University of Notre Dame
Jacques Maritain Center   

Western Civilization and Religious Faith


1. A lecture's title is like those magisterial caps they prepare for you, to wear in the academic procession, when you get an honorary degree: either too large or too small -- never fitting.

Today the title I have chosen for my talk is obviously too large. Of the topic: "Western Civilization and Religious Faith," I am going to discuss, as a matter of fact, only some particular aspects, depending on two basic facts: first, the fact that in modern western civilization you have a multiplicity of religious creeds, and men who belong in those various creeds engaged in a common terrestrial or temporal task; second, the fact that nevertheless the terrestrial commonwealth itself involves in its moral, social, political and juridical structures a more or less hidden, more or less secularized religious inspiration. That's the problem: a common secular or humanistic task and religious inspiration.

Furthermore I should like to tackle the problem, first as posed, if I may say so, in American terms. For this country offers us a particularly typical and enlightening example of the characteristics, in this regard, of modern western civilization. I hope that you will allow a French philosopher to submit to you with friendly reverence, his reflections on these features of American civilization, and to start in this way his analysis of issues which are momentous, it seems to me, for our age as a whole.

2. In the first place, -- and this is a privileged implementation of the general democratic emphasis on freedom -- the American body politic is, I think, the only one which -- getting loose from the burden of historical constraints (wars, conquests, internal strife between the holders of power and new emerging forces) which contributed to create human societies and played so great a part in its own pre-natal conditions -- was explicitly born out of freedom, of the free determination of men to live together and work at a common task. And in this new political creation, man who belonged to various national stocks and spiritual lineages and religious creeds -- and whose ancestors had fought the bitterest fights against one another -- have freely willed to live together in peace, under one single government -- of the people, by the people, and for the people -- pursuing a same temporal or terrestrial common good.

This achievement, moreover, was not only brought about by the forefathers of this country: it is a continuous process of self-creation. Each day, each year brings to the American shores a flux of men and women who arrive from every part of the world and every cultural tradition, nearly broken by the persecutions, moral distress of physical poverty suffered in the old world; they come over to free themselves from history, and to commit all their remaining forces to the common task of the land of promise which receives them. Their children will be told of their sufferings and keep them in memory, but they will share in the youthful force, hope and creative activity of their now new national community. they will embark on the pursuit of happiness

Happiness, to be sure, is easier to want than to achieve. And I am aware of the great deal of self-criticism in which you engage with respect to your own civilization. Yet I am not attempting an overall picture of the latter, I am only stressing one of its basic data -- and one more apparent, perhaps, for someone who comes from abroad.

With respect to this basic sociological datum: the perpetual arrival of a new first generation of immigrants, as well as to the arrival of the first colonists, one might say that the tears and sufferings of many unfortunates have been and ceaselessly are a stream fecundating the soil of the New World and preparing for America's grandeur. The extraordinary fact is that these tears are not shed in vain. I mean with regard to the earthly destiny of the children of man. Here lies, in my opinion, a distinctive privilege of this country, and a deep human mystery concealed behind its power and prosperity. The tears and sufferings of the persecuted and unfortunate are transmuted into a perpetual effort to improve human destiny and to make life bearable; they are transfigured into optimism and creativity -- into that constant groping after better achievements which is the amount of terrestrial comfort compatible with man's condition. And this fact is linked with the other fact that I first emphasized: the temporal or terrestrial fellowship of men who have determined to live together by a free choice of their own, in freedom and for freedom; and, consequently, the integration of the new-comers, by virtue of their own free choice, into this terrestrial fellowship in freedom and for freedom.

3. In the second place, we must observe that despite the multiplicity of spiritual lineages and religious creeds on which I have laid stress, a deep-rooted, sometimes hidden, sometimes unconscious but actual and alive religious inspiration remains embodied in the temporal, secular, lay life of this country. We find striking proof of this in the spirit of the American Constitution. Far beyond the influences received either from Locke or the XVIIIth century Enlightenment, the Constitution has its roots in age-old heritage of Christian thought and civilization. It can be described as an outstanding lay Christian document tinged with the philosophy of the day. The Founding Fathers were neither metaphysicians nor theologians, but their philosophy of life, and their political philosophy, their notion of Natural Law and of human rights, were permeated with concepts worked out by Christian reason and backed up by an unshakeable religious feeling.

In a more general way, if we bear in mind some of the remarks previously made, how could we be surprised at the existence of an unquestionable diffused religious inspiration in the background of the American lay or secular common consciousness? What is the objective meaning of that transmutation which I have pointed out, of the sufferings of the poor and the wounded into a new strength and a new hope, -- if not a Christian meaning projected into the sphere of temporal, social and political existence? Except under the shadow of the Gospel such a phenomenon could neither take place nor make sense in human history. And the very sense of freedom, -- if it does not refer only to a negative freedom from any obstacle preventing us from doing as we please, if it points at a positive freedom to achieve genuine human ends in the pursuit of happiness, knowledge, truth, or beauty, justice, peace and love, -- originates, like the sense of the dignity of the human person, from which it is inseparable, in the Judeo-Christian tradition and in the Gospel inspiration, and only there keeps its full consistency and significance. At this point let me insist that the religious inspiration with which we are confronted in the temporal consciousness of this country is not a particular religiious creed as defined in the spiritual order of religion and religious truth itself, but rather a projection of religious belief into the temporal order, -- a temporal projection of religious belief which holds in actual fact even for many who have slipped away from religious faith, though it can obviously preserve its vitality only if in many others it is not cut off from living religious faith. So the existence of this common religious "temporalized" inspiration is compatible with the astonishing multiplicity of religious creeds and denominations which history, as we observed, has caused to come about in the spiritual structure of the American nation.

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