Realities are greater than ideas

God is not a means. He is the goal. When we forget that, our faith no longer does anything for us.

(Image: Josh Applegate/Unsplash.com)

How the world works usually matters more than what we’re trying to accomplish.

We see that in politics, with democracy as an obvious example. It wants the people to rule. But the people can’t possibly rule, certainly not in an immensely complex global society dominated by huge organizations with worldwide interests. How can they collectively know enough or find enough unity to make coherent decisions and see them through?

So they don’t. Even so, claims of democracy justify what’s done, so how things really work becomes disconnected from how they are said to work. What is called “democratic politics” thus becomes a matter of manipulating opinion and procedures. Our rulers rely on popular consent, but they can almost always secure it for their goals because the people are fragmented and individually powerless, and governing elites do their best to control the choices on offer and how they are presented.

Technological ways of doing things provide other examples of the subversion of intentions by realities. These methods attempt to use comprehensive rational organization to achieve exactly defined goals. That approach has conquered much of inanimate nature, but attempts to apply it to human society run into trouble.

Thus, liberalism wants equal freedom. Technocratic liberalism responds by trying to control all human interactions so that nobody can oppress anyone else. If people are committing microaggressions, it sets bureaucrats to go after them. The result is comprehensive tyranny.

Inclusiveness wants to bring us closer together. When made technocratic, it replaces particular connections such as family ties, which don’t include everyone, with bureaucratic or contractual arrangements that do. The result is that people think family should include whatever anyone calls family, and it shouldn’t be allowed to affect anything. Family and other natural, traditional, and informal ties lose definition and function, and people become disconnected.

The socialist impulse, recently in eclipse but now back in full force, wants to provide everyone with an environment that supports his well-being and development. In a technocracy that means comprehensive social control so that everything humanly important for anyone is effectively looked after. But the crudeness of bureaucratic ways of knowing and acting means that such a regime ends in poverty and universal dysfunction.

Many of these problems are on view in the ongoing Synod on Synodality. That effort appeals to democracy, equal freedom, and inclusiveness. Everyone is to take part, speak with authority, and learn to walk together. These goals, it seems, are to be achieved through a worldwide bureaucratic process involving discussions of lived experience, hand-picked delegates, facilitators, and relators, and buzzwords devised by apparatchiks.

But how will such a process promote anything but the views of those running it? Will privileging the idiosyncratic stories of individuals and groups over Catholic tradition bring Catholics closer together? Or will the destruction of knowable standards lead to anything but domination by formal structures of control supported by officially favored activists who claim to speak for the people—in effect, an absolute clericalism poorly disguised by astroturf?

The response from proponents of the effort is that distrusting it is distrusting the Holy Spirit. The claim is presumptuous. Whatever happened to fear and trembling? Or “thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God”?

Noticing that there are problems does not tell us what to do. Technocratic progressivism may have failed, but conservatism has conserved nothing. MAGA has failed to make America great again. Politically, Catholic societies including Spain, Ireland, and Quebec have turned emphatically secular, and even Poland, where Catholicism and nationalism have gone hand in hand, is rapidly softening. And in the Church herself, the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI have ended in the current situation.

How can we get out of the black hole into which we have fallen?

First, we have to identify the hole. Since we’re all in it together, I’ll be ecumenical and appeal to a formulation by a communist-leaning French philosopher Alain Badiou:

The fundamental ontological hypothesis of every oppressive system of any kind … affirms the unlimited supremacy of finitude, which is tantamount to saying that everything that is, all multiplicity, is constructible.

In other words, if you put anything but God at the top, you’ll end up thinking you can remake the world to your own specifications, and you’ll establish a tyranny to do so.

That is a big problem today because God has disappeared from consciousness. He’s not there, at least not enough with enough people to matter. Larry Chapp recently discussed this issue in connection with religious life. Badiou tells us it’s also of basic importance in politics.

We have discussed its consequences there, the proliferation of attempts to transform society for libertarian, egalitarian, and hedonistic ends that lead to the exact opposite of what was intended—in part because of the methods chosen, in part because of defects in the goal.

The disappearance of God has also affected “mission,” the Church’s engagement with the world. Ever since Pope Saint Paul VI, in his address closing the Second Vatican Council, spoke of “a simple, new and solemn teaching to love man in order to love God,” the Church has emphasized secular social betterment in its efforts.

That tendency has reached a peak in the current pontificate, with its downplaying of specific religious and moral claims and its emphasis on inclusiveness and environmental protection as signature Catholic issues. Laudate Deum, the recent exhortation on the environment, says a lot about social and scientific matters, but very little about praising God.

We need to put God explicitly at the center, but that is easier said than done. Larry Chapp believes the solution to our crisis will involve “a clear preferential option for life in the world and solidarity with that world.” But we need all the help we can get, and I can’t help but believe it will also involve a new monasticism.

The longest way round is the shortest way home. Post-Vatican II devotion has dreamed of a life in the world that is for the sake of the world but not of the world. It seems to me that has been too much to achieve without preparation. Christ himself went off into the desert for forty days at the beginning of his ministry. And Saint Benedict helped found the Christian civilization of the West by literally heading for the hills.

Life today is thoroughly Godless. How do we deal with it when we’re awash in images, sound bites, propaganda, and practical and social interactions that draw us into its concerns? Saint Paul warns that evil communications corrupt good manners, and Saint James wants us to keep ourselves unspotted from this world.

Are we stronger than those they were addressing? Are our circumstances more favorable?

Roman Guardini said that today we need “a strengthening of character which we can scarcely conceive.” But I don’t see that anywhere, and how is it to come about? Withdrawal, reflection, focus, prayer, discipline, and conversion of mind and spirit seem necessary.

Life must go on, and the famous “Benedict Option” seems a way to provide something of that to people living ordinary lives with ordinary responsibilities. But we also need people who become models through more decisive action, who withdraw from the world not to prepare themselves to return to it but simply, like Saint Benedict, to draw closer to God.

I cannot advise such people what to do. But it does seem to me that however important the vision of helping transform the world by living in it as Catholics, a vision of transforming our minds, hearts, and spirits by focusing on God as a self-sufficient end in himself must come first.

God is not a means. He is the goal. When we forget that, our faith no longer does anything for us. We need to do whatever is necessary to keep it in our consciousness.


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About James Kalb 144 Articles
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008), Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013), and, most recently, The Decomposition of Man: Identity, Technocracy, and the Church (Angelico Press, 2023).

17 Comments

  1. Don’t quite understand how the headline here fits. Is the worldly reality of “walking together” greater than the idea of God?

    • The piece starts off with cases where realities trump ideas, the way things are overwhelms intentions, so much so that human efforts seem futile. It then talks about orienting out ideas toward the highest reality – the ens realissimum, God – as the way to overcome that.

  2. The problem is largely one of ignorance and apathy. People don’t know how bad they are, how things ought to be, and how they can be changed.

    The lack of knowledge and the fact that “life works” (i.e. they aren’t homeless) for the vast majority of people causes them to avoid seeking – and finding – truth. People won’t know until they are dead whether they will go to Heaven, but the knowledge of what it takes to get there has been maliciously withheld from them.

    I am not given to despair. If there was only one Catholic in the world who held the faith, the Church would still exist. As it is, this may have been the case for decades.

    I don’t support sedevacantism, but I have come to the conclusion that it is a valid position – provided that it is empirically correct. It isn’t (i.e. except for invincible ignorance), now, but it would have been until around 2004. That said, it would have been impossible for a sedevacantist to attend mass. This is because the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass must be authorized by the pope. To follow an unknown and unknowable pope would mean that having mass would be morally impossible.

    “So they don’t. Even so, claims of democracy justify what’s done, so how things really work becomes disconnected from how they are said to work. What is called “democratic politics” thus becomes a matter of manipulating opinion and procedures. Our rulers rely on popular consent, but they can almost always secure it for their goals because the people are fragmented and individually powerless, and governing elites do their best to control the choices on offer and how they are presented.”

    As an FYI how things really work is a matter of money laundering and bribery, and likely the obstruction of justice by – bribed(?) – law enforcement.

    The false understanding that the “will of the people” is what legislators follow is what the issue is here. It was Michael Parenti (a “communist”) who stated that democracy is a matter of form AND CONTENT. Basically, legislators must be largely independent of their constituents. It is God and God’s justice which they must follow – NOT “the will of the people.”

    A solution to this issue is to require a religious test for public employment – i.e. Catholic – and establish the Catholic Church as the religion of the state.

    Certainly a big other part of the solution is to require a full disclosure of every relevant matter with regards to every person in public employment. Everything about public employees must be a matter of publicized public record.

    One ought not to need to make a “public records request” or a FOIA. These types of things likely only are – possibly – successful if a lawyer is involved. Even with a lawyer, the issue can be dragged out for much longer than it ought to. This is an problem with regards to the courts. It delays justice.

    Those in power know what it takes to maintain and increase it. Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered after he started turning to questions of poverty. He was planning a “poor people’s march.” This is highly unlikely to be a coincidence.

    • “A solution to this issue is to require a religious test for public employment – i.e. Catholic – and establish the Catholic Church as the religion of the state.”

      That’s exactly what we don’t need, and not just because it isn’t going to happen. The post-Christian, post-modern time we live in offers opportunities for witness, but coercion through the State is precisely the wrong way to think and go about it. Lord have mercy.

      • According to Aristotle, politics is ethics writ large. It is not “a matter of compromise.” All things change over time. What may seem impossible for men isn’t impossible for God.

        Every non-Catholic is almost certainly a heretic. Heretics can’t be trusted to administer – or maybe even recognize – justice.

        An example of a heretic would be any person who believes that the government has the power and authority to dissolve the marriage bond between two married people and authorize a second marriage before the death of either of the spouses. My understanding is that only Catholics – and maybe some outlier Protestants – would hold this position.

        People don’t realize what the Catholic Church as the official religion of the state would be like. It would mean that only Catholics would be public employment and that the Church – and Her decisions – would be recognized and favored (probably NOT financially) by the state.

        It wouldn’t mean the persecution, or worse – forced conversion – of non-Catholics. However, just discrimination would likely be essential.

        People see the word “established/state religion” and think “the Church of England.” Given the fact that it was – and is – a heretical and false religion it couldn’t and ought not to be used an example of how the Catholic Church would influence a government that was Catholic. (FYI it was and is technically called a “sect.”)

    • The proposal for Catholic Sharia is in one very big sense remarkably like saying that “Bruce Jenner is a girl,” since both propositions require that those in favor must pretend that reality isn’t happening.

  3. A vision of transforming our minds, hearts, and spirits by focusing on God as a self-sufficient end in himself must come first (Kalb). This is the contemplative option, a greater reality in comparison to the Benedict option of withdrawal, the idea of changing a fallen world. It’s significant Kalb mentions Benedict’s adoption of prayer [Benedict first lived as a solitary contemplative at Subiaco], and work to come closer to God.
    It’s a simple yet essential premise for changing the hearts of men, starting with ourselves so as to have the spiritual charisma, moved by grace, to change the hearts of others. This why the Carthusian spends a life of solitude and prayer, why the Discalced Carmelite spends two hours a day in silent prayer. Grace, the Father’s and Christ’s gift of love ‘pours down upon us’ in the person of the Holy Spirit.

  4. Politics is merely a sideshow in our lives. The big show, the main event in our lives is our relationship with God and how we follow the teachings of Christ.

  5. Las realidades no pueden ser ni mayores ni menores que las ideas. No son entes de la misma especie. Mayores podrá significar en este caso: Más impactantes, más dignos de tenerse en cuenta, más cantidad, etc. pero ni las ideas son menores, ni las realidades mayores. Si se parte de esa base, todo lo que se trate generará inconsecuencias. Por una parte, por la otra las ideas pueden llevar al cambio de la realidad y viceversa; y que la realidad sea, en general, superior a las ideas es un juicio apriorístico erróneo.

    • It’s certainly not a statement that can be taken literally.

      I used it as a way of pointing out that (1) how the world works defeats unrealistic intentions, and (2) supreme realities like God must form our ideas about the world.

      (The phrase of course is from the Pope.)

  6. Excellent. I think he is correct. A new monasticism to preserve and rebuild for when the world is ready. The Godless world will have to find it’s way out of the ashes someday.

  7. Jesus rejected power, status and wealth at the great temptation. He taught that the the Kingdom of God or the reign of God is already within us- our soul, and that we must LOVE (agape) which calls for distributive justice which is contrary to the city of Man as Augustine would say. God is waiting for us to bring about the reality of the Kingdom by cooperating with the Holy Spirit who inspires us to lead others to the Kingdom or city of God. Thus, the leadership of Pope Francis is exactly what is necessary for the City of God to flourish. Mt 23 and the Sermon on the Mount as well as the other teachings of Jesus support the Pope’s agenda. Jesus said- do not judge, invite the outcasts to the banquet, take the lowest place of honor at the table- lose your life by serving. The City of Man does the opposite. The great chasm between the wealthy and the poor has grown beyond our imagination. We cannot be “fishers of men” by establishing law and order. Rather, our light must shine for all to see- which means we must be examples of The Way, the Truth, and the Life of Jesus. He did not try to change the city of Man but showed us how to resist it by the way we live with compassion and mercy which is what distributive justice is about.The rule of Catholic kings and queens in the last 2000 years has done little to bring about the Kingdom of God. Pope Francis is calling for us to listen to Jesus, learn from St. Francis who said “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary” Paradise is all around us- it’s called CREATION!!!!!!

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