There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know
Donald Rumsfeld’s famous formulation has been applied to a variety of subjects and topics. It’s universality speaks to the desire to know, the limits of human understanding, as well as the ability of human beings to imagine, even to imagine things that are outside our direct human experience. Still, there are things that are outside our ability to even imagine existing or being possible.
The interesting thing about faith and theology, however, is that there are no “unknown unknowns.” Everything has been revealed to us on the cross. By faith, we know that God died on the cross to save us from our sins in a pure act of selfless love. God is love, John tells us. And love is God. Francis writes in Lumen Fidei:
The Christian can see with the eyes of Jesus and share in his mind, his filial disposition, because he or she shares in his love, which is the Spirit.
This is the foundation of our reality and everything stems from this single moment in history. The world and indeed our very lives make sense only in the context of the cross and Christ’s love for us. It was an encounter with this love that prompted the centurion to proclaim the truth: “Surely this man was the son of God!”
Truth, therefore, is seeing the world through the eyes of the crucified Christ.
One who loves realizes that love is an experience of truth, that it opens our eyes to see reality in a new way, in union with the beloved.
By contemplating Christ’s union with the Father even at the height of his sufferings on the cross, Christians learn to share in the same gaze of Jesus.
But what of the “known knowns” and the “known unknowns”? Surely faith adds nothing to our understanding of things knowable by human reason. Right?
Francis and Benedict, in Lumen Fidei, reject this approach. In the voice of Benedict, Francis writes that our world has been corrupted by the separation of faith and truth. Truth has been diminished to whatever technology can reveal to us. Either that or truth has been diminished to whatever the person holds with deep conviction.
How else can we explain a world in which people have such deep and competing visions of truth? When our understanding is darkened by all these competing voices, how can we ever really know anything?
Francis provides the answer:
Faith’s understanding is born when we receive the immense love of God which transforms us inwardly and enables us to see reality with new eyes.
God’s love is the absolute criterion to judge the truth of anything. Truth is much more than an object of the intellect; it is the substance of God’s relationship with us.
In the Bible, the heart is the core of the human person, where all his or her different dimensions intersect: body and spirit, interiority and openness to the world and to others, intellect, will and affectivity. If the heart is capable of holding all these dimensions together, it is because it is where we become open to truth and love, where we let them touch us and deeply transform us.
To avoid the heresies of the Gnostics, as Francis warns in Gaudete et Exsultate, we must reject any approach which reduces the faith to that which can be understood clearly by the mind. On the one hand, we must acknowledge as Benedict does that “to defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are therefore exacting and indispensable forms of charity.” On the other hand, as Francis states, there is a danger in thinking one’s “knowledge” is perfect.
Gnosticism is one of the most sinister ideologies because, while unduly exalting knowledge or a specific experience, it considers its own vision of reality to be perfect.
The cross therefore, with respect to human understanding, has a dual function. First, it elevates us to a higher understanding, teaching us the ways of truth, and giving us “new eyes” and new horizons. Reason and love raise man into contemplation of God himself.
Secondly, the cross tempers man and humbles him. It teaches him that despite the things we think we “know we know,” there remains the great “known unknown,” the mystery of Christ’s sacrifice. By this act of pure love, we must acknowledge that our imperfect grasp of truth can never be used as a weapon against others. In Lumen Fidei, Francis writes, “Without love, truth becomes cold, impersonal and oppressive for people’s day-to-day lives.” Or in Amoris Laetitia, Francis writes of the danger of “indoctrinating” the message of Christianity, turning it into “dead stones we hurl at others.”
There is no “individual truth” that is somehow divorced from another person’s truth. “It is impossible to believe on our own,” writes Francis in Lumen Fidei. There is no relativism. What there is, however, is the journey of billions of people.
Faith is also a knowledge bound to the passage of time, for words take time to be pronounced, and it is a knowledge assimilated only along a journey of discipleship.
This thought was more fully developed in Amoris Laetitia. This, I think, provides insight into Francis’ “strategy” when dealing with matters of doctrine.
Since “time is greater than space”, I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it. This will always be the case as the Spirit guides us towards the entire truth (cf. Jn 16:13), until he leads us fully into the mystery of Christ and enables us to see all things as he does.
For this reason, I believe it is critically important to find ways to preach the love of Christ always, even in complicated matters of doctrine and pastoral practice, even if it results in “confusion.” This essentially explains, I believe, the mission of Pope Francis.
Recently, we’ve seen the consequences of such an approach, such as when Francis met with a gay sex abuse victim. Assuming he did not actually preach something false (this third-hand account makes it impossible to tell), such an encounter with mercy is so needed, even before preaching the nuances of doctrine.
In the cross is the entirety of truth. One can never go wrong preaching the cross. It is the ultimate expression of God’s love and therefore the summit of truth. But, Francis describes in Amoris Laetitia how this singular moment in our history can be often ignored while trying to provide clarity on a specific teaching of doctrine. Ultimately, such a strategy will fail. Above all, we must preach love to the heart.
Daniel Amiri is a Catholic layman and finance professional. A graduate of theology and classics from the University of Notre Dame, his studies coincided with the papacy of Benedict XVI whose vision, particularly the framework of "encounter" with Christ Jesus, has heavily influenced his thoughts. He is a husband and a father to three beautiful children. He serves on parish council and also enjoys playing and coaching soccer.