William Lynch, S.J. can be called the American Catholic existential theologian of the 20th century because no one more than he understood the “moving structure and rhythm” of both history and faith, the irony of faith held together in the person, and the consequences of faith on the creation of our political world.
Lynch differentiated three forms of faith: (1) primal or uneducated faith, (2) the Christian education of primal faith, and (3) the historical dialectic of primal faith overcome by Christianity and held together in the person of Christ.
His was an existential analysis of faith spiritually and philosophically refreshing. He reminds us in an age of religiosity that faith is much more than our private relationship to God and to the church. It is “a form of imagining and experiencing the world,” and more incredibly, that it is “the most primary, the most elemental force in human nature; it is a force which precedes what we ordinarily call knowledge and all the forms of specific knowing… (Images of Faith: Exploration of the Ironic Imagination (IOF), p.90).”
Lynch’s 20th century theology of faith has the opportunity to shed critical light on a 21st century trend in American Christianity that has turned toward a crude ideology of faith–that is, the belief in religion for religion’s sake (i.e. religiosity)–rather than an appreciation for and belief in the good of human nature and our political common good.
Lynch would agree with a contemporary critique of Christian faith, particularly that of the fundamentalist variety, where it is thought of as belief in a God that is outside human space and time. This simplistic form of faith waters down religion to belief in an unseen and unknown deity who rules and judges humanity from above. In this theological schematic faith is primal and uneducated, and in its righteous fury it ignores the faith of Christ who believed in and died for the dignity and goodness of humanity itself.
Lynch warned Christians about such a simplicism of faith where it is externalized and superadded to philosophy, science, and historical fact:
“In theological studies we have always thought of faith as a final superb gift of God and a form of divine knowledge, prefaced in many ways by rationality but giving a later, a more ultimate view of the universe than knowledge. This may be true chronologically of the final forms that Christianity gives to faith, but if we let the picture go at that we would be distorting faith and would finally be distorting Christian faith itself. This picture, left to itself, tends to make faith a later addition, even if a refinement, to knowledge, and to separate faith from knowledge. And I repeat that it also tends to raise all those problems with which modern theology has been preoccupied: What does faith add to knowledge, what does Christ add to the idea of man, what does Christ add to Heidegger? We must get out of this cul-de-sac by changing our temporal image of faith. Faith comes first (IOF, pp. 11 – 12).”
Lynch’s theology of faith has the power to turn the religiosity of faith on its head.
We must appreciate, however, the distinctions between the universal nature of faith and it’s maturity through time. We must be able to identify and discuss the primal and uneducated nature of faith and the role of Christianity in its education. In this way will we be able to use his theology of faith to understand what he means when he says that faith comes first. Once we grasp the implications of this proposition, we will be able to challenge the Christian religiosity overwhelming our politics.
The nature of faith as universal force is that prism through which the human person perceives him or herself, where their beliefs are born that ground their worldview, and ultimately, where they imagine the value of their neighbors and society as a whole. This is what Lynch means when he says “faith is a form of imagining and experiencing the world.”
If we imagine the world through a furious faith, we experience a furious world. If we imagine the world through faith in the humane, we experience what is compassionate and good. And if we imagine the world through the religiosity of faith, we experience a world that is ahistorical and autocratic.
The brilliance of Lynch’s theology that it captures the “internal relations” of the nature of faith, the imagination, and our subjective experiences of the world and brackets it off from the belief in religion for religion’s sake. His is an image of faith in which we can get back to an a priori understanding of it, its images, and its impact on human history.
Lynch frees faith from its imprisonment in Christian religiosity and sets it free. He gives us fundamental language to discuss the education of our faith, the evolving history of our faith, and the politics of our faith too.
As Lynch puts it, “it makes far from perfect sense to explore external and collaborating relations unless we have a firmer understanding of this internal equation (IOF, p.6).” While he struggles to identify the existential markers of where faith, imagination, and experience begins and ends, he does insist that the imagination “is the mode in which we experience and manage the world.” As he sees it, “to imagine the world is to experience the world.” And so he concludes that if faith is “a way of imagining the world, it is also a way of experiencing” it.
By way of exploring the nature of faith as distinct from the christening of faith, Lynch expands the one-dimensional perception of faith as private worship and belief in God to include the reality of faith’s “embodiment – individual, historical, social, and political – to such an extent that it creates the very heart and core of human existence and human society (IOF, p.12).”
In it’s evolution, a primal faith leaves what Lynch describes as the paradise of the “child’s omnipotence” in order that it reach into the throbbing reality of existence. Here faith moves into and is educated by the processes of human rationality, the sciences, and politics. Faith evolves through the person, through the community, and through society as a whole, and it shapes our worldviews and how we experience the world in which we live.
Faith descends into human reality to either create the bonds of political communion or to destroy them, and because faith is a living body it “can grow sick, receive wounds, grow weak and almost die,” not to mention its willingness to “accept fools…and every imaginable stupidity (IOF, p.68).”
We can feel a unity of faith and its disunity, both in our heart and in our politics, and we can even experience a complete collapse of it by way of mutual contempt of and fear from one another.
When William Lynch makes the claim that “faith is politics,” what he means is that the images we create of faith and the images faith creates of the world also creates our values, how we live in society, and even the identity of our God. His theology of faith tells us that if we understand the embodiment and education of faith and its consequences on our society, we will be in a healthier position to discuss both the degradation and revitalization of it in society.
Today, Lynch’s theology of faith is more important than ever because it gets at the very heart of why and how American images of faith express themselves in our politics the way they do. His theology of faith gives us an analytical tool to identify and deconstruct the unanswered questions of why we’re a divided nation of believers, why some of us have turned away from the christening of faith altogether, and why our politics in the Christian community are worldviews apart.
Lynch’s existential analysis of faith is crucial for theology to adapt because it is the only theology of faith that has the power to identify and communicate the types of faith shaping American democracy today.
On the one hand, a primal and furious faith is rising up and rearing its ugly head in American politics, uneducated and vulgar, and looking to rule all other forms and images of American faith. And on the other hand, there is an educated and inclusionary faith struggling to challenge and displace a furious faith that has distorted not only the true faith of Christ, but also the true faith in American democracy.
We must challenge this vulgarity and resurrect goodness in the politics of our faith–that is, resurrect faith in each other, faith in self-government, and faith in the values that put the human person at the center of our democracy–in order that we may continue perfecting a political common good that makes American society so exceptional.