Jacques Maritain Center : The Range of Reason

Chapter Fifteen


FAITH to live by? That is the topic of an inquiry I was requested to answer some years ago. I wonder whether these words satisfactorily present the question. What is necessary? What do we desperately need? A faith to live by? Or a faith to live for, a faith to live and die for? Just because our very life is at stake we are compelled to rediscover a faith to live and die for.

In the conception of many of our contemporaries faith, a faith to live by, far from being defined by any intrinsic and incontrovertible truth superior to man and human life, is merely something measured by human feeling or human needs, and destined to comfort human life's intellectual and social order, man's security in gaining possession of the earth and mastery over nature. From the time of Descartes and John Locke to the present, faith in God progressively became, for a great number of men, such a faith to live by. Finally, the religious feeling shifted to the cult of man. Our forebears undertook and pursued, with infinite hopefulness, a courageous, stubborn, and bright search for a faith to live by, which was a faith in man. This faith, during some decades, seemed allpowerful and produced splendid, though brittle achievements. The blunt fact is that we have lost faith in man.

What is called today atheistic existentialism is the clearest symptom of this fact. Kirkegaard's existentialism was the anguish of faith searching for incomprehensible and unspeakable reality. Even Heidegger's existentialism searches for the mystery of being through the heartrending experience of nothingness. But atheistic existentialism, such as has been heralded in recent years by writers who are but submissive mirrors of their time, does not reflect the anguish of man confronting nothingness; it reflects and declares the longing of man for nothingness. It expresses the temptation and desire not to be any longer. Yet this is impossible. Longing for nothingness and condemned to be, man abandons himself.

Communism, which is the ultimate vicissitude of anthropocentric rationalism, declares indeed its faith in man and offers itself as the last hope of optimism. Its optimism, however, is the optimism of the titanic and coercive energies of matter and technique; its man is totally subservient to the fate of history embodied in a social group. Faith in man, yes, but in what kind of man? In a collective man who deprives the individual of the liberties of the mind and makes himself into a spurious God emerging from the evolution of matter and the antinomies of history. The real man, the human person, is sacrificed to a devouring idol of the greatness of man.

Well, does despair, then, have the last word? Are we hemmed in by a tragedy?

As a matter of fact, reason demands that we have faith in man. Let us turn from the present world of man and look at the world of nature -- I mean with an unsophisticated gaze. We see that, despite the all- pervading law of struggle and conflict, nature in its depths is permeated with an abysmal, supra-individual, and inescapable peace, which is the root goodness and the universal strength of being. And man, as part of nature, has an essence which is good in itself. We see that the evolution of the cosmos is a persevering, though constantly thwarted, movement toward higher forms of life and consciousness, which achieves a final victory in the human species and is taken over, within the limits of the latter, by human liberty, and that from the age of the cave man, the slow and painful progress of mankind testifies to energies in man which make any contempt of the human race childish and presumptuous. Consider with a little love any individual whatever in the anonymous common mass of poor humanity. The better you know him, the more you discover in him hidden resources of goodness that evil has been unable to destroy. Man's difficult condition comes from the fact that he is not only a creature of nature but also one of reason and freedom -- elements which are weak in him and yet are his indestructible fortitude and tokens of his abiding dignity. No failures or stains can efface his original greatness.

Yes, we see that we must have faith in man. But we cannot. Our experience keeps reason in check. The present world of man has been for us a revelation of evil; it has shattered our confidence. We have seen too many crimes for which no just revenge can compensate, too many deaths in desperation, too sordid a debasement of human nature. Our vision of man has been covered over by the unforgettable image of the bloody ghosts in extermination camps. Totalitarian craving for power, either Nazi or Communist, feeding on our moral weaknesses, has let devils loose everywhere. Everything we loved seems to have been poisoned; everything in which we trusted seems to have failed. Science and progress are turned to our own destruction. Our very being is threatened by mental and moral atomization. Our very language has been perverted: our words have become ambiguous and seem only able to convey deception. We live in Kafka's world. Where is our faith to live by?

Perhaps we have chosen the wrong road. Perhaps we would have done better to cling to a faith to live and die for, instead of seeking a faith to live by only. Ancient pagan wisdom knew that man's noblest, happiest, and most human aspect is appendant to what is supra-human, and that he can only live by what he lives for and is ready to die for, and what is better than himself. If our humanism has failed, it is perhaps because it was centered in man alone, and was utilitarian, not heroic; because it tried to relegate death and evil to oblivion, instead of facing them and overcoming them by an ascent of the soul into eternal life; because it trusted in techniques instead of in love, I mean in Gospel love.

St. Paul says that faith is the substance of things hoped for and goes on to say that it is a conviction of things not seen. Faith is an adherence to superhuman truth, an entrance into the realm of invisible and divine things; faith makes our whole life appendant to a living Whole which is infinitely better and more lovable than our own life; faith is a meeting with a Person Who is Truth itself and Love itself, and to Whom the giving of oneself results in sopreme freedom, and in Whom dying results in indestructible life.

Then we live for truth, and that truth for which we live is stronger than the world. Then we live for love, and that love for which we live has made the world and will finally renew and transfigure it. Then we are free, and nothing in the world can break our faith.

And this God Who is Truth and Love has made man in His image. He has destined man to share in His own life. His Son died to save man. Despite all the catastrophies that man's failures and refusals cause, He leads man's history toward godlike fulfilment and transfiguration. Such is the greatness of man. Here is the rock of our faith in him.

Thus faith in man revives if it is rooted in the supra-human. Faith in man is saved by faith in God.

Human history moves in a definite direction. It depends on both natural and spiritual energies, and among all kinds of conflicts it tends to the natural fulfilment of mankind -- namely, the progressive manifestation of the essence and potentialities of man, the progressive development of the structures of his knowledge, his moral conscience, and his social life, mankind's progressive conquest of unity and freedom. And it tends also to a spiritual fulfilment which is supra-temporal and transcends history, and which the Christian considers to be the kingdom of God and the revelation of the sons of God. Though inseparably intermingled, these two trends of history relate to two thoroughly distinct orders, and often the weakness of man opposes the one while furthering the other. And contrary to them, evil also develops in history; so that a downward movement causes losses to increase at the same time as an upward movement causes the sap of the world to produce better fruits. In the happiest periods of history evil is at work obscurely in the bloom of our precarious gardens. In the darkest eras the good is invisibly preparing unforeseeable conquests. And good is stronger than evil. Finally the saying of the Scriptures will be fulfilled: Tell the righteous that all is well. In old Jewish apocalyptic writings it was stated that the age of the sufferings of the Messiah would be the age of his greatest victories.

In presenting his book, On the Threshold of the Apocalypse, to one of his readers some thirty years ago, Leon Bloy wrote on the first page: "Cher ami donnez-vous la peine d'entrer" ("Dear friend, pray walk in"). It seems that, as a matter of fact, we did walk in. Our age appears as an apocalyptic age, a liquidation of several centuries of history. We are picking the grapes of wrath. We have not finished suffering. But at the end of the crisis a new world will emerge.

Bearing these thoughts in mind, experience -- that very experience which jeopardized our faith in man -- is transfigured. It assumes a meaning. It is not the revelation of the absurdity of existence but of the pangs and travail of history, not the revelation of the root baseness and contemptibleness of man but of his distress laid bare when he falls from his pride, and of the trials and catastrophes through which the abiding greatness of his destiny asserts itself.

A historical reckoning such as the one we are undergoing does not take place in one day. Time is necessary to make reason able to control the formidable material means which industrial and technological revolution has put in our frail hands. Time is necessary to stir up, from the depths of human bewilderment, the moral and spiritual revolution that is incomparably more needed than any other revolution. For nothing less is required than a terrestrial triumph of Gospel inspiration in the social behavior of mankind. We do not lose hope. The renewal of civilization that we hope for, the age of integral humanism, the time when science and wisdom are to be reconciled, the advent of a fraternal commonwealth and of true human emancipation -- all this we do not await on the morrow. But we await them on the day after the morrow, on that day which St. Paul announced will be, after the worst darkness, like a springtime of splendor and renovation for the world.{1}

Every effort made in this direction will finally bear fruit. I refer not only to the spiritual struggle of those who have heard, as Henri Bergson put it, the call of the hero, and who awaken men to evangelic love, but also to the temporal struggle of all those -- scientists, poets, pioneers of social justice -- who give themselves to the improvement and illumination of their brothers' lives; I refer to the daily exertion of those who can know no rest as long as their brothers are in enslavement and misery. Even if the general state of the world and our stock of accumulated errors prevent such efforts from overcoming at present the evils which are streaming in from everywhere, they are preparing an era, under God, of greater dignity for man and of expanding love.

Yet even that will be but a moment in the history of a small and perishable planet. And hope goes beyond time. For finally we are waiting for the resurrection of the dead, and life eternal. Such is the faith we live for, and, because we live for it, the faith we live by.

{1} Cf. St. Paul, Rom., 11:12, 15.

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