Sunday, February 7, 2010

Des mots qui ne vont pas tres bien ensemble

Faith, hope, charity (love); liberty, equality, fraternity.  Blah, blah, blah.  We've heard these formulas so often that we simply assume a kind of complementarity within each triad, viz.:  faith reinforces hope; hope reinforces love, etc.; all elements work together happily in order to achieve some ideal.

But, if we examine each formula carefully, we see that, in fact, it just ain't so.  Au contraire.  Far from being cozy collaborators in a common enterprise, the elements are, in fact, frequently as hostile to each other as were, well, Gilbert and Sullivan.

Let's start with St. Paul's trio.  Remember the old Sunday School hymn?  "Ya gotta have faith, hope and charity/ That's the way to live successfully/ How do I know?/ The Bible tells me so."  Trouble is, faith and hope seem to be frequently at odds--and too much of either of them seems to threaten love.

Faith means "giving it all to Jesus"--trusting that everything that "is" is for the best, in spite of the cruelty, violence and insanity of what God has apparently ordained.  This kind of submission is, in fact, a form of hopelessness--"it's God's will" is merely fatalism disguised as piety.  So the faithful are often not very hopeful (except with regard to anticipated rewards in the afterlife).

Hope means "confidence that things can be fixed, worked out, improved."  It's a belief in progress and free will.  Hopeful people generally don't have much need for faith in Jesus or Yahweh or Allah to reward them in an afterlife.  Things are OK right now--and there's nothing to prevent matters from getting even better.

So the hopers don't have much need for faith, and the faithers don't have very much hope.

Some historical examples?  Since I'm a French major, let's take two Frenchies:  Calvin and Robespierre. Calvin had great faith, but not much hope in humankind.  His omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent God had predestined everything from the beginning of time.  Not much likelihood that human effort could "fix" things.

So Calvin had very little love for anyone.  Why bother?  God takes care of that stuff.  All we have to do is burn the heretics. It's God's will.

Robespierre, on the other hand, had great "hope" for humankind.  Human beings could perfect themselves, without any need for God.  They could become "incorruptible," like Robespierre himself.  Needless to say, he didn't worry too much about love.  If you're going to fix things, you might have to terrorize some folks and chop off a few heads.  But it's for everyone's good.

Let's summarize:  strong faith = little hope = no love; strong hope = little faith = no love.

And yet, St. Paul says, "but the greatest of these is love."  Is he contradicting himself?  Does he really mean that we should do everything we can to GET BEYOND faith and hope--so that, once we've dumped those two contradictory and inhuman emotions, we can finally achieve some kind of truly meaningful state:  love?

Or is love some kind of "synthesis" of faith and hope--not too much of either, or an equilibrium between the two?

Well, how about "liberty, equality, fraternity"?  Just as faith and hope seem mutually contradictory, so too do liberty and equality.  The more freedom humans have, the less likely they are to be equal.  My right-wing friends (yes, I have some) agitate vociferously in favor of more freedom (to do what?  to get ahead at the expense of others?).  My left-wing friends (I have lots of those) assert that unrestrained freedom simply fosters inequality and injustice (so limits must be imposed on individual conduct).

Examples?  Let's take Americans this time.  How about the tea partiers vs.  Tea-party tenets:  if individuals can do whatever they like, without restraint; if no one is his brother's keeper; if social Darwinism should prevail (even though most tea-partiers detest Darwin), then we will have a lot of liberty, but little justice.

If, on the other hand, the moveon folks get their way, laws will be implemented whereby all citizens will receive similar protections and benefits from society--a grave restriction of the freedom of tea partiers who want to "git" whatever they want to "git" from life, and to hell with the whiners and complainers.

In neither case, does fraternity or fellow-feeling matter very much.  The tea partiers despise the whiners and the moveon folks have absolutely no sense of brotherhood with the exploitative tea-partiers.  Hate your enemy, as cable TV news preaches.

Summary:  liberty = limited equality = no fraternity; equality = limited liberty = no fraternity.  Left-wingers and right-wingers alike simply don't much like other people (except, of course, members of their immediate "tribe").

So once again, I ask:  is FRATERNITY, like LOVE, a kind of super-emotion?  A more meaningful state than either freedom or equality?  Is it what we should be striving to achieve BEYOND those other, less humane sentiments?

Ah, what a conundrum!  I can't really figure it all out, but I DO know that, in the long run, I agree with St. Paul--that love is greater than faith or hope.  And I also feel that fraternity--much neglected by the French and the Americans alike--is a way to get beyond obsessions with principles of freedom and justice.

Can love and fraternity prevail? First, perhaps, we have to ditch faith, hope, liberty and equality.


  1. "Can love and fraternity prevail? First, perhaps, we have to ditch faith, hope, liberty and equality."

    ...i don't think we have to DITCH faith, hope, liberty & liberty in order for love to prevail. i think instead, they are the BYPRODUCTS/overflow of love (hence St. Paul sayng love is greatest)-- and thus can't be created or sustained on their own without love as its foundation:

    Loving inspires FAITH in something other than oneself (which is really just greed);

    Loving gives one the impetus to HOPE for the future (like parents becoming invested in their children's futures);

    Love allows room for liberty (trust?) and equality, instead of force, to prevail.


  2. Good point. START with love/fraternity--as foundation. Maybe then the other elements just naturally find their proper place--or balance--instead of being the noisy gongs and clanging cymbals of love's opposite--hate and fear. That's St. Paul's point, obviously. It's just that love/fraternity don't seem to have much appeal these days...