C. S. Lewis: On Education as Opposed to Training

In an essay entitled Our English Syllabus – which can be found in Rehabilitations (1939) – C. S. Lewis discusses the difference between education and vocational training, as well as the more subtle difference between education and learning. He begins by reflecting upon the assessment of the late medieval/early modern mind (via Milton) and the corresponding assessment of the classical mind (via Aristotle), which is that the primary purpose of education is to produce the ‘good man and the good citizen…the man of good taste and good feeling, the interesting and interested man, and almost the happy man’ – the task of the educator is to awaken and sharpen the logical and moral faculties latent in mankind, by exposing them to all the wisdom that culture has to offer; it is not primarily geared towards setting the student up to perform a particular duty or becoming well skilled in a specific area of expertise.

The duty of the trainer however is precisely this, and so the trainer’s brief is essentially utilitarian and narrow. This is not said to disparage vocational training or vocational trainers, but merely to make an important distinction – vocational training has a very different end in mind to education (or at least what was considered to be the essence of education until fairly recently). Lewis’ essay is designed to alert the reader to the fact that education has become not only conflated with training, but to a great extent subsumed by it – when we think of education nowadays, it is usual to see it as a stepping stone on the way to getting a job. Now, this is to a certain extent inevitable, as the prior concept of education was based on societies where hierarchical inequality was assumed and where education was therefore limited to those with enough free time to devote to it. In our own time though, we must aim to find a balance between the two ways:

When societies became, in effort if not in achievement, egalitarian, we are presented with a difficulty. To give everyone education and to give no one vocational training is impossible, for electricians and surgeons we must have and they must be trained. Our ideal must be to find time for both education and training: our danger is that equality may mean training for all and education for none-that everyone will learn commercial French instead of Latin, book-keeping instead of geometry, and ‘knowledge of the world we live in’ instead of great literature. It is against this danger that schoolmasters have to fight, for if education is beaten by training, civilization dies. That is a thing very likely to happen. One of the most dangerous errors instilled into us by nineteenth-century progressive optimism is the idea that civilization is automatically bound to increase and spread. The lesson of history is the opposite; civilization is a rarity, attained with difficulty and easily lost…

…And if you press to know what I mean by civilization, I reply ‘Humanity’, by which I do not mean kindness so much as the realization of the human idea. Human life means to me the life of beings for whom the leisured activities of thought, art, literature, conversation are the end,’ and the preservation and propagation of life merely the means. That is why education seems to me so important: it actualizes that potentiality for leisure, if you like for amateurishness, which is man’s prerogative.

taken from Our English Syllabus

                Whilst it is true that equal opportunity for social betterment must be afforded to all, we are making a grave mistake if we conceive of this opportunity only in terms of making available more means to earn money by storing up ‘useful’ techniques and bits of information. For it is precisely the useless things in life that make us most human, that make civilisation civilised. The ‘dangerous errors instilled into us by nineteenth-century optimism’ do not though, even after the horrors of their full-scale implementation in various twentieth-century regimes and the similarly horrific warning signs to their contrary in that same century’s great wars, seem to have lost any of their hold over us – we are still of the mind that secular, materialist progressivism will save the day, and continue to pour all our efforts into perpetuating that vision of things, particularly in our schools.

The results of these efforts are not only that people in the West are increasingly alienated from the riches of their own cultural heritage, but that they are also becoming less skilled in the utilitarian arts as well – each year we read that numeracy and literacy levels are decreasing and that we are producing fewer engineers and scientists with the skills necessary to compete in the global market. There seems to be something analogous to Matthew 6:33 here – that if we seek first the path of virtue and wisdom (i.e.; of education), all the skills needed for meeting vocational standards will be added to us, but if we aim for training alone, we lose out on both fronts. The goal of education is to produce someone who, by being steeped in the wisdom of the ages, has had their critical faculties honed so well that they can turn their mind to any task – thus it acts as a foundation for engagement with vocations of any kind.

The goal of training however, is to deliver a limited set of information and/or skills to the student in order to perform a task or set of tasks – thus, when meeting said tasks, and encountering the range of difficulties that most jobs present (and this is particularly so in today’s world, when so many disciplines overlap) there is not always present in the actor the depth of insight and range of critical faculties required to meet those difficulties satisfactorily. In summary, you could say that training equips the student to meet this task, to fit this role, whereas education provides the student with the aptitude and powers of judgement to meet any task or fit any role. This ties in to what Lewis has to say about the difference between education and learning, where he contends that the latter presupposes that the student has already had his appetite for knowledge shaped by the former. On those who have been so shaped and thus desire to know more, he writes:

Now it might have happened that such people were left in civil societies to gratify their taste as best they could without assistance or interference from their fellows. It has not happened. Such societies have usually held a belief-and it is a belief of a quite transcendental nature-that knowledge is the natural food of the human mind: that those who’ specially pursue it are being specially human; and that their activity is good in itself besides being always honourable and sometimes useful to the whole society. Hence we come to have such associations as universities-institutions for the support and encouragement of men devoted to learning…

…The schoolmaster must think about the pupil: everything he says is said to improve the boy’s character or open his mind-the schoolmaster is there to make the pupil a ‘good’ man. And the pupil must think about the master. Obedience is one of the virtues he has come to him to learn; his motive for reading one book and neglecting another must constantly be that he was told to. But the elder student has no such duties ex officio to the younger. His business is to pursue knowledge. If hi pursuit happens to be helpful to the junior partner, he is welcome to be present; if not, he is welcome to stay at home. No doubt the elder, of his charity, may go a little out of his course to help the younger; but he is then acting as a man, not as a student.


                The ‘elder student’ Lewis speaks of is of course the university tutor, as he considers that at this point both professor and undergraduate are, having both been formed by education, embarked together upon the journey of learning – of pursuing knowledge in order to deepen understanding. Thus, whilst the tutor may (and no doubt ordinarily will) aid and accompany the undergraduate on this journey, they are in it together – it is the case of a more experienced traveller giving advice to someone just starting out on the trail, and assumes that the novice has already had their mind and will educated in order to respond to and learn from what the journey will present along the way. Lewis goes on to point out that in his own time Oxford had already become a place of continuing education, not primarily of learning. He also notes that this is not completely a bad thing, if it occurs as a by-product of Oxford’s primary occupation as a place of learning:

What do these changes mean? They mean, I think, that a temporary immersion in the life of learning has been found to have an educational value. Learning is not education; but it can be used educationally by those who do not propose to pursue learning all their lives. There is nothing odd in the existence of such a by-product. Games are essentially for pleasure, but they happen to produce health. They are not likely, however, to produce health if they are played for the sake of it. Play to win and you will find yourself taking violent exercise; play because it is good for you and you will not. In the same way, though you may have come here only to be educated, you will never receive that precise educational gift which a university has to give you unless you can at least pretend, so long as you are with us, that you are concerned not with education but with knowledge for its own sake. And we, on our part, can do very little for you if we aim directly at your education.


                Again, there is something of Matthew 6:33 here; that we have become a society which aims to achieve the useful or immediately desirable without aiming for what makes for wisdom and virtue – i.e.; the Good, the True and the Beautiful. The story of our reforming education in terms of training and of learning in terms of continuing education (which, in our own time, has more often than not become continual training instead) is connected to the wider narrative in which we seek to frame our culture – that of eschewing the permanent things in order to chase after short-term, material satisfaction. The great irony of this is that in doing so, in trying to reframe the pursuit of happiness in terms of the immediate and the contingent, we are cutting ourselves off from all that has made our culture what it is and are thus corroding our civilisation from within.

As Lewis’ essay notes at the outset, ‘if education is beaten by training, civilization dies.’ The great tragedy of our age is that we, on the whole, still have not noticed the cultural suicide that we are effecting – we have so much stuff to keep us both sated and occupied, and so much trivia to keep us distracted, that it is all too easy to ignore the slipping away of all that made the West what it is in the first place. We are, in effect, fiddling while Rome burns, and it seems gleefully so. Most attempts to sound the alarm on any aspect of our decline are written off as obscurantism – people find it hard to believe that anyone would see anything wrong in such a time of plenty as ours. ‘Just embrace it,’ we are told. Well, time will tell I suppose; but Lewis’ words on education certainly ring true with a lot of what is already observable in our schools, and chime with a great deal else that is wrong with our age. We would be unwise to ignore such warnings, and it is not yet too late to turn the ship around – there is plenty at harbour that would make for our revitalisation.

Blessed John Henry Newman: A Charter for Liberalism

Liberalism in religion was, according to Blessed John Henry Newman, the thing that he consistently fought against throughout his life. By Liberalism he meant the preference of our own private judgements over the mind of the Church, and the alteration of revealed truth to suit our own desires and/or the spirit of the age. His opposition to Liberalism is often misunderstood or simply ignored given that he was, in the classical sense of the word, a true liberal – he believed in taking a generous approach to the opinions of others, in the open discussion of ideas, and in charitable engagement with contemporary culture. And yet, he was also (again in the classical sense) a true conservative, believing in the importance of tradition, in the rightness of appeal to authority in settling disputes, and that the jettisoning of tried and tested truths in favour of new ideas based solely on their novelty was both imprudent and destructive.

It was this careful balance between his generosity of spirit and openness to debate on the one side, and his insistence on the need to adhere to and learn from tradition (especially revealed truth) and authority on the other, that gave Newman so many problems after his conversion – at a time when the kind of Liberalism abhorred by Newman (i.e.; the germ of what would later become known as Modernism) was being fortified against by retreat into an overly protective dogmatism zealous to increase papal powers beyond what Sacred Tradition could actually support, Newman was rejected by both parties. He was too ‘liberal’ for the Ultramontane party, and too ‘conservative’ for the Liberalist party. Nevertheless, out of his personal trials good would come, as the party spirit that was condemned by Saint Paul was exposed more clearly, and a more nuanced position would grow out of it – amongst other things, the idea of doctrinal development was given a surer and more robust definition.

Nevertheless, such things took time, and for Blessed John Henry, it was often a struggle (in remembering this, his testimony to the fact that he never once regretted his conversion and, despite his trials, always felt that he had found his home in the Church, have even more force). At any rate, when he wrote his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, he added an extensive note explaining exactly what it was that he meant by Liberalism in order to further settle some of the ferment surrounding it and his position on such matters, and in this note, which is in great part a reflection on his personal experience of theological Liberalism in action (the concrete always being of supreme importance to Newman), he provides a succinct and potent description of what the term does and doesn’t mean:

Whenever men are able to act at all, there is the chance of extreme and intemperate action; and therefore, when there is exercise of mind, there is the chance of wayward or mistaken exercise. Liberty of thought is in itself a good; but it gives an opening to false liberty. Now by Liberalism I mean false liberty of thought, or the exercise of thought upon matters, in which, from the constitution of the human mind, thought cannot be brought to any successful issue, and therefore is out of place. Among such matters are first principles of whatever kind; and of these the most sacred and momentous are especially to be reckoned the truths of Revelation. Liberalism then is the mistake of subjecting to human judgement those revealed doctrines which are in their nature beyond and independent of it, and of claiming to determine on intrinsic grounds the truth and value of propositions which rest for their reception simply on the external authority of the Divine Word.

Apologia Pro Vita Sua (2004), p.254, Penguin Classics.

                Newman clearly draws a line in the sand here – liberty of thought and the free discussion of ideas are not only acceptable but goods in and of themselves; however, there are certain basic principles that cannot be subjected to critique or question, because they are the things which form the base from which we do all our other questioning. This latter thing, which Newman refers to as ‘false liberty of thought’ (presumably because whilst giving the illusion of freedom it actually, by removing the base from which thought is conducted, undermines the whole process of genuinely creative and critical reflection) is what he calls Liberalism. In matters of religion, the basic principles which thus cannot be questioned are the truths of Revelation – for once we start to question these, immediately we lose our identity with respect to the religion in question.

For any system of thought to maintain coherence and identity, the fundamentals must be set apart and not subjected to critique – otherwise we become caught adrift, and are no longer genuinely enjoying freedom of thought, but are rather beholden to a conceptual chaos. Saint John Paul II, in the opening sections of his encyclical Fides et Ratio, makes a similar point to Newman, but broadens its application to all philosophy – i.e.; to all critical thinking:

Although times change and knowledge increases, it is possible to discern a core of philosophical insight within the history of thought as a whole. Consider, for example, the principles of non-contradiction, finality and causality, as well as the concept of the person as a free and intelligent subject, with the capacity to know God, truth and goodness. Consider as well certain fundamental moral norms which are shared by all. These are among the indications that, beyond different schools of thought, there exists a body of knowledge which may be judged a kind of spiritual heritage of humanity. It is as if we had come upon an implicit philosophy, as a result of which all feel that they possess these principles, albeit in a general and unreflective way. Precisely because it is shared in some measure by all, this knowledge should serve as a kind of reference point for the different philosophical schools. Once reason successfully intuits and formulates the first universal principles of being and correctly draws from them conclusions which are coherent both logically and ethically, then it may be called right reason or, as the ancients called it, orthos logo, recta ratio.

Fides et Ratio, 4.

                This is of course exactly the sort of position that is now so often deliberately undermined (not usually by argument but rather according to the claim that it is ‘outdated’ to appeal to certain foundational, objective principles) and is at least partly why philosophy today has become to a large extent a matter of toying with words – something cut off from lived human experience and thus largely unable to engage with real life problems. Utilitarianism and relativism are, quite frankly, not fit for purpose – they do not aid or enrich people’s lives at a level which can effect long-term, meaningful change because they are cut off from that core body of insight that Saint John Paul speaks of. Just as there is Liberalism in religion, philosophical relativism represents a Liberalism in thought more generally, and it is this (with its destructive consequences for culture) that Pope Benedict XVI worked so hard to counter during his career.

Blessed John Henry Newman though was principally concerned with theological Liberalism, and at the end of his appendix to the Apologia he presents a list of propositions which he had drawn up during his days at Oxford as an Anglican – propositions which could be said to represent a kind of charter for Liberalism, and which he summarily rejected. He lists eighteen in total, but I shall only share the first ten, as the remaining eight are concerned more with the rights of civil powers and the relationship between Church and State:

1. No religious tenet is important, unless reason shows it to be so.

                Therefore, e.g. the doctrine of the Athanasian Creed is not to be insisted on, unless it tends to convert the soul; and the doctrine of the Atonement is to be insisted on, if it does convert the soul.


  1. No one can believe what he does not understand.

                Therefore, e.g. there are no mysteries in religion.


  1. No theological doctrine is anything more than an opinion which happens to be held by bodies of men.

                Therefore, e.g. no creed, as such, is necessary for salvation.


  1. It is dishonest in a man to make an act of faith in what he has not had brought home to him by actual proof.

                Therefore, e.g. the mass of men ought not absolutely to believe in the divine authority of the Bible.


  1. It is immoral in a man to believe more than he can spontaneously receive as being congenial to his moral and mental nature.

                Therefore, e.g. a given individual is not bound to believe in eternal punishment.


  1. No revealed doctrines or precepts may reasonably stand in the way of scientific conclusions.

                Therefore, e.g. Political Economy may reverse our Lord’s declarations about poverty and riches, or a system of Ethics may teach that the highest condition of body is ordinarily essential to the highest state of mind.


  1. Christianity is necessarily modified by the growth of civilisation, and the exigencies of the times.

Therefore, e.g. the Catholic priesthood, though necessary in the Middle Ages, may be superseded now.


  1. There is a system of religion more simply true than Christianity as it has ever been received.

                Therefore, e.g. we may advance that Christianity is the “corn of wheat” which has been dead for 1800 years, but at length will bear fruit; and that Mahometanism is the manly religion, and existing Christianity the womanish.


  1. There is a right of Private Judgement: that is, there is no existing authority on earth competent to interfere with the liberty of individuals in reasoning and judging for themselves about the Bible and its contents, as they severally please.

                Therefore, e.g. religious establishments requiring subscription are Anti-christian.


  1. There are rights of conscience such, that every one may lawfully advance a claim to profess and teach what is false and wrong in matters, religious, social, and moral, provided that to his private conscience it seems absolutely true and right.

                Therefore, e.g. individuals have a right to preach and practise fornication and polygamy.

Apologia Pro Vita Sua, pp.259-260.

                Again, it is important to remember the depth of Newman’s commitment to conscience, and to the open engagement with culture, so that when he mentions scientific conclusions in no. 6, he is not being ‘anti-science’ and when he discusses freedom of conscience in nos. 9 and 10, he is not suggesting we stop thinking for ourselves. What he is concerned with is that we recognise the proper priority of the fundamentals of Revelation, so that we order our conclusions regarding scientific discovery (which is always to some extent provisional and subject to further evaluation) to what is already known via Revelation and allow our consciences to be formed by that teaching in a way that recognises its prior authority and does not place the self above it.

Making a couple of adjustments here and there to allow for examples more relevant to our age though, it seems to me that the points laid out here by Newman are, in essence, consistent with what we see in the theological Liberalism of today. Whilst typing out the propositions, I was struck by how many of their assumptions are still operative in the thought of many influential clergy and laity, across denominational boundaries. Thus Newman’s ‘charter’ for Liberalism is still something we would do well to pay attention to, summarising as it does some of the main expressions of the spirit of Liberalism within Christianity. The ‘mistake of subjecting to human judgement those revealed doctrines which are in their nature beyond and independent of it’ and the ‘false liberty of thought’ which both precedes and succeeds this mistake are still very much in evidence, and the spirit that so concerned Blessed John Henry Newman is one we must continue to fight against.

C. S. Lewis: Christianity, Historicism and the Enlightenment Narrative

In an essay from October 1950 entitled Historicism, C. S. Lewis critiques the various schools of thought that would confidently proclaim a defined ‘inner meaning’ to history. In the essay, which first appeared in Volume IV of The Month, Lewis begins by distinguishing between actual historians, who may indeed infer a certain meaning related to a series of events based on known facts (and may even go on to infer the correct sense of future or past events in relation to the known data), from the historicist, who claims to be able to infer from the same historical premises conclusions that have a much wider import – conclusions that are metaphysical, existential, theological or (as Lewis makes sure to add) a-theological. The historian speaks in terms of cause and effect or grounds and consequences; the historicist talks in terms of ultimate necessity, based on a prior theory of the way history is going (according to his particular theory of history).

Examples of such would be Hegel, Marx or Novalis, and Lewis also cites Keat’s Hyperion, as an example of historicism (in this instance evolutionism – the idea that things inevitably march or lurch towards a more perfect future) embodied in verse. After noting some of these examples, Lewis also goes on to rescue Christianity from the range of historicist schools – he notes that even though the Old Testament contains some passages which suggest calamities have befallen Israel because of a divine judgement, we have in these cases a guarantee only that judgement was afforded because of sin in these cases; we do not have the authority to attribute the same meaning to all calamities we see in life. Lewis also notes that, although the Old Testament has this feature in common with the contemporary pagan cultures, it is also contains many correctives to it that the pagans do not – the Book of Job and the Suffering Servant in Isaiah for instance.

Furthermore, for the Christian, we have dominical authority that not every disaster is the result of divine judgement in Luke 13:4 and John 9:13, so surely this kind of historicism is not allowed us. It is also often said that Christianity is unique in having a sense of linear history, in contradistinction to the pagans, but whilst this may be true of the Greeks, Lewis points out that both the Norse culture and the Romans had a keen sense of history, expressed vividly in the story of Ragnarok and the Aeneid respectively. When Saint Augustine wrote his De Civitate Dei, he was indeed engaging in historicism, but he was doing it to refute a pagan historicism that attributed the fall of Rome to the anger of the rejected pagan gods. What then should the Christian view of history be; and how legitimate is it for us to indulge in historicism? Lewis answers thus:

What appears, on Christian premises, to be true in the Historicist’s position is this. Since all things happen either by the divine will or at least by the divine permission, it follows that the total content of time must in its own nature be a revelation of God’s wisdom, justice, and mercy. In this direction we can go as far as Carlyle or Novalis or anyone else. History is, in that sense, a perpetual Evangel, a story written by the finger of God. If, by one miracle, the total content of time were spread out before me, and if, by another, I were able to hold all that infinity of events in my mind and if, by a third, God were pleased to comment on it so that I could understand it, then, to be sure, I could do what the Historicist says he is doing. I could read the meaning, discern the pattern. The question is not what could be done under conditions never vouchsafed us in via, nor even (as far as I can remember) promised us in patria, but what can be done now under the real conditions. I do not dispute that History is a story written by the finger of God. But have we the text?

taken from Christian Reflections (1981), p.136, Fount Paperbacks.

Thus we see the problem clearly – it is one thing to recognise the fact that all that has ever happened and ever will stems from God (from whom else could it come?) and that therefore the whole historical process must be revelatory; but for us to get the sense of what that whole process is revealing, we would have to not only know it all, but be advised by God Himself as to its proper interpretation. This is a situation that we will never be in – thus historicism, in its truest sense, is off limits for the Christian, precisely because of our prior recognition that God is God and we are not. Having established this, Lewis then goes on to examine how it is that various men of distinction have come to believe that they are able to divine an ‘inner meaning’ to history without having anywhere near the full realm of knowledge that would be required to do so.

He lists six ‘senses’ of history, before concluding that historicists speak of it in what he lists as number six of the senses – ‘that vague, composite picture of the past which floats, rather hazily, in the mind of the ordinary educated man’ (ibid, p.137). To try and give their case as much room to prove itself as possible though, he credits that they may, in theory, and not knowing the future, be working with the second sense of history – the ‘total content of past time as it really was in all its richness’ but goes on to observe that this does not really help the historicist’s case much either:

It would surely be one of the luckiest things in the world if the content of time up to the moment at which the Historicist is writing happened to contain all that he required for reading the significance of total history. We ride with our backs to the engine. We have no notion what stage in the journey we have reached. Are we in Act I or Act V? Are our present diseases those of childhood or senility? If, indeed, we knew that history was cyclic we might perhaps hazard a guess at its meaning from the fragment we have seen. But then we have been told that the Historicists are just the people who do not think that history is merely cyclic. For them it is a real story with a beginning, middle, and an end. But a story is precisely the sort of thing that cannot be understood till you have heard the whole of it…

…But even if it were possible, which I deny, to see the significance of the whole from a truncated text, it remains to ask whether we have that truncated text. Do we possess even up to the present date the content of time as it really was in all its richness? Clearly not. The past, by definition, is not present. The point I am trying to make is so often slurred over by the unconcerned admission “Of course we don’t know everything” that I have sometimes despaired of bringing it home to other people’s minds. It is not a question of failing to know everything: it is a question (at least as regards quantity) of knowing next door to nothing.

ibid, pp.138-139.

Lewis expands on this by remarking that in each individual life every second is filled to bursting with data (sensations, emotions, thoughts), and that we cannot possibly grasp all of it; that ‘a single second of lived time contains more than can be recorded. And every second of past time has been like that for every man that has ever lived’ (ibid). Not only is it nigh on impossible to access the preserved history of each and every peoples that have ever lived, but those recorded histories do not contain anything like the full range of experiences that have actually occurred to all human beings – thus only a tiny fraction of lived human experience (i.e.; of history) is available to us. Again, this is not to denigrate the role of the historian, as pattern and meaning can be perceived within that fraction of experience we have available to us; all Lewis is insisting on here is that we cannot possibly uncover some grand narrative or inner meaning to all history – we simply do not have the data.

Lewis then pre-empts a possible reply from the historicist, namely that they know enough – they may not have access to every single piece of lived experience that has ever occurred, but they know the important parts. This, for the historian, would be a perfectly reasonable thing to say – for example, the military historian, specialising in the Napoleonic Wars, could legitimately say that he has access to enough of the relevant facts pertaining to that period to form a consensus about the meaning of certain events within that period, or even the period over all; moreover, the undertaking of a study of that particular period presupposes that such relevant facts exist, otherwise it would never have been studied. The historicist however, is making the claim that he knows the ‘important facts’ which reveal the inner meaning of all history – aside from the issue of the heterogeneity of the data that actually does survive, how would the historicist be able to judge which are the significant facts and which are merely historical detritus?

Clearly, the facts selected as being of significance are chosen based on the prior conviction that they fit in with the historicist’s philosophy of history – it will always result in being a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, and the historicist will always be making a somewhat prejudiced selection from amongst the data of recorded human experience in order to fit his prior theory. This can be simply an act of self-glorification, but as Lewis goes on to point out, it can also be used for more nefarious means:

On such a small and chance selection from the total past as we have, it seems to me a waste of time to play the Historicist. The philosophy of history is a discipline for which we mortal men lack the necessary data. Nor is the attempt always a mere waste of time: it may be positively mischievous. It encourages a Mussolini to say that “History too him by the throat” when what really took him by the throat was desire. Drivel about superior races or immanent dialectic may be used to strengthen the hand and ease the conscience of cruelty and greed. And what quack or traitor will not now woo adherents or intimidate resistance with the assurance that his scheme is inevitable, “bound to come”, and in the direction which the world is taking?

ibid, p.143.

Herein lies the real danger of historicism – it is not only bad history (in truth, it has little to do with the real task of the historian at all), but it gives support to those who wish to subvert either small groups under their influence or culture as a whole to their own ends. In the former case, there have been a number of groups, spawned by the emergence of Protestant fundamentalism in the mid-to-late 19th Century, who have claimed to be able to apply passages from Scripture to history and predict the immanence of the end-times; in most cases this has only led to a narrow grasp of both Christianity and Western culture, but in some cases (those involving a personality cult of some kind) it has led to great psychological harm and sometimes tragedy. It is the latter case though – that of wedding a certain view of history to one’s own political ends, and of subverting the surrounding culture to those ends – that is most damaging.

Lewis cites the example of Mussolini (and alludes to Hitler); to this we could also add Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong and many other statesmen beholden to the Marxist view of history. In their fervent belief that history was tending towards an earthly utopia, one free of both want and of risky liberty, rid of the interference of religious faith and objective morality, and of which they would be the primary agents in implementing, they committed acts of violence still unrivalled in both quantity and kind. Lenin’s famous saying that ‘if you want to make an omelette, you have to break a few eggs’, whilst doing a great disservice to the intense suffering caused by these regimes, pretty much sums up their ethos – history was on their side, so they were justified in doing whatever it took to bring its ends about.

Not unrelated to this view of history is the narrative which has its roots in the Reformation period (where solid groundwork was done to tar the name of both the Catholic Church and anything that the prior medieval period may have achieved) but is most commonly associated with what came afterwards – the Enlightenment. In the 17th and 18th centuries particularly, we read more and more of the idea that reason (unchained from faith of course) and science will set us free, that all we need to be happy is to cast off the religious and cultural shackles of old, embrace naked liberty and decontextualised empiricism and let ‘history’ take its course. Because of course history is on our side, and thus anything new, anything ‘progressive’ is a step in the right direction – be that in the realm of experimental science or in faith and morals.

Improvements in science and technology have of course been made, but the ideas that a.) we had to implement a divorce between faith and reason to achieve this, and b.) that we can see morals and philosophical categories in the same way have no foundation other than in the narrative forged during and after the Reformation and fully unleashed during the Enlightenment period – it is based not on history (which, as this thorough review outlines, actually undermines such a view; see also here) but on historicism. And, as we see more and more ethics being cast aside in the name of ‘progress’ (e.g.; easy-access abortion, legalisation of euthanasia, the eagerness that the UK government has to approve methods of genetic engineering that could have any number of disastrous short and long term consequences, and which raise significant ethical questions) as well as the speed with which Western culture seems to be gutting its own sense of identity from within, it is justifiable to wonder whether the Enlightenment narrative is not actually quite a damaging one as well.

For the Christian though, what does Lewis’ negative assessment of historicism mean for how we view history – clearly we must believe that everything is in some sense providential, so how do we reconcile this with not being able to actually assess the ultimate significance of past events in our life? Well, it is important to remember that rejecting historicism does not mean rejecting history, let alone God’s revelation of Himself within it – we can still have great confidence, based on both faith and the careful work of real historians, that the great events embodied in the Creeds are sound, and that we can appeal to a correct interpretation of sacred history via the voice of the Church.

For other events though, we are in the same position as anyone else, and it is only really to the present moment that we can reliably look for signs of divine import. What task is put before us now, in this moment, is something to which we can always apply the call to love both God and neighbour, and thereby discern its significance. It is also the only place where, in this life, we can touch Eternity. Furthermore, knowing that we do not, indeed cannot, have access to the inner meaning or big picture of God’s intentions in history means that even the smallest acts of charity we perform may well have a significance far beyond anything we can imagine – in preventing us from the belief that the way of things is ‘on our side’, humility before history also ensures that we recognise the worth of every contribution to it, no matter how small.

G. K. Chesterton: Some Prophetic (and Comforting) Words on Modernity

Today I would like to share a couple of passages from G. K. Chesterton’s novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill. The book contains many memorable soliloquies, but the following bear particularly acute witness to the puzzling condition of modernity, and this witness is coupled with a prophetic tone which mitigates the essentially dispiriting diagnosis of our current state. Chesterton manages to simultaneously uncover with great precision the distressing banality and cultural confusion of our age and bring his observations to their resolution with a sense that recovery is not only possible, but in some sense inevitable:

What a farce is this modern liberality. Freedom of speech means practically in our modern civilisation that we must only talk about unimportant things. We must not talk about religion, for that is illiberal; we must not talk about bread and cheese, for that is talking shop; we must not talk about death, for that is depressing; we must not talk about birth, for that is indelicate. It cannot last. Something must break this strange indifference, this strange dreamy egoism, this strange loneliness of millions in a crowd. Something must break it. Why should it not be you and I?

taken from The Napoleon of Notting Hill (2001), p.87, House of Stratus.

                The second passage, this time from the end of the book, counters more specifically the weaknesses of progressivism – the school that believes we must rip it up and start again, reject tradition to bring about renewal and sally forth intoning the creed ‘change for the sake of change’. There are many arguments that can be levelled against such a position, but here Chesterton specifically critiques its existential aspect – the enervating effect that the progressivist worldview has on the soul of both culture and individual – and does so by invoking his perennially present (and perennially uplifting) philosophy of thanks for the simple things in life; the things which are also most noble, most human:

It is of the new things that men tire – of fashions and proposals and improvements and change. It is the old things that startle and intoxicate. It is the old things that are young. There is no sceptic who does not feel that many have doubted before. There is no rich and fickle man who does not feel that all his novelties are ancient. There is no worshipper of change who does not feel upon his neck the vast weight of the weariness of the universe. But we who do the old things are fed by nature with a perpetual infancy. No man who has been in love thinks that anyone has been in love before. No woman who has a child thinks that there have been such things as children. No people that fight for their own city are haunted with the burden of the broken empires. Yes, O dark voice, the world is always the same, for it is always unexpected.

ibid, pp.177-178.

                Prophetic words, as are many that fell from Chesterton’s pen. However, not only is his analysis of our cultural condition as relevant to our age as it was in his own, but, as is also often the case with Chesterton, the analysis is accompanied by a profound and very real sense of hope – he sees things according to the long view, and recognising that the woes of our age are rooted in inconsistency, that our supposed march forward is based on the presupposition that we pick apart the road we are walking on, he knows that it cannot last. ‘Something must break’ as he has Adam Wayne say in Napoleon – a culture that finds its only point of consensus in denying the heritage which alone provides it with all it finds to be agreeable, that is built on contradiction papered over by triviality and empty rhetoric, really cannot last.

Moreover, people will eventually begin to tire of such a world, given that its contradictions fail to bring forth anything that truly nourishes or sustains, and that it continually tries to deny those simple gifts of creation that provide us lasting joy, preferring instead various simulacra that tick boxes but subvert any real sense of what made the original so blissful and life-giving. Indeed, there are signs to suggest that people are already tired of the world we have made for ourselves, even if they sometimes do not know why they feel so, or what the roots of the banality and hollowness that they intuit really are. It is thus not so much a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ and also ‘who’. As to the time when change occurs, God alone knows, but as to the identity of those who help to return us to sanity, why indeed should it not be you and I?

Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Formation of the Catholic Mind

Saint Thomas Aquinas, whose feast day it is today, is an enormously important figure – despite the many attempts to undo his influence on Catholic theology (either by associating him with the more pedantic end of Scholasticism and throwing him out with it, or by simply claiming to have found more ‘up to date’ ways of approaching questions of theology, philosophy and ethics) his work remains a (perhaps the) key reference point for anyone who wants to know how to do systematic theology. On top of this, one might add that he remains the ‘go-to man’ for anyone who wants to know how to do philosophy (again, this is considered to be an outdated view today, but remains true nonetheless). Quite simply, his legacy is both colossal and undeniable, as G. K. Chesterton, describing the end of Aquinas’ life in what is considered by many Thomists to be the introduction to Saint Thomas par excellence, puts beautifully:

Those men must have known that a great mind was still labouring like a great mill in the midst of them. They must have felt that, for that moment, the inside of the monastery was larger than the outside. It must have resembled the case of some mighty modern engine, shaking the ramshackle building in which it is for the moment enclosed. For truly that machine was made of the wheels of all the worlds; and revolved like that cosmos of concentric spheres which, whatever its fate in the face of changing science, must always be something of a symbol for philosophy; the depth of double and triple transparencies more mysterious than darkness; the sevenfold, the terrible crystal. In the world of that mind there was a wheel of angels, and a wheel of planets, and a wheel of plants or animals; but there was also a just and intelligible order of all earthly things, a sane authority and a self-respecting liberty, and a hundred answers to a hundred questions in the complexity of ethics or economics.

Saint Thomas Aquinas (2009), p.91, Dover Publications.

                What Chesterton captures so marvellously well here is not only the complexity of Saint Thomas Aquinas’ thought, but the unity of it – he brought the whole range of data that the world presented to him, and unified it in one great system of thought. It is with reference to this power of unification and integration which is Aquinas’ great legacy that I wish to discuss the formation of our thought, both our conscience and intellect – how it is that we enter into and are shaped by any system of thought, and moreover how the unity and consistency of the Catholic way of seeing things affords a uniquely liberating means of formation, and a potent antidote to our confused age.

Our minds are not blank slates, and they do not receive information impartially, but according to what they have already been predisposed to select from the range of data before them – we tend to admit what is consonant with what we already know, and reject things that contradict it. We do not operate according to reason alone, but our reason is directed by our will, which is itself shaped by a sense of what is fitting or conducive to the way we have come to see the world. Saint Thomas explains thus in the Summa Theologiae thus:

Now “moral” virtue is so called from “mos” in the sense of a natural or quasi-natural inclination to do some particular action. And the other meaning of “mos,” i.e. “custom,” is akin to this: because custom becomes a second nature, and produces an inclination similar to a natural one. But it is evident that inclination to an action belongs properly to the appetitive power, whose function it is to move all the powers to their acts, as explained above (Question [9], Article [1]. Therefore not every virtue is a moral virtue, but only those that are in the appetitive faculty…

…the appetitive faculty obeys the reason, not blindly, but with a certain power of opposition; wherefore the Philosopher says (Polit. i, 3) that “reason commands the appetitive faculty by a politic power,” whereby a man rules over subjects that are free, having a certain right of opposition. Hence Augustine says on Ps. 118 (Serm. 8) that “sometimes we understand [what is right] while desire is slow, or follows not at all,” in so far as the habits or passions of the appetitive faculty cause the use of reason to be impeded in some particular action. And in this way, there is some truth in the saying of Socrates that so long as a man is in possession of knowledge he does not sin: provided, however, that this knowledge is made to include the use of reason in this individual act of choice.

   Accordingly for a man to do a good deed, it is requisite not only that his reason be well disposed by means of a habit of intellectual virtue; but also that his appetite be well disposed by means of a habit of moral virtue. And so moral differs from intellectual virtue, even as the appetite differs from the reason. Hence just as the appetite is the principle of human acts, in so far as it partakes of reason, so are moral habits to be considered virtues in so far as they are in conformity with reason.

Summa Theologiae, I-II, 58, 1-2.

                Saint Thomas is making two key points here – firstly, that whilst our intellect is involved in the act of apprehending the range of data presented to us, it is our appetites or desires (i.e.; the will) that moves the intellect to accept such things or not; and secondly, that therefore to become truly wise we must not only form our intellects in right understanding, but form our moral life in terms of right action and intention, for if we lack the latter, our progress in the former will be hindered. I.e.; if we do not want the Good and the True because of a disordered conscience, it will be a lot harder for us to allow our intellects to accept them. This is particularly true when it pertains to articles of faith, in which the object of our assent is not manifest before us:

Sometimes, however, the understanding can be determined to one side of a contradictory proposition neither immediately through the definitions of the terms, as is the case with principles, nor yet in virtue of principles, as is the case with conclusions from a demonstration. And in this situation our understanding is determined by the will, which chooses to assent to one side definitely and precisely because of something which is enough to move the will, though not enough to move the understanding, namely, since it seems good or fitting to assent to this side. And this is the state of one who believes. This may happen when someone believes what another says because it seems fitting or useful to do so…

…in faith, the assent and the discursive thought are more or less parallel. For the assent is not caused by the thought, but by the will, as has just been said. However, since the understanding does not in this way have its action terminated at one thing so that it is conducted to its proper term, which is the sight of some intelligible object, it follows that its movement is not yet brought to rest. Rather, it still thinks discursively and inquires about the things which it believes, even though its assent to them is unwavering.

De Veritate, 14, 1.

                Now, whilst Saint Thomas is discussing faith and assent (his writings on which bear some striking similarities to that of Blessed John Henry Newman in his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent) in a Christian context, as with everything Aquinas wrote he does so by addressing the fundamental nature of belief, knowledge, intellect, will, etc, so that his investigations are applicable to any case wherein assent is placed in an object or concept that cannot be verified empirically – thus his findings are as applicable to Catholicism as they are to atheism. What we must conclude therefore is that all thought is conditioned by moral and intellectual custom, and so, contrary to the claims of some secularists, it is never possible to educate children in an ideological vacuum. People’s minds will be formed according to some way of seeing the world, and we all (whether we like to admit it or not) take a great deal that is foundational to our worldview on faith. There is no neutral ground here, and the real question is, which worldview is it best to be formed in?

Basically, whilst we may like to think that we can discern everything from the right way to tie our shoelaces to the meaning of life itself by ourselves, and can do so purely according to the lights of our reason, the reality is that we learn most of the things we know on authority – from parents, teachers, respected friends and books. What we receive from these sources will form our approach to learning in the future, and limit the kinds of things our appetite will present to our intellect for retention and absorption. What then, is the best worldview to imbibe; what is the system of thought that provides the most expansive, enriching and humanising vision of life? Clearly Saint Thomas Aquinas would advocate the Catholic worldview as meeting the brief, but given there is not the space to lay out a full apologetic for the Catholic Faith here, what is the most essential reason why one should be formed in such a worldview?

As an aside, I should note that the recognition of the role of custom in receiving and filtering information does not entail relativism. All Saint Thomas is acknowledging here is that the notion of a naked, autonomous self, collecting and assessing data impartially without being affecting by cultural context or personal history is an illusion. There is such a thing as objective truth, and we could not get off the ground thinking about things sensibly if there were not; but similarly, we could not have a fully functioning and fully flourishing culture (intellectual or otherwise) if we refused to listen to or acknowledge the role that other people and existing ideas play in our development. Given that this is the case though, what is it about Catholicism that makes it the most compelling candidate for a worldview through which to form one’s intellectual and moral life?

An answer to this question itself depends upon what value we put on knowing the truth, and whether or not we truly believe that truth is liberating or that virtue provides real freedom. If we do believe such things (as all cultures prior to our own to some extent have), then we will want to form ourselves and our children in a context that does not misdirect the intellect or lead the will away from the good things in life. This is particularly the case in our present cultural context, where, as Eric Voegelin wrote some sixty-three years ago:

We live in the world of the dialogue, where the recognition of the structure of reality, the cultivation of the virtues of sophia and prudentia, the discipline of the intellect and the development of theoretical culture and the life of spirit are stigmatised in public as reactionary, while disregard for the structure of reality, ignorance of facts, fallacious misconstruction and falsification of history, irresponsible opining on the basis of sincere conviction, philosophical illiteracy, spiritual dullness, and agnostic sophistication are considered the virtues of man, and their possession opens the road to public success.

The New Science of Politics (1952), p.178, University of Chicago Press.

                The situation described by Voegelin has since become not only more extreme, but more widespread and more deeply entrenched in our culture. For anybody disconcerted by such a turn of events, Catholicism represents the only really viable alternative in terms of a permanent philosophy that continually engages with changing circumstance but that has the means by which it can discern and authoritatively define what is or isn’t a desirable development. Furthermore, it is not simply a philosophy, and very much not an ideology – it really is, as Chesterton wrote of the mind of Saint Thomas Aquinas, something that proclaims a ‘a just and intelligible order of all earthly things’; the Catholic Church presents a holistic worldview that integrates its theology with its anthropology, its anthropology with its social vision and aesthetic sense, and these back with its theology again.

Furthermore, the Catholic Church presents itself as something divine as well as human – it has the guarantee of being guided by the Holy Spirit. To return to Aquinas’ discussion of the act of faith in De Veritate, the will desires its object when ‘it seems good or fitting to assent’ – when the will is presented with what seems, through investigation and assessment, to be infallibly guaranteed, one can rest in what the Church proclaims with a great deal of assurance – the nature of the object secures the strong assent. If we are convinced that the Church is the ‘pillar and bulwark of the truth’ (1 Timothy 3:15) and that the Spirit continues to guide her into all truth (c.f.; John 16:12-15) then we are highly justified in assenting to her authority. It is this guarantee of divine guidance that warrants a firm assent and sets the Church apart from other mere philosophies or sources of knowledge.

If one is convinced by the claims of the Church in this regard then, it seems clear that the only sensible thing to do is to ensure all under our care (children in particular) are formed within its folds, in order that they may better receive the breadth and richness of its teaching and so be better equipped to live a life of virtue and intellectual clarity in an age that values neither. We cannot leave the situation to sort itself out, so to speak – if we do not educate our children in the Faith, and do not continue to immerse ourselves in it, that our intellect and will are led to habitually gravitate towards the Good and the True (i.e.; towards God) then the surrounding culture will fill the gap we leave; and it is not a neutral culture, particularly where religion is concerned. Catholicism offers a worldview that is rich, consistent, inclusive and all-encompassing – rightly is Saint Thomas Aquinas considered to be its universal Doctor, as his capacious mind mirrors its expansive and generous vision, and his love of truth reflects the Spirit of Truth who resides at its heart.

G. K. Chesterton on Eugenics, Wages and Abortion

In Eugenics and Other Evils, a book written before the outbreak of the First World War as eugenics had started to gain in popularity, but only published in 1922 after the ‘ideals’ of that movement, shattered by the reality of war, began to resurface again, G. K. Chesterton makes the suggestion that the desire to prevent certain parts of the population from breeding, whilst in some cases seized upon in a spirit of genuine concern for the improvement of social conditions, is rooted more fundamentally in a desire to control the poor. That it is an approach to solving society’s problems even more fundamentally rooted in the half-truths and lies cloaked in silver which are the speciality of the devil is also duly noted, but it is the practical and mundane expressions of those satanic fallacies that Chesterton is more concerned with. What is striking though, is how often his observations can be applied to today’s debate about the propriety and morality of abortion.

In a chapter titled The Meanness of the Motive, Chesterton reflects upon a letter written to a national newspaper by a supporter of eugenics which had argued that the increase of poverty will never be stopped until the poor have been ‘educated’ in the ways that other more ‘enlightened’ parts of society have started to prevent the act of procreation. The writer of the letter had signed himself ‘Hopeful’ and Chesterton uses this invocatory autograph as a platform from which to attack some of the central assumptions of the eugenics movement:

The curious point is that the hopeful one concludes by saying, “When people have large families and small wages, not only is there a high infantile death-rate, but often those who do live to grow up are stunted and weakened by having had to share the family income for a time with those who died early. There would be less unhappiness if there were no unwanted children.” You will observe that he tacitly takes it for granted that the small wages and the income, desperately shared, are the fixed points, like day and night, the conditions of human life. Compared with them marriage and maternity are luxuries, things to be modified to suit the wage-market. There are unwanted children; but unwanted by whom? This man does not really mean that the parents do not want to have them. He means that the employers do not want to pay them properly.

Doubtless, if you said to him directly, “Are you in favour of low wages?” he would say, “No.” But I am not, in this chapter, talking about the effect on such modern minds of a cross-examination to which they do not subject themselves. I am talking about the way their minds work, the instinctive trick and turn of their thoughts, the things they assume before argument, and the way they faintly feel that the world is going. And, frankly, the turn of their mind is to tell the child he is not wanted, as the turn of my mind is to tell the profiteer that he is not wanted. Motherhood, they feel, and a full childhood, and the beauty of brothers and sisters, are good things in their way, but not so good as a bad wage. About the mutilation of womanhood, and the massacre of men unborn, he signs himself “Hopeful.” He is hopeful of female indignity, hopeful of human annihilation. But about improving the small bad wage he signs himself “Hopeless.”

Eugenics and Other Evils (2009), pp.138-139, Bibliolife.

                There is a great deal of argument about employer and employee, about the structure of society and the distribution of ownership of property that precedes this passage, and which it is not possible to go into here without becoming a dissertation on Catholic social teacing in general (a topic on which Chesterton has written much here and elsewhere). The main point that is made in this passage though, is that those who wished to exercise a policy of selection in marriages and births did so particularly among the poor, and they did so not (though same may have felt this to be their motivation) primarily to alleviate poverty, but to reduce the number of ‘useless’ citizens. Eugenics was and is a deeply anti-human philosophy, which applies the incomplete ethic of utilitarianism to an area where it is also completely improper – the human person.

Another key point that Chesterton makes here is that those who argued for eugenics as public policy had a strong sense of ‘the way they faintly feel that the world is going’ – i.e.; it is born of a progressivist outlook that the world will keep rolling onwards and upwards to our general benefit, increase in scientific and technological knowledge will solve all our problems, the past can offer us no answers, and any eggs broken along the way are justified in order to reach the more perfect society of the future. This way that the world is going, as Chesterton comments, because it is in principle against the idea of looking to the past for advice, cannot fathom the suggestion that we might change the conditions of the poor by changing the way we produce, the way we do business, and the way we live in general. It does not even enter the head of the progressivist that mistakes may have been made, or that they can be altered by going back to square one.

Because of this it was possible for the eugenicists of Chesterton’s time to see it as preferable to kill a child in the womb (nay, to kill several children in the womb, just as long as they were the ‘wrong’ kind of child – on who actually has the authority to decide who lives and dies, and on what basis, previous chapters give a thorough examination, but the summary answer is nobody) than to do something about the structures that enabled poor people to be exploited and to be trapped in their poverty in the first place. It is incredible to think though, reading Chesterton’s words today, how similar the arguments of the eugenicists are to the arguments of abortionists today, and how entrenched that sense of inevitable progress is in the latter as in the former; how little the outlook of our culture has changed since then, and how little we have learned.

Clearly today the actual reasons for aborting innocent children are in some ways even more reprehensible – the desire to go on holiday, the problems having a child would create for career prospects, the not feeling quite ready for that sort of thing are vastly more common reasons for having an abortion than the emotive and difficult cases invoked by abortion advocates (rape or incest for example). But another common justification for easy access to abortion is that people on low incomes cannot support x number of children, and so they should be helped out of this dilemma by not only making it easy to obtain an abortion, but by nigh on convincing them that it is incumbent upon them to do so. Again, as in Chesterton’s day, it is rarely suggested that instead of killing the children of the poor, we do something to change things long-term that might make having a family viable again, or decreasing the reliance of workers on exploitative companies, giving them the chance to be in control of their own destinies.

Another way in which the legacy of eugenics hangs over the abortion industry is that there are a disproportionate number of people from ethnic minorities that are encouraged to, and that do, have abortions. That this is by no means an accidental point of contact between eugenics and the abortion industry (and yes, chilling as it is to think, and despite what its supporters may say, it is an industry) can be seen by perusal of the intentions of Margaret Sanger, one of the founders of the birth control movement and a very keen eugenicist (see here and here). But also it is an unfortunate and uncomfortable fact of modern life that in our multicultural societies a high proportion of ethnic minorities in the West do come from poorer backgrounds, and it is the poor that abortionists really want to ‘manage’ the numbers of, in lieu of actually doing something about their situation.

Chesterton saw all this early on, before the eugenics movement itself had even had a chance to show its colours, and at a time when such thinking was becoming popular. However, he also lived in a time when it was still new and could be seen and contrasted against older ways of thinking that still carried some force in the public sphere. Nowadays the progressivist school of thought is so deeply entrenched in our culture that its assumptions are examined even less, and there are fewer corners of society that remember any alternative. Thus the greatest horror of the abortion advocacy movement is perhaps that so few even see it as horrible – it is considered a sensible solution to the problems of modern life. Determined not to look back, convinced that we are getting it right and will get it righter still if we keep doing what we are doing, we march onwards uncritically, our moral compasses becoming more marred as we go. The poor remain poor, whilst our leaders continue to offer the wrong answers to problems they have misunderstood, and children die in their mothers’ womb – it is by this last point that our age will be judged.

A Crisis of Trust

The reasons that people today cannot bring themselves to have faith in any god (let alone the God pre-eminently revealed in Jesus Christ) are many – we live in a highly sceptical age that is soaked in materialism and positivism, and thus unable to accept that we can know anything beyond what is discernible through our senses (and often even – in theory at least – only that which is provable under laboratory conditions); we also live in an age that is geared towards the satisfaction of short-term, material goals, to getting as much stuff or doing as many things that will make us feel good as quickly as possible – such an attitude, which is reinforced by every means possible in our culture, does not lead to an atmosphere conducive to the honest self-scrutiny that is necessary for breaking out of the narrow confines of the self and encountering God.

On top of this we are the heirs of a political culture that has and continues to do everything it can to undermine the Christian heritage of the West and mitigate against any embracing of the values rooted in that heritage or the Faith that formed it, preferring instead to advance a wholly secular project that combines a particularly subtle but no less intrusive or controlling brand of socialism with a radically libertarian view of ethics, particularly sexual ethics. This has in turn had a devastating effect on the family, which is of course an intended consequence, given that the family has always been the cultivator and protector of traditional morality and religious devotion. It is unsurprising that the only kinds of spirituality which tend to thrive in such a world are deeply individualistic and lack any resources to challenge the one who practices them.

There is however another cause for the lack of faith in our age which cannot be so easily attributed to the philosophical legacy we have inherited, nor to the designs of the cultural vandals that form the bulk of our political classes. That cause is the lack in our ability to trust – not just to trust God, but anyone at all. For many, despite the manifest obstacles our culture puts in our way, believing God exists is not really that much of a problem (as has no doubt been the case in all ages – c.f.; James 2:19; Romans 1:18-23); but to actually trust in Him, to really have faith that He is Goodness itself and will never abandon us? This is a different proposition altogether, and much harder to accept.

Many people today have been failed by people and institutions that they had been led to believe were trustworthy – they placed their absolute trust in somebody or thing, and were severely let down. Unfortunately, one of the places in which this has occurred that comes to mind is within the Church itself, where the terrible stories of sex abuse that have been brought to light over recent years highlight just how possible it is for those in positions of trust to misuse their power, and in doing so, not only wreck the lives of the individuals involved, but cause long-term damage to the credibility of the Church itself. It is indeed true that statistically speaking, there have been far fewer instances of abuse in the Church than in other areas of society, and that more has been done to ensure this doesn’t happen again than anywhere else; but the damage is done, and many people will find it a lot harder to trust the Church again.

There have also been schoolteachers, social workers, youth-group leaders, etc. being found guilty of such crimes, and similar breaches of trust instanced in the abuse uncovered in care homes for the elderly and infirm. Then there are the banks who have lost so much of our trust after their cavalier and negligent use of money invested by customers who sincerely believed their investments were in safe and responsible hands, and the politicians who have shown themselves to be not only prone to corruption and careerism (this is nothing new after all) but who also seem to hold the electorate in contempt, ignoring their genuine and justifiable pleas to put the brakes on the kinds of social reform outlined above whilst throwing them the occasional superficial policy change to keep things quiet.

But the saddest area in which this severance of the bonds of trust has taken place is in the family itself. Increased opportunity for travel has led to a disbanding of the localised extended family; the need to have two parents working has often left children and elderly relatives with nobody to care for them (and in the latter case, the call to honour one’s father and mother, having gone out the window with other ‘traditional’ values, has decreased our felt obligation to do so); marriage itself has been consistently undermined and has found decreasing support from both government and society, so that commitment to family by both spouses has become rarer, leaving children in a less stable environment, sometimes having a succession of spousal changes to contend with.

All the above has led to an environment which should be the safest and most stable place for a child to be, changing into a highly unstable, sometimes volatile environment where that lack of stability (particularly the repeated introduction of new ‘partners’ into the family home) provides little in the way of the security and constancy children need to develop, affords much more opportunity for abuse to occur, and above all, completely undermines any sense of trust in people at the very time when the capacity to do so is in its formative stages. Thus we have not only been failed by the people and institutions of our own age, but are creating a system in which future generations will have little sense of the value of trust in the first place.

The cynic may say ‘So what? All the better then – the world is a dangerous place and the sooner we find out that we can’t trust anyone the better.’ But how many of us would really recognise such a world – where noone can be trusted at all, each lives unto themselves and we all fight it out to survive? Whilst we may have had the experience of being let down in our lives (and some much more than others), there are not many of us that can say our life has been totally devoid of kindness, or that it didn’t make a huge amount of difference when we found it. Furthermore, behind the cynic’s argument seems to be the assumption that if there are bad things in life, we should be collaborators with that badness, either by contributing to it or by only seeing to ourselves, ignoring others.

Putting aside the fact that for any Christian this position is completely untenable, it seems to me that if such an outlook were ever taken seriously the world would have collapsed in on itself long ago. It is because we have an inbuilt sense of hope that we have not given up on the world, and it is because some continue to strive to be the one who offers the hand of kindness to a stranger that we never completely give up on the idea that we can trust people. This indeed is part of the way in which we can make trust a quality that people can believe in again – by being trustworthy ourselves, by living lives of integrity and virtue, and most importantly of all, by showing the world that it is God who gives us the strength to do so.

By seeing that we have been shaped into people can be trusted because of our prior trust in God, we can not only show that in the short-term this person here and now can be trusted, but that there is a way of seeing the world that makes such a life possible – a way of being that is open to others, that rejects cynicism and that chooses the path of love over the way of self-interest. This means that speaking about our faith and living it can never be separate things – if we believe God to be trustworthy, we must say so, and attend to that verbal witness by living it out as well. However, if and when someone we meet asks us why we trust God, why we place our faith in Him, what do we say – why should anyone trust in someone who they have not seen, and especially when the world sometimes seems so full of cruelty and uncertainty?

The answer we give will of course first require that we find out where the one who questions us is in terms of knowledge, experience and background. Once we have ascertained what they mean by the word ‘God’ etc. though, the only place we can point them to is the Gospels – to the life of Our Lord – and say that here, in the life of this man, is the very nature and character of God lived out; if you can trust this man Jesus, you can trust God. We can also make sure to say that this is not always easy – that trusting in God does not mean deliverance from all earthly troubles (c.f.; Romans 8:28 vs. 8:35-39), but that God never stops being who He is, never stops being that loving, truthful, faithful Person we see revealed in Christ; it is for good reason that He is so often referred to in the Psalms as ‘rock’ and ‘fortress’, for He is the one thing that never changes.

We can also reflect with people upon the act of creation. If we have gone through with the person asking about our faith the question of what it means for God to be God, then we can also say that as the absolute source of all that is, there is nothing alongside God that compelled Him to create, and nothing within Him that needed to do so. From this we can surmise that God created the world not for any selfish reasons, but because He wanted to share Himself with other beings, beings that are not Him – He is Love, and so gives Himself away to us in the very act of creation.

So both in the act of creation itself, and in the revelation of His character (to Moses and others in the Old Covenant, but pre-eminently in Our Lord) in and through history, we can have good reason for seeing God as someone we really can trust – One who is utterly committed to what He has made, who is not just loving and patient but the very source of love and the very model of what it is to be steadfast. While the people and institutions of the world, and even our own families, may let us down, we can have real confidence that at bottom, the very ground of our being and Lord of our life is unfailing – a source of strength and compassion that never changes and never ends. It only remains for us who believe this to make it real to others – to be signs of His love and faithfulness to the world that He has made.