Unless you have been hidden away in a cave for the last year, you probably do not need me to tell you that our body politic is facing a serious crisis. The political events of the last year have been, in large part, disheartening. The reasons for this are many and varied; notable among them is a decline in religious faith. Of great concern also is the apparent absence of intellectual rigor that was seen among some candidates in the debates, in media coverage of the last year’s events, and among certain talk show “pundits”. That such a decline of reason has taken place at the same time as religious faith has declined should come as no surprise, especially to Catholics. A people who believe that “[f]aith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” (John Paul II, Fides et Ratio) should not be shocked that reason should decline in proportion as faith declines.
If, as I believe, the problem of the decline of reason in public life is largely a result of a lack of faith, then engagement in public life by persons of faith will play a large role in remedying that problem. Thus I would argue that men of faith who have a reasonable grasp on things political ought to count it as their civic duty to take part in that clash of minds referred to by Arthur Brooks —a devout Catholic and self-described political conservative—as a “competition of ideas”. If we do not rise to the occasion and accept this challenge, our world will suffer from our sins of omission. For there is a certain void in our public life, and it begs to be filled with true substance. It is on us to provide that substance.
If we accept this challenge (better yet, calling) to engage in public discourse so as to offer it something of real substance, we will have to be prepared. A good place to start in building ourselves up for this manly challenge is to draw inspiration from some of the great minds of the past. We might, for example, recall the mind of Stephen Douglas (1813-1861).
In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman speaks about the Lincoln-Douglas debates, casting them as a model for a serious presentation of ideas. He recounts one moment in the debates that is particularly striking. “At the first debate in Ottowa,” he said, “Douglas responded to lengthy applause with a remarkable and revealing statement. ‘My friends,’ he (Douglas) said, ‘silence will be more acceptable to me in the discussion of these questions than applause. I desire to address myself to your judgment, your understanding, and your consciences, and not to your passions or your enthusiasms’” (Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, pg. 45).
That is a remarkable statement indeed, and we can learn a very important lesson from it: We must not engage in political discourse to be right or to win people over to our way of thinking by winding them up emotionally. Rather, our engagement must be aimed at presenting to others what we know and believe to be true, for the purpose of advancing the common good. Sadly, we would be much better off in this regard if we were to follow the example of Stephen Douglas, rather than much of what we have seen from our President-elect.
In addition to learning from great minds of the past, another way to prepare ourselves for engagement in public life, is simply growing in our faith. I will try to illustrate this through reflection on one part of Pope Francis’s first encyclical. In Lumen Fidei (Latin for “The Light of Faith”), Pope Francis references Friedrich Nietzsche’s criticism of religious belief, saying the following:
The young Nietzsche encouraged his sister Elisabeth to take risks, to tread “new paths… with all the uncertainty of one who must find his own way”, adding that “this is where humanity’s paths part: if you want peace of soul and happiness, believe, but if you want to be a follower of truth, then seek”.
Pope Francis then points out that, in Nietzsche’s way of looking at the world, “[b]elief would be incompatible with seeking” (Lumen Fidei, 2). If this is the case, if belief really is incompatible with seeking, then my earlier claim—that people of faith possess the true substance (namely, truth) that is lacking in our public discourse—counts for nothing. For how else does one come to know truth except by seeking it out? Fortunately for us, however, the reality is actually precisely the opposite of what Nietzsche claims. Belief, in the Christian worldview, is the strongest driving force behind seeking. For we who believe that God is Truth recognize that to know truth of any kind—yes, even political or economic truth—is to know something of God. Furthermore, believers know that the truth will set us free, not only from sin if we choose to accept and abide by it, but also from slavery to popular opinion and media indoctrination.
But what becomes of the Nietzschean “seekers”? The irony is that they are actually the ones who becomes enslaved to falsehood. The Nietzschean seeker—or, more accurately, doubter—is the same kind of man whom Alexis de Tocqueville spoke of in Democracy in America. He is the man who “undertakes to be self-sufficient and finds his glory in making for himself beliefs that are his own about all things” (Tocqueville, Democracy in America, pg. 406), relying “only on the individual effort of his reason” to do so (pg. 403). In striving to do this, the Nietzschean seeker is in fact striving for the impossible. For, as Tocqueville notes, such a man “does not have the time because of the short span of life, nor the ability because of the limits of his mind”. He is “reduced to accepting as given a host of facts and opinions that he has neither the leisure nor the power to examine and verify by himself, but that the more able have found or the crowd adopts” (pg. 408).
The humble man of Christian faith, however, is different. He is not so proud as to try to know everything, but he takes great pains to be as sure as possible that what he claims to know is actually in accord with reality. Furthermore, he has as his aid the light of faith, a light which is “unique, since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence” (Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei, 4). It is the man of Christian faith, then, who has something of real substance to offer to our public discourse. For he is not interested merely in party talking points or political sloganry. Instead, he concerns himself above all with Truth.