Religion, the State, and the Common Good
I want to thank Dr. Snell and the Agora Institute for welcoming me here tonight; Vincenzo La Ruffa and the Neumann Forum for cosponsoring tonight’s event; and all of you for taking the time to be part of the conversation this evening. I look forward to a good discussion after I finish these remarks.
I’ll begin with a simple observation, and it’s this: Only one question really matters. Does God exist or not? If he does, then he has implications for every aspect of our personal and public behavior: all of our actions, all of our choices, all of our decisions. If God exists, denying him in our public life – whether we do it explicitly like a Richard Dawkins or implicitly by our silence – cannot serve the common good because it amounts to worshiping the unreal in the place of the real.
Religious believers built this country. Christians played a leading role in that work. This is a fact, not an opinion. Our entire framework of human rights is based on a religious understanding of the dignity of the human person as a child of his or her Creator. Nietzsche once said that, “convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.” But not even he really believed that, or he couldn’t have written a single word or been convinced of what he was writing.
In fact, the right kinds of convictions guide us forward. They give us meaning. And in practice, not acting on our convictions is a form of cowardice. As religious believers we need to live our convictions in the public square with charity and respect for others. But we also need to do it firmly, with courage and without apology. Anything less is a form of theft from the moral witness we owe to the public discussion of issues. We can never serve the common good by betraying who we are as believers or compromising away what we hold to be true.
Unfortunately, a crisis of faith and action for Christians has been growing for many years in Western society. It’s taken longer to have an impact here in the United States because we’re younger as a nation than the countries in Europe, and we’ve escaped some of Europe’s wars and worst social and religious struggles.
But Americans now face the same spiritual illness that Tolkien, Chesterton, Christopher Dawson, Romano Guardini and C.S. Lewis all wrote about in the last century. It’s a shriveling up of hope and purpose that comes from the loss of an interior life and a living faith. It’s a loss that we can only make bearable by creating a culture of material comfort that feeds – and feeds off of – personal selfishness. And no one saw this better than Georges Bernanos.
Most people know Bernanos for his novels, especially The Diary of a Country Priest and Under Satan’s Sun. But he was also one of the major European Catholic writers to reject the Franco uprising in Spain. He spent the Second World War in South America out of disgust with European politics, both right and left. And he didn’t have a sentimental bone in his body. He criticized Catholic politicians, Church leaders and average Catholics in the pew with exactly the same energy.
But he loved the Church, and he believed in Jesus Christ. And nearly 70 years ago, in 1946 and 1947, he gave a final series of lectures that predicted where our civilization was heading with complete clarity. Regnery published the lectures in English in 1955 as The Last Essays of Georges Bernanos. They’re worth reading.
Bernanos had a very clear vision of the “signs of the times.” Just after the Second World War, France had a revival of Catholicism. Recovering from a global conflict and the Holocaust, the world in general and France in particular seemed to turn back, very briefly, to a hunger for moral substance.
But Bernanos had the gift – or the curse – of seeing the problems beneath the veneer. He wasn’t fooled by the apparent revival of Catholic France. And so his work is a great corrective to the myth that our current moral confusion started in the 1960s. As Bernanos makes clear, our problems began much earlier with the industrial revolution – but not simply because of machines. Our problems were the fruit of a “de-spiritualization” that had been going on since the aftermath of the Reformation.
Bernanos argues that the optimism of the modern West is a refusal to see the world as it really is. It’s a kind of whistling past the graveyard. The Christian virtue of hope, he reminds us, is a very different thing; a hard and strong thing. Hope disciplines and “perfects” human appetites. It has nothing to do with mere optimism. In fact, real Christian hope comes into play as the obstacles to human happiness seem to get worse.
In his writing, Bernanos shows just how high the obstacles to real human freedom in the modern world have become, even in liberal democracies. He argues that optimism is a veneer that covers up the despair we create by our own greed and materialism. We need to convince ourselves that the world, by its nature, is somehow constantly improving and that everything will turn out well. We do this despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary – crime, terrorism, disease, poverty. And we cling to a myth of progress to avoid dealing with the collateral damage caused by our own bad choices.
Two themes shape the last essays by Bernanos. The first is man’s eagerness to forget or escape what it means to be human in favor of phony scientific systems like Marxism or seemingly “free” market systems like liberal capitalism. Each in its own way threatens human dignity and tends to undermine human relations.
For Bernanos, big ideological systems “mechanize” history with lofty words like progress and dialectics. But in doing so, they attack the importance of both the past – which they see as unenlightened – and the present, which is always imperfect. The future is where some form of salvation is always found for every system of thought that tries to eliminate God, whether it’s explicitly atheistic or pays lip service to religious values. And of course this happy future never arrives, because progress never stops and paradise always turns out to be just around the corner.
Bernanos’ second theme is that Christianity and Judaism see life very differently. For both of them, history is precious because it’s a record of human decision. At every moment of our lives, we’re asked to choose for good or for evil. Therefore, time has weight. Time has meaning. The present is important because it will never come again. It’s the moment when we’re not determined by outside forces but self-determined by our free will. The past is likewise important because our past actions make us who we are today. But each “today” also gives us another chance to change our developing history.
Therefore the future is never pre-determined. It’s the fruit of our past and present choices. The future is always, by its nature, unknown because each new moment offers us new possibilities.
To put it another way: Time and freedom are the raw material of life because time is the realm of human choice. Bernanos reminds us that the devil – and Bernanos very much believed in the devil’s existence – wants us to think that freedom really doesn’t exist. The devil wants us to believe that our lives are too small for our choices to matter. The reason is simple. When we fail to choose a life of moral courage, when we just eat, sleep, work and consume our way through life, then we debase our own humanity and in effect choose for Satan.
Try to see the world through the devil’s eyes. Time is his enemy. He lives outside time - - neither in the eternity of God, nor in the realm of man. Satan has made his choice against God. He’s forever locked in that choice by his own pride. But as long as men and women live within time, which is the realm of change, they can still choose in favor of God. And God is always eager to help with his grace to do just that. If the devil can sell us on the idea that history is predetermined, or it’s a process that has no higher meaning, or if our freedom of will can be made to seem like an illusion, then evil wins. By the way, if he were alive today, Bernanos might have some interesting thoughts on the language of the abortion debate. When we look at “pro-choice” vocabulary, it really isn’t about choice at all. It’s phrased in terms of “what choice did I have?” “I couldn’t choose not to have sex.” “I couldn’t choose not to kill the child.” “You have no right to expect more from me; I had to have an abortion, and so I had a right to do it.”
In arguing for the fiction of abortion rights, “pro-choice” typically means agreeing to the even bigger fiction that nobody really had a choice.
Note too that rapid technological change is a very mixed blessing. It can easily serve bad purposes by creating a false spirit of urgency; a sense that that there just isn’t time to consider morally fundamental questions. A hundred years ago our material lives were not too different from what they were a thousand years before. Men walked and rode and tilled and sold.
Suddenly, things have changed more in 100 years than they had in the previous 5,000. And we expect things to be different tomorrow from what they are today. What Bernanos says in his essays about the implications of the atomic bomb, we could say today about the tide of technology that submerges our lives. In a materialist culture that assumes human beings are essentially carbon elements with an attitude, smart monkeys without much self-control, science has now given us the most powerful tools, toys and weapons in history.
Frank Sheed, who shared many of Bernanos’ concerns, once wrote these words:
“It’s incredible how long science has succeeded in keeping men’s minds off their fundamental unhappiness and [science’s] own very limited power to remedy [man’s] fundamental unhappiness. One marvel follows another – electric light, phonograph, motor car, telephone, radio, airplane, television. It’s a curious list, and very pathetic. The soul of man is crying for hope of purpose or meaning; and the scientist says, ‘Here is a telephone’” or ‘Look, television!’ – exactly as one tries to distract a baby crying for its mother by offering it sugar-sticks and making funny faces.”
The effect of our technology, when it becomes a cult of progress, is to capture us in a river of urgency and change that never stops, never slows down – but also never really feeds our deepest needs. The good technology often achieves is obvious. But the more technology cocoons us in our individual appetites and distractions, the more it dissolves the human ties that connect us. Virtual reality is not reality. We’re not sovereign individuals. We can’t invent or re-invent ourselves. We’re part of a common human narrative that obligates us to each other.
Human freedom draws its life from our longings of the mind and heart and soul. These are hungers that material things can never fully satisfy. For Christians, the most important moments of the human story are not the next big inventions, but all the crucial events in the past flowing from the Incarnation, and the present moment of our individual opportunities to love.
The Christian faith, in particular, is grounded in what God has done. Our love is what we choose to do now. And our hope is founded on God’s past acts of love and our present ones. Without history, there is no Christianity. So the key question, for Bernanos, is “whether history is the story of mankind or merely [the story] of technology.” Modern women and men must be convinced again that they’re free, that they can really choose between very different paths to very different futures. In the act of choosing, we regain history as our own.
Part of convincing people of their freedom is reaffirming sacred history. That means remembering and retelling the choices made by Adam and Eve and Mary and Jesus and all the intermediate choices for or against God in Scripture. In hearing the Christian faith narrated, it becomes understandable as a history of choice. It leads us directly to our own choices, right here and right now. So the first need in regaining human freedom is to tell the human story as a chronicle of free will.
The act of remembering God’s love and the history of our salvation begins the only kind of revolution that matters. That revolution, the same revolution of the human spirit that took place 2,000 years ago and changed the world, is already underway in every Christian believer who confesses passionately and unapologetically – in his private life and in her public witness – that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the messiah of Israel and the savior of the world.
Every other tool we use in trying to make sense of the human story, whether we choose economics or gender or Darwin or race or something else, will ultimately lie to us about who we are.
Now, how does any of this relate to religion, the state and the common good?
Here’s how. The “common good” is more than a political slogan. It’s more than what most people think they want right now. It’s not a matter of popular consensus or majority opinion. It can’t be reduced to economic justice or social equality or better laws or civil rights, although all these things are vitally important to a healthy society.
The common good – the foundation of a just civil society – is what best serves human dignity and happiness in the light of what’s real and true. That’s the heart of the matter: What is real and true? If God exists, then the more man flees from God, the less true and less real man becomes. If God exists, then a society that refuses to acknowledge or publicly talk about God in articulating its own purpose is suffering from a peculiar form of insanity.
It’s hard to imagine what the “common good” could ever really mean in the context of Nietzsche or Marx or Freud or Darwin. These men became the architects of our age. But they were also just the latest expressions of a much deeper and more familiar temptation to human pride. We want to be gods, but we’re not. And when we try to be, we diminish ourselves.
Humility is the beginning of sanity. It’s also the glue of every enduring community. We can’t love anyone else until we can see past ourselves. And man can’t even be man without God. The humility to recognize who we are as creatures, who God is as our Father, what God asks from each of us, and the reality of God’s infinite love for other human persons as well as ourselves – this is the necessary foundation that religion brings to every discussion of free will, justice and truth, and by extension, to every conversation about “the common good” and a genuinely humane civil society.
Sirach and the Psalms, the Gospel of Luke and the Letter of James – these and so many other examples from Scripture move the human heart not because they’re beautiful writings. They’re beautiful writings because they spring from what we know in our hearts to be true about God, about the world and about ourselves.
Bernanos once said that, “the world will be saved only by free men. We must make a world for free men.” He also said that prudence – or rather, the kind of caution and fear that too often pretend to be prudence – is the one piece of advice he would never follow. “When trouble is looking for you,” he said, “it’s primarily a question of facing it, since it would be still more dangerous to turn your back on it. In that case, prudence is only the alibi of the cowardly.”
Civil society, stripped of a soul, inevitably turns on the people it was meant to serve. Religious faith – when it’s lived in a spirit of humility and love, wisdom and courage – is the leaven of our humanity; a seed of light and hope in a world that too often is made dark by suffering, confusion and hatred.
We most truly serve civil society by living our religious faith with joy and conviction. For Christians, that means shaping our lives, more deeply every day, to be disciples of Jesus Christ. God gave us a free will, but we need to use it. Discipleship has a cost. And Jesus never said that we don’t need a backbone.
To put it another way: The world doesn’t need affirmation. It needs conversion. It doesn’t need the approval of Christians. It needs their witness. And that work needs to begin with us.
Bernanos once said that the “scandal of Creation [isn’t] suffering but freedom.” He said that, “moralists like to regard sanctity as a luxury; [but] actually it is a necessity.” He also said that, “[some might] believe that this isn’t the era of the saints; that the era of the saints has passed. [But] it is always the era of the saints.”
The only thing that matters is to be a saint. We serve Caesar best – whether he likes it or not – when we serve God first and faithfully. And if we do that one thing well, then God will take care of the rest.
This item 10468 digitally provided courtesy of CatholicCulture.org