Thursday, May 31, 2012

2 + 2 = 4 -- Really!

Previously human beings could only transform particular things in nature; nature itself was not the object… of their activity. Now, however, it itself has been delivered over to them in toto. Yet as a result they suddenly see themselves imperiled as never before. The reason for this lies in the attitude that views creation only as the product of chance and necessity. Thus it has no law, no direction of its own.

In the Beginning, 51

Reflection – Ratzinger, writing here at the height of the Cold War, is referring here to the threat of nuclear extinction. The very structure of physical reality—the ‘atomic’ level of matter—has been made accessible to physical manipulation, and in consequence destructive forces have been unleashed that could destroy us all.

Of course this is still true today, even though the specific political configuration has changed. The dangers of nuclear weaponry are still with us. I wonder, though, if Ratzinger is not touching on an underlying spiritual problem. There is, it seems to me, a fundamental crisis that has beset humanity over the past several centuries.

I would call it a crisis of humility. Where is our humility? Humility is the virtue of limitations, the virtue that constrains us to live within our true boundaries. ‘Humility is truth’, goes the somewhat clichéd formula these days. Humility is about choosing to live within reality, and not trying to shape reality according to our wishes, as if we were God.

For example, 2+2=4. We may want it to equal 5 or 3, but it really does equal 4. The looming global economic collapse is a result of all sorts of people deciding that we can pretend 2+2=5 and just keep juggling the books and shuffling the papers until it magically does so. I do realize that it’s more complex than that, but that’s precisely the problem.

2+2=4 is not complex, and a global economy based on real numbers and real goods and services being exchanged for real money is not so complex. We’ve failed in humility, and tried to create a fantasy economy based on funny math and imaginary money. We are not God, and our efforts at creation ex nihilo are failing.

The same holds true with human sexuality. Man and woman come together in sexual union, and nine months later, perhaps, a child is born. There is union, and there is pro-creation. There is a beautiful, radiant simplicity about the whole thing, and a clear conformity between that which is given (bodily structures of genitalia and reproductive organs), what is manifestly good (the creation and raising of children in a safe, secure environment) and what is done (pro-creative sex, in a stable committed relationship).

But we know better! We have all sorts of ideas about what sex is, how children should be created and raised, and so on and so forth. And so we disregard our bodily structures and combine, mix and match as we please. Now – be clear! I’m not talking about the weakness of all flesh here, and the struggle for sexual purity and chastity that is the lot of fallen man. I’m talking about ideologies—rewriting the moral law to suit ourselves.

A crisis of humility—and the same holds true with nuclear weapons. We seem to have thought that it was wise and good for some human beings to hold in their hands the ability to destroy the human race. Somehow, we thought we were strong enough, good enough, pure of heart enough for this. And now we have a terrible mess on our hands, a dangerous terrible mess, the details of which I hardly need to lay out here.

Humility—knowing our limits, knowing that we are not God, and that God has made the universe with ordered structures, with a purpose and a goal. And committing ourselves to listening, to praying, to seeking out the truth of things and serving the end of things. This is our human vocation, and humility is at the core of it.


  1. It is a little morethan humility, sorry, Fr Denis.

    Public opinion and western society's views has changed over recent years regarding certain moral issues- like priestly celibacy, the role of women in the church and homosexuality. However vociferous this has been, most Catholics still look with enormus respect to the church's centuries old teachings in these areas...But there comes atime when the genuine shift in societies attitudes, its decencies, practices and understandings are so fundamental that to totally ignore them...begins to call into question ghe grace and spiritual wisdom of the church's hierarchy in interepting what is the will of God in our time and how God wants spiritual leaders to respond to the development of the peopel both for their own God and the development of Chtistianity.

  2. The Catholic church has moved its position on many issues over the years. It has had to. Respect for human dignity and scientific discoveries alone have forced the church to end its stance on slavery, torture, burnings alive, crusading wars...Galileo and Darwin made the church accept tht Geneis was perhaps not meant to be historically accurrate. Positive relativism in practice, maybe?

  3. The time is well overdue fora prayerful, honest, conscience seeking examen of how the church will respond to gender issues and human relatinships- Not just in Austria, or Ireland or the American courts- but led by Romein open debate. Is it for example God's wish that his priests forever be denied the option of a full, loving married life? that those persons with a natural gay orientation be regarded as intriniscally disorderd inteir own unions? that women never be ordained?

    Big changes will come in these teachings eventually. Human nature does not stand still. God wants his people to bein harmony , engaged in their beliefs. We may bow to the winds of public opinion at our peril, but by ignoring God's directions we are acting aginst his will.

    1. I'm not sure if it's the same 'anonymous' each time - the perils of anonymous commenting! - but I think we may have to agree to disagree. If society's changing attitudes was accompanied by some magnificent flourishing of human happiness and social vibrancy, I might be at least persuaded to consider that the modern world is right and the Church wrong. But that's not what I'm seeing from my little corner of creation, sorry. Marriage and family breakdown, inability of youth to commit, riots in the streets of our cities... it's not (to me) a pretty picture. Why would the Church assume that society knows what it's talking about? Peace to you - I'm not trying to be offensive - just telling you how I see it!

    2. Umm
      I have read the above somewhere before... But do not remember where now...

      But I am wondering about natural law... For some reason I felt I needed to get this...and a few years ago read everything within reach for awhile. I can't say I understand it all that much really. Like most other philosophical ideas.. It seems to have taken a lot of turns along the way and it seems there are several branches of thought about what natural law really means.

      In the end I just pretty much outlined the camps for myself.

      I agree Fr Denis, the world is messed up....but I really believe the people who live in it are both good and rational....and even today... It is still okay to trust the common person with the ability to reason.... The natural law maintains that human reason reflecting on human nature is able to arrive at moral wisdom and knowledge.

      At least, I think it says that. Doesn't it? So, why wouldn't the church be interested? I don't understand? I hope the people who wrote above will write more...

    3. Ohhh, natural law. A bit involved to get into all its ins and outs in a blog comment response!
      I believe people are good and rational, too (thank God!) and that there is very little real wickedness in the world. I would say though, that while natural law theory definitely says we can attain moral truth by reason, it is far from guarenteed.
      This is logical - after all, there is wide disagreement about all sorts of moral truth, and everyone is (let's be nice and presume this) using their reason. We can't all be right if we're contradicting each other!
      I'm not sure I would 'trust' the common person with the ability to reason, if by trust we mean assume that everyone will figure out the truth somehow. I don't know if human history really bears that out. We all go wrong in so many ways, and always have, at least so it seems to me.
      The Church (I hope) is interested in everyone's thoughts, journey, ideas, beliefs, and tries to listen to everyone. I know I do. But it seems to me we have to maintain the teachings that our cumulative tradition of moral thought has determined are true, even if in some parts of the Church today (i.e. Europe and North America) those teachings have become unpopular.
      And that's as far as I can go in the minute confines of a blog comment box! Peace to you.

  4. Ummm.

    This is all very puzzling to me. Thank you for trying "to presume and be nice". That is hard work sometimes in the church today. A kind of cross for some, I think. I think if we could really love each other more, trust each other more it might be easier.

    This God who we can never fully know is the only absolute truth. as we grow in understanding of ourselves, that we are made for God..we start to understand the immutable nature of God. Something in me then says we all have a piece of the truth.... So, then cummalative truth.... Seems to be about way more than teachings which have become unpopular.

    I don't know. This hurts my brain. Thanks for trying to help

    1. God bless you - believe me, I realize how hard and how puzzling all these things are to so many people (it's not like it's all crystalline clear to me, either, although I may give that impression sometimes!).
      I agree with everything you say, I think. Certainly no one, and the Pope would be the first to agree with this, possesses the full truth about God and the world. All of us have a piece of the truth... but all of us have a piece of error, too, then, right?
      For me, the question is, has God revealed to us the truth that He wants us to know, or that we really need to know in order to live well in the world for the short span of years He has given us?
      And if He has revealed that necessary amount of truth to us, has He entrusted it to a visible concrete authority? It seems to me that's the central question. It's not that the magisterium (the Pope and the bishops) have all the answers and everyone else is wrong, Wrong, WRONG!!!!!
      It's... well, does God want us to have a clear knowledge of how to live, of what actions are truly against his divine order? And if that is important for us to know (and I don't see how it can be unimportant), wouldn't He order his economy of grace in such a way that we can know it with reasonable certainty? Which implies establishing a teaching authority on earth.
      Anyhow, I know it's hard, and I honor your struggle in this. I think the best thing all of us can do, as we struggle through all this stuff, is keep praying: "Lord, lead us to the fullness of truth. Lead me to the fullness of truth. Help me to understand..." Prayer and humility and listening to God is what gets us through in the end, I firmly believe.
      God bless you.


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