Thursday, January 24, 2013

The World is Not a Machine, and Neither Are You

If we speak today about knowledge as a liberation from the slavery of ignorance, we usually are not thinking in the main about God but about the ‘fashionable sciences’, about art, and how it concerns things and people… within this reduction of the knowledge question, we find not only the problem of our modern concept of truth and freedom but also the chief problem of our age.

For it is presumed that it makes no difference at  all for the disposition of human affairs and the ordering of our lives whether there is a God or not. God appears to lie beyond the sphere in which our lives and that of our society operate… A God, however, who is without importance for human existence is no God for He is powerless and unreal.

But if the world does not come from God and is not governed by Him, then it is reduced to a paltry thing for this means that it does not come from freedom and that there is no power in the freedom which is found within it. The world then becomes the composite product of various forces and all its freedom is only a sham.

Jesus Christ, Yesterday, Today, Forever: Talk given in Washington DC, 1990

Reflection – What Ratzinger is talking about here is liberation in the deepest sense. Science and technology give us the power to do things, to manipulate matter to achieve various ends. The arts in general—the fine arts, the humanities—expand our horizons outwards from the narrow limits of our personal experience to the general experience and inherited wisdom of mankind.

But without God, without a divine horizon to all this, without faith, the project of human liberation fails ultimately. Why is that? Because everyone dies. We are born and we live for somewhere between 1 and 120 years, and then we die. All our human striving for greatness, the creativity of the person, the brilliance of our attainments—ultimately, as far as the individual is concerned, is for naught, if that is the whole story.

And freedom becomes, not quite illusory, then powerless and futile. Oh, I can use my freedom to do any number of things or nothing at all, for great good, great evil, or crushing mediocrity. If all it nets me in the end is a moldering corpse buried in the cold earth, who cares, really? We all gonna die, and the world gonna die, and so what good is anything, ultimately?

It is God who both creates the world in freedom and who brings us into and through this world in our human freedom and ultimately opens the door for our freedom to attain something lasting and eternal who overcomes this slouch towards death and the grave that is our modern tragic sense of life.

The materialist may counter with two arguments. First: ‘yes, but that’s just the truth of the matter, so suck it up, you big baby.’ Perhaps couched a bit more politely, but essentially that’s it. Second: ‘Aha! So you religious people admit that all your efforts at goodness are based on getting some reward from your Sky Fairy God! For shame!’

Now neither of these is exactly an ‘argument’ in the primitive medieval sense of, you know, premises yielding a necessary conclusion. The non-existence of God and the truth of atheistic materialism remain unproven; meanwhile the long history of arguments for God’s existence and against materialism at the very least make these positions intellectually viable.

Regarding the second, which is more of a jibe than an argument, it seems to miss the point. The point is not that human beings are little laboratory mice trying to complete the maze so as to get the cheese, or good little brown-nosing boys and girls trying to get the gold star from teacher. It’s not a question of toadying servility, Uriah Heep-like hypocrisy.

For one thing, God as we understand Him knows the human heart, not simply the outward behaviour. Anything less than genuine love and devotion is not going to cut it with Him. But it’s deeper than that. The whole reality of human freedom, God’s freedom, and the world’s freedom comes from a dialogue of love and gift, God’s gift to us, our return of that gift to Him. The exitus-reditus we talked about yesterday.
The materialist, being mechanistic, tends to impose a mechanistic view upon Christian theology. God creates a big machine called the universe, and human beings are a cog in that machine, and if we operate rightly, the machine yields a result called ‘heaven’. This is not Christian theology. The world is not a machine, and neither are you and me. Our theology is all about communion of love, dialogue of persons, and invitation into a dance of self-gift and faithful response. And that is the true freedom of the world, of the person, and it is a freedom that busts forth from the world into eternal life.

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