Editor’s note: This essay was originally written and posted on September 11, 2012.
I hadn’t planned on writing much, if anything, on the anniversary of the murderous attacks of September 11, 2001, if only because that event usually leaves me at loss for words. And what more can be said? It is an occasion, first of all, to pray for those who were murdered and for all those innocent—born and unborn, young and old—who are victims of violence and hatred each and every day.
But more can be said, even if with hesitation and some trepidation. For this is also an occasion to reflect and frankly consider our own mortality, the fragility of the flickering light called life that we each possess as a gift from God. What, then, is the point of it all? Why do we, as individuals and families and communities, come into existence and for what End were we created? Alas, those questions, unfortunately, apparently assume too much in this day and age, for it is not a given that those next to us in the workplace or in the schoolroom or on the street also believe in a loving God who “in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life” (CCC, 1).
It’s not so much that explicit forms of atheism have become increasingly popular (although they have), but more that we in the West live as practical atheists. When the rubber meets the road, it is on a secular wheel and it is facilitating the rapid movement of a materialist car driving towards a shimmering temporal goal, with little interest in acknowledging the life to come and the Life from which we come. Sure, we might give lip service to God, or some form of vague deity or life form or higher power, but it is often mere lip service, not the service of body, soul, and mind that finds completion in real worship. “Secularism, I submit”, wrote the great Orthodox theologian, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, “is above all the negation of worship. I stress:—not of God’s existence, not of some kind of transcendence and therefore of some kind of religion. If secularism in theological terms is a heresy, it is primarily a heresy about man. It is the negation of man as a worshiping being…” (For the Life of the World, 1965).
What does this have to do with the anniversary of “9/11”? Quite a bit. Actually, nearly everything. And I am quite certain that Benedict XVI, in giving his address at Regensberg on September 12, 2006, was trying to get us to see fundamental connections between how we understand God and how we understand our place in this world—in other words, the relationship between faith and reason, an essential theme of his pontificate. Benedict stated:
Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. “God”, he says, “is not pleased by blood – and not acting reasonably (σὺν λόγω) is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats… To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death…”. The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature
And, as we know, these remarks were soon followed by threats and acts of violence by those who were angered that they had been unfairly deemed prone to threats and acts of violence. But Benedict, in many ways, was simply elucidating a point made by his predecessor, Blessed John Paul II, who took on the question of reason and the nature of God in his encyclical Veritatis splendor, presented almost twenty years ago, in August 1993. Writing about the fall of Adam, John Paul II stated:
The man is certainly free, inasmuch as he can understand and accept God’s commands. And he possesses an extremely far-reaching freedom, since he can eat “of every tree of the garden”. But his freedom is not unlimited: it must halt before the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”, for it is called to accept the moral law given by God. In fact, human freedom finds its authentic and complete fulfilment precisely in the acceptance of that law. God, who alone is good, knows perfectly what is good for man, and by virtue of his very love proposes this good to man in the commandments. (par 35)
God’s goodness is not arbitrary; that is, God is good, and so God cannot and will not, this coming week or next year, decree that murder is now allowed, or that adultery is not a sin but a privilege granted to enlightened moderns wanting to take a walk on the wild side. As the late pontiff explained, this fact protects authentic freedom; it provides the sure and unmoving boundaries of good thinking and good actions. But he notes that some have posited a conflict “between freedom and law”:
These doctrines would grant to individuals or social groups the right to determine what is good or evil. Human freedom would thus be able to “create values” and would enjoy a primacy over truth, to the point that truth itself would be considered a creation of freedom. Freedom would thus lay claim to a moral autonomy which would actually amount to an absolute sovereignty.
This autonomy is, ultimately, a-theistic, for it eventually pushes God to the side, out the door, and off the cliff of memory. Man’s autonomy, torn from its moorings, becomes a tyranny. But tyranny cannot long remain pure anarchy, so it seeks a source of authority, even one claiming, however dubiously, to possess “objective” powers. The prime candidate for such an authority within secular modernity (yes, that term might be redundant), is science, or “science”. Of this, Benedict said the following at Regensberg:
But we must say more: if science as a whole is this and this alone, then it is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by “science”, so understood, and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective “conscience” becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical.
The West, in general, has embraced this “objective” subjectivity; we can call it “scientism”, but that is just the head of the monster, for the real demon is rebellion against truth and the Author of truth. The soothing, seductive words in the Garden are words now shouted from the rooftops, rendered perfectly with special effects, and fired through cyberspace countless times each day: “And you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). This “knowing” is the act of false creation, or, better, the sacrilege of depraved re-creation (and, yes, recreation), the desire to make good into evil, and evil into good.
The flip side of this warped coin is what John Paul II calls “heteronomy”. It comes from the two Greek terms for “other” (heteros) and “law” (nomos). It asserts that God is the Universal Law-Giver, but because God is omnipotent and omniscient, he cannot allow man to really, truly posses free will. The sovereign Creator’s divine law is forced upon man, the creature, who has no right or reason to complain about such an arrangement. Man, for his part, is to simply hear and obey, period. There is, for example, no need for commentary or explication or critical studies of the Qur’an, for that text, Muslims believe, is direct from God, full stop. Yes, Christians believe that the authors of the Old and New Testaments were divinely inspired. Yet those authors did not simply transcribe, but acted freely and in full cooperation with the divine initiative: “To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their own faculties and powers so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more.” (Dei Verbum, 11). Islam is a heteronomous religion; it posits that Allah is to be obeyed regardless of the directive, even if it goes contrary to reason and the laws gained by reason, such as the value and dignity of life, or the obvious evil of murder. John Paul II explained how heteronomy is directly contrary to the Judeo-Christian understanding of God, faith, and reason:
Hence obedience to God is not, as some would believe, a heteronomy, as if the moral life were subject to the will of something all-powerful, absolute, extraneous to man and intolerant of his freedom. If in fact a heteronomy of morality were to mean a denial of man’s self-determination or the imposition of norms unrelated to his good, this would be in contradiction to the Revelation of the Covenant and of the redemptive Incarnation. Such a heteronomy would be nothing but a form of alienation, contrary to divine wisdom and to the dignity of the human person. (VS, 41).
Autonomy, severing actions from objective truth and natural law, tends toward destruction and murder, as evidenced by the millions of unborn people who have been murdered over the past four decades in the West. Heteronomy, having also severed morality from reason and natural law, likewise tends logically toward destruction and murder, as the events of eleven years ago demonstate. It may be that the murderers on those planes were, individually, motivated by something less grand than a faulty theological perspective. But that in no way severs the connection, just as the varying levels of culpability of women who have abortions does not affect the objectively evil nature of their actions. Ideas have consquences; philosophy informs real life; theology guides our deepest thoughts and actions, even if we cannot define (or spell!) “theology”.
Without doubt, the mystery of evil cannot be easily explained, nor should anyone attempt to do so with any sort of glibness. Evil is a profound mystery precisely because it is located at the decisive point of man’s free rending of himself from his source, his life, his end. We are creatures who, given free will, are able to participate in the divine life of God—if we so choose. John Paul II wrote:
Others speak, and rightly so, of theonomy, or participated theonomy, since man’s free obedience to God’s law effectively implies that human reason and human will participate in God’s wisdom and providence. By forbidding man to “eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”, God makes it clear that man does not originally possess such “knowledge” as something properly his own, but only participates in it by the light of natural reason and of Divine Revelation, which manifest to him the requirements and the promptings of eternal wisdom. Law must therefore be considered an expression of divine wisdom: by submitting to the law, freedom submits to the truth of creation. Consequently one must acknowledge in the freedom of the human person the image and the nearness of God, who is present in all (cf. Eph 4:6). But one must likewise acknowledge the majesty of the God of the universe and revere the holiness of the law of God, who is infinitely transcendent: Deus semper maior. (VS, 41)
Coming full circle, this is also a central point of Benedict’s address in Germany, although he used somewhat different language. He spoke of “voluntarism”, the belief, put simply, that God “could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done.” That is, God is free to call evil good, and good evil. This notion of a “capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness”, is like the views held by many Muslims. It does not mean that individual Muslims are more prone to murder than, say, Christians, but it means they do not have a coherent or logical reason to reject terrorism and murder as a viable option. “As opposed to this,” said Benedict,
the faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy, in which – as the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 stated – unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language. God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf. Certainly, love, as Saint Paul says, “transcends” knowledge and is thereby capable of perceiving more than thought alone (cf. Eph 3:19); nonetheless it continues to be love of the God who is Logos. Consequently, Christian worship is, again to quote Paul – “λογικη λατρεία”, worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason (cf. Rom 12:1)
The United States was founded on the belief in objective truth and the fact men are creatures who are beholden to something and Someone greater than themselves—not irrationally, but in keeping with human nature and the laws of nature: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Most Americans continue to give lip service to this notion. But many Americans have abandoned it when it comes to real life, real worship, real being.
We are attacked from within by our own capitulation to sin and destruction, disguised as “rights” and “freedoms”; we have been attacked from without by those who claim murder and destruction is the will of Allah. May all innocent victims be granted God’s mercy and grace; may all who are guilty receive due justice and be offered true mercy; may all of us choose to participate in the divine life of God, the God who is love, goodness, and holiness, “the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). To him is due all worship and glory and honor.