Core decorum: faith

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Illustration courtesy of Cecilia Lang

When one finally gets around to reading volume 1, part 2, chapter 9 of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America for that Principles of American Politics assignment that one just has not been able to do until now, one would likely be struck by the soulful meditation on the nature of religious faith found therein.

Tocqueville writes, “Alone among all the beings, man shows a natural disgust for existence and an immense desire to exist; he scorns life and fears nothingness. These different instincts constantly drive his soul toward contemplation of another world, and it is religion that guides it there. Religion is therefore only a particular form of hope, and it is as natural to the human heart as hope itself … Disbelief is an accident; faith alone is the permanent state of humanity.”

This is quite an odd inquiry into the nature of faith.

There is something quite novel, yet familiar, about Tocqueville’s statement. Everyone can admit that there is something about their life, at all times, that is unsatisfactory or even incredibly painful. We all have our struggles. 

Whether our struggle is trying not to judge our own worth by that C we got on a paper, or feeling lost and alone when in an unfamiliar environment, all have felt that scorn for life that Tocqueville so keenly picks up on. 

However, there is a flip-side to this. Despite our anger at existence, we all still desire to be. 

Everyone, even the most devout, faithful and committed believer, has some level of fear of death. We naturally love our lives, though most live in a state of constant dissatisfaction. 

Sure, you might be upset about how a friend treated you the other day, but that doesn’t mean that you’re going to embrace nothingness as a viable alternative. 

What squares the circle between this exasperation with existence and a fear of the void? 

In a word, faith. 

Faith is something that is expressed in every single action everyone takes. If you are living at all, if you are pursuing some good, as Aristotle argued all are, then you are living a life of faith. 

Though this faith doesn’t even need to be explicit, it certainly can and should be. 

Every time you eat a meal, you have faith that your life is worth living as long as that meal can take you. Every time you choose to put your nose to the grindstone and work hard, you do so only because you have faith that it will all be worth it. Every time you painfully open yourself up and are vulnerable with others, it is only so because you have faith that the pain is worth the potentially deep and meaningful relationship. 

All who live, lead lives of faith. None can escape from this fact. 

However, Tocqueville doesn’t stop with implicit faith. No, he moves on and argues that this faith is a “form of hope” that is expressed most naturally in the form of religion. 

Religion gives shape and coherence to the faith that is intrinsic to our nature. It is no mere reflection or projection of our knowledge, as Feuerbach would have us believe, but instead is an intelligible discipline that helps us understand our own nature by fostering a relationship with He who lovingly created this nature within us. 

There are some things that are inescapable, and the facts of existence and need for faith are among them. No one can live without faith, and no one can truly embrace life to the fullest without embracing faith and hope in their most complete form. 

When we become angry with our lives or begin to scorn the factors contributing to our own existence, but remain committed to living, let us take a step back and remember the wisdom of Tocqueville. 

This anger and fear is natural. Moreover, this anger and fear has been so beautifully and mysteriously transformed by God to be the forces that drive us to a more complete faith and hope in Him.

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