Thursday, October 30, 2014

Something That Resists Me

I experience the fact that [God] exists because I run up against him, and if ever it were I that had fashioned him, I should certainly have made quite a different job of it. As it is, I am obliged to accommodate myself to him. I am obliged to take him just as he is.

No, I never made him, in my image. I am the one who finally has to come down to doing things his way. And there’s the rub that makes me know I am in contact with the real: when I feel, that is, something which resists me, that I have no control of, and that, on the contrary, I must finally end up by adapting myself to, making way, giving up, against my will, all the while dragging my feet.
Jean Danielou, The Scandal of the Truth

Reflection – I’m going through some of my old files from my academic thesis and pulling out interesting quotes here and there. One thing that struck me around the Synod and the discussion surrounding it was the general need to ‘up our game’ intellectually a bit in the Church. I don’t mean to sound patronizing, as I firmly believe people are quite capable of being intelligent and thoughtful, but so much of what I read in the Catholic blogosphere during that time simply did not manifest that, much.

So I’m going a wee bit intellectual on the blog for a few days anyhow. It’s also good to remember some of these absolutely first rate theologians from the 20th century who have to greater or lesser degrees been forgotten today (because, after all, they wrote their books more than ten minutes ago, and so cannot possibly have anything relevant to say, right?).

Danielou, for example, is fantastic, and as you can see from this passage, very readable. God is the One, here, who resists us, who thwarts us, who is Not Us, and to Whom we have to adapt ourselves, not have Him adapt Himself to us. It strikes me that this is more than a little relevant in the discussions around marriage and family life, human sexual expression and openness to life.

‘Do what comes naturally’ is the cry of our times. The right thing to do is the thing you feel most strongly like doing; such is our understanding of the natural law, commonly. Of course this is an incoherent position, as there is no shortage of people for whom what comes naturally is torturing animals, having sex with children, raping women… and nobody (except the perpetrators, I suppose) believes these things to be ‘the right thing to do.’

‘Do what comes naturally… ummm… unless you are hurting someone by doing so.’ That seems to be a way out of that particular quandary. But while that may work for us (sort of) as a rough and ready ethos for daily life, as a matter of strict logic, it won’t do. Philosophically, we have introduced a condition for moral action without any warrant or rationale. Why not hurt others? A sociopath will argue that there is no rational basis for that condition. We can simply say it and insist on it irrationally, but we are cheating by so doing.

The truth is, all the ways of trying to forge a human ethic without God and a moral law/natural law coming from Him founder on this precise point or arbitrariness. Utilitarianism, consequentialism, proportionalism—all of these fail to satisfy the question of the persistent five-year-old child: but why? It is only when we hit up against this Other, this One who made all that is, who is the source and sovereign Master of all that is, who gives it (and us) structure, meaning, purpose, and who thus has in our regard that most dreaded and despised word of our time.

Who has Authority, in short. We don’t like this, but this really is the only way to advance any kind of coherent ethical vision of life short of ‘do whatever the hell you please, and if what pleases you is to torture and kill me, please know that I am heavily armed.’ Without God, all things are permissible—Nietzsche and Dostoevsky really did have it right, after all. And we have to be clear that it really is ‘all things’ – not just the things that we enjoy doing or approve of or think we have a right to do.

But once we acknowledge this Authority, then ‘doing what feels right’ goes right out the window. The law of nature, the natural law, behaving in a way that is consistent with the structure and purpose of our humanity, means conforming our behavior to Him, not conforming all of reality to our own preferences.

It seems to me that in the Church we have placed so much stress on a sort of ‘feel good’ Christianity, advanced very strongly the (quite true) thesis that God wants us to be happy that we have failed to teach people that happiness comes on the other side of death to self and being crucified with Christ. 

And we are reaping the fruit of that poor and one-sided teaching in the present inability of so many people to conceive of the notion that God may want them to sacrifice their natural preferences and inclinations for a greater good.

But that is the God of the Bible, the God of all our Catholic tradition, the God we believe in. And so we have to get busy re-learning, re-teaching, re-presenting that God who is the One True God, and the Good News that this God truly brings us in Jesus Christ.


  1. Thanks for the quote from Danielou. It's very challenging and gets right to the heart of our life with God.

    I have some sympathy with the idea that "if God is dead than all is licit." It is not clear to me whether a non-theistic system of ethics can really stand up to difficult testing. I'm not sure, I go back and forth on that. But isn't the point of natural law theories to ground ethics in something other than the authority of God and thereby make it possible to have a fruitful discussion across religions and cultures? How do you think such a discussion should be approached?

    1. Thanks, Neil - always great to hear from you, by the way. I think the best we can hope for from non-theistic ethics is a provisional system that works by general consensus - I don't think ultimately the whole can hold water, intellectually. While natural law theories are (theoretically) attainable by reason, my general understanding of the subject (imperfect, I realize) is that they do require the positing of the existence of God, as otherwise there would be no moral or rational significance to the 'way things are/work'. So again, while NL ethics are something that can be reasoned and hence discussed by reasonable people (as opposed to "It's evil because GOD SAID SO"), the theory itself requires at least positing 'God' in some form.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.