Sunday, November 4, 2012

When Know How Is Not Enough

Man knows how to do many things, and this knowledge increases all the time. If this know-how does not find its criterion in a moral norm, it becomes a power for destruction, as we can already see in the world around us.

Man knows how to clone human beings, and therefore he does so. Man knows how to use human beings as ‘storerooms’ of organs for other men, and therefore he does so. He does so, because this seems something demanded by his own liberty. Man knows how to build atomic bombs, and therefore he makes them, and he is willing in principle to use them too. Even terrorism is ultimately based on this modality of man’s ‘self-authorization’, not on the teachings of the Qur-an.

Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 42

Reflection – This follows up admirably on yesterday’s post about human dignity. The secular rejoinder to what I said yesterday about human dignity coming from our divine origin and goal, and from our being valued and loved by God, would be to locate our human dignity in our unfettered free will, which finds its expression today in ever more powerful technological attainments.

There is a grain of truth in this, to be sure. God made us to be free, and our freedom of action is essential to this very divine origin and goal, to our ability to respond to the divine will and plan for our lives. So dignity, which derives from dignus – from what is fitting to a person, demands respect for human freedom.

But this passage from Ratzinger shows the inadequacy of this model of dignity. If we simply say that our human freedom demands we be able to do whatever we are able to do, then we are on a path to the destruction of human freedom. Absent a moral framework, absent moral laws that constrain our freedom, our freedom is negated. Some will use their freedom to perform scientific experiments on others; some will use their freedom to compel others to refrain from speech or action that is against social norms; some will use their freedom to kill and maim others in the service of political or religious ideology.

It is, perhaps, ironic that it is freedom’s limits that alone preserve freedom’s existence. But it is so. We are children living in a garden, spacious, fruitful and beautiful. But if we tear down the encircling garden wall, the sea, the wild beasts, fire and flame rush in and destroy our home.

Some atheists or secularists will hold, fiercely, to the rightness of doing so. The Nietzschean  or Sartrean philosopher will maintain that it is better to live in a wilderness and set our own terms than a beautiful garden run under someone else’s management. Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven, as Milton put it so pithily.

Ultimately the only answer to that is to maintain the goodness and love of the God who is the author of all that is. The One who made us, who made the garden (the world) and who built the wall enclosing it (the moral law) loves us and is infinitely good and wise. His plan for us is to draw us deeper and deeper into His own life and love so that the final end of man is not exactly perpetual servitude and a degrading enslavement, but the freedom of divinization.

God intends for us to become so very free in Him that we are actually sharing in His divine nature. This is always, eternally, a matter of a gift received, a grace bestowed, but no less real for that. So the current situation of a moral law that indeed curbs our ‘freedom’, is meant to preserve us in truth and in love so that our lives can mature into their full stature.

This full stature—the heavenly life—is not a matter so much of amoralism but of trans-moralism. When the fullness of the Spirit is bestowed on us, there is no more law, but not in some libertine sense of the word. Rather, when the fullness of the Spirit is bestowed on us, we will be all love, filled with divine wisdom and insight, and having no desire but to love and be loved in truth and in goodness.

This is the freedom our lives are moving towards, and we begin to know this freedom a little bit here and now as we listen to the Spirit and respond to His promptings.


  1. Father Denis

    "man knows how to use human beings as storedoms for other men and so he does"... Just wondering is the pope talking about organ donation or organ transplant here? Or stem cell transplant.? What exactly is he saying? Where is the circling wall you are writing about? Does it vary by prayer and circumstance?

    1. No, he's not talking about organ transplant specifically - the church has no problem with that (although there are issues, it seems to me, around the definition of death that are troublesome, to say the least... but that's a personal opinion). I think he's talking about what are currently somewhat speculative prospects - cloning a person so as to raise replacement organs for them, for example. The technology is not there yet for this, but the idea has been floated, I believe, in the medical profession/research community. The larger point, of course, is that without a moral framework this kind of limitless expansion of technological horizons has no brake on it, with the consequences I try to explore in my post. The circling wall I'm writing about is a poetic way of saying 'the moral law' - the ten commandments, the teachings of the church - basic ethical life.
      Pax... and I am praying for all of you down there is the U.S. of A. the next couple days, for peace and good order in the election.

  2. Amazing article Fr. Denis! It helps me better understand how knowledge is related to true power, love and freedom. Quick question, how would you define "knowledge"?


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