Transferring to humanity the prerogatives which Christians acknowledge to be God’s, positivism, by that very fact, reverses in the social field the attitude of Christianity, whose heir it means to be.
Without rights vis a vis God, since he receives his whole being from God, the individual thought he had rights vis a vis society: however organically incorporated in it., however subject to its authority in all things temporal, however sincerely devoted to its welfare, he was aware of transcending it by his first beginnings and his latter end.
He knew that, by what lay deepest in himself, he formed part of a greater and vaster society and that, in the last analysis, everything rested with an authority that was not human…
But, if temporal society is an adequate manifestation of the only true deity, from whom the individual receives all that he is, how can he have any right as against society? That notion of right is essentially ‘theological-metaphysical’… the positive faith, everywhere substituting the relative for the absolute, substitutes ‘laws for causes and duties for rights.’
Henri de Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism
Reflection – Well, it’s been a while since we had a ‘difficult’ text on this blog, and it’s good for us (that is to say, me) to flex some intellectual muscle once in a while. All my fancy book-larnin’ has not been for nothing, after all.
De Lubac’s book is, I believe, still one of the most important books of the 20th century. It has held up extraordinarily well in its analysis of the tragic dynamic of atheism, its false promise of liberation and human fulfillment, and its subsequent collapse into tyranny and human destruction. It’s a slender little book, and for the most part quite readable; I recommend it highly.
This quote is taking that discussion to the field of human rights and society. If you find it a bit convoluted, let me un-convulate it for you. Essentially, de Lubac is saying that human rights either come from God by virtue of His creation of man and the inherent structure, nature, and dignity of the human person, or human rights come from society and the social contract—a shared consensus of values among those living in the community.
But since ‘society’ is an abstraction and human rights are concrete, what this latter concept of right really means is that our rights are granted us by the state. And this is no true right, but a concession, a privilege, which can then be revoked by government fiat.
In other words, either our rights are from God and dwell within us ineradicably, or we exercise whatever freedom we have at the good pleasure of our social masters. It is either God or the president/prime minister/congress/parliament/courts.
There is a great irony here. De Lubac is quite right that, if our whole being is from God, then we have no rights vis a vis God—this would imply some higher power to which we could appeal against the One who is All in All. So humans would seem to be in a state of radical subjectivity and bondage towards God, which is the position of Sartre and Nietzsche.
But God is changeless, eternal, not subject to flux. Once we grasp that God’s creative will towards us is for our freedom and dignity, our capacity to genuinely act and move freely, then the whole notion of human rights becomes very secure.
If we reject God and His dominion, we are indeed left with the highest power being the government. The changeable, fluid, political, malleable, intensely corruptible, say-whatever-will-get-us-elected next time government—and this is the guardian of human rights, freedom, and dignity?
What Caesar can give, Caesar can take away. If the state is the source, or even (since in our post-modernity frivolity and folly we are allergic to metaphysical statements and avoid them whenever possible) simply the final arbiter of human rights, our freedoms are very perilous indeed. We have to think about these things: atheism tends towards tyranny and arbitrary exercises of state power; religion tends towards rule of law, at least (the historical record at least bears this out), which itself is an absolutely necessary pre-condition for democracy.
The only way to secure human freedom is to assert timeless and unchanging truths about man and his nature, and the only way to coherently assert those truths is to acknowledge the changeless and eternal nature of God and His laws. And without delving into a lot of controversial subjects that I have no time or energy to treat of right now, this is all rather relevant in our days, don’t you think?