Thursday, September 8, 2011

To Enter the Dance of Being

According to Sartre, human beings and things cannot have a nature. If they did, Sartre argues, there would have to be a God. If reality itself does not proceed from a creative consciousness, if it is not the realization of a design, of an idea, then it will always be a structure without firm contours, to be used as one will; but if there are meaningful forms in it that are antecedent to man, then there must also be a meaning that is responsible for their existence. For Sartre, the one unchanging certainty was that there is no God; therefore, there can be no nature. This means that man is condemned to a monstrous freedom; he must discover for himself with no norm to guide him what he will make of himself and of the world.

Principles of Catholic Theology, 72

Reflection – OK, so we’re done with the World Youth Day blogging, right? The Holy Father has the remarkable ability to speak of complex and deep matters in simple language, and this ability was on display at its heights at WYD in Madrid. But the man is nonetheless a world-class scholar, and so here we return to our ‘regular programming’ – which involves taking some of his heftier works and cutting them into small digestible pieces. You can thank me later.
So here he is grappling with Sartre and the whole rejection of ‘nature’ as a concept. Nature means, simply, ‘what something is’. The idea of human nature means that human beings are something specific, that there is a structure, a form to humanity that delimits us in some fashion.
It is crucial to note here that the reason Sartre and his followers (who are legion in the world today, even if they’ve never heard of the man and cannot name one of his works) deny nature is not based on any logical arguments. They deny nature because they want to do what they want to do when, where, and as they want to do it. The denial of God and nature is a first principle for them. Or to put it more accurately, the first principle they start with is that freedom is the highest value of man, and freedom can only mean doing exactly as you desire with nothing to stop you. From this first principle of action the rejection of God and human nature is the necessary first principle of theory.
If God exists, we cannot do just anything we please, not without violating something that is real. We do not live, if there is a God, with accountability and a responsibility to Being. Literally, we have a response-ability—we find ourselves in a world that exists, has a being which is structured, formed, purposed, meaningful, and we invited to and able to respond—we are response-able—to this reality.
To Sartre and so many post-moderns, this means we are not free. But, as Ratzinger points out in this passage, Sartre’s freedom is monstrous. We find ourselves in a shapeless bog of reality, no boundaries, no structure, total chaos, and our freedom consists in imposing our own will onto this chaos. The only freedom Sartre can recognize is the freedom God Himself enjoys: the earth was formless and void, and God said let there be light… this is for him the sole freedom. And what a burdensome and joyless freedom this is: Sartre’s major works have the cheery titles of Nausea and No Exit.
Ratzinger goes on to point out that there is another model of freedom possible for us—the freedom of cooperation, of entering into God’s reality, of embracing and uniting ourselves to the dance of Being already taking place.
It seems to me (and to Ratzinger) that these two models of freedom are mutually exclusive, and we really do have to choose between them. Either it means doing exactly what we want, or it means diving into the world as it is and shaping it, and ourselves, according to the truth, goodness, and beauty that is already present there. So take your pick: which is it?

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