There's a story of one of the world's first computers, an enormous thing at MIT, during World War II. It was all cathode ray tubes; it didn't have chips then. And it was coordinating the war efforts and went on the blink. And they asked the main inventor of the computer to come and repair it. And he said, "I'd be glad to, but I'm going to charge you big bucks." It was a multi-million dollar computer, and it was worthless without repair. So he said, "I might charge up to a million dollars to diagnose the problem. But I won't charge you anything if I don't succeed." They said okay. So he went up there with a screwdriver, and walked up and down the different halls of the computer, which was as large as a building, and listened, and at a certain point, when he heard something wrong, he tapped with the screwdriver — bom bom bom — and said, "The computer's fixed now." They turned it on, and sure enough, it was fixed. It took him about five minutes. So they said, "Send us your bill." So he sent them the bill; it was a million dollars. For tapping the screwdriver. So they said, "Please itemize your bill." He said, "Gladly." Item one: tapping with a screwdriver, one dollar. Item two: knowing where to tap, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine dollars. That's diagnosis.
What's the essential diagnosis of the ills of Western Civilization? It's rather painfully obvious: atheism. But not just in terms of polls; in terms of real presence in people's lives. When Nietzsche, back in the 19th Century, said, "God is dead," he didn't mean simply that God is a myth and a superstition and never did live. He meant that this superstition, this thing that never was literally alive, was the energy of Western Civilization. Nietzsche, like the saints, understood that there is no Western Civilization without God. Although he believed that we created Him in our image, rather than that he created us in His image, he realized that the image and the model go together. When there's a mirror on the wall in a room, and you walk out of that room, due to the finite speed of light, though you can't see it, your image remains in the mirror for a split second after you leave the room. Well, if we're made in God's image, and God is dead, it may take a split second, or a century, for man, His image, to die. But man cannot live without God. An image cannot live without its model. If God leaves, man leaves. Nietzsche knew that. Half of him rejoiced in it; half of him was agonized over it, but he called for the new man, the man without religion and without morality. We're seeing it gradually happen.
If you want to read the two most prophetic books of modern times, read The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis, and remember, his title is to be taken seriously, it's not an exaggeration; and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Brave New World is what de Tocqueville called "soft totalitarianism."
The Apostles' Creed, the simplest and earliest and shortest creed, summarizes what is true. And the Ten Commandments summarize what is good. And the Lord's Prayer summarizes what is desirable or beautiful.
One of the biggest traumas in my life when I was a young and naïve teacher — I'm still young, I don't know what I want to be when I grow up, and I'm still naïve — but I gave them Brave New World, a class, and I didn't prepare them for it. I thought they'd understand it. So I said nothing about it, I said we'll discuss it next week, and we started discussing it in the class and I discovered to my consternation that they misunderstood Brave New World. They thought Huxley was for it. Worse, they agreed with him! They were astonished when I told them that this was a dystopia, not a utopia, and that Huxley was a prophet who was counselling us against Brave New World. "What? Against Brave New World? Everybody's happy there! Everybody's comfortable! They solve all problems. There's no poverty, there's no prejudice, there's no war. There's free sex, there's free entertainment, there's free drugs — it's ideal! It's like Boston College campus!"
Well, if we're in love with it, that's where we're going. If there's no God, then there's no being. Wait a minute, that's very abstract. What do you mean, "being"? Well, being isn't just the fact that something exists. Being is real-ness. Nihilism is the ism or ideology that says there is no being. Well obviously we exist, and this piece of paper exists, and the planet Mars exists — what do you mean, there is no being? Well, nothing's really real. Everything's fake. Nothing is to rely on. Everything's empty. Read the Book of Ecclesiastes. Don't read the last six verses, which is the answer. Read the rest of the book, which is the problem. "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity." What does that mean? There is no being. Nothing's real. Everything's like a bubble. Touch it, and it bursts. People are like bubbles; they're fakes. Everything's a fake. Everything's a facade. Nothing's behind the facade. It's empty. The difference between the full and the empty is more important even than the difference between life and death, or good and evil.
Lack of Meaning
Viktor Frankl wrote a wonderful book called Man's Search for Meaning. It's the best book to come out of the Nazi era. He was a disciple of Freud, a psychiatrist from Vienna, who, as a Jew, was put into Auschwitz. And he observed his fellow prisoners with the eye of a scientist, and was struck by the fact that his predictions didn't come true about who would survive and who didn't. Some of the weakest prisoners who had no privileges did survive, and some of the strongest and healthiest prisoners, including those who had privileges with the Nazis because they sucked up to them, didn't survive. And he questioned Freud's basic principle, which is the pleasure principle, that the desire for pleasure is the deepest need of human beings, and he said, "That principle didn't enable me to predict the facts that I observed at Auschwitz. There must be some deeper need that everybody has that the survivors fulfilled and the non-survivors didn't. What could that be?"
And he came to the conclusion that it was the need for meaning, the need for something real in your life that was an absolute, that you'd give yourself to, that wasn't humanly invented, that was real. And he tested the hypothesis and it came out. All these survivors, weak or strong, had some reason to suffer. They said, "Life has meaning, and suffering is a part of life, therefore suffering has meaning." That's the common feature.
For some of them, the meaning was simply to get back at the Nazis after the war, to get revenge. For some of them, the meaning was to find a family again. For some of them, their meaning was to complete their work, to finish their book or whatever. For some of them, their meaning was to prove that they were strong and able to survive. For some of them, the meaning was religious. But for some of them it wasn't. But all of them turned a corner. All the survivors turned this corner and the non-survivors didn't. Everybody, survivors and non-survivors, asked the same question: why? Why are we here? This is meaningless. This is nonsense. This is unjust. This is ridiculous. This is insane. It is utterly irrational. Of course. And some of them just stuck in that forever, and they didn't survive.
But some of them turned a corner and realized that whereas they had been asking life, "Life, what is your meaning now," they were wrong. Not because they didn't get an answer to the question, but because they were asking the wrong question. In fact, the fact that they were asking the question was the mistake. Life was asking them the question. They were being asked, "What is your meaning?" And they had to respond. That's the essence of responsibility. The ability to give a response to life's challenges, to life's questions: What is your meaning? And those who had any kind of answer to that question survived. Those who didn't didn't.
Many of the prisoners believed that behind life there was a personal God. So it was God that was asking them, "What is your meaning?" But even those that didn't believe in God knew that life was asking them, "What is your meaning?" And those that responded, survived, those that didn't, didn't. So he wrote this wonderful book called Man's Search for Meaning and founded a whole new school of psychology called Logotherapy, based on the principle that man's fundamental need is the need for meaning.
Meaning means, ultimately, purpose: teleology, from the Greek word telos, which means "end" or "purpose." That's a concept which modern science has discarded. And in order to do hard science you have to discard it. You can't bring that into equations. And since science has been our most spectacular success, we tend to make the mistake of thinking that the closer you can get to the scientific method, the stronger and more certain your knowledge is and therefore we tend to discount anything that doesn't fit the scientific method. But purpose doesn't fit the scientific method. You can't measure purpose.
That, by the way, is why I personally think that the intelligent design people, who are very good and well intentioned and reasonable people, are making a strategic mistake when they say, "This is science." It's not. It's philosophy. Science requires quantification and empirical verification, and you can't do that with purpose. It's very good philosophy — it's basically Aquinas' fifth way, the argument from design, which is probably the most popular argument for the existence of God in the world — but to present it as science is not going to convince people, because the scientific method is tougher than that, harder than that, narrower than that.
But if you run your life by the scientific method, nothing's left. Not only do you throw out God, you throw out persons.
But if you run your life by the scientific method, nothing's left. Not only do you throw out God, you throw out persons. Science doesn't know what a person is. If you're a doctor and you're operating on a patient, you have to treat that patient as a machine in order to be an efficient doctor. If you think, "That patient has a soul," or "That patient is my grandmother," or "That patient is someone I'm in love with," your hands are going to shake, and you're going to botch the operation. So you have to deliberately suppress the most valuable stuff in you in order to be an effective surgeon or an effective scientist. That brain is a computer that is not working; let me figure out why. But to take that over into life as such is devastating. But, more or less, our society has done that. And therefore there's no purpose: "Oh, everybody needs a purpose, but it's just a fiction. It's something you make up. It's not real. It's not true. It's just a little game you play with yourself in order to motivate yourself. You're the donkey and you invent a carrot and you put it on a stick in front of your own head to make you move." That's not going to really motivate you.
The True, the Good, and the Beautiful
Well, I've expressed my diagnosis in three different terms, which are equivalent: God, being, and meaning. But those are pretty abstract terms. Can I make this more concrete? Can I break it down into something more specific? Yes, I can. Every religion in the world that has, if not a God, something above man, something god-like, also has a meaning, a purpose, a fundamental absolute to give to all human beings as the main purpose of human life. And every religion in the world, according to social scientists and anthropologists and sociologists, has three visible ingredients. It manifests itself in three ways. They are often called creed, code, and cult — or words, works, and worship. Every religion says there's something to believe in as true. Every religion says there's some lifestyle to practice as good. And every religion says there's some work to do, some liturgy, some worship, some prayer or meditation. Thomas Aquinas says we only need to know three things. And the Apostles' Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer tell us everything we need to know. The Apostles' Creed, the simplest and earliest and shortest creed, summarizes what is true. And the Ten Commandments summarize what is good. And the Lord's Prayer summarizes what is desirable or beautiful. So the Creed tells us what we must believe — that's the object of faith: truth. The Commandments tell us what we must love — that's the object of the will, that's good. And the Lord's Prayer tells us what we must hope for — that's what gives us joy. If we use beauty as a correlate to hope, we have the true, the good, and the beautiful as the three absolutes. The three things every human being wants infinitely, and is not satisfied with only a little bit of. We're satisfied with a little bit of food; we're satisfied with a little bit of power; we're satisfied with a little bit of sex; but not a little bit of truth. "I'll be ignorant about fifty percent of truth and knowledgeable about fifty percent" — nobody says that. I've got a couple of things that are good for me, but I want some things that are not good for me — nobody says that. I like to enjoy beauty on Monday, but ugliness is okay on Tuesday — nobody says that. And therefore these are the three things that don't get boring and therefore they are the three foretastes of heaven, because they are three attributes of Almighty God himself.
But without God, there really is no truth, because there's no being. God, being, and truth are a kind of progression. Truth means truth about what is real, and if there's no ultimate being, no ultimate reality, then reality is just what we call it. It falls apart, ultimately. Deep down, everything is empty. So if there's no truth, there's nothing for either reason or faith to grab onto, so you're a sceptic. And that's certainly one of the deep distresses of modern society — scepticism. Second, without truth there's no goodness. Nothing's truly good. Goodness too is kind of a fake, or purely subjective. So another aspect of the diagnosis of our society is amoralism. And without goodness, there's really no beauty. Gothic cathedrals were not made by moral sceptics; they were made by saints.
The Church and Secularism
| The Church and Secularism - part 1
The Church and Secularism - part 2
The Church and Secularism - part 3
The Church and Secularism - part 4
Peter Kreeft. "The Church and Secularism - part 2." a talk given at Westminster Abbey, Mission B.C. (January 28, 2012).
This article is reprinted with permission from Peter Kreeft.
Photo: Kwan Choo, ARPS
Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965.
He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including: The Snakebite Letters, The Philosophy of Jesus, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer, How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in Crisis, Love Is Stronger Than Death, Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato's Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, and Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
Copyright © 2012 Peter Kreeft