As a Christian, I am used to speaking about faith in a very specific sense—a trust in the person and work of Jesus Christ through which we receive God’s promises. Though this is not primarily an activity of the intellect, faith manifests itself in the intellect inasmuch as a person possesses one. This is why Christians speak of the faith and how it normally involves specific knowledge such as who God is and what his promises are. This, in turn, is why the Christian kind of faith excludes faiths in different gods (i.e. those that reject the Father, Son, and/or Holy Spirit) or faiths that reject what God has promised to us (e.g. forgiveness through the vicarious atonement accomplished in the death of Christ.) It is entirely proper that Christians speak of faith so specifically, because faith in a generic god will not avail anyone before a very specific judgment seat and under a very specific moral law to which we have failed to adhere.
This, however, is not the only way the word ‘faith’ can be used. There is another distinct kind of faith which does not necessarily exclude other religions—one whose nature is ethical. Though useless to save by Christian reckoning, it is not altogether useless; for this kind of faith helps us to treat one another well in this life. It is a virtue possessed by people of different religions and consists of trust in the far less-specific concept of a benevolent power higher than humanity—a disposition towards acting as though the world will ultimately unfold as it should and that my responsibilities towards others do not imply that the cosmic buck stops with me.
Similar to Aristotle’s virtues, this virtue of faith is a mean between an excess and a deficiency. The excess has received a great deal of attention in the West over the past couple centuries and is captured well in a popular joke: A man has climbed up onto his rooftop during a terrible flood, but the water is still rising and he has no way off. A group of neighbors come by in a boat and invite him on-board, but he refuses, saying that God will save him. Later on, another boat floats by with the same invitation which he again refuses, certain that God will save him. As the water still rises and begins to consume the rooftop, a helicopter flies by and drops a ladder down to the man. This too, he refuses, saying that God will save him. Shortly thereafter, the roof is completely submerged and the man soon drowns. When he arrives in heaven, he approaches God and asks why He did not save him. God replies, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter. What more did you want?”
The joke illustrates how an excess of faith is characterized by a kind of complacency about our surroundings. This is the kind of faith that Marx overreacted against when he called religion the opiate of the masses and the kind of faith that provokes much of modern atheism’s vitriol. People fail to take opportunities to help the suffering because they think it will not matter at the end of time. They tolerate injustices that should not be tolerated because they think someone else will take care of it somehow. Whether on a local or a global scale, complacency generates irresponsibility, and people deprive their neighbors of assistance by neglecting their own duties.
There is, however, another side to the issue that has not received so much popular attention—a deficiency of faith. Though it is not talked about, it is perhaps a bigger problem in contemporary American society than complacency. Faithlessness manifests itself in the mindset that because no higher benevolent power is trustworthy, it is up to humanity alone to solve all of the problems of the world, and we must therefore do whatever it takes. Accordingly, one can refer to this deficiency of faith as “desperation.”
Desperation, it seems, has become the default reaction to tragedy among Americans. When a couple of young girls disappeared in my home state a couple years ago, it was only a matter of days before people were appearing on the news demanding video cameras to surveil every square inch of the park at which they were last seen, or broaching the subject of tracking devices for children. Likewise, no school shooting is unaccompanied by a chorus of demands to ban guns, to ban violent video games, or to ban any behavior or object that reminds us of violence—even if it amounts to no more than a boy pointing his index finger at someone. When tragedy strikes, desperate people are driven to find some way—any way—to make sure such things never happen again.
This desperation extends to our political classes as well. Our president, for example, famously indicated that if even one child’s life can be saved through our action, then it is our responsibility to try that action. While the sentiment sounds superficially noble in that it expresses the incalculable value of a single human life, it is actually horrible because it removes all boundary from how we might go about protecting that life. To prevent violent death by guns, for example, many people seek to disregard the Constitution, remove an important protection against tyranny, and deprive millions of innocent people of their means of self-defense against violent criminals—all of which leads to even more death and suffering. The same can be seen when it comes to abortion. Desperate individuals believe that there can be no adequate help, aid, comfort, or beneficence for a pregnant woman who does not want her child. They therefore do whatever it takes to make sure she can completely take away her problem, and so America tolerates and supports an abortion-industrial-complex responsible for tens of millions of murdered children. So much for the vaunted nobility of doing whatever it takes to save even one child’s life. Just as visiting a hot dog factory might change one’s perspective on a Memorial Day barbeque, doing whatever it takes to save someone takes on a different character upon surveying the mountain of bodies involuntarily sacrificed on the altar.
In many ways, the bloody history of the 20th century is the history of this deficiency of faith. Governments across the world sought to manage their people in such a way that poverty and suffering could be relieved for everyone, without exception. They believed there was no power higher than humanity to save the poor and the oppressed and could leave no child behind. They therefore gathered power unto themselves in order to accomplish their noble work and starved, imprisoned, and murdered their way to utopia. These crimes were rationalized as acceptable losses in pursuit of a success which would end suffering forever—a kind of war on poverty to end all wars.
When one suffers from desperation, even one’s best intentions exist without ethical boundary. For the desperate, denying themselves any means of helping their neighbors is indistinguishable from abandoning them, for there exists nothing else to help them nor anything to bring good out of their misfortune. In this way, desperation, like complacency, leads people to neglect even their most basic responsibilities such as not murdering one-another. The primary problem was not that utopia was never approached (though the unveiling of modernism’s ridiculous naivete was certainly a necessary kick in the teeth.) The problem was the evil done in its pursuit—the neglect of our responsibilities to one-another. Even success would not have whitewashed the horror.
The golden mean of faith is found when humanity is freed from the dangerous and unbearable responsibility to save the world—not for the sake of slothfulness, but in order to practice the other virtues well. While the faithful do as best they can, they are not driven to do whatever it takes. Though the heavens fall, they are still free to do what is right. They are, for example, freed to help the poor in sensible and responsible ways even if those ways do not end poverty forever. They are not forced to infantilize the needy by creating broad, overreaching, and harmful programs simply because only a broad and overreaching program could possibly be big enough to help every last person. Faithful parents are freed to raise their children as best they can—they do not have to send them to be raised by professionals to make sure they are all raised properly. They can let a child go out and require stitches, get an ‘F,’ and learn to explore & live in a world that is dangerous—they do not have to hover over them every step of the way. The faithful do not need to impose massive bureaucracies simply because people might make mistakes in the course of living their own lives and hurt themselves or others if left to their own devices. Those with the virtue of faith see no need to step beyond the bounds of the other virtues because though all the good they can do is not enough to save the world, the world is ultimately in good hands despite their own inadequacy. There is other help to be found even if they come up short; the suffering and pain people encounter may yet be redeemed and turned into good.
It is no coincidence that there is talk of a creator and inalienable rights in our founding documents—the very ones that sought to limit government. It is not merely because America has, socially speaking, been a Christian nation through much of her history. It is also a practical reality that without the virtue of faith, freedom is unthinkable. When there is no sense that a higher power is in charge, people look to the highest power that they can muster for themselves: civil government. When they turn to the power of government in their desperation, they enter a vicious cycle. For each injustice that must be corrected at any cost, more power must be granted before that cost is counted. When the bill finally comes due in the form of further injustices, more power must be granted to solve them at further uncounted cost. Like a family paying the interest on one credit card with another credit card, the salvation they reach for proves to be their undoing. There will always be more problems requiring more power that in turn causes more problems. Attempting to prevent all harm and inconvenience to anyone is synonymous with tyranny.
Accordingly, America would be wise to reconsider her government’s increasingly brazen attacks on religious liberty. Some have begun rebranding this liberty as a mere “freedom of worship.” In other words, people are free to visit whatever building they want on whichever day of the week they want to perform whatever liturgy they want. Increasingly, however, these same politicians and activists are at odds with the idea that any of this religious activity bleeds through to the rest of people’s lives. The fight over Arizona’s attempt to safeguard freedom of religion put this on full display most recently, but the story has played out on issues ranging from contraception mandates to chicken sandwiches. In each case, fearmongers preyed on the desperate by painting scenarios (often far-fetched) which must be prevented at any cost. They seem to think that Americans cannot be trusted to have consciences that affect their lives—that one’s object of worship must have no influence on one’s business, one’s politics, or indeed any of one’s “public” actions. This attempt at an airtight barrier between life and religion strangles the virtue of faith, for a virtue that does not touch our actions is no virtue at all.
Our freedom to bear arms is often described as one freedom that protects all of the others. This is no less true for freedom of religion. Once all other gods are deemed unfit to prompt public behavior, the only god Americans will be allowed to truly follow will be the State. I am not a universalist; I believe that my religion is true and therefore that other religions are false inasmuch as they contradict my own. Furthermore, I do not believe that any virtue, even one termed faith, avails us anything before God. Nevertheless, for the sake of our neighbors in this life, adherence to specific faiths must be allowed in order to protect the virtue of faith and the liberties that it sustains.
Matthew’s writing may be found at The 96th Thesis.