Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

The Choice for or against God

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 01, 2011

In the introductory essay in this series, I explained that many of our contemporaries tend to define human dignity in terms of autonomy and productivity. I said this is because they believe that what is most unique about the human person is the ability to reflect on, overcome and reconstruct his own nature. I also suggested that there were severe problems with this point of view. The biggest is that people adopt this attitude as a first principle, thinking it describes reality. They do not realize that the entire theory depends on a prior decision about God.

If we believe the prevailing materialistic account of reality, the human person is essentially an illusion. If by “person” we mean an individual being capable of reflecting on himself, of freely willing specific ends and means, and of entering into mutually-enriching relationships, then combinations of matter alone are incapable of producing a person. In other words, by the materialistic, empirical or purely scientific account, both our self-understanding and our freedom are illusions. Everything we do is really determined by essentially random combinations of matter at the lowest conceivable level. There simply is nothing else.

But of course, nobody lives as if this were true—as if their self-understanding is an elaborate illusion. That way lies madness. Instead, people live as if they really are self-reflecting and self-actualizing persons whose uniqueness, in a materially-determined world, enables them to escape what they have been materially determined to be. It should not take much to recognize the absurdity of this working compromise, for self-reflection and self-actualization are distinctly spiritual qualities. That is, since these qualities transcend material nature, they must have another source. All normal persons on the face of the earth, whether or not they can argue the matter philosophically, wonder about this problem. Moreover, in so wondering, they are led to a choice for or against the source from which alone they could have received this spiritual power. Before they theorize further about the outlines of their personal dignity, they must make this choice. It is the choice for or against God.

I grant that people can be very muddled in their thinking, harboring confused and even contradictory ideas without working things out carefully. Nonetheless, it remains true 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. If so, he embraces and advances a certain set of fundamental ideas; if not, he embraces and advances a different set of fundamental ideas. It was the great Catholic theorist of religious liberty, Fr. John Courtney Murray, who brilliantly insisted on this almost self-evident truth: Every account of human worth, human dignity, human freedom, and human responsibility begins with a prior choice for or against God.

In speaking thus of God, I am not referring to that limited philosophical notion of God, which may amount to little more than an abstraction of the forces of the universe, vague, inarticulate, disinterested and unconcerned with human persons. Rather, I am referring to the God whom we perceive in creation as a source of both care and wonder, who haunts our sense of right and wrong and our fear of being subject to judgment, who must therefore be deeply concerned with us, whom we feel called to serve, from whom we cannot hide. The logical among us presume that such a God wishes to reveal Himself; they will search for that revelation. But in any case, it is this instinctive understanding of God’s presence which has fired the development of religion even in the absence of revelation. And it is this instinctive understanding which must be either accepted or rejected before anyone can talk about what it means to be human.

This fact that the choice for or against God is at least confusedly prior to all of our theories of human dignity explains why so many modern theories about man, despite now being taught nearly always and everywhere, roll off sincere religious believers like water off a duck’s back, and conversely why those who adhere to these theories invariably have one thing in common, that is, the willingness—no, even the desire—to abandon religious faith in favor of their own “views”. There are many factors which contribute to such a decision, but it seems to me to be exceedingly rare that the arguments in favor of atheism are decisive. Almost always—and arguably in every case—the individual is predisposed to shut God out before he ever commits himself to an atheistic theory of man. And if he has chosen for God, he will not be fundamentally swayed by any such theories. He may be unable to refute them, or again he may at times be confused by them in either thought or action, but they will gain no permanent grip on his mind, so incompatible are they with the first commitment of his mind and heart, the choice for God.

The most eloquent argument for atheism is insufficient against the experience each of us has of self-reflection and moral judgment—the direct experience of our spirituality, which must inescapably derive from a non-material source. When we are either confused or in denial about the possibility of such a source, our only choice is to treat our personhood as real even if we do not, in theory, believe in it. Thus we find ourselves in a sort of frightening isolation, desperately striving for a sense of fulfilled identity by shaping our nature to our desires. At the same time, we may adopt a sort of pantheism in a desperate effort to end our alienation from nature (as, for example, in extreme forms of modern environmentalism). Either way, or both ways, our endless task is to mitigate a sense of emptiness which we instinctively believe should be filled.

I have said little of the benefits of Revelation, and at this stage in the series I do not mean to say more. However, it may be useful to note another of Peter Augustine Lawler’s points, that the Enlightenment period fatally injured what we might call personal theology—human reasoning about a personal God Who is engaged in the affairs of men. Beginning in the 18th century, the West has gradually returned to a limited philosophical conception of an impersonal God, a God which fails to rise above natural forces—that somewhat notorious God who is now said to be dead.

But our perception that whatever spirituality we possess is ultimately not impersonal but personal is decisive. Even without the light of Christ, this perception leads us to understand that human dignity consists not in an escape from nature, but in the realization that we have a dual nature, including a spiritual component which makes us truly relational, truly able to interact personally both with each other and with God, even though we may not yet know much that is true about God. Thus we begin to get an inkling that what is most important and unique about human nature is not our ability to reshape or reject our own nature, but our ability to discern the fullness of what is natural to us, and so to direct ourselves toward spiritual ends.

Clearly, then, the affirmation of our own spiritual capacity, which necessarily involves a choice for God, leads to a very different picture of human dignity. I do not mean to imply that everyone thinks clearly about these matters. What I do mean to say is, first, that everyone has direct experience of his own spirituality and, second, that everyone who begins to theorize about human dignity must answer first the question of God. Every theorist does in fact answer this question first, whether he admits it or not. The decision for or against God colors every subsequent discussion.

When we next consider the theories of human dignity (or its absence) that are characteristic of our age, theories which often seem both comprehensive and overwhelming, we need to remember this fundamental and inescapable insight. We may argue about every vision of human nature, human rights, human responsibility, and human worth. But the choice for or against God comes first.

Previous in series: Human Dignity?
Next in Series: The Hammer and the Nail

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

  • Posted by: claire5327 - Jun. 23, 2011 6:19 PM ET USA

    All that is beautiful comes from God, because God is Beauty! Wherever God is absent ugliness appears. Thus, when we see sin, we see ugliness, God is not there! The struggle between the two schools of thoughts--does God exist or not--can simply be proving by the presence or absence of grace and beauty that is where the human dignity lives within that core of Beauty of the Creator through one's awareness of His presence. The absence of that awareness is evidenced by the lack of it.

  • Posted by: davidSanDiego - Jun. 06, 2011 3:49 PM ET USA

    Where do our concepts of God come from? I feel they grow directly from our early family relationships. Our parents are strong, we are weak. We depend on them, we learn to trust them. They are our models. I find it telling that visions of human dignity founded first in God also strenghten the family and afirm it. Whereas, philosphies that jettison God, also attempt to either replace the family or disconstruct it to the point where it simple serves as a source of human foder for its own ends.

  • Posted by: - Jun. 02, 2011 12:36 PM ET USA

    For those who talk about human dignity without God, I've never understood what they grounded that dignity in, if not God. The ancient Greeks based man's uniqueness on his rational nature, but without distinguishing actual from potential. Their pre-Christian idea suggested that those with diminished mental capacity are less than human.