To prove the necessity of Christianity in a few paragraphs would be an entirely foolish—if not preposterous—undertaking, were it not that volumes are not necessary to present a simple idea. By “simple” I mean able to be stated with brevity at the cost of some bluntness, rather than easy to understand fully enough to make it one’s own.
I will rest the case for Christianity on an analysis of the notion of human freedom.
Christian or not, no one, at least no Westerner, will disagree, I presume, with the idea that, of all beings, man is the only one whose paramount characteristic is that he is endowed with freedom. And there is a strong probability that no culture other than the Western one has ever so strongly upheld such a view.
But, Christian or not, no one, it seems to me, has ever denied that the same being who has been favored with such an awesome gift has also demonstrated a manifest capacity for evil: It does not take a follower of Moses to acknowledge it is an unfortunate but constant necessity to forbid man to kill, steal, envy his neighbor, etc.
It is then rather evident that man’s freedom, which is his glory, since it makes him responsible for his good deeds, is also his weakness, since it represents an innate ability to disregard any norm, any reason, any restraint. His freedom is no unmixed blessing, as the moderns would have it; it depends on how he uses it. Men must therefore learn how to use it; they must be educated. They are not born free; they have to become free.
Since the Greeks’ paideia, the preoccupation with educating men has been a constant feature of Western culture. Even the moderns have always understood this fundamental evidence: Confronted with the necessity of preventing men from doing whatever they want, but claiming their freedom to be inalienable, the moderns came up with two—and I believe only two—solutions. I shall call the first the liberal one, and the second the socialist one.
The gist of liberal wisdom seems to be the realization that it is more efficient to use reason than sheer force to achieve one’s goals. Any man being a potential hindrance to any other man’s projects (any man can kill another, said Hobbes), the idea of subjugating them all is downright ludicrous. Whereas simple reason shows that once the basic equality of man is acknowledged, every man has a direct interest in not doing to his neighbor what he would not want done to himself, and even in helping him achieve his goals so as to be helped in return. The last word of liberal wisdom is reciprocity, or enlightened interest. But while the liberal principle is bound to reduce the use of brute and visible violence, it does nothing to prevent resorting to hidden or subtle force (like inequality between bargaining parties). Liberalism addresses the wrong issue: It is not overt aggression as much as inner aggressiveness. The liberal philosophy does not claim it is wrong to have whatever desires one may nurture, but only to satisfy them through overt violence. Hence the constant resort to contracting, for contract is not peace but the continuation of war by other means.
So much so that another school was soon born. Absolute freedom, as its teaching goes, is a natural right of all men, but a vast majority of them are deprived of the enjoyment of their right by a few other evil ones who have succeeded in living off the enslavement of their fellow men and must therefore be dealt with in some (radical) way or other. Now, if the liberal school can be considered cynical, what of the socialist one? It represents the crudest imaginable expression of that childish selfishness which says, I have my demands that the others must meet. If they don’t, they are simply evil and should be forced to. Again the real issue is ignored: Evil does not lurk exclusively in the hearts of some men, but in the hearts of all.
Hence the wisdom of traditional Christianity.
The Christian doctrine professes the quintessential Western notion that man is by nature a free being, and even an absolutely free one, since man’s freedom is what enables him to go against his Maker, which also means even against the nature God devised him to have. It is proof of God’s love for His creatures that He wants them to obey Him freely, to be somehow His helpers, not His puppets. And it is proof of the perfection of His creation that it rests at least partially upon men loving it willingly and freely.
On the other hand, it is an essential tenet of the Christian Faith that, even though man is endowed with absolute freedom, he does not necessarily know what to will: His wisdom is not up to his freedom. It is even quite likely that, faced with the infinity of choices open to his unlimited freedom, this freedom becomes absurd, and man meaningless: If everything is permitted, all his free acts become equally valid, and none is worth willing more than any other, except for passing enjoyment. So much so that absolute freedom not only obviously prevents all society among men but is to Christian eyes a true and real disease, the cause of a mental imbalance. Man is like a child who wants all his whims satisfied but is unhappy when given too much leeway. His own freedom, because it requires that he act in a conscious way, makes him a lonesome being, aimlessly wandering in the gray uniformity of an amorphous, isotropic universe, fundamentally uncertain of himself.
This is precisely the evidence, and common experience, that a vast number of men, and among them particularly moderns infatuated with their modernity, are passionately loath to acknowledge. The very fact that it is quite difficult, if not impossible, for any man actually to obtain everything he may happen to want obviously postpones indefinitely any clear thinking about what absolute freedom would mean if he could actually reach the point of being granted such freedom. But the very wishing for it is telling. At bottom this stems from man’s sempiternal and universally widespread temptation to see himself as the master of his own destiny, the maker of his own nature, the demiurgic lord of all things, and, in a word, the only god to himself. It stems basically from the total denial that there is any such thing as a nature of things that looms before man’s freedom and which he may, because he is free, invade and violate, even though it is perpetually to no avail: His freedom is what makes man a perpetual Icarus perpetually ignoring that the sun will forever melt his wings, preferring to use nature to his arbitrary liking, instead of trying to understand the infinite wisdom it embodies. Is it really necessary to point out how much the sacred dogma of the Rights of Man is rooted in human pride?
But this is precisely what Christianity is all about: teaching men—all men, powerful or humble—to know themselves, showing them what their true nature is, helping them mature into what they are born to be, convincing them their own arbitrary will is unable to provide them with a meaning for their existence, turning their absolute freedom into an ordered liberty. Whatever way evil is considered, it always boils down to one component rebelling against the whole of which it is a part, whereas the good is the measured balancing of all its components. Cancer is the undue proliferation of a certain type of cell, which harms the others and therefore the body, or mental alienation consists in reveling in one’s subjective vision of things. Christianity’s basic teaching is therefore that no man is his, that a man forfeits his own nature if he considers himself born to rule instead of to belong.
Accordingly, the Christian doctrine may be summed up in two chapters.
The first deals with human freedom. For an individual man to consider himself absolutely free is equivalent to considering himself a perfect and solitary whole owing nothing to the rest of the world and even implicitly expecting it to stoop to him. But the fact that this is unnatural for a normal man means that the individual is bound to be unable to make any sense, other than purely momentary and subjective, of a freedom with no objectively justifiable end. Then it becomes obvious the freedom of the individual must in his own eyes derive its meaning from his free participation in a whole that is neither of his own making, nor devoted to his particular goals, but is nevertheless important and meaningful to him. His true freedom, the enacting of which represents the utmost completion of his nature, is not to achieve certain subjective ends, but to serve ends to which he attaches enough of a price to be happy pursuing them. His true freedom consists not in mastering but in serving, in being not a lord but a servant. But then the worth the individual attaches to his freedom appears logically as directly proportionate to the worth of that whole to which he dedicates the use of his freedom, which eventually means that man is a creature in need of an absolute to which he can devote his life.
Now this corresponds exactly to two main Christian beliefs. First, that nothing natural has been created without a purpose, because it has been created by an omnipotent Being Whose awesome wisdom and omniscience is matched only by His infinite love for His creatures, so that there is nothing approaching the good embodied in the harmony of the universe: God and His creation are the absolute good. Second, and consequently, that each man is assigned as his personal function to do to the best of his ability whatever he has been given to do by the universal providence of God—i.e., not to disrupt the order of which his own being is a dependent part, and without which he would be just a meaningless being. For he is like an actor in a play: There would be no actor if there were no play.
But does this mean that man is to God like a slave to his master, a cog in the machinery of the universe or a tool to implement ends wholly alien to him? To answer no is precisely the purpose of the second chapter of the Christian Faith. No, because in any event each man is endowed with the freedom that allows him to refuse to serve—as more and more people do today. But, more decisively, because as Christians have it (after the Stoics, it must be confessed) the universe is composed of purposefully differentiated parts which all have a specific (even if minute) and necessary role in the life of the whole. And men, since they are capable of freedom and therefore of consciously thinking out their own free decisions, are particularly expected, in a world where nothing natural has been created without a purpose, to understand (or at least believe to be understandable) how necessary their role is to the perfection of the whole. Which also means there is no contradiction between man having a nature and his achieving freedom, happiness, and dignity. True freedom and satisfaction with oneself and one’s true dignity all stem from the feeling that what one does is both what one is best made to do and also something that is objectively worth doing. And what can possibly be worth doing more than what the Maker of all things has thought best for each person? What could be more satisfactory in terms of freedom, happiness, and dignity than to be convinced of one’s necessity to do something that is absolutely necessary in itself and by itself?
It could then be asked why such notions must be wrapped in religious garb, why it is that Christianity is not only a philosophy but a religion. Reduced to its essence, the reason follows quite clearly, I think, from what has just been said. Nothing human can ever appear as an absolute to any man’s eyes. His own absolute freedom accounts for a basic equality between human creatures that prevents him from accepting as absolutely valid anything that comes from a man. And, conversely, anything he may consider as absolutely valid must come to him as originating in something that supersedes his own natural absolute freedom, meaning something supernatural. But what belongs to that realm cannot be grasped by his natural reason; it must come as a revelation in which he must have faith and can only have faith (which, as a matter of fact, befits the Christian notion that all men are free to take their own little selves as their only true god). It may then be wondered how such a revelation can be accessible to men: It is precisely the originality of Christian faith to believe in a God Who has made Himself a man to save, that is to serve, mankind, as if to prove to all men that, while being and remaining men, they can nevertheless participate in God’s essence by serving in the station they have been allotted, and, by doing that, achieving their own nature, i.e. transcending their own selves and being of service. So much so, again, that the originality of Christianity lies in the notion that only by knowing oneself, by descending into oneself, can each man discover the meaning of all things, including his own, i.e., the wisdom of God. Which is why being a Christian starts with practicing humility, a virtue that sums up all Christian ones, for it requires faith, summons hope, and induces charity.
To remain brief, these considerations must leave aside many questions such as, notably, what to think of the Great Schism within Christianity.
But if these considerations are valid, they all lead to one conclusion: The spirit of Christianity is at bottom both necessary and irreplaceable for the contentment of the individual and the peace of mankind. “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” says the Lord.
Necessary is the Christian spirit for the very simple reason that it fulfills not a human fancy, but a vital human need. I for one strongly believe no man can possibly attain contentment unless he has made something of himself, and something that he himself can consider objectively worthy of a man, which eventually is to be useful to mankind, not to himself alone.
Irreplaceable is the Christian spirit, because there is no other religion like Christianity. In a nutshell no other God has ever made His creatures able to disobey their Maker; no other religion has ever taught that God’s imperatives are transcendent but also immanent; no other God has made Himself a man to prove a man could be godlike; no other god has made it plain that to enter God’s kingdom men are not to give up their nature but only to complete it, not to obey God’s will alone but their own true one as well.
Between Christianity and barbarity there is no middle term. But men having been made free, the necessity of the Christian inspiration does not determine its eventual triumph. The words of Christ are medicine for men’s disease, but only for those who wish to take it. And men are really a discouraging species. Saint John has already foreseen God, weary of men, unleashing His anger.