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A Foolish, Blessed Inconsistency

The Catholic faith teaches that the universe was created by the one God, living and true, the source of all Being and Goodness, who brought forth the world out of His infinite love.  On this view, everything in the universe is an expression, an embodiment, of God’s love, including us.  We participate in God’s love in a special way because we are said to be “made in God’s image” and thus are able to consciously cooperate with God’s loving, life-giving, act of creation.

When a Catholic acts out of selfless love for another person, therefore, it makes sense.  He believes that selfless love and overflowing generosity are woven into the very fabric of the universe as God has created it. When we act in accord with that same Spirit of loving kindness by which the world was created, things are in order: we are doing what we were made for.  This makes as much sense to a Catholic as plugging in a lamp and turning it on.  It is when the lamp doesn’t go on that we feel something is amiss.

The faith also teaches that we are fallen creatures who have turned away from God and damaged our native capacities.  Often, instead of doing the good we want to do, we do the evil we don’t want to do. And in our damaged condition, even our intellects are often blinded to the truth about the world.

We think that what is evil is good, or we imagine that innocent people are our enemies.  Instead of seeing other people as human, like ourselves, possessing infinite dignity, sinners beloved by a God who died to redeem them and us, we turn them into “the other,” “aliens.” We de-humanize them into something less than fully human so we can enslave them, control them, even exterminate them.

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So when a Catholic acts badly, out of selfishness, greed, or anger, this also makes sense.  It is tragic, but not unexpected.  When the power to the house is cut, we don’t expect the lights to go on.  It makes sense that they are out, no matter how inconvenient or troublesome that might be.  Catholics should never excuse themselves or treat their sins lightly, but they are an understandable part of our lives – and of the Christian worldview.

The situation is much different, though, for modern secularists. Please don’t misunderstand me.  I am not suggesting that modern secularists don’t frequently engage in selfless acts of kindness.  Quite the contrary.  The problem is that they do.

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Now, granted, for those who share the Christian worldview, this isn’t a problem; it’s a blessing.  But if you think that the world is a meaningless, empty void, and that humans are an accidental by-product of an ancient cosmic explosion by which the primordial “stuff” of which we evolved was thrown out into the universe in random patterns which, when it congealed in certain ways under certain conditions, produced the building blocks of life which, though the laws of survival of the fittest, produced us – then it is hard to understand why you would trouble yourself to engage in selfless acts of kindness.

If it is a meaningless, empty universe, and humans are, as one writer puts it, “a tiny, lonely, momentary flicker in a vast cosmos that seems to have no purpose or direction,” and if we are nothing but material beings struggling for survival in a purely material universe, then wouldn’t the most sensible thing be to subject to your will and control as much of the material world as you can, including those especially troubling material things we call “other human beings”?

I’m not saying it might not make sense, if necessary, to enter into some sort of arrangement with your fellow human beings – a “truce” or “social contract” of some sort – to keep other people from killing you. But there would be no real reason not to violate this truce if you thought you could get away with it. Or to lie if it brought you more wealth, status, or power.  You wouldn’t be thinking about “future generations,” because they would have no more claim on you than your current neighbors, with whom you would be in constant competition to secure your maximal benefit.

What is strange is when people who say they hold a nihilistic, reductively materialistic view of the universe actually do something altruistic and praise others for doing the same. When we find a nihilistic, reductively materialist secularist exhorting people to “care for the poor” or to “preserve the environment for future generations” or to “stop treating women as sex objects,” haven’t they “let the cat out of the bag,” so to speak?  Haven’t they shown that, whatever they say, in their actual lives they too accept that there are objective standards of morality and value?

A Christian has every reason in the world to be altruistic.  He understands why he does not always act that way, but knows that he should.  A nihilistic, reductively materialist secularist can find no such reasons in the world.  When he acts in ways contrary to his stated view of reality, we can only say, “You’re actions are inconsistent with your beliefs.  But thank God for that.”

Secularists are often oddly pleased when Christians fail to live in accord with the world-view and values they proclaim.  Christians have better reasons to be pleased when secularists fail to live in accord with the world-view they proclaim.

For might it be that the moral value our society places on things like telling the truth and not falsifying data; the concern we have for “progress” in science to benefit future generations; and the virtues we develop that allow for relative peace and stability in society so that science can develop – that these depend, ironically, on the fact that most people in society have not accepted the secularist worldview and believe instead in the objective moral values that nihilism and reductive materialism claim are “unscientific”?

Wouldn’t that be ironic?

 

*Image: Elegy by Karol Tichy, c. 1900 [National Museum in Warsaw, Poland]

Randall B. Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His most recent book, Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, is now available at Amazon and from Emmaus Academic Press.