June/July 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 4
We like to say that this is a skeptical age. The landscape is all littered with the sad fragments of things we no longer believe in, and we wear the resulting pessimism proudly, as a fashionable garment. We are too smart to be kidded.
So we say. Actually, our age takes more things on faith than any previous age in history. It has to, because it believes (as our fathers understood the word) in nothing at all.
The universe itself is entirely beyond our comprehension. It always was, of course, but our ancestors mused that God’s plan is beyond human grasp and let it go at that. We try to thread our way through the mysteries of particles and quarks, of black holes and a constantly expanding universe, and of the great universal explosion that somehow created everything from our cloud-capped towers to the dreams of the people who inhabit them; and in sheer bewilderment we turn to our modern theologians, the physical scientists, for words of comfort. They peer beyond the limits of time and space, wrestle with the inadequacies of the language, and at last come forth with the answer: the mystery is even bigger than we thought .
So we take things on faith, there being nothing else to do, and we feel that somehow we have thought our way through the whole tangle. Facing a world which has unfortunately come into possession of the fearful secrets of nuclear fission and at the same time has built an infinitely complicated society on the exploitation of boundless stores of energy which abruptly turn out not to be boundless at all, we pride ourselves on the fact that at least we know the worst. And that, in the end, is what our modern creed comes down to; we know the worst, even if we don’t do anything about it, and whatever happens, we won’t be suckers.
The trouble is that faith shapes life. Most faith makes one innocent, but we have the kind that makes one cynical. We have no heroes because we no longer believe in heroes. We suspect that man cannot rise above his average and that his average these days is pretty low. So we commit intellectual follies.
We lead ourselves to think that there must not be an “imperial Presidency”—in other words, that the power of the office should be reduced—because the President is likely to be a mediocrity who shouldn’t have so much authority. And we propose to remedy this by giving more power to Congress, apparently on the theory that it is easier to trust five hundred mediocrities than to trust one.
We espouse the conspiracy theory of history. The assassinations of President Lincoln and President Kennedy, and the shooting of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, had far-reaching consequences: one man couldn’t have done such a momentous thing all by himself—not John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, or Sirhan Sirhan. There had to be a plot and a lot of people, probably with some kind of protection.
Behind the belief that the world is a mindless mechanism there hides a human loneliness which finds comfort somehow in the notion that the mechanism now and then strips its gears. So we have our Bermuda Triangles and our UFO’s, and the fact that the most thoughtful students find no basis for these hair-raisers means nothing, because it is easier to trust in a tall tale than to trust in the fallible human who knocks it down. As cynics we find it easy to believe in anything but people.
And this is where the real danger arises. We have lost our faith in mankind, and that is too bad, because the answer to today’s fearful riddles is not going to come out of the skies. It is going to come out of mankind, and if we deride the source, we are bound to scoff at the answer.
The next few generations are apt to be the most difficult in human history. If we are going to survive them, we have to begin by believing in ourselves once more. Everything else will follow. Whether faith really can move mountains may be open to question; but the faith that can move mankind can be defined quite simply—faith in mankind.