Hiding from Truth: Denying What We Can’t Not Know
In the second installment in this series on human dignity I asserted that “anyone who advances a particular understanding of the nature of man, the nature of intellect, the nature of will, or the nature of purpose and meaning, must decide, before he advances this understanding, whether or not he will permit God to be a part of it.” This raises the question: Why would anyone not want God to be part of it? Or, to pick up the thread from the third installment, why has our culture insisted on structuring its quest for knowledge so as specifically to exclude God?
There are, of course, many historical reasons why our culture has grown increasingly secular over the past five hundred years. I used to give lectures on this topic, as the process of secularization was somewhat of a specialty when I was a practicing historian. But here I am interested in something deeper than historical trends. I am interested in the rebellion against God that is at least potentially present in the heart of every man and woman, a rebellion occasioned by both pride and concupiscence—by our desire to hold the first place and our desire to justify our passions.
During the Cold War, I used to argue that it was impossible for those who had abandoned objective standards of morality to be anti-Communist—no matter how much evidence there was for the barbarism of Communist regimes—because to draw the line anywhere was to begin an inexorable march against the fundamental things that were wrong with their own moral lives. The very same thing is true of belief in God—at least any belief which holds God to be Sovereign, a point to which I’ll return later. If we are too proud to admit our dependence on a higher power or too open to the glamor of evil to subordinate ourselves to Divine decrees, then our pride and our concupiscence will darken our intellects and lead us into strained arguments, which amount to rationalizations, which amount to obfuscations.
Denying What We Know
This is a consequence of something weak and broken in man, which Christians ascribe to the Fall. Therefore, those who open themselves to God and form habits of virtue see the problem ever more clearly for what it is; but by the very nature of the case, those who close themselves from God and form habits of vice really do find it increasingly difficult to see the point. Some of this is subconscious, though by no means all. And in a few cases those who close themselves off from God know exaclty what they are doing.
In his brilliant book on natural law, What We Can’t Not Know, J. Budziszewski of the University of Texas at Austin cites two highly intelligent men who deny the natural law but also perceive exactly why they do so. They are representative of a huge class of less percipient (or perhaps less honest or simply more discreet) persons.
I will quote all of what Budziszewski quotes, despite the length, because these examples are telling. The first is Harvard population biologist Richard Lewontin, a self-proclaimed atheist, writing in the New York Review of Books (“Billions and Billions of Demons”) in January 1997:
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a divine foot in the door.
The second example is the philosopher Thomas Nagel in his book The Last Word, published by Oxford University Press in 1996, commenting on his own fear of religion:
I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe be like that…. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind. Darwin enabled modern secular culture to heave a great collective sigh of relief, by apparently providing a way to eliminate purpose, meaning, and design as fundamental features of the world.
Pretending We Know Better
I suggested earlier that this more or less deliberate, point-blank, a priori denial of God is necessary only to those who have a strong concept of Divine sovereignty. It is easy enough, as Blessed John Henry Newman has pointed out in several places, to talk about a “God of nature” (in the manner, for example, of Thomas Jefferson)—a God Who amounts to no more than the sum total of, or the inchoate spirit behind, all natural processes. And in our age of diversity, it is also easy enough to choose a religion which demands nothing, or even to profess a deep and pious Christianity while altering its teachings to suit our own tastes—if, that is, we are willing to become Modernists.
Modernism, readers will doubtless recall, begins with a legitimate perception about the need to express spiritual truths in ways which a particular culture can grasp. But it proceeds rapidly to posit that all ideas about God, and even Revelation itself, ultimately become true only when filtered through the consciousness of a particular people in a particular culture. Thus there is no absolute content to such concepts. Rather, each age produces its own authentic religiosity through a sort of prevailing group consciousness. Specific doctrinal and moral beliefs evolve and change over time.
The result is that Modernism is the greatest conceivable invention for those who are (and wish happily to remain) culture bound. It enables them to feel and appear religious while actually subordinating God’s will to their own.
This is really just another psychological defense against God, except that it works by emasculation rather than denial. Using this approach, we simply adjust God’s demands to whatever we want them to be. Just this week I came across a perfect case in point, in an extensive correspondence with a gay man who called Church teaching on homosexuality “Catholic bigotry.” Several (anonymous) extracts from his emails will illustrate the problem:
I lived in a Franciscan community for four years. I would say that at least 60-70% of the friars were gay. Remember, Jesus said there is only one law—the law of charity. In your political stance to keep gay and lesbian people as second-class citizens, and your religious stance to forbid gay and lesbian people full participation in love and relationality, you have forgotten love.
The initial email was occasioned by nothing more than our story on the resistance of Catholic agencies in Indiana to placing adoptive children with same-sex parents. The author begins with a simplistic call to “love”, which he lazily considers in a purely affective way, without troubling to consider what love is and what it might demand. He then continues:
The refusal of your organization to have an open mind to what we know about homosexuality today is breathtaking. All the qualified professional mental and medical experts of today say that homosexuality is not a disorder. The Church refuses to listen to this information with an open mind, and makes no attempt to look at our understanding of human sexuality today. I can't believe that the Church would rather uphold Levitical Law by some primitive, barbaric people living in the Bronze Age 3500 years ago, or by some hang-ups that Paul had on sexuality 2000 years ago.
In this passage, he begins to move into typical modern territory, asserting that contemporary moral perceptions are necessarily superior, and that the moral perceptions of prior ages are necessarily deficient. Throughout his correspondence, he further confuses modern studies that suggest homosexuality is not a free choice with moral reasoning about whether homosexual inclinations are disordered. Few of our personal inclinations are deliberately chosen; this does not prevent them from being disordered, and modern sociological, biological and psychological studies cannot address this question on their own. These disciplines possess within themselves neither tools nor standards for moral judgment. But he continues:
In my prayers and mystical encounters with Christ, my sexuality has never been changed, because there is nothing wrong with it. I am not called to be a gay celibate by Christ, nor do I listen to man-made Catholic dogma that brings about division and prejudice. I would actually have more respect for the Church if you all just admitted your bigotry, your de-humanizing slander, and your fear toward gay and lesbian people, and left God out of it. You are judging me, presupposing that I refuse God's revelation in my life. I have invited it. I have prayed to have my homosexuality removed, and Christ did not remove it and make me straight. That's his revelation to me—that nothing is wrong with me for being gay.
Here we have the foundation of Modernist analysis. Everything must be filtered through personal human consciousness to determine what is normative. While the entire approach is clearly flawed, the argument in this case is particularly absurd. By way of analogy, if I have a passionate desire to possess the classic Mercedes convertible parked so ostentatiously in my neighbor’s driveway, and I ask God to take this inclination away from me, and God does not do so, it does not mean that God has validated the inclination and (therefore) that it is perfectly reasonable and good to steal the car. It means rather that God wants me to learn to rely on Him, and to grow in such virtues as detachment and honesty—or, as is the real issue in this case, chastity. Even St. Paul asked that God remove the thorn in his flesh, but God did not remove it. Instead He told Paul that His grace was enough. Finally:
You have absolutized your stance—that God has revealed to the Catholic Church that homosexuality is sinful and that’s the final word for all people for all time. Many Native American and Hawaiian cultures esteem gay and lesbian people because we are rare, and often our androgynous spirit and physical form are seen as a balance of masculine and feminine principles, making us predisposed to deeper insight into spiritual matters.
And so we come to Modernism proper: Normative ideas about God and morality are found in the collective consciousness of the community. Usually, as here, it is presumed that one has superior spiritual insight if one rides the latest community wave. But presumably, once we know this secret, we can either work toward the community consciousness we prefer, or shop around until we find it. Thus are God’s teeth pulled. It is not that His Revelation and commands do not exist; there is no cold irreligious atheism here. It is that His Revelation and commands are really whatever our culture wants them to be; which becomes exactly what our culture “perceives” them to be.
Surely it is difficult to imagine a more circular form of religious and moral reasoning. Yet it does have one great advantage: The Modernist can consider himself to be on the religious high road without having to climb the mountain.
The Peril Within
I began this essay by asking why anyone would want to keep God out of his account of reality, his account of his own nature, destiny and innate dignity. The answer, of course, is one with which we are all familiar. Each of us has, at one time or another, wasted a great deal of time and energy in obscuring, denying or altering what we know deep down to be true. Every time we rationalize away a personal shortcoming or a guilty desire, we engage in the same pattern of behavior that is systematically illustrated by atheists and Modernists.
Because of our pride and our passions, we instinctively try to sweep God away even as we are drawn mysteriously into His presence, yearning for the fulfillment He alone can provide. Again, as we live a virtuous life and develop the habit of communicating with God in prayer, and as we permit ourselves to be assisted by the stunning objectivity of Christian Revelation and the teaching authority of the Church, our intellects are enlightened. The precepts of the natural law become increasingly clear; we see with less and less effort all those things that we can’t not know about our nature and our dignity.
But insofar as we succeed in obscuring reality in favor of our own pride and our own passion, insofar as we become habituated to sin, our intellects are darkened and we find it more difficult to discern the natural law. Then we must hide from the truths that we really do know. Then we very much prefer to locate our dignity in lies.
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Posted by: Cornelius -
Jun. 13, 2011 7:11 AM ET USA
"I have prayed to have my homosexuality removed ..." Why pray thus, if there is nothing wrong with homosexuality? The law written into this man's heart continues to speak to him, despite his own attempts to muzzle it.
Posted by: dfp3234574 -
Jun. 11, 2011 6:57 PM ET USA