Faith, Freedom, and the Future

Fix a plate of good food, grab a cold drink, and ponder some deep questions

A year ago today, I wrote a short piece titled, “No Faith, No Freedom. Know Faith, Know Freedom” (July 3, 2013), that remarked, in part, about the first encyclical of Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei. I also remarked on a book I rediscovered while pawing through one of the many piles of books in my office:

Several passages caught my attention, but I’ll share just a couple of them. Bypassing the context for a moment, here’s the first passage:

The confidence in state action, the glorification of technology, the unlimited faith in science, the centralization of decision, and the subordination of law to so-called mass interests—all these … have helped in the West to create communities in which the individual citizens feels overwhelmed, isolated, and helpless before the anonymities of public and private bureaucracy. We are right to fear these vast distortions of tendencies already at work in our society.

It is a fine summation of the broad (and deep) problems faced today, yet it is not original. Except that it was written, not in the past few years, but over sixty years ago, in the the early 1950s. The book is Faith and Freedom, the author was Barbara Ward, and the publisher was Image; the subhead is: “A stimulating inquiry into the history and relationship of political freedom and religious faith.” It is a book worth tracking down for many reasons, among them Ward’s beautiful and learned writing, the historical perspective presented, and the philosophical insights, which are just as meaningful today, if not more so, than there were when the book was first published in England in 1954.

Ward has some interesting things to say about the War for Independence and the founding of the United States, but I am more interested here in her thoughts on dealing with and fighting against tyranny. In writing of the Nazi and the Soviet regimes—the former recently defeated and the latter very much alive when Faith and Freedom was published—Ward notes they are “dread reminders that in the twentieth century, the line of least resistance in politics tends toward the full apparatus of totalitarian rule. It is not wrong to fear such warnings. It is the beginning of wisdom.” But, she writes, fear is not enough; it is “poor counsellor because it is essentially negative.” Those who are guided by fear alone will find themselves flailing about defensively and ineffectively.” What is necessary, she argues, is “a positive goal and a persistent aim.” Man lives by a vision of the future; the question is: what sort of vision? The twentieth century, Ward said, was a century in which the nightmare of totalitarianism challenged the proper vision and “good dreams” of the Western world.

Part of Ward’s argument (drawing upon Christopher Dawson, Jacques Maritain, and others), is that a culture build upon the Christian Faith led to the many remarkable achievements of the past couple of centuries. But as man conquered nature and mastered it, he began to believe his press clippings. As his material powers grew, his spiritual vision diminished. One paradox is that this movement from assured mastery based on faith and reason has led, by crooked but fairly clear lines, to an assured questioning of reason and a confident rejection of faith. As both are undermined, in ways obvious and subtle, man is unmoored from both the past and the future:

Man is lonely. He is not self-sufficient. He rebels against the meaninglessness of life. … He needs to feel himself part of a wider whole and he has unassuageable powers of dedication and devotion which must fine expression in worship and service. If, therefore, there is no other outlet for these powers, then the community in which he lives, the tribe, the state, Caesar, the dictator, becomes the natural and inevitable objects of his religious zeal. Religion is not abolished by the “abolition” of God; the religion of Caesar takes its place. And since, for a few men, the need to worship is satisfied in hubris, in the worship of the self, the multitudes who look for a god can nearly always be certain of finding a willing candidate.

She then writes of “the hunger for godlike leadership” and observes that “a merging of the self in the security of the whole becomes irresistible.” When religious faith weakens and vanishes, “all the energies of the soul are poured into the one channel of political faith.” The timelessness of Ward’s observations are, I trust, obvious.

What can be done? More specifically, who has the ability to stand up against a State that oversteps its bounds and becomes, in the words of Benedict XVI, a State “which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself”? The lone citizen is incapable to doing so. “He needs counter-institutions, above all the counter-institution of the Church, which of all organized bodies alone can look Caesar in the face and claim a higher loyalty.” Yet faith must never be a mere tool or a safeguard.

Faith is not a matter of convenience or even—save indirectly—a matter of sociology. It is a question of conviction and dedication and both spring from one source only—from the belief in God as a fact, as the supreme Fact of existence. Faith will not be recovered in the West because people believe it is useful. It will return only when they find that is it true.

Then, yesterday, I re-read a Fourth of July essay—“Do We Deserve To Be Free?”—written in 2006 by Fr. James Schall, SJ, for Ignatius Insight. It is worth quoting at length, for it is just as timely today as it was eight years ago:

Chesterton said someplace that the United States is almost the only country ever to have been founded on an idea. [1] That is to say, it was founded by men who knew well the English and Western Christian tradition, themselves thinking with principles formulated in that tradition. These men who signed the Declaration also knew their Cicero and Aristotle, their Bible. They were presenting before mankind an argument that explained the validity of their political action. They did not intend to act unwisely or unreasonably. They knew it was a delicate situation that merited rational statement. They did not know whether they would succeed or not. No small part of their eventual success was in fact the persuasive force of their principles. But we know that rightness of cause does not, in world history, always assure political success. They had to risk, as they said at the end of the Declaration, their lives, their fortunes, and their “sacred honor.” Not all men are so willing. Men who have no conception of what this “risk” means have no grounds for freedom or to the truth on which it is based. Nor should they really live in regimes based on “sacred honor.”

The colonists knew and so stated that governments should not be changed “lightly.” Hence, by implication, they, with their list of abuses, thought it was not a “light” matter. That is why they compiled the reasons. They also knew that some evils are to be “suffered,” that it is a greater good so to do. Not everything can be righted, a principle the understanding of which leads to the profoundest theological and philosophical insights.

But the colonists also recognized that not all “evils” are, as they put it, “sufferable.” The unwillingness of a people to do nothing about anything with itself or others is not a sign of virtue but of decadence. A kind of “slavishness” sets in and is passive before every evil. The colonists did not belong to that class of men who thought they never had to stand up to anything, never had to draw a line, never had to act. They stood on the side of those who saw with the great Burke, who sided with them, that the best way to magnify evil is for good men to think they need to do nothing about it.

The more famous part of the Declaration is the recital of the “self-evident” truths: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We still wonder whether “happiness” is a gift or something we can just “pursue.” Probably both. We suspect that C. S. Lewis was right when he warned us that “happiness” is not a “right,” but only the result of doing what is right, even if we suffer for it. We know that the phrase “pursuit of happiness” was a substitute for Locke’s “life, liberty, and property” which itself meant more than ownership of material goods. And we know from at least Aristotle that while “happiness” is ultimately the end of all of our actions, we must be very careful to define it correctly in the first place.

We again read with care the words that governments need the “consent” of the governed. This is not all they need. Citizens of tyrannies have been known, more frequently than we like to admit, to “consent” to their rulers. We also read about differing “forms of government.” This too was a consideration found in Plato and Aristotle. Many kinds of “good” and “bad” forms of rule can exist and have existed. People can rightly “abolish” abusive governments. When they do so, it is no doubt worthy and noble for others to assist them. A new form of rule should be effective for both the “Safety and Happiness” of the governed.

Worthy forms of rule–there is more than one configuration–none the less need to be “secured.” We need to be aware that “change” can also be for the worse, even when we naively think it is for the best. Governments are to have “just power,” not just any power. But without legitimate “power” and the willingness to use it properly, we really cannot “secure” the purpose for which governments are established.

Fr. Schall continued, in that essay, to write about the dangers posted by Islamic fundamentalism. He has also written about another form of fundamentalism—secular and technocratic—that has in recent decades come to a point of maturity, if that is the right word. This secular fundamentalism—which bears the marks of an all-encompassing and thoroughly dogmatic religion—often seeks to stifle important questions by either distraction or by insisting that it has all the answers (or is, in fact, The Answer). Benedict XVI remarked often, in various ways, about this fact, and it was something he had contemplated for many decades prior to being elected pope. In the volume, Faith and the Future, a younger Joseph Ratzinger (writing in the late 1960s and early 1970s), clearly outlines the crisis caused by a false freedom, one that dominated the 20th century in explicit forms (Communism/Marxism) and continues to infect the Western world, but often in less obvious and even more seductive ways:

Today at the most sensitive points of society, that is in literature and its portrayal of man, we are beginning to find an unexpected verification of the gruesome visions of Dostoyevsky of a world without God, and of how that world turns into a madman’s dream.

The man who wants to limit himself to what is knowable in exact terms is caught up in the crisis of reality: he beholds the withdrawal of truth. Within himself he hears the cry of faith, which the spirit of the hour has not been able to stifle, but has only made all the more dramatic. There is a cry for liberation from the prison of positivism, as there is, too, for liberation from a form of faith that has allowed itself to become a burden instead of the vehicle of freedom.

This brings us at last to the point at which the question can be put: How is such a faith to be created? First let us remark: faith is not a diluted form of natural science, an ancient or medieval preparatory stage that must vanish when the real thing turns up, but is something essentially different.

It is not provisional knowledge, although we do use the word in this sense also when we say, for example, “I believe that is so.” In such a case “believing” means “being of the opinion.” But when we say, “I believe you,” the word acquires quite another meaning. It means the same as, “I trust you,” or even as much as, “I rely upon you.”

The you, in which I put reliance, provides me with a certainty that is different from but no less than the certainty that comes from calculation and experiment. And it is thus that the word is used in the Christian Credo. The basic form of Christian faith is not: I believe something, but I believe you. Faith is a disclosure of reality that is granted only to him who trusts, loves, and acts as a human being; and as such it is not a derivative of knowledge, but is sui generis, like knowledge, although it is indeed more basic and more central to our authentically human nature than knowledge is.

‘This insight has important consequences; and these can be liberating, if taken seriously. For this means that faith is not primarily a colossal edifice of numerous supernatural facts, standing like a curious second order of knowledge alongside the realm of science, but an assent to God who gives us hope and confidence.

Today is certainly about being thankful for the freedoms we enjoy in this often remarkable country, and being mindful of some of the history behind those freedoms. It is also a day to consider the very nature of freedom: what is it? For what ends and End do we use it? And what does the existence of freedom say about the nature of man, individually and in communion with others in families, churches, countries? And what is the relationship between faith and freedom? Can true freedom exist without some measure of faith? And, finally, what do our understandings of freedom and faith indicate about the future—of each of us, of the United States, of the world? 

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About Carl E. Olson 1227 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.