Divine Revelation and the Standards of the Future
“It will be one of the confusions of the damned to see that they are condemned by their own reason, by which they claimed to condemn the Christian religion.” — Pascal, Pensée #562.
“A new species of philosopher is appearing; I venture to baptize these philosophers with a name not without danger in it. As I divine them, as they let themselves be divined—for it pertains to their nature to want to remain a riddle in some respects—these philosophers of the future, in many respects, might rightly, but perhaps also wrongly, be described as attempters. This name itself is in the end only an attempt, and, if you will, a temptation.” — Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, #42.
Christianity is commonly said to be a revelation. It is not exactly a “religion” that arises from natural reasoning and imagining powers about what man owes to God. What exactly is revealed is recorded in the Scriptures. It contains an account of the Word made flesh. This Word dwelt amongst us. Little of what men can learn by their own reasoning powers is included in revelation. Revelation’s purpose was not to substitute for what man could and should learn by himself. If it were to do so, there would be no purpose in having beings with their own powers of reason and will.
Some truths and propositions, however, are included in both reason and revelation. This inclusion evidently was to make sure that divine reason addressed itself to active human reason as if to say that both had a common source. In this context, certain truths were to be made clear about this Word’s meaning and ultimate origin within the Trinitarian, eternal life of God. Likewise, the earthly life of the Word was recorded. It included an edict from Caesar Augustus; it mentioned a Roman governor in Palestine by the name of Pontius Pilate. These were two real, not imaginary, figures. Revelation was not a myth or fantasy.
This divine/human life of Christ and the truths to which it witnessed were gradually clarified and defined over the centuries. The human mind needed to know both what this life meant and what it did not mean. Moreover, such revelation was to be made known in its exactness to all nations. This “making-known” was one of the assigned functions of the early disciples. The integrity of this original revelation was guaranteed by the Spirit whom Christ sent. The revelation was complete at the death of the last Apostle. Nothing in this record was to be added. Nothing was to be left out. Everything was to be handed down to subsequent generations primarily through the ministry and preaching of the Church.
The Church’s ability to accomplish this mission, as it was called, was backed by the guarantee to Peter and his successors that the gates of hell would not prevail against her. Peter and the Church were thus commissioned to explain and keep alive the record of this life of Christ. He was said to be true God and true man. This making known of who and what Christ was was accomplished by liturgy and teaching, as well as by the lives of the saints. Over the centuries, this tradition included the effort to identify and make more exact what this revelation meant and signified. Christianity was a revelation of intelligence. One of the primary “empirical” arguments for the truth of this revelation was its record of unchanging fidelity. The same truths, the same account of the original events, were passed on. They kept alive, “through the workings of the Holy Spirit”, what came to be called “the deposit of faith”.
The seriousness of understanding correctly what was taught of Christ and the way of life that he inspired was indicated by martyrdom. The death of Christ himself in a public trial testified to the importance of standing for what is to be believed. Death was not the worst evil. Sin and the denial of revelation were. Martyrdom, though the most graphic way, was not the only way to “witness” to these revelational truths. Teachers, workers, families, the sick--all could show in their lives what it meant to “imitate” Christ, as it was called in a famous book of Thomas á Kempis. Evidently, the way of life that revelation inspired would meet much opposition. This opposition was anticipated in revelation itself. The way to deal with it was not to capitulate to it.
While, with Newman and others, we could indicate a “development” of doctrine, no authorization could be found for changing or “improving” any of the basic elements of revelation or natural reason. Such a thing as a stable human nature did exist, though its norms could, in practice, be rejected by the free creature whose purpose was also to understand and acknowledge what he was. The drama of mankind consisted whether it rejected or kept, upheld, and lived what was handed down. The truths contained in this consistent revelation remained what they were whether they were accepted or rejected. The faithful in the 3rd, 12th, or 20th century believed the same basic things that were handed down from the first century, indeed from the Old Testament. They served to teach both 1) what God wanted to reveal beyond what we could reason to and 2) how we should live. These latter instructions were not always easy. Often they were agonizingly difficult. When sorted out, these teachings and practices protected what it is to be human.
Christianity did not maintain that everyone would be perfect. In fact, it maintained that all human beings are sinners. That abiding fact constituted the problem. The most striking response given in revelation for sin’s occurrence among men was to save them from their follies through the “folly” of the Cross. Thus, it was quite possible--indeed it was likely--that we would have a Church whose members were also sinners. That is, not everyone would always be perfect. But the fact that many sinned was not thought to be a reason to change the definition of sin so that what was considered evil would over time or circumstance come to be considered good. What revelation did was to provide a way (ultimately, a sacrament) whereby sins, on being acknowledged, could be forgiven. Essential to this forgiveness was the “go, sin no more”. Do not “justify" your deeds by denying one’s responsibility or by affirming that what is wrong is right. Mercy and forgiveness were not designed to downplay or minimize the seriousness of the commandments and the practices of a good life. Mercy and compassion always presupposed confession, the acknowledgement of a standard.
Revelation put a measure or order in the world that was designed to guide men regarding how to live and think the truth so that they would live a more orderly life in this world and, by so doing, achieve eternal life. In this sense, the “past” was not simply “long ago”. Rather it reached a source that transcended time itself. In this sense, to “change” what was handed down was not merely a matter of rejecting something “old”. It was the rejection of right order itself. In all cases, what replaced it would and did lead to a deterioration of the human condition. The following of wrong ideas invariably led, sooner or later, to disordered lives and polities.
The remarks of Pascal, cited above, about the damned are quite pertinent to our topic here. In the end, when our disorders are judged, as they will be, what we will discover about them is that their dire existential consequences flowed out of the reasons we gave for justifying them. To put it another way, we rejected the reasons handed down to us about what is right and wrong. We replaced them from another source. This source is said to be the “future”, not the past. We draw our norms from what is not yet. In the tradition of Joachim of Flore, the Spirit, which breathes where it will, is now said to reveal things even contrary to what was handed down from the beginning. Notice, however, that when we speak of the “past”, as Josef Pieper has often reminded us, we find that it reaches back to a transcendent source that is the origin of what it is to be human. The future can give us no guarantee that what we will bring about will be worthy of us if it does not include the dimensions of tradition containing this revelation.
Nietzsche was correct to speak of a “philosophy of the future” that would not be based on anything but the will to power. When power replaces truth it does not escape the intelligibility that Pascal spoke of; that is, the disorder that power can put into existence will be intelligible. It will be a logical deviation from the good of what it is to be a human being. We find expressed by Aristotle and Aquinas in their discussion of the proper “inclinations” that belong to human being. The inclination to be or to live, the inclination to reproduce our kind, the inclination to live in society, and the inclination to know the truth about God. When the philosophers of the future are described as “attempters”, their attempts are also designated as “temptations”. Why so? Because they are tempted to replace what was established in tradition by what they take to be a future grounded in the evolution out of or the replacement of the classical measures of man found in revelation and reason.
What is the content of this envisioned future? We have two immediate candidates and perhaps a more distant one in China capable, with some correction, to replace either. The two immediate candidates are Islam and relativist humanism. The first, Islam, is not new, though it arrived on the scene in the late seventh century after Christ. It professes itself to be a “correct” revelation. The structure of the Qur’an is designed to deny the specific elements of Christian revelation. In this sense, it is much closer to the Old Testament and depends on it. Islam vividly realizes that, if Christian revelation is true, the revelation of Islam cannot be true. Hence, in the Qur’an the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, along with the Crucifixion, are specifically denied. Christ is a prophet, not the Son of God. Mary is the mother of Jesus, not the mother of God.
The moral discipline in Islam and the philosophical understanding of God as pure will require a different metaphysics, a different view of science, the family, civil order, and human relationships. But more importantly, in our time we witness a startling revival of Islam, one anticipated by almost no one except Belloc in the last century. Islam has been the chief opponent of Christianity since Mohammed. Its early expansion was at the expense of inadequately defended Christian, usually Byzantine, lands. After the Muslim conquests of North Africa, Spain, the Balkans, the Near East and on out to Northern India, then on to Malaya and Indonesia, only a few areas have been reconquered, the most notable being Spain and parts of the Balkans. Islam came close to conquering the rest of Europe twice, once in the eighth century and once in the late sixteenth century. The Crusades were basically a belated effort of Christianity to protect itself, an effort that largely failed, not least because of internal quarrels of Christians among themselves.
What we witness today is a struggle within Islam to regain its ascendancy, after the modern failure to secularize it and thereby change its nature has largely failed. The goal of world conquest to submit all to Allah has been the driving force of true Muslim believers from the beginning. It is its primary mission found in its sacred books. In this effort, military means, including what we must call guerrilla warfare and terror, are considered legitimate. Everyone, including Jesus and Mary, were born Muslim. The world outside Islamic lands is considered to be at war with them. Peace for Islam means not dialogue but what happens when the entire world is conquered in the name of Allah. The use of so-called “violent” means is perfectly legitimate. A suicide bomber who kills himself and other innocent non-Muslims is considered a martyr. Christians and others in Muslim controlled lands are second-class citizens. There is no freedom of religion.
The conquest of the non-Muslim world can also take place through what are called “democratic” methods. Part of Islam’s expansion into Europe and America is due to demographics. By having many wives and children, Islam becomes an increasingly powerful factor over against the aging and declining populations elsewhere. But the essential point I want to make here is that militant Islam is doing what its faith tells it to do. It is motivated by deep religious forces. The long-range issue with Islam is about its truth. The immediate short-range is more pragmatic. It is the counteracting of largely successful Islamic expansion into Europe. If this movement is not stopped, we can expect a large part of Europe in a decade or so to be Muslim. Islamic law will come to rule the civil order wherever it gains ascendancy. No real grounds for resistance will be available once this happens.
As George Marlin showed in his Christian Persecutions in the Middle East, the present unrecognized persecution of Christians is mostly a cleaning out of the remnants of the earlier Muslim conquests that left pockets of Christians of various rites scattered and vulnerable in the area. At present, Islamic thinkers and leaders have every right to expect that it can successfully expand in the near future at least into a good part of Europe and probably North America. This is largely because of an unwillingness to understand what Islam is, a faith that considers itself to be true. Wherever the Qur’an is faithfully read, the drive for this conquest will reappear.
The culture of the West, with its classical and Christian origins, is now a study in the relation between thought and artifact stemming from that thought. The tradition understood that what was revealed to reason is, at bottom, what preserved and developed what it is to be a human being. Deviations from or denials of this standard or measure were eventually lethal as they worked themselves out in practice. We now look directly at the practice. We literally see what follows from certain aberrant ideas. Deviations from the good, unless recognized and checked, work themselves out in this world, in actual human lives. They undermine what it is to be human.
In the orthodox Catholic view, a distinction between man and woman was fundamental. Two human persons, a man and a woman, were joined by their love and free will into a small society called the home in which alone children, their children, were to be begotten and raised. To support and foster both this mutual love and its relation to children, marriage was considered indissoluble. This home atmosphere wherein one man and one woman with their children lived was considered to be the best place both for human love and for the child. In individual cases, it did not always work well, but the consequences usually indicated why it ought to have worked well.
Beginning with the fifth book of Plato’s Republic, however, there was speculation about another, supposedly better, way of human begetting organization. The family was considered to be the cause of disunity in the state being that was being built in speech. Parents were not to know their children, nor children parents. The state was to control all begetting and raising of children. Common meals and barracks were provided. This proposal was designed to bring more “unity” to the state. Today, this thinking is, as it were, technologized. We can think of producing children outside the womb and family, evidently to specifications of need or desire. Contraception and abortion, along with euthanasia, make it clear that massive numbers of human beings can be eliminated if they are not wanted. The objective “dignity” of the person is not a major factor. In effect, we can eliminate the family. We can produce our kind “scientifically”. We can bypass the outmoded structures of the past. Sex has no purpose but private enjoyment. The distinction of the sexes is irrelevant. Indeed, it is a product of choice. We can make ourselves into whatever we want to be. We have a “right” to do this because we are bound to no tradition or nature.
Hence, our standards come from the future, not the past. The “Spirit” is finding new ways to be human that do not necessarily follow the tradition. If the past norms interfere, they have no valid standing. We can, so the thinking goes, improve on nature and revelation. Indeed, we cannot afford to allow the family, with its outmoded ideology, to remain the norm. By its very existence, it is a threat to the future to which we are now bound. To arrive at this “new world”, we will systematically need to reverse what was once called nature and its tendencies, the laws and customs even found in revelation that were said to protect it.
Now nearly any arrangement is a “marriage”. Just as Boy Scouts can now be girls, if they say so, women can now be priests if they say so. The past does not bind. Divorce is not divorce if we say so. Abortion does not eliminate human life, if we say so. Euthanasia does not kill a human being, if we say so. Whatever we have a “right” to have, we can have, if we say so. And all of this is to be provided and guaranteed by the State, if it says so. The philosophy of the future has been with us for some time. The results are visible. The reasons given to justify it all will be the ones that most clearly condemn it. They all begin with the rejection of the integrity of what was handed down from the beginning.
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius Press). Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.
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