Charles de Foucauld, Silent witness for Jesus, 'in the face of Islam'

At the age of fifteen, Charles lost all faith. Why? Remaining on the intellectual level (of course his emotions were deeply involved), it was certainly due to the natural questioning of an intelligent adolescent in a sceptical and relativistic age (Charles was an ardent reader), but it was also due, most probably, to something more specific. To quote a letter of Charles to an officer acquaintance whose faith was 'shaken':

'Your faith has only been shaken, mine was completely dead for years: for twelve years I lived without any faith: nothing seemed to me to be sufficiently proven; the equal faith with which people follow such different religions seemed to me the condemnation of them all; less than any, the religion of my childhood seemed to me admissible, with its 1=3, that I couldn't bring myself to consider; Islam pleased me a lot, with its simplicity, simplicity of dogma, simplicity of hierarchy, simplicity of morality, but I saw clearly that it was without divine foundation and that the truth was not there; the philosophers are all in disagreement: I remained twelve years without denying anything, without believing anything, in despair of the truth, not even believing in God, as no proof seemed to me evident enough.'5

It is important to see the whole of this key text. Charles suggests that his loss of faith in the Christian revelation of God, while based upon a general rational doubt, was due specifically to the 'challenge' of Islam: if there was a God, God should be 'simple', and not 'Trinitarian'.

Given the context of this letter, Charles is most probably 'foreshortening' the history of his period of non-belief: he is attributing the explicit admiration for Islam of his later years to the time of his adolescent doubting. But Islam was almost certainly one of the several religions to which he refers, and most probably the religion most present to his mind. For the French colonial presence in Algeria since 1830, and more particularly the well-publicised activities of Cardinal Lavigerie and the newly-founded 'White Fathers' and 'White Sisters' in the early 1870s,6 had brought the 'challenge' of Islam to the fore among the French intelligentsia, whether 'religious' or 'lay' (meaning, then, 'believing' or 'agnostic'). If this 'reading' of Charles' loss of faith experience is correct, it is of considerable significance: it is a sign of the presence of Islam in his life, precisely as challenge.