Tuesday, September 23, 2014

All Things Without God

The morality that the Church teaches is not some special burden for Christians; it is the defense of man against the attempt to abolish him. If morality—as we have seen—is not the enslavement of man but his liberation, then the Christian faith is the advance post of human freedom…

Man needs morality to be himself. But morality requires faith in creation and immortality, that is, it needs the objectivity of obligation and the definitiveness of responsibility and fulfillment.
Joseph Ratzinger, A Turning Point for Europe?

Reflection – This is another nifty little book by the future Pope Benedict that I like to recommend to people. The title may sound rather euro-centric and hence of little interest to those of us in other parts of the world, but ‘Europe’ in Ratzinger’s thought really stands as the place of the modern/post-modern existential choice of man—to press forward to increasingly radical secularism and the attendant ideologies, or to turn back to the coherence of faith and its integration into life. That is what this book is really about, and as such it is relevant to all of us.

The abolition of man is a phrase that Ratzinger seems to have borrowed from C.S. Lewis, whose work of that name he cites with approval in this book. It is of the essence of modernity that there is no such thing as ‘man’, that human nature is not a thing, or that at best humanity is defined by its infinite malleability, its radical plasticity.

This means that we can shape and fashion humanity any way we please, whether it is the capitalist project of reducing people to units of production, the communist project of reducing people to the service of the collective, the genderist project of severing biology, sexuality, and personal identity in the service of an extreme form of libertinism (ironically enforced by the coercive power of the state), or the positivist project of reducing man to a unit of technical and scientific study to be shaped and managed for optimal efficiency—the trans-humanist dream of transcendence through scientific progress.

Post-modernity, meanwhile, rejects all these big ideologies and in fact all the large sweeping narratives that claim to give coherence to reality in favor of a radical individualism, perhaps a nihilistic rejection of meaning, but at any rate essentially an embrace of incoherent relativism in service of personal freedom. The problem of post-modernism is that it provides no defense nor any possibility of defense against the large ideological agendae that still operate in the world at the hands of those who wield them.

Whew—that’s a mouthful. But this is more or less the world that secularism delivers us to, isn’t it? Once God and any objectively real transcendent order of reality is either denied or ignored, considered illusory or unknowable or irrelevant, then ‘man’ is delivered over to the ideologues who hold power at the moment.

And this is quite important. We can think easily that it is a great liberation to get rid of God and the objective moral law. Sartre and Nietzsche assure us it is so. But in fact, as Bob Dylan put it, ‘You gotta serve somebody’, and the illusory freedom from God in fact delivers us to the unbearable slavery to the spirit of the age. And, more to the point, it delivers the mass of humanity to being objects of use and manipulation for the small elite who wield the levers of power at this moment.

And that is a fairly precise description of where we are right now. This little citation from Ratzinger, then, shows us the way out of this degrading slavery. There simply must be a transcendent, objective order to the cosmos, not to confine and hamper us, but to preserve us from being annihilated by the powerful and the rapacious. There must be a moral order, simply to provide us with a solid ground on which to stand against tyranny and exploitation. There can be no ab-use of a human being if there is no proper ‘use’ of one.

Without a real moral order to the universe, there really is no grounds for objecting to virtually anything anyone might do to anyone else. We may dislike people having their heads chopped off or large men belting their wives in elevators or policemen being trigger-happy (to name a few random examples plucked from my Facebook newsfeed), but we can’t really object to those things on moral grounds, unless there are moral grounds.

And there are no moral grounds without an order to creation and the personal responsibility and ultimate signification to human life that is our immortal nature. And these do not exist without God. As Nietzsche said, and Dostoevsky echoed, without God all things are permissible. It is faith, and particularly the Christian faith which on strictly theological grounds privileges the infinite worth of the individual person over any other consideration, that is the best defense and solid ground of human freedom and dignity in the world.