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The Church and Secularism - part 3


The ultimate reason for faith, the ultimate reason for believing in God, is that the only honest reason why anybody ever ought to believe in anything is because it's true.

The Loss of Faith and Reason


Well, let's look at these three aspects of the diagnosis a little more in detail. The ultimate reason for faith, the ultimate reason for believing in God, is that the only honest reason why anybody ever ought to believe in anything is because it's true. If, at the Last Judgment, God had four people in front of him: one of them was an atheist, who believed that there was no God because he thought that was the truth; a second was an atheist because he believed that there was no God because he didn't want there to be a God, it would be inconvenient to him; the third was a theist who believed in God because he thought God would be convenient to him, he wanted there to be a God, but for purely selfish reasons; and the fourth was a theist who believed in God because he thought it was true. So you've got Sartre, Nietzsche, Kant, and St. Thomas.

He says to Sartre, "Sartre, if you were as honest as your words said you were (and probably Sartre wasn't because he was a great writer and a great hypocrite like Rousseau, but) if, Sartre, you were as honest as you said you were, the reason you didn't believe in God, even though it gave you great distress, was you wanted to be honest." "I don't believe in God but I have to believe in truth. And there's no God, and therefore there's no meaning, and life is an empty mess, but I've got to be honest that's the way it is." "Well, Sartre, you're going to go to heaven, even though you're an atheist. Oh, you're going to have a really long purgatory and you're going to have to go to theology kindergarten, but you learned lesson one: honesty!  The reason you disbelieved in me is because you believed in truth and truth was an absolute and you didn't know it then, but I am truth. Welcome to heaven. See you in a million years."

Now here's Nietzsche. And if we take Nietzsche's words very seriously, here's the Last Judgment. "If there were a God, how could I possibly bear not to be God? Consequently there is no God." "Okay, Nietzsche. You don't believe in truth. That's why you don't believe in me. You didn't even learn lesson one. You're hopeless. Goodbye."

Immanuel Kant: very nice man; very moral man. Once again, I'm judging him simply by his writings, which is probably very unfair. Kant said, 'Maybe God doesn't exist. But believe in him anyway. Because if you don't believe in him, your life is meaningless. You need moral order, and logically you've got to believe in a God in order for there to be a moral order, so believe in God even though he doesn't exist. Live as if there were a God." "Well, Kant, you're forgetting about truth. If there's no God, shouldn't you be honest, like Sartre? You didn't learn lesson one! So, okay, you can go to heaven too, but you've got two million years in purgatory. Because Sartre learned lesson one. He's in first grade. You're only in kindergarten.

Aquinas — well, you go straight to heaven. I mean, you've got it all. You've got honesty and you've got me." Notice that the difference is not so much their conclusions but their starting point: their honesty. I believe or I disbelieve because — because what, because it's true? Good for you. You've learned lesson one. Because of anything else? Sorry, got to go back to kindergarten. Learn lesson one. So the only honest reason for believing in God is that God's real. That's sanity.

Now if you believe in God, you're also going to understand him. And if you understand him, you're going to love him. And if you're going to love him, you're going to become a saint. So belief and sanctity, faith and charity, naturally go together, which is why James says faith without good works is dead. The two always go together. But the ultimate reason for being a saint is to be sane. A saint is simply somebody who lives in the real world, a world where there is a God. Sanity and sanctity: same thing. F. J. Sheed, Frank Sheed, wrote two wonderful books: Theology and Sanity and Society and Sanity. And that was the central thesis of both books. And Theology and Sanity is one of the best introductions to Catholic theology I've ever read, and Society and Sanity is probably the best introduction to Catholic social ethics I've ever read. I highly recommend both books.

C. S. Lewis wrote somewhere something shocking. Somebody said something like, "You know, during wartime, there's so many regulations, we're not really free anymore." And he replied, "I was not born to be free; I was born to adore and to obey." 

Sanity means realizing that you're not God and you have to conform to reality, where there is a God. Sanity is conformity to being. Sanity is islam to being, "islam" in the sense of surrender. C. S. Lewis wrote somewhere something shocking. Somebody said something like, "You know, during wartime, there's so many regulations, we're not really free anymore." And he replied, "I was not born to be free; I was born to adore and to obey." You're reaction to that tells you a lot about how close you are to being a saint. There are two old-fashioned words that the western worldview used to love, and they're words that we now hate. They're words whose emotional connotation has radically changed: the word "authority" and the word "obedience." They used to be words that made you smile and say, "Yes," and now they're words that make you frown and say, "No." Of course, they correspond to each other. You don't obey tyrants; you obey those who have rightful authority. But what's authority? Almost everybody today thinks that authority is power. That's a very serious mistake. That means that might makes right. It's just the opposite. Right makes might.

The clearest understanding of authority in the Bible, I think, the thing that shows you what authority is most clearly, is Jesus and the centurion, the pious pagan centurion who comes to Jesus and asks for a healing for his servant, because he's dying. And the centurion says to Jesus, "I know you, as a Jew, are not allowed to come under my roof." It's against Jewish law to go into pagan houses. "That's fine. Just say the word, and my servant will be healed." That's the passage we recite before we receive communion and I'm glad that the Pope restored the Biblical allusion, "come under my roof." The roof of your mouth. And then he says, "For I know what authority is, for I know how authority works, for I too am a man of authority; I say to one of my soldiers 'Go' and he goes, I say to another 'Come' and he comes, I say to a third one 'Do this' and he does it." Now, a centurion is tough Roman who has one hundred tough Romans under him. And why do these one hundred tough soldiers obey this one centurion? Is he more powerful than they are? No. He might be a schmuck. But when they look at him, they don't see Simon Schmuck from Syria, they see Caesar, Lord of the World. Why? Because he totally submits to Caesar. The origin of all authority is surrender and submission. So he says to Jesus, "I know how authority works, and I believe that you have authority even over death, and that you can heal from a distance, so you don't have to come under my roof." And Jesus says, "Good to you; I haven't found faith like that in all of Israel. You understand."

So authority is meekness, surrender, submission. Submit to God, and God's very power will come through you. Open the tube at the top end, and God will come gushing out at the bottom end. Close the tube at the top end and you'll just have yourself, and you're just a wimp. The modern mind does not understand that. Early Renaissance humanism was very Christian. The Baroque era was very Christian. These wonderful tributes to human genius were inspired by God and for the glory of God. The tube was open at both ends, the divine end and the human end. Then came the so-called Enlightenment and the attack on the Church and on religion, especially the Catholic religion. And they should really have called it the Endarkenment, because what the Enlightenment did was it absolutized man and absolutized human reason and absolutized the solution to all problems, and the result was the suppression of man and the suppression of reason.

If you know a little bit about the history of philosophy, I think probably the three most influential of all modern philosophers are Descartes, Hume, and Kant. Those of you who know nothing about philosophy or aren't even interested, give me an open ear for just a minute here and I think I can make it interesting to you. 

Descartes thought that all problems could and should be solved by reason and reason alone. Reason was the absolute thing and you could solve all theoretical problems and all practical problems by reason. And his new method, which was essentially the scientific method just applied to philosophy, became so popular among subsequent philosophers (all of them except Pascal, who was the one great exception, the rebel), Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Barkley, that finally, when it got to David Hume, who was in that sense a disciple of Descartes, sceptical of everything but reason, Hume became a sceptic. 

Hume was probably the greatest sceptic in the history of philosophy. You absolutize reason and you end up in scepticism. I won't go through all the arguments and explain explanations as to why that happens, but you have a crisis of reason in Hume, not only in religion but in common sense, in science, everywhere. 

Kant, probably the single most influential modern philosopher, answers Hume in a distinctively modern way. He says well, we can't be sceptics, but we can't go back behind Descartes either, and say that there's a God and there's being, you can know it and can conform to it, so let's redefine truth. Truth is the conformity of the object to the subject. Truth is the conformity of the world to the mind. The mind legislates truth. The mind shapes the world and forms the world. Is there time and space out there? We don't know, but we make it in thinking about it in our senses. And is there really substance and causality and relationship and all these categories out there? We don't know, but that's the way we make it — by thinking logically. And is there a God? And is there free will? And is there the immortality of the soul? We don't know. Maybe not. But we insist on it. The will of man demands it. So we have to live that way. We're going to create truth. And we all do it together, necessarily, in a kind of unconscious way. Well, that's an even deeper scepticism than Hume. You can't ever know objective truth, or, as he says, things in themselves. So the lesson of Enlightenment rationalism is that it produces irrationalism, the crisis of reason.

The principle of first and second things is very simple. If you put first things first and second things second, you'll get both. Both will be healthy. If, on the other hand, you put second things first and first things second, you'll lose them both. 

Why? Well because of what C. S. Lewis calls the principle of first and second things, in a beautiful little essay by that title — one of my favourite magazines is based on the title of that essay: First Things magazine. I highly recommend it. The principle of first and second things is very simple. If you put first things first and second things second, you'll get both. Both will be healthy. If, on the other hand, you put second things first and first things second, you'll lose them both. The clearest example of this is any addiction. Whatever God makes is good in a finite way. If you worship it as God, you will not only miss the true God, you'll mess up that thing because you'll become an addict to it, whether it's alcohol, or power, or sex, or anything. And it's also true with reason. 

Reason is great; reason is part of the image of God. Thomas Aquinas says, "If you insult reason, you insult God." But if you absolutize it, not only will you miss what is greater than that, but you'll mess it up. Faith, too. The object of faith is not faith; the object of faith is God. If you have faith in faith, well, that's pop psychology. That's a hall of mirrors. That just means faith in yourself. That just means searching desperately for the faith button to push inside your psyche somewhere.

So the crisis of the Enlightenment is a loss of faith and reason. The crisis of morality is the same thing happening on the level of the will. If you absolutize the will, you become a voluntarist, and Kant did that in order to take morality seriously. His motives are very good. He's a moral absolutist. But he says, "I can't subordinate the will to reason, and reason to being, because I don't believe we can know being, and I don't have faith in that ancient notion of reason as open to objective truth. So morality has to come from the will. My deep unconscious will demands that there be morality. I create morality, just as I create meaning." Well, that sounds like you're exaggerating the role of the human will, but it does exactly the opposite. There's no will left. If the will is absolute, then what do you will? Unless you have something above will, something that is perceived by your mind as truly good, what's going to motivate you? Will itself?

There's a great passage in Chesterton's book Orthodoxy, which is an absolutely amazing book, brilliant book — I think Chesterton's one of the greatest minds of history; he's a philosopher as well as a clever journalist — he's talking about Nietzsche, and he says, "When Nietzsche says, 'Will is absolute. Will something,' and he doesn't tell us what to will, just 'will the will,' he says, well, that's like saying 'I don't care what you will,' which means, 'I don't have any will in the matter.'" So you don't have the passion of the will anymore, without that which the will falls in love with: truth. And you don't have the passion of truth anymore without that which truth falls in love with: being. And without goodness, there's not much beauty, not much to excite the soul.

One more specific bit of diagnosis, a couple of symptoms that are obviously connected with this diagnosis: I'm talking about the true, the good, and the beautiful. All right. In the area of truth, education is supposed to be about truth. It isn't anymore. That's the forbidden word, the "T" word. If truth becomes subjective, education fragments because there's nothing for it to be about. It's just about itself. And that's pretty much what the public schools look like today. Second, if goodness is subjective, then society's going to fragment. There's no ethical unity, there's no ethical consensus. We all have totally different goods. We're living in different worlds. And third, if beauty is merely subjective, then passion fragments. There's nothing to fall in love with that's real, that's really good. We all make it up.




Peter Kreeft.  "The Church and Secularism - part 3." 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

The Author

kreeft1kreeftPeter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College.  He is the author of many books (over forty and counting) including: Ask Peter Kreeft: The 100 Most Interesting Questions He's Ever Been AskedAncient PhilosophersMedieval PhilosophersModern PhilosophersContemporary Philosophers, Forty Reasons I Am a Catholic, Doors in the Walls of the World: Signs of Transcendence in the Human Story, Forty Reasons I Am a CatholicYou Can Understand the Bible, Fundamentals of the Faith, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer,  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, Prayer for Beginnersand 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
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