The Forgetfulness of God
This is the fourth post in a 4-part series by Fr. Hagan.
The day before the death of Pope John Paul II, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger — soon to be Pope Benedict XVI — gave a speech on the occasion of his reception of the St. Benedict Award for the promotion of life and the family in Europe. The address was given at the Abbey of St. Scholastica, in Subiaco, Italy, founded by St. Benedict of Nursia in the 6th century B.C. Think back to the last piece on Alisdair McIntyre, who prophesied that the rebuilding of our society would require a “new and different St. Benedict.”
Ratzinger spoke immediately of the horror of nuclear and biological weapons, which threaten human existence itself. But he continues on to speak of another threat to humanity, not the threat of extinction of the species but rather to the spiritual life of man, a threat to his good and to his freedom. This comes from the power that technology has not only to increase radically the disastrous effects of war but also to bring about assaults upon the environment and the spiritual well-being of man. The power of human science and technology is not an unqualified good but always presents us with an ambiguity such that if we do not rise to the occasion with advances in moral knowledge our technological mastery becomes the instrument of our destruction rather than the key to our freedom.
Ratzinger, like McIntyre, notes that although we have not lost the ability to speak in moral terms (we still can use words like “justice”, “peace”, and “conservation”, for instance) our moral language has become ambiguous and is focused almost always on the behavior of “others.” We think that all problems come from “the system” but we don’t remember that we are the ones who built the system and if we ourselves are corrupt the system will be corrupt as well. Our morality has now taken almost exclusively a political and technical manifestation. We think that even the claims of Christianity are really masked political claims. If this is true, then every religious aspiration, every desire for knowledge of God and unity with him, is really just a political desire that can be satisfied through political action. Combine this with the worship of self-creation through technology and we’ve found the key to the secularized life: politics and technology are the only “truths” to be discovered and they are not really truths but instruments of self-creation and weapons to be wielded against enemies, whether the enemy be “the others” or our own alienated selves.
The cultural disease of the Secular Age, says Benedict XVI, is not philosophical atheism but rather practical atheism. We may or may not believe that there is a God or even have any arguments for or against his existence. In fact, most people still do believe that God exists. The disease, for Benedict, is rather this: whatever our intellectual “belief”, we live as if God did not exist. We make no decision in our lives or for society with serious reference to God. We conduct ourselves as if we are totally on our own, as if God is not involved with us or interested in us, as if our lives bear no relation to him. Thus we are thrown back upon our own resources, and how at once awesome and meager they are. Ours is at once the age of singular technological mastery, economic prosperity, and individual liberty, and the age of violence and oppression on a scale unprecedented in human history. In our bid for self-powered ascendency to divinity, in our attempt by politics and technology to create the Kingdom of God on earth, we find again and again that things fall apart and what comes is some new form of oppression, some more technologically sophisticated and diabolical mode of domination by those who have power over those who don’t.
This God-forgetfulness, argues Ratzinger, is not about any god whatsoever. It is neither about some idea of God “as we understand him” nor is it about the God of Deism who merely watches us “from a distance.” Rather, it is the “God of Jesus Christ” who has been forgotten. It is Christianity, after all, that is the original heart and engine behind our western culture of freedom and personal dignity. Through centuries of nourishment by Christianity western society was transformed from the rule of melancholic pagan irrationality, ambition, and power, to a society where the inner aspiration to freedom, truth, and the good brought about a slow but steadily progressive reformation of all social structures. This society was never perfect. Nevertheless there had been laid for centuries a broad and deep foundation for a society within which the idea of personal dignity, rights, justice, and freedom were harmonized with communal responsibility for the good of all. Our western society now projects its “enlightened” secularism across the world. Increasingly we live in a global west which attempts to carry on with progress while rejecting its own animating spirit. What results is not a human culture but rather the ghost and shadow of one.
In an age of social media sloganeering and virtue-signaling, the temptation to hypocrisy by giving lip-service to “social justice” (or in the Catholic world, to the “common good”) is a clear and present danger. “Being for” such notions can become an ersatz version of our former religion, which we mistakenly believe was only ever about ethical-political values anyway. Christianity, however, is something else before morality or political ethics. Before anything, Christianity is about God revealing himself to us in order to reveal us to ourselves. Christ tells us that God has brought us into being from his personal (Trinitarian) communion and thus that he has made us for communion. To live in the communion of God is at once to find our identities and dignity as individuals and also to find our place in the human community. At home in the divine communion, I am at home with the power that makes it possible for me to transcend my alienated, violent, death-stricken self and become a true force for good in the world.
As the document of the Vatican II Council The Church in the Modern World states, “Only in the mystery of the Word-Made-Flesh does the mystery of man take on light.” In our time we are so deeply confounded by the mystery of our own being, so frustrated by our weakness and inadequacies, that we have turned to technology in order to bring about transcendence by our own power. Human nature is becoming for us a sort of blank slate, a cipher upon which we imagine we can write our own future, and human flesh is seen as ultimately malleable by technology in order to force a reconciliation between our bodies and our consciousness, which aspects of our being we often feel are otherwise hopelessly alienated one from the other. But as we said above in a previous post on Pierre Manent and the “flight from nature”, nature can be bent only so far out of its essential shape. Who, if not Christians, will be there to re-form our misshapen civilization?
The Second Vatican Council solemnly announces that only in Christ can man appreciate the “mystery” of his being. Of what does this mystery consist? I suggest two ways to understand the problem of our being wherein the issue of the “mystery of man” be made to appear for us. First, the alienation of man’s soul and body: my body seems both to belong to me, to be an extension and physical expression of my inner self, and at the same time to be alien to me and a hindrance to my self-expression. Second, I know myself to be both mortal and immortal. I know that I come “from the earth” and am destined to return to it, destined for death, but somehow I also feel deeply that I am “made for” transcendence and eternal life. I will not tolerate my soul-body alienation nor its orientation to death but demand for a resolution, a soul-body unity not only attached to immortality but to boundless possibility, fulfillment of my infinite desires. Despite my best efforts to accept the inevitability and “naturalness” of the finality of death I will not accept the “dying of the light”, the ultimate alienation of soul and body. I rage against it.
There is a third issue of our present experience from which emanates an abiding dread perhaps unique in the history of man. The practical atheism of the secularist doctrine offers me no relief from the creeping apprehension that threatens me when I reflect upon my evolutionary origins: if I am not created by a benevolent God but instead am a product of mindless natural processes, I find the claim — still a feature of our popular rhetoric — that my life has intrinsic meaning and that my person has intrinsic dignity to be groundless. If I am merely an epiphenomenal property of material structure randomly emergent from an original cosmic stew, perhaps the rational reaction to the language of “human dignity” is best met with a bitter laugh and subsequent dismissal. In a world where only the strong survive, what reason do I have to order my life according to any other principle but fitness and survival? All talk of “social justice” or “the common good”, all rhetoric about human responsibility for the community, these are in the end just the appeal the weak make against the strong in a sublimated struggle for power. If I am weak, then yes, I can join the struggle on the side of “the oppressed” in a cynical play for upward mobility and “equality”. But if I am strong, why should I care about the “bungled and the botched”, as Nietzsche put it, who are destined by the universe for extinction? Natural selection is the only “morality” that really exists in a Godless universe governed by mindless, soulless processes.
Underneath the moral preening of the practically atheist, secularist culture there is a despair which incubates a seething anger, and in our time we’ve seen this anger spill over into every arena of public life. Benedict XVI makes a statement that should be thought of as a commentary on that great announcement of the Council about Christ revealing the mystery of man to himself.
When I begin to learn this truth deep down, and live from it, I cease to understand myself as just another political or technological problem to be dealt with by government bureaucrats, the police, or medical technicians. I cease to understand myself as just one member among the plethora of victim-groups or oppressor-groups that make for the subject of endless media blather, or an alienated single soul, adrift and alone in the Cosmos. Rather, I realize that I am a person and I’m aware of my dignity because I know its source. In that very moment I become a light for my world, one who can help it to contemplate its real problems and reflect upon and implement true human solutions. I become a light for those around me who are at once lost in the sea of pluralism, or soul-deadened by pleasure-seeking, or cowering in fear of violence, or merely trapped in cycles of lashings-out at myriad oppressions real or imagined. Converted to the Gospel I become a source of healing for those who have mutilated themselves, spiritually and physically, in the effort to self-transcend through technology. When I have received the God of Jesus Christ, when his truth has been set into my mind and his power into my heart, I can then fulfill the command of the political slogan: “be the change you wish to see in the world.”