In looking at contemporary Western culture, an observer might be inclined to announce a severe crisis of faith. This reality could cause great distress in the heart of any believer who sees her loved ones, neighbors, and culture quickly abandon a transcendental worldview.
But, let’s slow the pace and ask sincerely: Is the observation correct? Is there a crisis of faith? If there is such a crisis, what does it mean for the West?
In spite of concern about its existence or exercise, we see that faith is actually a very dominant and influential part of people’s lives. They have faith in their abilities and potential, their finances and employment. They have faith in their use of power and in their many resources. Faith seems overwhelmingly present and assertive.
The real question, seems to be what or who people and society believe in?
While doctrine is approached with suspicion, it appears that there is no real radical crisis of faith. The real problem is that many people no longer have faith in God, Jesus Christ, and the Gospel that inspired and sustained Western culture. Truth be told, the Westerner has set her standards too low and has set her heart on less transcendent realities.
Why has this happened?
The answer to that question reveals a different crisis. Perhaps the West is actually struggling with a foundational crisis of love.
Pope Francis rightly observes, “God’s tenderness leads us to understand that love is the meaning of life.” Without faith in God, we are hard pressed to experience tenderness, selflessly give it, and seek to assert it as a cultural expectation. Pope Francis also teaches, “In [God] and only in him, is there love without reservations and second thoughts, absolute and unmitigated giving, and the tenacity of full acceptance.” Without having God’s love as the basis of our own sense of love and inspiration for our own exercise of love, love itself can become loveless since it loses its compass and impetus. In such a vacuum, a person becomes isolated and existentially disoriented. Love becomes redefined and becomes a misplaced word for egotism, narcissism, and control. No longer a call to selfless service and community, “love” becomes a bottomless pit of self-absorption and tyranny.
As Pope Francis also teaches: “Human beings need to be loved unconditionally and those who do not receive this acceptance carry a certain incompleteness within themselves, often without knowing it. The human heart seeks to fill this void with surrogates, accepting compromises and mediocrity that have only a vague flavor of love.”
The crisis, which is a word that simply means crossroads, is whether we’ll rely on ourselves and focus on our own wants, or whether we will love beyond ourselves and receive the love of others. The crisis is whether or not we will have enough true love to order, mature, and guide our faith. At the root of our cultural crisis, therefore, is the pressing question: Will we acknowledge and accept God’s love? The substantial answer to this question begins with whether we will place our pride and self-faith to the side and begin to see God’s providence in our lives and cooperate with his grace.
Simply put, the answer begins with whether we will work to love God back. Will we reciprocate the love that he offers to us? This reciprocity of love between us and God is the whole heart and soul of life in the here and now. It gives shape and structure to our lives and the love we are called to have for others.
Faith by itself is dead and, when left to itself, it will only feed on our self-interests and fallen desires. Faith motivated by love, however, will want fulfillment and realize its need for a relationship with God. It will seek to know God so that it can more deeply love him. Faith aided by love will always search and seek the illumination of divine revelation and sacred doctrine. It will foster within the person an even deeper love and stronger hope in God.
Faith and love call forth acts of selflessness and service to others. It develops unimagined creativity within us. We are surprised to discover (or rediscover) parts of ourselves and we boldly make the journey to know who we are and who we are called to be.
St. Paul teaches us that the most important of all virtues is love, because it’s the only one that lasts beyond death. Love, therefore, is faith’s companion and the end which orders the means. It gives our lives a goal and a standard.
The crisis in the West, therefore, is about love. It is a crisis over whether we will accept God’s love here and now and then labor to love him back, and – in that effort – love others generously and graciously accept their love for us.