“The Goodness and Humanity of God”

Rembrandt Simeon and Anna 1627

The sub-title of J. Budziszewski’s 2009 book, The Line Through the Heart, reads as follows: “Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction.” The initial dedicatory citation in the book, from which the book derives its title, is a memorable one from Alexander Solzhenitsyn. It reads: “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Needless to say, this sentence is soul-wrenching. It compels us all to stop blaming external causes and systems for the conditions of our souls and of our society. This insight is but a graphic adaption of Plato’s affirmation that the disorders of our polities are first found in the disorders of our own souls. These disorders are not our subjective “feelings” about what ought to be if we were given what we wanted but standards first found in the reality of things that remain valid and have their defined consequences whether we ignore them or not.

What particularly struck me in reading Budziszewski’s book, however, was his attention to natural law as itself a sign of contradiction. He went into what has always been a murky moral area, namely, why is it so difficult to recognize and act on the truth of things? We might, at first sight, think that it is a rather simple problem. Show me the truth and I will change my ways! But it does not really work that way. One might say that our public order is today a massive refusal to accept the truth of human nature itself. We ultimately are forced to justify this doing what we want by denying that there is a human nature to conform ourselves to.

Ultimate questions are said to be insolvable. Thus, we are free to believe and act as we want. The purpose of government, as a consequence, is to make whatever we want to do possible for us with little or no cost to ourselves. If our activities cause diseases or derangements of human lives, the solution is not, through self-discipline, to stop the activities that cause the damage but to find a “cure” that will enable us to continue what we want without any consequences to ourselves. We look to technology to substitute for our own lack of self-rule.

II.

The phrase, a sign of contradiction, is from Luke’s gospel (2:21-40). The scene in the Temple of Jerusalem depicts the aged Simeon who sees the child Jesus. He recognizes Him to be the savior who was promised to Israel. This Child will be the cause of “the rise and fall of many in Israel.” Evidently, the “cause” of this rising or falling itself had to do with the recognition or the refusal to recognize Him. It was something in our power to do or refuse. Simeon addresses these words to Mary, Christ’s mother. He tells her further that her soul will be pierced. In retrospect, we know that a relation exists between the rejection of Christ and His death on the Cross. This consequence too is related to the fall of many who reject Christ’s identity and hence the Father’s plan for our salvation through Him.

Benedict XVI takes up this theme of a sign of contradiction in his own reflections on the scene in the Temple when Christ is brought for His purification. Not only was Christ a sign of contradiction to the Jews but He remains a sign of contradiction to our times and pretty much for the same reason. What, we might ask, exactly is this contradiction that Christ is said to signify and portend? Clearly, it has to do with what Bernard of Clairvaux was getting at when he told us of divinity and humanity existing in the same person, in this Jesus. Obviously, man is not God. The claim of a man to be a god is considered blasphemy which attributes to man what does not belong to him.

Yet, if there is no God, there can be no nature either. Hence, the most basic step in establishing a human “freedom” that has no relation to what man is would be to deny the existence of a God who stood outside of the world which was dependent for its existence on Him. This is the specifically Christian God. Modern atheism is itself dependent on an understanding of a God who did not need to create. Thus, when it denies nature, atheism is likewise denying the cause of nature as we know it. Nature does not stand independently of God for its own being.

III.

Benedict tells us that the “contradiction” that moderns express is directed toward the  Christian God. That is, we are not merely saying that no god exists, but we are positively affirming, defiantly, that this creator God, who is said to create human nature and become incarnate in it, is specifically denied. The result is that we affirm man in the place of God. Our understanding of man must, in other words, reject in a positive, voluntary manner, those things in human nature that are said to be inclinations placed there by God. This God “limits” us. He wants us to be what He has intended for us to be. We are to choose what is best for us by following the inclinations of our nature, of our natural law. We would like to “free” ourselves from nature in order that we become what we “want” to be. And what we “want” to be must, logically, eliminate any sign that something in us is better made than what we ourselves could conjure up.

This result is why so much of our contemporary life is taken up with ways of life that deny marriage, children, and seek to glorify ways of life that are intrinsically opposed to them. To achieve this latter goal of complete independence from God, we must lie to ourselves about what we are. Here the pope takes up a theme that is already in Plato. No one, Plato said, wants a “lie in his soul about the most important things.” But if we do want to replace God with our own definition of ourselves, we must lie to ourselves, deceive ourselves, about what we are. We must seek ourselves independently of what we ought to be. If we succeed in this endeavor, we will make ourselves into monsters and oddities, as Benedict spelled out for us in Spe Salvi.

If we turn back to the line of thought that Bernard was pursuing, we see that God did not disdain to join Himself to human nature as He created it. In the Incarnation, God affirms the goodness of human nature as such. Thus, modern atheism’s uniqueness is not just a denial that God exists, but that He could become man and remain true God. Indeed, there is no world of nature that exists apart from the divine plan that includes the Incarnation.

As Benedict graphically shows in the earlier volumes of Jesus of Nazareth, the world is different precisely because the Son of God became man in the world at a definite time and place. This fact, which all evidence seems to affirm as true, is itself sufficient to make us aware that the world is different when God is within it. It contains within itself an order to the divinity which passes through the heart of every human being and deals with his affirmation or rejection of good and evil.

The sign of contradiction is most manifest by the difficulty we see in accepting the truth of the Incarnation with all its implications. Yves Simon once remarked that it is a most difficult thing for a man to give up an idea or theory that he knows or suspects may be wrong. The habits of vice in many ways have become so solidified in our culture that it is almost impossible for most people even to conceive that their way of life is disordered.

In this sense, the natural law becomes yet another sign of contradiction as it remains present at least in our minds and memories as a judgment on how we have chosen to live. In many areas of the world, including our own, we are seeing more and more not just the legally enforced living of disordered lives but the official effort to repress any speaking or information that suggests anything is wrong with it. This is really what is behind the establishment of “diversity” as the only criterion of truth. It is a form of relativism that seeks to silence any possibility that “the goodness and humanity of God” are the true keys to human living and its ultimate destiny in eternal, not political, life.

The image above is a detail from “Simeon and Anna Recognize the Lord in Jesus” painted by Rembrandt in 1627.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.

By

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. His latest books include The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press.

  • JERD

    Does not the atheist’s rejoinder go something like this:

    1) OK, I reject God, I reject the idea of a “nature” the theists claim God made. Thus, there is no preexisting good or evil. (There is no “contradiction” in what we ought to do and what we choose to do.)

    2) Since there is no preordained good or evil, good is what we make it. The world we humans make arises from the exercise of our will alone. What we humans make of this world we deem good. Thus, the world we make by the exercise of our will is good (We cannot be “monsters or oddities” because there is no good or evil.)

    3) For example, same sex marriage is good, because we deem it good.

    Our response?

    • Facile1

      How does one respond to a complete invention?

      Discussion (of any topic in any language) is possible only when there exists a set of beliefs held in common. In mathematics, we call these “shared beliefs” axioms, which are taken to be self-evident and not subject to proof. For example in Euclidean Geometry, change any ONE of the eleven given axioms and one finds one’s self operating in a different mathematical universe altogether — where theorems whose proofs may exist in Euclidean geometry suddenly become wholly unintelligible.

      As a Catholic, I believe in the Church’s teaching that FAITH is a gift from God — i.e. “a given”. Until such time when God’s gift of FAITH is wholeheartedly accepted by the atheist, there really is no point in responding to whatever his rejoinder may be to Rev. Schall’s article. The TRUTH of Rev. Schall’s discourse will be entirely lost to a committed atheist.

      In the final analysis, language — including mathematics — is a human invention. But the TRUTH is not. And the gift of FAITH is necessary to arrive at the TRUTH (i.e. GOD).

      • Brian Jones

        Hi Facile1,

        Just two quick things:
        1) You write that “until such time when God’s gift of faith is wholeheartedly accepted by the atheist, there really is no point in responding to whatever his rejoinder may be to Fr. Schall’s article. The TRUTH of Fr. Schall’s discourse will be entirely lost to a committed atheist.” Since Fr. Schall’s article, as well as Budziszewski’s book, concerns natural law, this would not be the case in principle. You seem to be implying that you can only know truth if you know God, but this may not be what you are intending to say. You are right to say that faith is a gift from God, but that does not exclude one from knowing the truths that pertain to the natural law.

        2) You say that in the final analysis, “language is a human invention. But the Truth is not. And the gift of Faith is necessary to arrive at the Truth.” Here, you seem to create a dichotomy between language and truth. Language is a human invention, but it is also the mode by which we come to communicate the truth. Even the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation require and presuppose (through revelation) that we are able to use language in order to more clearly define them and say what they are, even our language is limited in regards to these mysteries of faith. Again, as I mentioned in the first point, you seem to be claiming that we can only know truth of any kind only if we first know God. I would recommend reading anything St. Thomas has written where he discusses the preambles and the mysteries of faith. Also, anything Fr. Schall has written on language and truth (as well as Pieper) is well worth reading.

        • Facile1

          Dear Brian,

          1. As a Catholic, I believe one can only know the TRUTH by knowing GOD. If this is NOT a shared belief, there can be no discussion. When one loves the TRUTH, one cannot (will not) escape God.

          St. Thomas Aquinas said “Love follows knowledge.”

          I disagree.

          I say, “We cannot hope to know what we do not love FIRST.”

          Knowledge follows LOVE.

          Love GOD FIRST.

          2. I did not create the dichotomy between the language and the TRUTH because I cannot create any part of the TRUTH. I might come up with a word for some bits and pieces of the TRUTH. But the word will be at most a mnemonic SEPARATE from the TRUTH and the latter should not be confused with a purely human invention. Regardless, having merely invented a word gives me NO CLAIM on creation.

          Genesis 2:19 “So the LORD God formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds of the air, and he brought them to the man to see what he would call them; whatever the man called each living creature was then its name.”

          To quote Richard Feynman (Nobel Prize in Physics 1965), “You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird … I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”

          I hope this helps.

          • Brian Jones

            Hi Facile,

            Thanks for the response. Again, you still have not responded to the claim I made in the initial post, namely that you seem to be arguing that truth can only be known if we first know God. Perhaps this is not what you mean, but I don’t think you have adequately made your point clear, nor have you drawn the necessary distinctions that must be made. For example, is there a relationship between truths of the natural order and those studied within the discipline of theology? Again, considering that Fr. Schall’s article centered upon the natural law, I am wondering how you understand the relationship between natural and supernatural truth. All I want is for you to clarify in a bit more detail your thoughts in this regard.

            In light of your second point, I am not sure what you are trying to get across. Nowhere did I claim that you create, or have some claim upon, truth. This is a foundational point that, as Catholics, we both agree upon. I want to know whether or not you think definitions or names actually give us an account of what something is. A simple example, from the order of science, is the periodic table of elements. Radon has a significant number of properties (protons, electrons, etc.) which differentiate it from helium. These essential properties are what classify it to be this thing rather than that. Therefore, we can give it this name rather than that because, essentially, this is what describes the kind of thing it is. Yes, names are a human invention, but is not the naming of a thing correlative to its nature? Perhaps the error is mine for a lack of understanding what you are attempting to get at, but maybe you could just draw out your point a bit more clearly. All I am trying to argue is the essential connection between language and truth, which should not be an issue here from the Catholic perspective of all things.

            As a side note, you have omitted a vital part of Feyman’s quote. Here is the quote in full (the omitted section is italicized):

            “You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird … So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing — that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”

            I don’t know Feyman’s religious views, but when you take this quote in connection with the entirety of his talk on “What is Science,” it is clear that what he is actually drawing attention to is the classic distinction that Aristotle makes in the Posterior Analytics between pre-scientific and scientific knowledge. Feyman’s point is that all knowledge cannot be reduced to scientific knowledge, since the general and confused knowledge we have of things is the foundation for this more specific and certain scientific knowledge. Just because I can call say “Oh look, that’s an eclipse” does not mean that I can give a causal explanation of the process in its entirety. Nevertheless, this does not mean that what knowledge I have of it, though general, is meaningless and therefore not real knowledge.

            My apologies for the extended length. All I was seeking was greater clarity in these two particular, but fundamental, areas. Hope I have been clear and, charitable.

            • Facile1

              Dear Brian,

              I’ll make an attempt to connect the dots for you, but this will be my last response. I believe others have said all this better than me.

              I don’t pretend to know theology or philosophy or even mathematics (My educational background is in engineering with a graduate degree in Applied Mathematics.) I recoil sharply from the use of religious language. But this will be unavoidable here.

              Also excuse me for repeating myself. What is new will be enclosed in brackets “[...]”

              1. As a Catholic, I believe one can only know the TRUTH by knowing GOD. [Another way of putting this statement is: TRUTH does not exist outside of GOD. It follows, therefore, when one loves the TRUTH, one cannot (will not) escape God.

              [However, GOD gave us 'free will'. So, while human knowledge should reflect the TRUTH, it may NOT do so necessarily.]

              If this is NOT a shared belief, there can be no discussion.

              St. Thomas Aquinas said “Love follows knowledge.”

              I disagree.

              I say, “We cannot hope to know what we do not love FIRST.”

              [Human] Knowledge follows LOVE.

              Love GOD FIRST [and human knowledge of the TRUTH (i.e. GOD) will follow. Note: Jesus Christ said this more elegantly.]

              2. You said “Here, you seem to create a dichotomy between language and truth.” [The dichotomy between language and TRUTH exists. However,] I did not create the dichotomy between the language and the TRUTH because I cannot create any part of the TRUTH. I might come up with a word for some bits and pieces of the TRUTH. But [my invented] word will be at most a mnemonic SEPARATE from the TRUTH and the latter should not be confused with a purely human invention. Regardless, [merely inventing] a word gives me NO CLAIM on creation [nor even any claim to knowledge of the TRUTH (i.e. GOD). I can only claim to have FAITH.

              [ALL human knowledge is supposition. 'Proof' is always a logical construct within a system of beliefs (axioms). 'Evidence' (even scientifically derived experimental results) are only 'true' in a limited context of real time and real space. Of course, your knowledge in this matter may be just a reflection of a lack of any formal training in the design of experiments or in the collection of evidence under the "rules of evidence" in a court of law.

              [In Genesis 2:19, we are told] “So the LORD God formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds of the air, and he brought them to the man to see what he would call them; whatever the man called each living creature was then its name.”

              [Or] To quote Richard Feynman (Nobel Prize in Physics 1965), “You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird … I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”

              [Your statement "Feynman's point is that all knowledge cannot be reduced to scientific knowledge" actually makes the argument for the exclusion of Feynman's sentence: "So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing -- that's what counts." How does merely describing the mechanics and/or aerodynamics of 'flight' tell us the TRUTH about the 'bird'? The TRUTH about the 'bird' may be that it has a broken wing.

              [By no means have I ever suggested that there is NO connection between human knowledge and the TRUTH (i.e. GOD). Human knowledge --- or rather a human being's choice of words --- SHOULD reflect the TRUTH. But a reflection can be distorted like they do in carnivals with mirrors. So, do not confuse human knowledge (couched in whatever human language including mathematics) with the TRUTH (i.e. GOD).

              [And excuse me for repeating myself. TRUTH does not exist outside of GOD. 'Outside of God' is only 'hell'.]

              I hope this helps.

    • Brian Jones

      Hi JERD,

      I think a good way to begin a response to the hypothetical you have proposed could be to bring up such an extreme case as the Holocaust, or any of the 20th century slaughters of citizens via totalitarian regimes (read the account of the Nuremburg Trials, for the awareness of the natural law is clearly at work and what leads to a better understanding of why these men were guilty). While it may be the case that someone may hold to the premises you list (particularly #1 and #2), I think a significant number of atheists would agree that the human atrocities I have mentioned would, in fact, be evil. If they would admit to this, then you could move towards having them consider whether or not their calling these events “evil” is simply a social construction, a creation of the human mind, or if it pertains to a mind-independent reality apart from whatever we think or feel about these events. The former understanding of reality and the order of things (that reality is ultimately a human construction, especially “good” and “evil”) would be difficult to have genuine dialogue with; the latter, as Fr. Schall points to, is the foundation for Natural Law. Even middle school students have an understanding of the natural law, although it is not a deeply intellectual awareness.

      I would highly recommend Budziszewski book that Fr. Schall has made mention of, for I think it would help with your question far better than my simplistic response.

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  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Pascal goes to the root of the problem, when he reminds us that “You are not in the state of your creation.”

    Hence, “Not only do we know God by Jesus Christ alone, but we know ourselves only by Jesus Christ. We know life and death only through Jesus Christ. Apart from Jesus Christ, we do not know what is our life, nor our death, nor God, nor ourselves,” and “Thus, without Scripture, which has only Jesus Christ for its object, we know nothing and see only obscurity and confusion in God’s nature and ours.”

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