Archbishop Forte on Religion and Freedom (Part 3)

“Those Who Do Not Pray Will Not Live by Faith”

LEEDS, England, DEC. 6, 2007 ( Here is the third part of the address given by Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto, Italy, a member of the International Theological Commission, to a Nov. 12 meeting of the bishops of England and Wales.

Part 1 appeared Tuesday, and Part 2 appeared Wednesday.

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3. Consequences: What to Do to Respect and to Promote a True Relationship Between Religion and Freedom in Church and Society Today?

How can believers and nonbelievers, how can believers of different faiths meet and dialogue in truth given the challenges of the described landscapes? How can freedom be experienced as true and religious freedom be possible in truth and reciprocal respect between them?

To respond adequately to this question from the point of view of theological and pastoral responsibility, we must show how Christians, engaged in living and working in this changing world, are required more than ever today to give an account of the hope that is in them, with gentleness and respect for all (cf. 1 Peter 3:15).

At both individual and community levels, this means that Christians must be disciples of the One and Only, servants out of love, and witnesses to what it means to follow their Lord. At the same time, in the interplay between faith and nonbelief — to which the adventures of modern atheism and the restlessness of nihilistic postmodernism make us especially attentive — believers are called to go beyond every reduction of Christianity to ideology, and to be sincerely attentive to others in all their dignity, whatever their beliefs may be.

Thus, we discover that the atheist, the only atheist that can be taken seriously, may live in the very heart of believers themselves, because only someone who believes in God, and has experienced God as the loving Father-Mother, can also “know” what it would mean to deny him, and what infinite suffering his absence would be. The nonbeliever is not outside believers, but within them: This insight leads to a particular understanding of the life of faith itself, lived now not presumptuously, as something possessed, but in humble awareness of the constant need to put oneself at the service of the truth, and to do this not as so many private adventurers, but in the communion of the Church, which has been raised up and is nourished by the Spirit.

a) Believers, prisoners of the invisible. To believe is to be taken prisoner by the Totally Other. This is precisely why believers can bring the truth of faith to bear on human thought, as they let themselves become prisoners of the Invisible, not immediately available and certain. Thoughtful belief does not claim to have an explanation for everything, to throw light on everything, but lives rather as if by night, charged with expectation, suspended between the first and last coming of the Lord, already strengthened, certainly, by the light which came into the darkness, and yet still longing for the dawn.

Thoughtful belief is not yet totally lit up by the day, which belongs to another time and to another homeland, but it still receives enough light to bear the burden of keeping the faith. Thoughtful belief is humble: It hangs on the cross, which in the world’s darkness is, and always will be, the disciple’s guide, the star of Redemption, the revelation of the God welcoming us in love. In their turn, nonbelievers, once they have crossed the ford of modernity, live in the selfsame state of search and expectation. This is on condition that their nonbelief is more than a label, that it is the fruit of their experience of suffering and struggle with God and of their being unable to believe in him.

True nonbelief is not an easy denial, with little effect on the person concerned. Serious, thoughtful nonbelief, which pays attention to the true questions of the world and of life, means suffering; it is a passion for truth that pays a personal price for the bitter courage of not believing.

One who does not believe, and who lives this condition in a responsible way, is aware of the acute pain of absence, feeling himself orphaned, deeply abandoned: Only the death of God can cause such sorrow in the human heart and in the history of the world. Thus it is that the thinking nonbeliever, just as the conscientious believer, wrestles with God. “My religion is to wrestle with God”: According to Miguel de Unamuno, a voice speaking for the “tragic sentiment of life,” the whole of religion lies in this “wrestling with God.” And since “to live is to yearn for eternal life,” living is inevitably marked by the tragedy of having to fight this unequal combat.

Out of respect for the dignity of such nonbelief, which emerged in all its clarity after the tragically heady days of ideological atheism and its fall, believers are called to question their faith and rediscover the struggle with God as a part of their love for him. The company that faith and nonbelief keep with one another in this way has its origins in the one human condition: When human beings ask the deepest questions about their vulnerability to pain and death, they do this not as people who have already arrived, but as searchers for the distant homeland, who let themselves be permanently called into question, provoked and seduced by the furthest horizon.

Human beings who stop, who feel they have mastered the truth, for whom the truth is no longer Someone who possesses you more and more, but rather something to be possessed, such persons have not only rejected God, but also their own dignity as human beings.

To be human, to be free, means to go on a journey outward: Human beings are on an exodus, called permanently to go out of themselves, to question themselves, in search of a home, glimpsed but not possessed, in search of the loving Father-Mother who welcomes them. If human beings are by constitution pilgrims toward life, begging for heaven (Jacques Maritain), the true temptation is to stop journeying, to feel they have arrived, no longer to think of themselves as pilgrims in this world, but masters of an impossible eternal instant. This illusion of feeling we have arrived, the presumption of thinking we are already fulfilled, that we have achieved the goal of our existence, this is the fatal illness.

All this can be applied analogously to the things of God: In the life of faith, too, the greatest temptation is to stop. Because Christians are called to follow the cross, where God spoke in the silent, disquieting eloquence of the passion, they are constantly placed before this great choice: to crucify their own expectations on the cross of Christ, or to crucify Christ on the cross of their expectations. This is exactly the way in which the cross is the gospel of freedom, as Jesus showed us in the way, he went out of himself in choice after choice, to the point of deepest self-abandonment!

In everyday experience, as in the journey of faith, human beings are called to be free by paying the painful price of this continual, inevitable choice, a choice that constantly places us on the threshold, sensing the dizzy alternative of going one way or the other.

b) Faith: struggle and submission. As human beings constantly go out of themselves to struggle against death and walk toward life, they are joined by the Word who comes from the divine mystery, from that God who, according to Christian faith, “has time” for them. God comes to us so that our history may enter the mystery of home and there find rest. This meeting between human beings who go out and God who comes, between exodus and advent, is faith: It is struggle and agony, not the repose of a certainty possessed.

Whoever thinks they can have faith without a struggle risks believing in nothing. Faith is what happened to Jacob at the ford of Jabbok (cf. Genesis 32:23-33): God is the one who attacks under cover of dark, who comes upon you and wrestles with you. If you do not know God in this way, if for you God is not a consuming fire, if for you the encounter with him is always going through the same comfortable motions, your God has stopped being the living God, and is dead.

That is why Pascal said that Christ would be in agony until the end of time: His agony is the agony of Christians, the struggle to believe, to hope, to love, the struggle with God! God is other than you, he is free with respect to you — as you are other than him, and free with respect to him. Woe to us if we lose the sense of this distance and the suffering involved in our difference from God!

In a beautifully naif medieval insight, to believe (credere) comes from “cor-dare,” to give your heart, and this involves a continual struggle with God’s total otherness which does not let itself be “solved” or “possessed.” God is other than you. That is why faith is always challenged by doubt.

Only those who do not know are shocked by the Baptist’s words, when at the sunset of his life, and evidently restless with doubt, he sent to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3). This is the trial of faith: to struggle with God, knowing that he is the Other, who escapes from our certainties, and does not allow himself to be tamed by our presumption.

So faith is struggle: The voices that witness to this are innumerable. St. John of the Cross speaks of this scandal through the metaphor of the “noche oscura”: “On a dark night, anguished, with burning love, oh blessed fate, I went out, unnoticed, all were asleep at home. Night, you led me! Oh, night more loveable than dawn, oh, night that joined the Lover with his beloved, the beloved transformed into the Lover” (Noche oscura, 1 and 5). Dark night is both the place of scandal and of betrothal: God is not to be found in easy earthly possessiveness, but in the poverty of the cross, in death to self, in the night of the senses and of the spirit. This is the place of greatest joy!

Darkness is the place of love, and of faith experienced as struggle. Christ is not the answer to our questions; above all, he subverts them. And only after leading us into the fire of desolation, does he become the God of consolation and of peace.

Finally, faith is submission: In the combat there comes the moment when you understand that the loser really wins, and so you give yourself up to him, you submit to the one who attacks at night, you allow your life to be marked forever by that meeting. Then it is that faith becomes self-abandonment and forgetfulness of self and the joy of entrusting yourself into the arms of the Beloved. Faith means entrusting yourself like this to the Other. “O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. […] If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:7,9).

In these words of Jeremiah we hear the voice of one of the greatest witnesses to what it means to submit in faith: Jeremiah wrestled mightily with God, but in the midst of the combat he learned how to give in, to submit in love and to entrust himself to God. This is how faith can become a homecoming of beauty and peace. This is not the beauty the world knows, the seduction of a truth explaining everything; it is instead the beauty of the man of sorrows, the beauty of crucified Love, of Jesus’ total offering of himself to the Father and to us.

c) Consequences. If faith, then, is all this, if it is struggle and submission, inseparably joined, then believers will not be looking for vulgar signs which exhibit the fidelity of the God in whom they believe. They will still believe in him even when the answers to the true questions of human suffering remain hidden in his silence. Consequently, believers are, in the end, those who try every day to begin believing, and nonbelievers, as they suffer from the infinite pain of God’s absence, are perhaps people who try anew every day to believe, but fail. If believers did not struggle every day to be faithful to the living God, their faith would be nothing more than worldly reassurance, one of the many ideologies that have fooled the world and alienated human beings.

Against every ideology, faith is to be understood and lived as continual conversion to God, a continual handing over of the heart, beginning every day afresh the effort to believe, hope, and love: In consequence, faith is prayer, and those who do not pray will not live by faith! But if believers are those who struggle with God and submit themselves to him anew every day, then what of the struggle of nonbelievers who try anew every day to believe, but fail? Not the superficial atheists, but those who struggle with an upright conscience, who have sought but not found, and who feel all the pain of God’s absence: Will they not be true companions of those who believe?

From this way of understanding the relation between religious experience and conscience, dialogue between believers and nonbelievers can be understood as an exercise of reciprocal respect and a witness to religious freedom. In the first place, we must say “no” to a lazy, static, habit-worn faith, made of comfortable intolerance, which defends itself by condemning others because it does not know how to live the suffering of love.

To this “no” we must add a “yes” to a questioning, even doubting, faith, capable of beginning anew every day to entrust itself to others, to live the exodus with no return, ever journeying toward God’s mystery, disclosed and hidden in his Word. There also arises, however, a “no” to every superficial atheism, to every ideological denial of God and of the holy mystery, as well as a “yes” to the unceasing search for the hidden Face, for the love beyond every word, the love which opens itself to embrace our searching hearts.

In this age of ours that lacks great hopes, perhaps more than ever the real difference is not between believers and nonbelievers, but between those who think and those who do not, between, on the one hand, men and women who have the courage to face life’s pain, to go on trying to believe, hope and love, and, on the other, men and women who have given up the struggle, who seem to content themselves with the penultimate horizon, and no longer know how to burn with desire and yearning at the thought of our last horizon and last home.

Believers thus make their own — in the name, too, of nonbelievers — the prayer with which St Augustine closes the most beautiful, the most deeply considered, and perhaps the most tormented of his works, the 15 books of the “De Trinitate”: “Lord my God, my only hope, grant that when I am weary I may never cease to seek you, but may always passionately seek your face. Give me strength to seek you who let yourself be encountered, and give me the hope of meeting you more and more.

“Before you I place my strength and my weakness: Conserve the first, heal the last. Before you I place my knowledge and my ignorance; where you have opened, welcome me as I enter; where you have closed to me, open when I knock. Let me remember you, understand you, love you!” (15, 28, 51).

In the restlessness of questioning, the faith of the believer meets the invocation of those who would like to believe: on the basis of a common poverty and of a common search, but also on the basis of listening to the other who dwells in the depth of both partners in a meeting. Dialogue between believers and nonbelievers is one of the highest and most enriching challenges in the cultures marked by nonbelief and religious indifference, which are particularly those of our postmodern Europe.

Are we ready as believers and as Church to accept this challenge without fear, with spirit and full hearts, trusting in the faithful God? And are the various expressions of culture and society marked by the modern spirit of emancipation ready to respect the freedom of believers and to take seriously the challenge of their values and of their vision of life and death? Our ability, as persons, as society and as an ecclesial community, to serve today, in our historical context, the quality of life and the dignity of every human being depends on our answers to these questions.

[Text adapted]

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