As I was saying to an old friend the other day, as we passed a crowded hamburger franchise: "Look at all the rugged individualists, lining up for their Big Macs! Look at all those freethinkers!"
It was a doubly uncharitable remark. First, our whole society has not gone over to dogmatic atheist fundamentalism. It only seems that way when one is reading the papers. Second, even among persons who characterize themselves as "freethinkers," there is much earnest, well-intentioned floundering that mustn’t be confused with hypocrisy.
Nevertheless, I was feeling antagonistic that day (blame the Lenten vow I had just broken at my own, more elegant, lunch) toward people claiming to be freethinkers who would not recognize a free thought if it drove over them like a bus. Moreover, I had just read this message on the side of an actual Toronto transit bus: "God probably doesn’t exist. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." (It was one of two messages. The other was, "Sorry not in service.")
And finally, I had been told recently by a person whose views are indistinguishable from those of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, that he was, unlike me, a "freethinker." And I had failed to elude that bait.
"I’m trying to think what kind of thinker I am," I mused, sarcastically, after a deep breath. "An unfree thinker, I suppose. A confined thinker. An indentured, enslaved, or servile thinker. A very slow, conventional thinker. ‘Inside the box.’ A non-autonomous thinker. Perhaps, a non-thinker. A Catholic, and thus at best, like Origen, or Augustine, Bonaventure, or Aquinas — some kind of vacuum head."
Those bus ads (now scattered all over the Western world) are, as I have written elsewhere, actually quite useful to the Christian cause. As I explained to readers of the Ottawa Citizen, they exhibit the core weakness in all atheist proselytizing. Their case is against belief in God. But in order to state their case, they must mention Him. From the moment they do that, they jostle the thoughts of people who hardly ever think about God, and may even be trying to suppress such thinking. And now, thanks to the Freethought Association of Canada, people caught in Ottawa traffic jams, too, find themselves thinking about God.
Perhaps we should help them pay for more ads. But since I’m not feeling wealthy at the moment, I will devote myself to further servile thinking.
I think the chief "theological constraint" on "free thought" goes like this. You can’t leave God, leave Christ, leave the Holy Spirit, out of any thinking, even if He seems peripheral to the issue at hand. Whether in science or society you must constantly think, "What kind of God made us? What are the attributes of God?" It is crucial to think this broadly, not narrowly — so far as that is possible in your own skin, with its fleshly interests. Prayer is therefore extremely helpful — prayer before thinking, just as prayer upon rising, before confession, before Mass, before food, before sleep.
And from there you try dimly to descry a Godly path. In science, this means opening your mind (in a servile way, of course) to the God who works in mysterious, and often almost provokingly paradoxical, ways — complexly to our human view, simply to His. Indeed, I have come to suspect why Nature has so often "selected for" Catholic monks and priests, and other religious persons (whether Catholic or not), when revealing the more closely guarded secrets of her physics, chemistry, biology, and math. It is not because they have so much free time on their hands, but rather because they are trained to think, "What would God do in this situation? How would God have designed this? Where is the meaning hidden?"
In society, likewise, it means trying to imagine not only what God would will, but by what method He would achieve His will, generally without advertising a miracle. And not just any god, but that God whose means are ultimately indistinguishable from His ends (much though cause and effect become displaced, when passing through the prism into time). Can we not act in such a way that even by our means, our ends are exemplified?
What I have just described cannot be free thought — at least, not in the currently received sense of that term. For as I understand, the central tenet of "free thought" is: to think for oneself alone, and withhold obedience to any external authority. It further strikes me that this kind of free thought offers a program — a standpoint, a point of departure for thinking — that is not only very free, but in its nature arrogant, narcissistic, self-indulgent, even lazy.
David Warren is a Canadian journalist who writes mostly on international affairs. His Web site is www.davidwarrenonline.com.