When considering the exchange of faith, the whole-minded and whole-hearted giving of one’s life to a Person beyond the limits of our searching reason, many men and women are taken aback at the foolishness of the terms. From the outside, faith can appear as a cowardly abandoning of one’s rightful autonomy, a lazy or overwhelmed ceding of control. On this reading, faith is a cop-out, a capitulation, a symptom of mental weakness, or a lack of resoluteness before life’s trials. The essential concern here is that by giving away one’s life, that life is lost in a certain sense. What it means to be human is compromised and the believer proceeds to wander through life in a sort of reduced existence, caught between awareness and sleep, the perpetual prisoner of existential insomnia.
We can see this view for the caricature it is by understanding that faith illuminates and strengthens our humanity—including our reason—rather than suppressing it. Rather, when we entrust Jesus with our whole life, nothing, save but our sin, is lost. Pope Francis brings this home in Lumen Fidei:
The star [of Bethlehem] is a sign of God’s patience with our eyes which need to grow accustomed to his brightness. Religious man is a wayfarer; he must be ready to let himself be led, to come out of himself and to find the God of perpetual surprises. This respect on God’s part for our human eyes shows us that when we draw near to God, our human lights are not dissolved in the immensity of light, as a star is engulfed by the dawn, but shine all the more brightly the closer they approach the primordial fire, like a mirror which reflects light […] There is no human experience, no journey of man to God, which cannot be taken up, illumined and purified by this light. (35)
Perhaps the place for which the Church comes under the heaviest fire for this supposed oppressive interposition of heteronomy (i.e., other law, the opposite of autonomy) is in the realm of the moral life. The Church is painted by many of her detractors as the equivalent of a puritanical grandmother figure who can’t quite figure out this whole email business but knows that her grandkids had better not date until they are at least twenty-four. While this misapprehension requires a much fuller treatment to expose its falsity, perhaps one example can illustrate how an appeal to the Church’s philosophical and theological tradition actually speaks of morality on happier terms.
Take the example of the passions, generically conceived as the animal part of our affective lives. St. Thomas Aquinas understood the passions (think here of love, desire, hate, sorrow, hope, anger, etc.) as what happens in the material dimension of man when stirred up by some sensory experience. While our understanding of biology has come a long way since the thirteenth century, we still can still speak of the passions as being rooted in visceral instinct. We can think of the idiomatic sense of blood boiling or running cold, shivers down the spine, etc. St. Thomas makes the argument that when we permit the passions to dictate the terms of how we react, it reduces the moral quality of the act. Acting from fear or rage represents for him a definitively less human act.
His account for this is straightforward. Man is a species distinct from other animals primarily by virtue of intellect and will. Thus being genuinely human is bound up with how we exercise these powers. Untamed passions that override our reason keep us from realizing our full humanity. We judge those who commit crimes of passion to be somehow less responsible than those who coldly calculate their crimes, but that doesn’t make those controlled by their passions any closer to fulfilling their end as human beings.
But what is our way out of this sorry state? St. Thomas explains that our passions can be perfected and properly serve our reason, rather than the other way around.
This is no mere program of chastity belts and strait jackets—it means the real perfection and ordering of the whole person by the movement of grace in the soul to become most perfectly oneself. Christians understand that true happiness and freedom require reckoning with our complex, fallen human nature and seeking God’s grace to repair what has broken. In the end, the grace of God works towards the discovery of real freedom rather than a mere vacuous spontaneity, and in a culture emphasizing sincerity, authenticity, and freedom, the Christian is liberated to navigate through life with a confident and untrammeled joy.
Image: Francisco Bayeu y Subias, Providence Presiding over the Virtues and Faculties of Man (fresco detail)