Sunday, September 21, 2014

Living As If God Exists

The attempt, carried to extremes, to shape human affairs to the total exclusion of God leads us more and more to the brink of the abyss, toward the utter annihilation of man.

We must therefore reverse the axiom of the Enlightenment [to live by only those truths that would be true even if God did not exist] and say: even the one who does not succeed in finding the path to accepting the existence of God ought nevertheless to try to live and to direct his life veluti si Deus daretur, as if God did indeed exist. This is the advice Pascal gave to his non-believing friends, and it is the advice that I should like to give to our friends today who do not believe.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures

Reflection – I am back from holidays, nicely rested up thank you, and ready to roll for another year of blogging (among other things). I thought I would start off this round with a return to some vintage ‘Ratzinger blogging’. Those who have discovered my blog more recently may not know that it used to be called ‘Life with a German Shepherd’ and was dedicated exclusively to the writings of Pope Benedict. I did my licentiate thesis on his thought, and have a wealth of references from him in my files.

I always recommend the book quoted here as a good starting point for those who want to read something by Ratzinger. It is short, topical, lively, provocative. Today’s quote is a good example. Fashioning a social world without reference to God seems to many to be the path of freedom and tolerance. Let everyone think what they wish, privately, about religious matters, but let our public life together be officially agnostic, if not atheistic. This has been advanced, and continues to be advanced, as the most peaceful way to live together.

It is illusory, though. We cannot, individually or communally, avoid ultimate questions. If there in fact is no God, or if we at least live our lives as if there is no God, the ultimate questions about truth and meaning and what is good do not simply wither away on the vine. Human beings are made for meaning—we cannot stop looking for meaningfulness in life. And if that meaning is not given, it must be fashioned. If it is not something to discover, it is something to make. It cannot be, and never is, something we just forget about. We’re not really built that way.

And so we have, in this seemingly tolerant agnostic/atheist approach to social life, the transference of questions of ultimate meaning, truth, and goodness to the sphere of political and sociological transformation of the world. When there is no God in heaven to which we can refer the matter of ultimate happiness and the consummation of human striving for perfection, then we must labor to create a heavenly life (or some poor facsimile of same) on earth.

And if this does not take place in the sphere of political ideologies or moral crusades (some people, after all, are genuinely apolitical by temperament), then it will take place in the naked pursuit of wealth, pleasure, power, or some potent combination of these. But all of this—ideological agendae and self-seeking gratification—are in fact matters that occur in public that affect all of us. The religious impulse, the sense of God and of ultimate reality that is outside of us, is forced into a private expression that is more and more hemmed in, while all of the other efforts to force meaning upon a meaningless reality rampage publicly and increasingly intrude upon us all.

And so we have the seemingly mild and irenic advice given by Cardinal Ratzinger. Act as if God exists, even if you can’t see your way to really believe that. Act as if the questions of ultimate meaning and happiness are in fact given and not made, as if there is a hope for human fulfillment that lies outside our own striving and violent effort. Act as if we do not have to press so hard to make this life on earth a heaven for ourselves, as if there might just be a heaven awaiting us.

It seems like a very mild and simple prescription for what is truly a complex and very serious problem, but I believe he is pointing the way to a real remedy for our post-modern ills. If God does not exist, we are plunged into an abyss of meaninglessness which forces us into a terrible strife and clash with one another and with a cold and lifeless cosmos. 

If we but grant the existence of God, leaving aside for the moment the specific questions of His nature and revelation to us, we find ourselves on solid ground, able to simply work with a measure of peace to make this world a more kindly and lovely place, since at the bottom of the abyss lies not black nothingness but a Living Presence that sustains and supports us and gives us hope that all is not lost, that all, in fact, shall be well in the end, well not by our own efforts and virtues but by a mercy that comes to us from the One who made all that is. And that is what we have, if we decide to live ‘as if God exists’.