Finding FaithSIGRID UNDSET
Sigrid Undset, who won the Noble prize for literature in 1928, explains freedom and authority as they concern a person’s relationship with the Catholic Church. We have a basic mistrust for all authority that is of this world, and at the same time our human nature is subject to an incurable desire for authority.
When people stubbornly hold on to the hope that it is impossible to find any absolute truth, it is because they fancy that life would lose its excitement, would have no freedom, if there really existed one truth — one alone in which all other truths are contained.
Most of us have felt at some time that it is insufferable that two plus two always makes four. We have all known the longing for a dream world where two times two is five, or zero, or seven, or whatever we want at the moment. Of course, the freedom of the dream world is quite illusory. In fact, the number of dreams and combinations of dreams is not unlimited. The life of dreams is bound by laws to a higher degree than most people think. But what I don’t know can’t hurt me. That’s how people think. What glorious freedom, to fly into a world where people decide for themselves the nature and property of things. In the reality into which we are born, the nature and property of things is already given, everything is knit together by laws. For people as they are, there is only one possibility for freedom: they must find their own way through this whole net of causes and connections.
The attempt to find the way ends all too often in becoming ensnared and hung up in it. In this world we can only attain one kind of freedom, that which our Lord spoke of when he said: “The truth shall make you free.” But even after this truth has been acknowledged and a person is set free so that the deterministic factors in life can no longer bind one in chains, this freedom is maintained at no less a cost than the continual struggle against the powers from which one has escaped. First and foremost against the temptation to look back and long for the old romantic dream world, where two and two can be whatever, and one decides for oneself what shall be true.
To this extent, it is understandable when modern man exerts all his inventiveness to escape from the authority of the Church. In any case this is how it looks to those who have tried to escape from everything that came to them demanding to be authoritative. The effort not to be bound — and this fight against a Church that has always openly declared that it demands that its authority be acknowledged — are not unique to modern man. The same tendency was shown with great force already in Jerusalem in the days before the pascha in the year our Lord was crucified.
However, there are probably only a few converts who are prepared to explain their own conversion, why their resistance to one who calls himself the Way, the Truth, and the Life, a resistance dictated by fear and mistrust, has been overcome. It does not happen without the cooperation of the mystical and supernatural power that theologians call grace. We can only say that one day we had to acknowledge that our resistance was perhaps illegitimate.
We have a basic mistrust for all authority that is of this world, and at the same time our human nature is subject to an incurable desire for authority. We want teachers who can teach us something. We want teachers who can give us prohibitions and commands. We want someone over us whom we can depend on and admire, even love. Even in my childhood it didn’t take terribly much cleverness to discover this mistrust, even if the world’s hunger for authority had not taken the pathological forms that it has taken since then. The question arises, do we long for authority because in reality we are created to bow to an authority that has the only legitimate right over us — the right of the creator, the author of life?
“Think for yourself” was enjoined on us constantly at the school that I attended. But when I followed this advice to the best of my ability — and the result was that I thought something other than the teachers had meant that I should think — I soon discovered that they were unpleasantly surprised. They couldn’t consider my differences with them to be other than an improper desire to oppose them.
Undset, Sigrid. “Finding Faith.” Crisis Vol. 13 no. 11 (May, 1999).
Reprinted by permission of the Morley Institute a non-profit education organization. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call 1-800-852-9962.
Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) was a Norwegian novelist. She became a Roman Catholic in 1924, after which her work deepened in religious intensity. Her masterpiece, Kristen Lavransdatter (3 vol, 1920-22), tells a graphic story of love and religion in 14th-century Norway. She was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1928.
Copyright © 1999 Crisis
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