Facing the New Year

On Dec. 31, Christians traditionally give thanks to God for the blessings they have received during the year that is ending. On Jan. 1 and on the feast of the Epiphany a few days later, they might equally well give thanks for the gifts of faith and intelligence that will guide them through the new year, even as the star guided the Magi on their journey. Although these two gifts are profoundly different, they are compatible with each other. Pope Benedict XVI was voicing the common Christian conviction when he said last February in a speech to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: There is no competition of any kind between reason and faith.

St. Paul made a similar point when, around 46 A.D., his first missionary journey brought him to Lystra, a city in what is now part of Turkey. After a crowd gathered, the apostle told them that he and his companion, Barnabas, had come to proclaim the good news about the living God of whom the citizens of Lystra should already have had some knowledge. In bestowing his goodness, Paul said, he did not leave himself without witness, for he gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filled you with nourishment and gladness for your hearts (Acts 14:16-19).

Paul was here invoking a conclusion to which, he believed, human reason, enabled by divine grace, can arrive. Pope Benedict XVI regularly expounds this central Christian teaching when he notes that reason and faith collaborate in every aspect of human life and particularly in the search for God.

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That search responds to a religious impulse that has flourished over the millennia in countless forms, even though at various times and places it may have atrophied from disuse. Some of these forms were quite pure; some were bizarre. In Matthew’s Gospel the Magi pursue this religious search. In their studies of the heavens, the wise men discovered a new star. When they followed that beacon, they found in Bethlehem the child with his mother. In the gifts they offered they acknowledged this child to be the mysterious king they had been seeking.

Some searchers have been led to God by the philosophical reasonings that Paul recommended to the Lystrians. For others, a vivid awareness of God’s presence has meant more than discursive reflections. From a multitude of cases, two that are both representative and random may be cited.

Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of the famous Charles, was a successful physician and a freethinker. He did not deny the existence of Godafter all, no one can prove that God does not exist. He just said he was not sure and wanted to keep the question open. One day he was visiting an elderly bedridden woman and their conversation turned theological. The patient was not learned, but she was serenely sure of her Christian faith. Doctor, she said, I know honey is sweet upon the tongue, and I know that my Redeemer liveth.

In Venezuela in February 1976, a band of leftist guerrillas kidnapped William Niehous, who was the operations manager for a U.S. firm, the Owens-Illinois Glass Company. The captive was held hostage for three-and-a-half years while the masked gunmen negotiated for ransom. He was rescued when Venezuelan police stumbled upon the hideout. When he returned to the United States and was reunited with his family, Niehous told reporters that he had lived in constant anxiety during his captivity, because he had no assurance that he would not be killed. I prayed a lot, he said. I believe in God now more than before, if that is possible.

As the human family faces a new year, it confronts massive problems, ranging from the climate of poverty enveloping billions to the miseries of Darfur to the war in Iraq. Christians believe that meeting these challenges must engage the energies of both reason and faith. Benedict XVI developed this theme in the second half of his encyclical on divine love (Deus Caritas Est), dated Dec. 25, 2005.

On the one hand, the pope wrote, the essential task of building a just political and social order is not the church’s immediate responsibility. It is primarily a task for civil society, directed by reason. On the other hand, Benedict wrote, politics is not enough. The Gospel faith calls believers to the loving service of all those in need.

The Christian program, the pope said, is the program of the Good Samaritan, it is the program of our Lord. It would be presumptuous, he added, to think that we alone are personally responsible for building a better world, but in all humility we must do what we can, for it is the love of Christ that urges us on (2 Cor. 5:14).

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