September 26, 2009

THE YOKE OF DIGNITY:

EXCERPT: The Tragic Misunderstanding of Atheist Humanism (Henri de Lubac | From Chapter One of The Drama of Atheist Humanism)


Man, to be sure, is made of dust and clay; or, as we should say nowadays, he is of animal origin--which comes to the same thing. The Church is not unmindful of this, finding a warrant for it in the same passage of Genesis. Man, to be sure, is also a sinner. The Church does not cease to remind him of that fact. The self-esteem that she endeavors to instill into him is not the outcome of a superficial and ingenuous view of the matter. Like Christ, she knows "what there is in man". But she also knows that the lowliness of his origin in the flesh cannot detract from the sublimity of his vocation, and that, despite all the blemishes that sin may bring, that vocation is an abiding source of inalienable greatness. The Church thinks that this greatness must reveal itself even in the conditions of present-day life, as a fount of liberty and a principle of progress, the necessary retaliation upon the forces of evil. And she recognizes in the mystery of God-made-man the guarantee of our vocation and the final consecration of our greatness. Thus in her liturgy she can celebrate each day "the dignity of the human substance" even before rising to the contemplation of our rebirth.

These elementary truths of our faith seem commonplace today--though we neglect their implications all too often. It is difficult for us to imagine the disturbance they created in the soul of man in the ancient world. At the first tidings of them humanity was lifted on a wave of hope. It was stirred by vague premonitions that, at the recoil, sharpened its awareness of its state of misery. It became conscious of deliverance. To begin with, needless to say, it was not an external deliverance--not that social liberation which was to come, for instance, with the abolition of slavery. That liberation, which presupposed a large number of technical and economic conditions, was brought about slowly but surely under the influence of the Christian idea of man. "God", says Origen, in his commentary on Saint John, "made all men in his own image, he molded them one by one." But from the outset that idea had produced a more profound effect. Through it, man was freed, in his own eyes, from the ontological slavery with which Fate burdened him. The stars, in their unalterable courses, did not, after all, implacably control our destinies. Man, every man, no matter who, had a direct link with the Creator, the Ruler of the stars themselves. And lo, the countless Powers--gods, spirits, demons--who pinioned human life in the net of their tyrannical wills, weighing upon the soul with all their terrors, now crumbled into dust, and the sacred principle that had gone astray in them was rediscovered unified, purified and sublimated in God the deliverer! It was no longer a small and select company that, thanks to some secret means of escape, could break the charmed circle: it was mankind as a whole that found its night suddenly illumined and took cognizance of its royal liberty. No more circle! No more blind destiny! No more Moira! No more Fate! Transcendent God, God the "friend of men", revealed in Jesus, opened for all a way that nothing would ever bar again.

Hence that intense feeling of gladness and of radiant newness to be found everywhere in early Christian writings. It is much to be regretted that this literature for so many reasons, not all of which are insuperable, should be so remote from us today. What wealth and force our faith is forfeiting by its ignorance of, for instance, the hymns of triumph and the stirring appeals that echo in the Protrepticus of Clement of Alexandria!

But if we look down the course of the ages to the dawn of modern times we make a strange discovery. That same Christian idea of man that had been welcomed as a deliverance was now beginning to be felt as a yoke. And that same God in whom man had learned to see the seal of his own greatness began to seem to him like an antagonist, the enemy of his dignity. Through what misunderstandings and distortions, what mutilations and infidelities, what blinding pride and impatience this came about would take too long to consider. The historical causes are numerous and complex. But the fact remains, simple and solid. No less than the Early Fathers, the great medieval scholars had exalted man by setting forth what the Church had always taught of his relation to God: "In this is man's greatness, in this is man's worth, in this he excels every creature." But the time came when man was no longer moved by it. On the contrary, he began to think that henceforward he would forfeit his self-esteem and be unable to develop in freedom unless he broke first with the Church and then with the Transcendent Being upon whom, according to Christian tradition, he was dependent. At first assuming the aspect of a reversion to paganism, this urge to cut loose increased in scope and momentum in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries until, after many phases and many vicissitudes, it came to a head in the most daring and destructive form of modern atheism: absolute humanism, which claims to be the only genuine kind and inevitably regards a Christian humanism as absurd.

This atheist humanism is not to be confused with a hedonist and coarsely materialist atheism--a commonplace phenomenon to be found in many periods of history. It is also quite contrary in principle-if not in its results-to an atheism of despair. But it would be dangerous to call it a critical atheism and let it go at that. It does not profess to be the simple answer to a speculative problem and certainly not a purely negative solution: as if the understanding, having, on the attainment of maturity, set itself to "reconsider" the problem of God, had at last been obliged to see that its efforts could lead to nothing or even that they were leading to an end that was the opposite of what they had long believed. The phenomenon that has dominated the history of the mind during the last few centuries seems both more profound and more arbitrary. It is not the intelligence alone that is involved. The problem posed was a human problem--it was the human problem--and the solution that is being given to it is one that claims to be positive. Man is getting rid of God in order to regain possession of the human greatness that, it seems to him, is being unwarrantably withheld by another. In God he is overthrowing an obstacle in order to gain his freedom.

Modern humanism, then, is built upon resentment and begins with a choice. It is, in Proudhon's word, an "antitheism".


The tragedy of humanism is the failure to recognize that freedom lies in the choice between Good and Evil, not in a right to decide which is which.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 26, 2009 7:51 AM
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