation of the Holy Father’s general audience catechesis.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Last Wednesday we reflected on the desire for God that the human being carries deeply within himself. Today I would like to continue and deepen this aspect meditating briefly on some paths to knowing God, remembering, however, that God's initiative always precedes any action of man, and even in the journey towards Him, it is He who first enlightens us, guides us and leads us, always respecting our freedom. And it is always He who allows us enter into his intimacy, revealing and gifting Himself us the grace to be able to welcome this revelation in faith. Let us never forget the experience of St. Augustine: it is not we who seek or possess the Truth, but the Truth that seeks us out and posses us.
However, there are paths that can open the human heart to knowledge of God', there are signs that lead to Him. Of course, often we are in danger of being dazzled by the glitter of worldliness, which make us less able to travel these paths or to read those signs. However, God does not tire to look for us, He is faithful to the humanity He created and redeemed, He remains close to our lives, because He loves us. And 'this a certainty that must accompany us each and every day, even if certain widespread mentalities make it increasingly difficult for the Church and the Christian to communicate the joy of the Gospel to all creatures and all lead to an encounter with Jesus, the one Saviour of the world. This, however, is our mission, the mission of the Church and every believer must live it joyfully, feeling it to be his or her own, through a life truly animated by faith, marked by charity, service to God and to others, and capable of radiating hope. This mission shines above all in the holiness to which all are called.
Today difficulties and trials are not lacking for the faith, often poorly understood, challenged, rejected. St. Peter said to his Christians: "Always be ready to respond, but with gentleness and respect, to anyone who asks you for the hope that is in your hearts" (1 Pt 3:15). In the past, in the West, in a society that is considered Christian, faith was the environment in which we moved; the reference and adhesion to God were, for most people, part of everyday life. Rather, it was those who do not believe that had to justify their disbelief. In our world, the situation has changed and, increasingly, the believer must be able to account for the reasons of his faith. Blessed John Paul II, in the Encyclical Fides et Ratio, emphasized how faith is put to the test in these times, crossed by subtle and insidious forms of theoretical and practical atheism (cf. nn. 46-47). From the Enlightenment onwards, the criticism of religion has intensified, history has also been marked by the presence of atheistic systems, in which God was considered a mere projection of the human mind, an illusion, and the product of a society already distorted by alienation. The last century has seen a strong and growing secularism, in the name of the absolute autonomy of man, considered as a measure and artifice of reality, but depleted of his being created "in the image and likeness of God." In our time there is a particularly dangerous phenomenon for the faith: there is in fact a form of atheism that we define, as 'practical', which does not deny the truths of faith or religious rituals, but simply considers them irrelevant to everyday existence, detached from life, useless. Often, then, people believe in God in a superficial way, but live "as if God did not exist" (etsi Deus non daretur). In the end, however, this way of life is even more destructive, because it leads to indifference towards faith and the question of God.
In reality, man is separated from God, is reduced to a single dimension, the horizontal, and this very reductionism is one of the fundamental causes of totalitarianism that have had tragic consequences in the last century, as well as the crisis of values that we see in our current reality. By obscuring reference to God, the ethical horizon is also obscured, to make room for relativism and an ambiguous conception of freedom, which instead of being liberating ends up binding man to idols. The temptations Jesus faced in the desert prior to his public ministry, represent well the "idols" that fascinate man, when he does not look beyond himself. When God loses centrality, man loses his proper place, he no longer finds his place in creation, in relationships with others. That ancient wisdom evoked in the myth of Prometheus is still relevant: man thinks he can become "god" himself, master of life and death.
Faced with this framework, the Church, faithful to Christ, never ceases to affirm the truth about man and his destiny. The Second Vatican Council succinctly states: "The root reason for human dignity lies in man's call to communion with God. From the very circumstance of his origin man is already invited to converse with God. For man would not exist were he not created by Gods love and constantly preserved by it; and he cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and devotes himself to His Creator. "(Gaudium et Spes, 19).
What answers, then is the faith called to give with "gentleness and respect", to the atheism, skepticism and indifference towards the vertical dimension, so that the man of our time can continue to question himself about the existence of God and along the paths that lead to Him? I would like to mention some ways, resulting both from natural reflection and the power of faith. I would like to very briefly sum them up in three words: the world, man, faith.
First: the world. St. Augustine, who in his life long sought the Truth and was seized by the Truth, has a beautiful and famous page, in which he affirms: " Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air distending and diffusing itself, question the beauty of the sky… question all these realities. All respond: "See, we are beautiful." Their beauty is a profession. These beauties are subject to change. Who made them if not the Beautiful One who is not subject to change? "(Sermo 241, 2: PL 38, 1134). I think we need to recover and restore to our contemporaries the ability to contemplate creation, its beauty, its structure. The world is not a shapeless magma, but the more we know, the more we discover the amazing mechanisms, the more we see a pattern, we see that there is a creative intelligence. Albert Einstein said that the laws of nature “reveal such a superior reason that all rational thought and human law is but a very insignificant reflection by comparison “(The World as I see it, Rome 2005). Thus a first path leading to the discovery of God is careful contemplation of creation.
The second word: man. Again St. Augustine, has a famous quote that says that God is closer to me than I am to myself (cf. Confessions, III, 6, 11). From here he formulates the invitation: "Do not go outside yourself, come back into yourself: truth dwells in the heart of man" (True Religion, 39, 72). This is another aspect that we risk losing in the noisy and distracted world in which we live: the ability to stop and take a deep look within ourselves and read that thirst for the infinite that we carry within, pushing us to go further and towards that Someone who can satisfy it. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "with his openness to truth and beauty, his sense of moral goodness, his freedom and the voice of his conscience, with his longings for the infinite and for happiness, man questions himself about God's existence"(n. 33).
The third word: faith. Especially in the reality of our times, we must not forget that a path to knowledge and encounter with God is the life of faith. He who believes is united with God, is open to His grace, to the power of charity. So his existence becomes a witness not of himself, but of the Risen Christ, and his faith is not afraid to show itself in everyday life, it is open to dialogue that expresses deep friendship for the journey of every man, and knows how to bring the light of hope to the need for redemption, happiness, and future. Faith, in fact, is an encounter with God who speaks and acts in history and which converts our daily life, transforming our mentality, system of values, choices and actions. It is not illusion, escapism, a comfortable shelter, sentimentality, but involvement in every aspect of life and proclamation of the Gospel, the Good News which can liberate all of man. A Christian, a community that is industrious and faithful to the plan of God who loved us first, are a privileged path for those who are indifferent or doubt His existence and His action. This, however, requires that each one of us render our witness of faith more transparent, purifying our life to conform it to Christ. Today many have a limited understanding of the Christian faith, because they identify it with a mere system of beliefs and values and not so much with the truth of God revealed in history, eager to communicate with man face to face, in a relationship of love with Him. In fact, the foundation of every doctrine or value is the event of the encounter between man and God in Christ Jesus. Christianity, before being a moral or ethical value, is the experience of love, of welcoming the person of Jesus. For this reason, the Christian and Christian communities must first look to and help others to look to Christ, the true path that leads to God.