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Conforming to Reality

“All that ought to be is grounded in what is. The Good is what conforms to reality. Whoever wants to know and do the good must turn his gaze toward the objective world as it is, not toward his own thoughts, or to conscience, or to values, or self-determined ideals and models. He must disregard his own act and look to reality.” – Josef Pieper

What kind of inquiry does justice to reality? How do we come to know “what is?” Where do we find “the objective world as it is?” How do we distinguish between reality, “what is,” and our will, and wishes, and dreams, and desires, or “self-determined ideals and models?” This is the challenge of any realistic inquiry aimed at seeking the truth. Today’s ideologies make the challenge of separating what is from what we want even more difficult than it usually is.

Being or existence or reality is the ground, the foundation of anything else we might wish to think, do, or make. This includes any science of man, biology, psychology, sociology, etc. No such science can mirror or capture existence. All science is a narrowing of the whole truth of our existence. The knowledge produced by such reductionism may be methodologically valid, or “true,” and as such useful for a variety of practical purposes, but it is always less than what is. As John Paul II wrote in Fides et Ratio:  “Hypotheses fascinate, but they do not satisfy.” True happiness comes from knowing the whole truth about man, not from knowing the useful, partial truths of the sciences of man.

Our existence “is what it is” whether or not we know it or understand it. Thus, our very second-to-second existence, our being rather than our not being, is telling us something whether or not we hear it or attend to it. It is telling us that we exist. Our existence itself confronts us with a puzzle, a question. In fact, not unlike that background noise that the astrophysicists discovered to be the result of the Big Bang, the question of existence never goes away so long as we exist.

Contrary to current misconception, what we think about our existence has no bearing whatsoever on the sheer fact of our existence. The background hum keeps humming whether or not we pay any attention to it, or regardless of the attitude we take towards it.

The fact of our existence presents us with something of a dilemma, or problem, or question: clearly, we might not exist. Our existence is highly, even fundamentally contingent. We do not have to be, and in fact one day will not be, at least not as we know ourselves to be now.

       God Creating the Sun, the Moon and the Stars in the Firmament
 by Jan Brueghel the Younger, c.1650

The attitude that we take towards this most basic fact of our existence is critical. Throughout much of human history and across cultures, the most common response has been to understand that our existence-as-such is a gift. Like any gift, it is something that might not have been given. And it is of no small interest – and significance – that there seems to be an almost universal response to having received this gift: acknowledgment and gratitude. Thanks-giving. The human race knows that existence is a gift and that we should give thanks. Given the historical record, it seems to be what comes natural to us.

And what is natural is in accord with the quotation from Josef Pieper above: if our existence is a gift, then it is good to give thanks, because this is the appropriate response to reality, to what is.

If we recognize that acceptance of the gift and gratitude for it having been given are natural responses to our existence, we can start to see how and why atheism is a rejection of reality, and as such is both untrue and unjust. Thus, it is not the case, as atheists would have us believe, that unbelief and ingratitude are the natural responses to life. It is not smart and wise, let alone “progressive,” to be an atheist and “superstitious” and “irrational” to be otherwise.

Atheism is not at all natural. In fact, it is a most unnatural response to life, rooted not in reality but in the modern ideology of philosophical “naturalism” that many have come to mistake for reality itself. Ironically, there is nothing at all natural about this philosophical naturalism. It is, instead, a prideful rejection not only of God, but also of history and reality.

We see the consequences of that rejection all around us. And the only appropriate response is to understand and to seek to counter the illusions about reality and the individual and social disorders that naturally follow from committing such an unnatural act.

Clifford Staples is a Professor of Sociology at the University of North Dakota and a Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. Cliff is a lector at weekday Mass and a member of St. Michael’s Jail Ministry. His essays have appeared in The Catholic Thing, Crisis, The Christian Review, and Catholic Exchange.