Those of us who grew up Catholic and went to high school or college in the 1950s and 1960s lived in a world where “faith” — for the person who had it — often consisted primarily of adhering to the rituals and rules of the Church and reciting memorized prayers. That isn’t to say that people were not holy or that they lacked in belief; however, the practice of faith was more a behavior and less a response for many people.
We also grew up with another experience, particularly if we went to public schools and/or colleges: We were bombarded with the popular Marxist claim that “Religion is the opium of the people.” Surrounded by a secular world, we were constantly chided for seeking comfort in anything not defined by our own strength. We were encouraged to build ourselves up without reference to any need for a spiritual foundation. To have, and practice, religious faith was to — gasp! — admit to a level of human weakness that bespoke helplessness. Faith was a self-indulgent trapping for hapless humans who had not learned the reality of their existence and who failed to build their own strength.
I remember taking an economics class when I was in college; the professor, an avowed and proud Marxist, was fond of saying that there was nothing “wrong” with religious faith; the problem, he said, was that people let it take over their lives and lull them into a weakened state where they cannot deal with the world around them. He dismissed faith as a crutch that people used as a means of supporting their weakness and, as such, a practice that contributed to their weakness.
This morning, as I was returning home from the 6:30 a.m. Mass, I found myself thinking: Is faith a crutch? Is it indeed an opiate? Using the word “opiate” in these times of terrible and pervasive addictions and overdose deaths gives the old Marxist theory a truly terrifying connotation. So what about it?
My thoughts began to tumble over each other so fast that I had to grab a pen and paper before I even got my coat off so that I could jot some things down lest I lose them. And here is what formed itself in my mind as I considered the question.
Both the Marxist statement and our Catholic Christian view of faith (Marx calls it religion, but his meaning, in the longer version of the quotation, relates to the broader context of faith) are rooted in a pair of truths: We humans are weak creatures, and we humans fear our weakness and seek to cure it.
Where the two ways of thinking diverge, I think, is in what we should do about it. Marx says we should seek ways in which we ourselves can make ourselves stronger. Thinking that is rooted in faith says we should seek the one reliable source of strength — God, as He has revealed Himself to us — even as we acknowledge that we don’t have within ourselves the capacity to create our own strength against evil.
Now, my purpose here is not to foil the Marxist argument against faith; that’s for much smarter people. I’m going to say one more thing about Marx’s statement, and then I’m done referring to it specifically. It seems to me that the reference to religion/faith as the opium of the people is rooted in, and expressive of, a deep fear of the very weakness it seeks to cure. If we fear the weakness, it follows that we will flail about trying to escape it.
This is where faith proves itself in fact to be a crutch. That’s right. I said it. Faith is, in fact, a crutch.
It gives strength where our own weakness causes us to fall.
It provides assistance where we lack the strength or skill to move forward.
Used properly, it builds strength rather than supporting or encouraging weakness.
By myself, I am weak. I’ve proved over and over again that I’m simply not capable, all on my own, of being a good person. That is a truth for each of us that is both hard to admit and essential to finding our way to strength. As St. Paul taught, left to our own devices we are not capable of doing good: “For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want” (Romans 7:19).
The philosophy of the world is one of self-reliance, of building ourselves up with all of the things the world values so that in the eyes of the world we are “strong.” That path leads to all sorts of complicated questions and complex situations.
Not so, the life of faith. Faith is very, very simple.
Faith says: I believe. I believe in God. Everything I need or, in my life as a beloved child of God, could possibly want, flows from the Source of that simple faith.
The life we live in faith acknowledges our essential weakness, but instead of being based on fear, it is based on the trust that comes from that simple faith. It does not look for proof; rather, it thrives on that trust.
The life we live in faith is one where we are daily reminded of our essential weakness, but instead of groveling in it, we receive grace to turn to the one reliable Source of the strength we need.
The life we live in faith is Life Itself. In this life, we know that left on our own we would “practice the evil [we] do not want,” but we also know that in reliance on the Source of our strength, Jesus Christ, we can see and walk the Path to which He calls us. In the sacraments, He comes to us and infuses us with His own strength — so far beyond what we could ever summon from our own selves that it can’t be measured.
Yes, Lord, I am weak — and my weakness is a cause for celebration, because to heal it requires that I turn to You. By the grace of Your Holy Spirit, I rejoice in Your strength. Let me always see that in faith, I have the crutch I need to gain strength in You, the help I need to turn to You, and the Source of the strength I need to live the life of holiness to which You have called me.
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