Tom Cruise, First-Rate Philosopher
Okay, maybe not.
But one of his characters was more intellectually- and existentially-consistent that many (or even most) Americans of any religious affiliation, including Catholics. I’m talking about the hitman Vincent in the 2004 film Collateral, starring Cruise and Jamie Foxx and directed by Michael Mann.
Late in this film, Vincent and Max (Foxx’s taxi-driving character) engage in a conversation that begins with Max asking what Vincent’s victims did to “deserve” their fate:
Maxx: Then what’d they do?
Vincent: How do I know, you know? They all got that “witness for the prosecution” look to me. Probably some major federal indictment of somebody who majorly does not want to get indicted.
Maxx: So that’s the reason.
Vincent: That’s the why. There’s no reason. There’s no good reason, there’s no bad reason to live or to die.
Maxx: Then what are you?
Vincent: Indifferent. Get with it. Millions of galaxies of hundreds of millions of stars and a speck on one in a blink. That’s us. Lost in space. The cop, you, me… who notices.
Maxx: What’s with you?
Vincent espouses a crude version of nihilism in this dialogue, reminiscent of Bertrand Russell’s more “sophisticated” version as espoused in his essay “A Free Man’s Worship,” wherein he discusses the view of reality he holds as a result of his scientistic materialism:
Such… is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.
At least Vincent and Russell are intellectually consistent… they both recognize the broader ramifications of their foundational beliefs, and — at least in Vincent’s case — act accordingly. Russell’s premise was that matter was all there is, was, and ever shall be, to paraphrase Carl Sagan. And with his materialistic atheism, he recognized that there was consequently no meaning in the universe or in our lives, inherently or which we might attempt to assign to it. In Vincent’s case, his actions are in keeping with this nihilism he apparently holds to.
Again, there’s a consistency here which I think is lacking among many Americans, particularly Christians, and even more particularly, Catholics. And that inconsistency, in fact present throughout the Western world, was noted by the Fathers of Vatican II and subsequently by Pope Paul VI. In Gaudium et spes, the Council Fathers wrote, “This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age.” And in Evangelii Nuntiandi, Paul VI wrote, “The split between the Gospel and culture is without a doubt the drama of our time.”
We often fail to structure our lives consistently, failing to sufficiently form what we believe and how we live according to our Catholic faith. While we profess to be Catholic — and might even be able to point to occasional or even regular Mass attendance to attempt to demonstrate it — it appears that, at least in this country, our faith too often fails to in-form and in-spire the rest of our lives. Instead, we compartmentalize our religious belief and in many cases isolate it from the rest of our thoughts and actions.
This has been observed by numerous scholars from various disciplines, from theologian David Schindler to sociologist Christian Smith. Smith — himself an evangelical — led an exhaustive study of the religious & spiritual lives of American teenagers, and his findings (published in the book Soul Searching and also found in a dvd with the same title) found that whatever the religious beliefs professed by American teens (and, I’d argue, by adults as well), the vast majority of them “practiced” what he terms “Moralistic Therapuetic Deism”, a worldview in which God acts as divine butler or cosmic therapist: there when I need Him, but out of the way otherwise and most of the time. This is consistent with Schindler’s observations regarding the faith of American Catholics as well as with philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s observations regarding the pervasive liberalism present in our political discourse (briefly, MacIntyre is referring to the broad liberalism which underlies what Americans commonly refer to as liberalism and conservatism, i.e. the political philosophy born out of the Enlightenment).
It is incumbent upon us to be more intentional about forming every aspect of our lives as American Catholics according to the tenets of our faith. In terms of politics this certainly doesn’t mean that we will reach the same conclusions on the myriad public policy issues before us, but it does demand that we ensure that the first principles which we are thinking and acting from are thoroughly and authentically Catholic in nature, that they are found in or derive directly from divine revelation as guarded and handed on by the Magisterium. But even more broadly, it demands that we acknowledge that Jesus of Nazareth has something to say regarding all aspects of our lives, and that we live, move and have our being with Him always in mind.
This is a large task, but it is one we must continually strive to accomplish.