It takes a cloud of witnesses to mediate faith

May 18, 2015

How marvellous it would be if we all could have a vision of Jesus with the same power as that experienced by St. Paul on the road to Damascus. A light from heaven flashed around him and Jesus spoke: "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting" (Acts 9.5).

After that, how could there be any doubt? There would no longer be any need to question whether there is a God, whether Jesus is God become human. It would all have been revealed with greater power than any Hollywood special effects team could muster.

For the vast majority of us, it doesn't work that way. Faith is something different. It is, in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (11.1). We don't get the immediacy of God's powerful presence; for the most part, we rely on the testimony of others.

Why would God do things that way? Why don't we all get to experience his unmediated presence? That would abolish atheism, bring the world to its knees and get everybody more or less rowing their boats in the same direction.

One can only conclude that God wants our faith to be mediated. He wants us to rely on the testimony of others or to grow into faith because we have seen it in action.

Moses' mediation helped form the descendants of Israel into the people of God.

Moses' mediation helped form the descendants of Israel into the people of God.

God wants us to grow beyond individualism and to rely on others. He wants to save not individuals as much as a whole people. To have faith in God is to have faith with others, to form a body of faith.

The Letter to the Hebrews does not emphasize one's personal experience of Jesus, but the testimony in words and action of "so great a cloud of witnesses" (12.1)

Likewise, Pope Francis, in his first encyclical, The Light of Faith (Lumen Fidei), stresses "the significance of mediation, this capacity to participate in the vision of another, this shared knowledge which is the knowledge proper to love" (LF 14).


The pope describes Moses as the mediator between God and the people of Israel. Moses' mediation was not a way for him to have exclusive access to God, putting him in a privileged position and blocking the door to others. Rather, Moses' mediation opened the door between the people and God.

"The people may not see the face of God; it is Moses who speaks to YHWH on the mountain and then tells the others of the Lord's will" (LF14). Moses' role of mediation was a crucial step in forming the descendants of Abraham into a people, the people of Israel.

The New Covenant also forms a people, that is, it forms the Church. If one has moments of consolation in prayer and feels the divine presence, that is good. It strengthens one's faith.


Yet, our faith is primarily mediated by the Church. The Church is the sure teacher of religious truth; it is the guarantee of Christ's presence in the sacraments.

For centuries, not only did the Church mediate faith to Christian believers, but so did the culture. The culture supported and passed on faith in myriad ways, making it possible for the majority of the people to have a lively faith and a significant minority to have deep devotion.

Over the course of a few years, a major cultural shift occurred, one which questioned religious faith and undermined Church participation. Postwar prosperity brought great freedom throughout the Western world. The Church, which was perceived as powerful and as limiting that freedom, was cast to the side by many who relished their newfound autonomy.


The cultural underpinnings of religious practice rapidly dissipated. Faith came to be seen – not only by those outside the Church – but even by faithful practitioners as subjective, a matter of personal choice. One's faith was no longer supported by the culture but required a personal, direct relationship with God.

Yet, if one's faith can only be located in direct experience, it is a perilous faith, one that can easily disappear when one's experiences change.

Moreover, experiences of God's consoling presence will fade during times of desolation. One will wonder if God can possibly be real when it seems as though he is absent.


It is here that faith is tested. Am I attached to consoling experiences or am I attached to God? The pope writes, "In the hour of trial, faith brings light, while suffering and weakness make it evident that 'we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord' (2 Corinthians 4.5)" (LF56).

Faith comes to us mediated through other people, through the cloud of witnesses, ultimately, through the Church.

This fact challenges our culture more than anything. We are deeply individualistic and self-indulgent. But in true faith, the spiritual high is but a stepping stone to something greater – being part of the greater whole that we call the Church, the community where faith is the conviction of things unseen.