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Graceless: Being Human without God

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 17, 2013

The email mafia has done it again. Yet another “unregistered visitor” has sought to correct us through the Contact Form. In this case, the message consisted only of a quote from Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Mrs. Samuel H. Smith on August 6, 1816, a few years after his two terms as President and about ten years before his death. This is Jefferson in his early 70s:

My opinion is that there would never have been an infidel, if there had never been a priest. The artificial structures they have built on the purest of all moral systems, for the purpose of deriving from it pence and power, revolts those who think for themselves, and who read in that system only what is really there.

Now this Contact Form message was not sent in response to any particular article. Despite deep and dark suspicions, I was not sure whether it was intended as a lament for Jefferson or a lament for Catholics. So I responded as follows:

Yes, I was at Monticello recently [as indeed I was, on January 5th], and I prayed for Jefferson, who had the temerity to rewrite the Gospels without all the miracles and other signs of Christ’s divinity and His priestly sacrifice for sin, which He commissioned His Church to carry on through time.

“It is a shame,” I continued,

that Jefferson not only saw only what he wanted to see, but took care to eliminate anything he did not want to see. The result was a sadly truncated contribution to a republic which would too often rely not on God but on human systems to achieve its goals, which is impossible.

This, as you may imagine, drew my correspondent out: “I truly disagree. Man does not have to believe in god to care about other living creatures. Only those who were brain-washed from birth believe otherwise.” Notice how this echoes Jefferson’s cavalier comment about “those who think for themselves”. In any case, now the situation was very clear, so I risked a shot across the correspondent's bow:

Ah, but you are not helping your viewpoint along. To argue that everyone who disagrees with you must have been brainwashed from birth rather suggests a contempt for your fellow-creatures (note the word “creature”, which implies creation), as opposed to any sort of genuine care.

But then the ground shifted under my feet, with this response: “No, I’m referring to creature as any animal born on this earth. It seems only man is arrogant enough to think he should have eternal life and everything he creates is a gift from God.”

Of course, any sensible person would immediately advise our correspondent to stop and reflect: For it is rather obvious that man is not simply the only bodily creature who is arrogant enough to think certain things; he is the only bodily creature who can think at all.

I use the term think here in its usual sense of a sustained process carried on through reason with all the necessary powers of self-awareness and abstraction which are characteristic of what we call the intellect. Along these same lines, I grant that mercy is appropriate in dealing with someone who is so obviously incapable of formulating a coherent argument, but I am not here calling attention to a worthy opponent in a debate. I am calling attention to the exchange because it illustrates something very important about the way we moderns too often approach reality. Consider: Does anyone know why this give-and-take was initiated with the particular quote from Jefferson? Are priests the nub of the problem (post 1, via Jefferson) or is God the nub of the problem (post 2)? Or is it really man who is the nub of the problem (post 3)?

There is a disturbing devolution of the argument here, but what we see immediately is that this same sort of exchange is really very common today. First we notice that somebody rejects the Church; then we notice that it goes deeper than that, for the person actually rejects God. And finally we notice that it goes even deeper than that, for the person even rejects man. There are two possible trajectories in these discoveries. On the one hand, the crumbling of common sense may proceed in the order just given: Confusion about the Church leads to confusion about God which leads to confusion about man. Or we could reverse the sequence: Confusion about man leads to confusion about God, which leads to confusion about the Church.

We might even strengthen the point by substituting disdain for confusion. And if we did, we would uncover an even deeper truth about a habit of mind which is positively rampant in contemporary culture: Disdain for the Church leads to disdain for God which leads to disdain for man. Or, again, vice versa. In any case, our attitudes toward man, God and the Church are absolutely inseparable.

One could come at this problem from many sides, but here I will simply emphasize that the missing ingredient is grace. Whenever we are either arrogant or foolish enough to believe that grace is irrelevant or unnecessary—that grace is not an essential medium of human life—we get ourselves into trouble almost instantly. For one of our first perceptions is that things are not as they should be, that we ourselves are not what we should be, and that despite our best intentions, we end up falling far short of our own goals, desires and standards whenever we are left to our own devices. If life is to make sense, grace is a necessity, and therefore a legitimate expectation, in the same way that hunger suggests the existence of food.

Now everybody experiences this, but our pride is reluctant to admit it. And so we project the fault on priests, or on God, or on all those who seek to elevate themselves through priests and God. Indeed, very often our pride begins by rejecting as “priestcraft” the notion that another human person or group of persons could possibly occupy a higher place in a spiritual hierarchy, a position which makes us dependent on them for the fulfillment of our very lives. But to the degree the priestly claim is true, to reject the priest is to reject the God whom the priest rightly represents. And to reject God is to turn to the powers of man without God, which means rejecting every spiritual quality in man, which means rejecting all that is distinctively human.

The result is always disastrous, so disastrous that, except for our pride and our passions, we would see immediately that man as an ordered being with an ordained destiny is inconceivable (and nonsensical) without God, that as soon as God becomes nothing, man becomes nothing too. First he becomes nothing more than the animals, then nothing more than the plants, then nothing more than anything at all—utterly meaningless and, ultimately, utterly dead. How is it, then, that we convince ourselves that if only we become one with the chicken, the ant and the mold spore, all will be well?

There was once a humorous slogan printed on T-shirts and passed around on buttons in conservative Christian circles. I’m thinking back to the late 1960s, perhaps. It was a quote from Eric Voegelin, which read: “Don’t let them immanentize the eschaton.” Think about it; it is the crux of everything, and I choose the word “crux” advisedly. Take away the cross, the intersection between God and man, and, as Yeats so wisely put it, “the center cannot hold”.

But this slogan calls to mind another, the one which Dante put over the gateway to Hell: “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

Make no mistake: This is what it means to be a human person without God, and there is only one alternative. The alternative is grace.

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.

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  • Posted by: FredC - Jan. 20, 2013 10:24 AM ET USA

    Your argument must be cast as an attack on present-day academia and its offspring, then given wide distribution -- perhaps via Michael Voris or some other Facebook entry, with the hope that it goes "viral." We need to make parents aware of what is being taught to their children, including by public school teachers trained in ignorant academia. How about a demonstration at UVa?

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jan. 18, 2013 7:57 AM ET USA

    There is life and there is hope with grace; this essay is quite excellent and candidly realistic. Would be nice to have it read from all pulpits across the fruited plain.