Saskia Wendel - "This do, and thou shalt live" (A Review of the "Year of Faith")

Helpful Texts

Link zum Mandala von Bruder Klaus
Saskia Wendel {*}

"This do, and thou shalt live"

A Review of the "Year of Faith"


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 11/2013, P. 565-569
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The beliefs, the knowledge of the faith and the instruction in faith were the center of the "Year of Faith." However, belief is not merely a theoretical understanding of contents or doctrines which must be adopted by faith; it is essentially action. For faith is understood as discipleship, which is expressed in a concrete practice.


The still by Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed "Year of Faith" is now almost behind us. Its declared aim was to deepen and revitalize faith. In contrast to the aimed-at practice of faith, however, the beliefs, the knowledge of the faith and the instruction in faith were primarily the center. Accordingly, in the "Note" of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with pastoral instructions on the occasion of the "Year of Faith," it was mainly referred to the task of studying the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" (see HK, May 2012, 58). In this perspective, orthodoxy, i.e. the "true faith" according to the teachings of the Church, has the primacy over the orthopraxy; the latter follows from the first.

It is admittedly undeniable that beliefs also belong essentially to the Christian faith, i.e. contents and key motives which determine it. But the question arises of whether this concentration on the teaching of knowledge of faith and thus on instruction was too narrow - with the result that this "Year of Faith" remained ultimately behind its possibilities.



Already at the time when one sought the central idea and proclaimed the year, a change of perspective regarding the understanding of faith would perhaps have been helpful. It would have avoided this restricted view and thus even lead to a greater commitment of the church base and the congregations on the spot. This change of perspective, to which the looking at the testimony of the New Testament invites, focuses on the fundamental understanding of faith: faith is not merely a theoretical understanding of contents or doctrines which must be adopted by faith; it is essentially action. For faith is understood as discipleship; it is expressed in a concrete practice. However, this practice is not without orientation. Its guide is the gospel, the message of the kingdom of God, "The blind see again, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the gospel preached to them" (Mt 11:5).

This message is connected with the call for respect for the commandment: you shall love God, your neighbor and those who are far away - as well as your enemies. In Luke's Gospel it says, "This do, and thou shalt live." This perspective is put in concrete terms in the parable of the Good Samaritan. It ends with the demand, "Go and do likewise" (Luke 10:37). The heart of the Christian faith is thus the "practice of following Jesus" (Johann Baptist Metz).

With regard to the biblical tradition, it is also clear what essentially constitutes this practice of discipleship. It is the diaconal commitment to the weak and oppressed, the poor and the disenfranchised, the suffering, the sick, and all kinds of marginalized. In its core, this practice is already irrevocably biased; it follows a clear option. Strictly speaking, it is thus also the core business of those who profess to follow Jesus: namely the Christian churches.

This on the orthopraxis focused understanding of the faith can not only be derived biblically but also justified rationally. For if you define faith as a practice, then you follow strictly speaking the assignment of belief to the realm of practical reason, which Immanuel Kant had made in his religio-philosophical considerations: faith is neither related to the questions "What can I know?" nor to the question "Why is there something at all rather than nothing?" Faith is related to the question "What may I hope?" - and this question is closely connected with the question "What should I do?"

Thus, a central moment of the Christian faith is involved: not only the reference to ethical behavior which, too, is inherent in the gospel, but the perspective of the hope that is given with the promise of eschatological salvation. Not an uncertain future, but a future determined by the message of salvation is the promise of Christian faith. It is coupled with the promise of comprehensive forgiveness of former and remembered injustice and suffering. Thus the practised faith is encompassed by the anticipation of the future and the anamnetic reference to the past. And only in this way the current practice of faith in the middle of history and society receives its meaning and purpose.


Without reflection, the practice remains indetermined

Against focussing the understanding of faith on the "right action," it is often objected that this action needs clear criteria and thus is dependent on beliefs. One must in so far agree with this view as precisely when one defines faith as a practice, i.e. as an act and as a way of life, the question of the criterion for this practice arises. For practice has its criterion not already in itself, as e.g. after the sentence, "Only what has proved its worth in practice is able to claim validity for itself." The mere fact that some practice proved its worth is not a sufficient reason for claiming universal validity for certain practices, for it is possible that even ethically questionable practices prove their worth as regards e.g. benefit, efficiency and success or happiness and enjoyment.

Every reflection admittedly needs to be referred to experience, because without it you have nothing to think about; and while reflecting, you also need the practice, both as clue for and object of your reflection. But the practice remains indefinite without reflection, and would then also not be critically identifiable. This applies even more to a practice that is connected with religious beliefs which are aimed at the whole of life. The justifying reflection on practice, the "idea that draws breath" (Theodor W. Adorno), is also therefore indispensable: the with it connected claims to universal validity must be discursively demonstrated and thus also examined critically. If this is omitted, immunization is the result, which leads to ideological distortion. Such a discursive justification now consists in the "game of giving and asking for reasons" (Robert Brandom), which is done by the mind.

But this substantiation is at the service of practice. It does not simply precede it nor dominate it in a biased way - the more so as also reflection is an activity, a practice that is done by the mind. Rather, the discourse takes a concrete practice as its starting-point, which is reflected in it. And it produces a new, possibly changed practice. The substantiation discourse draws its importance from its relation to the standard practice, which is reflected by it. If it is detached from it, it congeals to abstract speculation, to pure theory.



Notwithstanding the taking pleasure in speculative thinking and the "adventures of ideas," this thinking loses its importance for life and its task of interpreting life, if it assumes a separate existence and degenerates into mere "arm chair thinking". For this reason, it is not enough to convey the knowledge of faith and to focus primarily on the contents of faith, because what threatens then is the disconnection of faith from the real life, from the lived testimony.

But by what is the practice of faith determined? From where does it take the criteria which it undisputably needs? Here, one could theologically make things comparatively easy for oneself and refer to God's initiative, his revelation and grace: faith is a gratuitous gift of God. It is determined by, and - as regards content - filled with revealed topics. And these are then the criteria which determine the practice. Or one refers directly to the authority of the Bible, to the here handed down practice of Jesus, and to the message of the kingdom of God, which is proclaimed by him.

But here we would, so to speak, come round in a circle. Both revelation and grace are already interpretations of an event. They have already sprung from a specific religious belief, and thus also from a religious practice and life, and this applies also to the understanding of biblical texts as "God's word in human words." If one would in the substantiation discourse refer exclusively to them, one would become caught up in a vicious circle and in an infinite regress. References to the authority of biblical texts alone are insufficient, because arguments from authority are always the weakest arguments in substantiation discourses.

The validity criterion of religious practice must therefore be gained by philosophical reflection, as e.g. by connecting morality with religion and the from it resulting distinction between ethically legitimate and illegitimate religious practices, but also by the thought of the possibility that even in a radically contingent life practice the Absolute may be expressed - an insight gained with the help of the First Philosophy.

For only then it is possible to interpret a historical person's life practice as manifestation, self-communication of the Absolute and then understand it as a practice that can serve as an example and guide for one's own life practice - and the concrete person as someone whom to follow pays off: Why this person and no other? And why this practice of discipleship and no other?



Here recourse is taken to ideas and concepts which the faculty of reason is able to think also independently from the guidelines of the Christian tradition, that is to say "remoto Christo", as if God's revelation in Jesus of Nazareth had never taken place - as it has already been formulated by Anselm of Canterbury. The practice of faith as practice of discipleship of Jesus refers thus to a practice which is testified and handed down in the Bible. It was and is interpreted as revelation, as God's self-manifestation, as His promise of salvation. But for its justification, the reflection on autonomous reasons is needed. The latter legitimize this interpretation and then also the practice with its validity claim. So, the individual way of life and life practice is at the beginning. It meets with the handed down practice of Jesus and its interpretation. It is confronted with both and reflects on their claim to validity. And thus in turn it leads to a reflected practice, which is determined as the practice of discipleship of Jesus.

From here then the basal topics arise as result. They are at the core of the Christian faith, are milestones which determine the "crucial and distinctive Christian faith." They are summarized in the Creed. And it is necessary time and again to interpret them anew by time-conditioned formulations, to account for them also before the forum of modern reason, and to subject them to the "art of discernment."


God's Actions in Creation, Salvation and Redemption as Landmarks of Christian Faith

As regards the call for more knowledge about faith, this means that not the contents are at the beginning of the reflection on and the imparting of faith but the faith practice and the reflection on it. From here then, first of all, the reference to specific contents takes place. The latter are then anew integrated into the practice and the reflection on it. It is impossible that from this indissolubly reciprocal relationship between theory and practice a religious instruction results which actually deals with the concrete life practice.

But in the conception and implementation of the "Year of Faith" this became probably less important than the desire for teaching the "right doctrine." Otherwise, one would not have so much emphasized the importance of the Catechism. In addition, one presupposed the validity of a diagnosis of the times which is both sociologically and theologically quite controversial, namely the diagnosis of a comprehensive "crisis of God" and of a far advanced secularization - at least within the Western modern societies.

This diagnosis has possibly led to focusing too much on the theoretical imparting of knowledge of the faith - for fear of the loss of knowledge about the central Christian teaching contents. In his understanding of the Christian faith and his emphasis on orthopraxy, Pope Francis here meanwhile sets distinctly different directions. But they had obviously no significant impact on the practical implementation of the "Year of Faith" (see this issue, 556 ff.).

But if you now ask after the said contents, then you will be able to refer to the belief in a God who is creatively active. He accompanies and maintains his creation precisely in its history of evil and suffering, and promises every single creature and the entire Creation salvation and perfection beyond the border-line of the current suffering, injustice and death. For the Christian faith refers to the concrete practice of Jesus. In its center is the unconditional forgiveness and the equally unconditional promise of a life in abundance for everybody, especially for the losers of history, and thus especially also for the "dead and broken-hearted" (Walter Benjamin).

Forgiveness and promise, wrote Hannah Arendt, are the two central expressions of action. The eschatological hope for the kingdom of God, on which the Jesuanic message lives and testifies, is based on the omnipotent and also absolutely trustworthy, i.e. moral action of God - not on an anonymous action, and not on the eternal recurrence of the same in an eternal course of the world. The one who says 'salvation by God' also says 'creation by God', and says 'beginning and completion of history in its development and transformation'. But this also means that this eschatological perspective includes both the hope of completing the entire creation which here and now already begins and the hope for a life of abundance also beyond the individual death.

But it belongs also to the core beliefs of Christian faith practice that in addition to God's action in his Creation and Salvation there is an action which is called Revelation. Here, it is possible to interpret the creation as a whole as such a revelation of God, as form and expression of Himself - one with Him as an expression of Himself, differentiated from Him precisely as His expression, as an image. And it is possible to understand especially the human existence as an image of the divine reality, and thus as a revelation of God, who expresses Himself already in realizing this existence.

But according to Christian belief, this reality of God is revealed in a special, unique way in the one who in all his actions, in his whole existence testified who God is and who we could be, what we may and are allowed to expect. God's actions in creation, salvation and revelation are the constitutive topics of the practice of discipleship. They are virtually the milestones of the Christian faith, marked in the contents of the Christian creed.

The future of faith, which has actually been the particular concern of the "Year of Faith", does primarily not lie in teaching the faith and in gaining a "knowledge of faith" - no matter how comprehensive.



For faith understood as the practice of discipleship of Jesus cannot be learned like a body of knowledge or a vocabulary with associated grammar, which must then be spoken only correct and compliant to rules. It can also not be practiced like an art or a craft.

At most, faith may be discovered in acting, also in the variety of different life practices and testimonies of lived faith. Regardless of their different shape, they are - due to their relation to Jesus Christ' gospel - understood by the community of believers, the "people of God as the practice of discipleship of Jesus or as outstanding examples of that practice." In those examples, faith gives something to think about, and only from there certain basic contents of the Christian faith become accessible, not vice versa. And regardless of every justifying reflection on this practice, the question of what constitutes this belief, what carries it, and what gives future to it may ultimately be answered by referring to the model of action which the Gospel of Luke has formulated in this way, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God out of all thy heart, and out of all thy soul, and out of all thy strength, and out of all thy understanding, and thy neighbour as thyself. (...) This do, and thou shalt live." (Luke 10:27 f.)


    {*} Saskia Wendel (born in 1964) is Professor of Systematic Theology at the Catholic Institute of Theology of the University of Cologne.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'