As in Sigmund Freud’s day, there is a great unspoken anxiety among us, and it is making us crazy. In those days the nub of it was sexual repression. In our day, sexual longings are scarcely thought before acted upon. The supposed improvement has not made us less crazy, but that is a topic for another day. Now the thing which is deeply hidden and yet ubiquitous is longing for something holy.
It would probably surprise clergy people to know how much seriousness there is among parish members; how much spiritual curiosity is going unsatisfied. Maybe some of them think their congregations will cohere only as long as their curiosity is kept out of frank discussion. They may be good parochial politicians, which is no small thing, but we may ask what it costs us in Christian maturity.
Christian faith is not what the public thinks it is. We should be profoundly skeptical of all cultural descriptions of faith, including the churches’ descriptions, because they are deeply steeped in mass culture. The disparity between faith and cultural perceptions of it is probably inevitable, because the world is largely inhospitable to faith. If Christians are not at cross purposes to our surroundings, we have probably misunderstood ourselves. Accordingly, much of what follows is a protest against certain perceptions of faith, including those found in the churches as cultural institutions.
As an example of the misunderstanding which is afoot, take the antagonism which supposedly exists between religion and science. In From Dawn to Decadence, Jacques Barzun discusses what he calls “the two minds” at work in European culture the scientific mind, and the religious mind. The first of these, when it overextends its reach, presumes to talk of history, and gives us a deterministic view of human being. The second, religion, being animistic, gives us natural theology, a moral universe, and an account of evolution which does not escape moral overtones. Neither gives an adequate account of human freedom.
So we languish in a false dichotomy between two interpretations of human being: nihilistic determinism and spiritualistic exaltation. In the first view, the universe is soulless and we are not moral agents, but determinate particles in an Epicurean storm of other such particles. In the second, we have souls and may or may not exert ourselves as moral agents. To do so is a harmless eccentricity, a hobby for overachievers, but in the end all is good. If only the rest of the world knew what we know, they wouldn’t worry.
People don’t bother to choose between these two conceptions; they are both so much a part of the atmosphere we breathe that we don’t even notice a conflict. We nod and smile at whichever is in play at the moment.
If we understand ourselves as Christians, we will not be taken in by either the nihilist or the spiritualist. We know we are moral agents who have emotions, make choices, suffer consequences, and generate history. We also know we are not alone, even though God is remarkably taciturn. Thoreau claims to have found him by Walden Pond, with only a little help from Emerson and his whiskey.
Something is amiss, but the thought remains unformed in our minds. For the truth is, Christian faith cuts across both these minds. In modern Christian theology—and in Biblical theology from the beginning—man is free within a universe without boundaries. It does not follow that there is no meaning; rather that man has some of the responsibility for creating meaning. Truth is not a force of nature, but it is within our power to construct. Meanwhile, God lives alongside his people, and eventually puts himself among them as the suffering servant. What truth man constructs will show his mettle. If there is a capital T Truth in all this it is not a proposition, but a Person, the Servant, the Lover of Souls, the incarnate God.