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The Tragic Misunderstanding of Atheist Humanism | Henri de Lubac | From Chapter One of
The Drama of Atheist Humanism
A wonderful piece of sculpture adorning the cathedral of Chartres represents
Adam, head and shoulders barely roughed out, emerging from the earth from which
he was made and being molded by the hands of God. The face of the first man
reproduces the features of his modeler. This parable in stone translates for
the eyes the mysterious words of Genesis: "God made man in his own image
From its earliest beginnings Christian tradition has not ceased to annotate
this verse, recognizing in it our first title of nobility and the foundation of
our greatness. Reason, liberty, immortality and dominion over nature are so
many prerogatives of divine origin that God has imparted to his creatures.
Establishing man from the outset in God's likeness, each of these prerogatives
is meant to grow and unfold until the divine resemblance is brought to
perfection. Thus they are the key to the highest of destinies.
"Man, know thyself!" Taking up, after Epictetus, the Socratic gnôthi
seauton, the Church transformed and
deepened it,  so that what had been chiefly a piece of moral advice became
an exhortation to form a metaphysical judgment. Know your- self, said the
Church, that is to say, know your nobility and your dignity, understand the
greatness of your being and your vocation, of that vocation which constitutes
your being. Learn how to see in yourself the spirit, which is a reflection of
God, made for God. "O man, scorn not that which is admirable in you! You
are a poor thing in your own eyes, but I would teach you that in reality you
are a great thing! ... Realize what you are! Consider your royal dignity! The
heavens have not been made in God's image as you have, nor the moon, nor the
sun, nor anything to be seen in creation .... Behold, of all that exists there
is nothing that can contain your greatness."  Philosophers have told
man that he is a "microcosm", a little world made of the same
elements, given the same structure, subject to the same rhythms as the great
universe; they have reminded him that he is made in its image and is subject to
its laws; they have made him into part of the mechanism or, at most, into an
epitome of the cosmic machine. Nor were they completely mistaken. Of man's body
and of all that, in man, can be called "nature", it is true. But if
man digs deeper and if his reflection is illuminated by what is said in Sacred
Scripture, he will be amazed at the depths opening up within him. 
Unaccountable space extends before his gaze. In a sort of infinitude he
overflows this great world on all sides, and in reality it is that world,
"macrocosm", which is contained in this apparent "microcosm"
. . . in parvo magnus. That looks like a paradox borrowed from one of our
great modern idealists. Far from it. First formulated by Origen, then by Saint
Gregory Nazianzen, it was later repeated by many others.  Saint Thomas
Aquinas was to give much the same translation of it when he said that the soul
is in the world continens magis quam contenta—containing it rather than contained by
it—and it found fresh utterance through the lips of Bossuet. 
Man, to be sure, is made of dust and clay; or, as we should say nowadays, he is
of animal origin—which comes to the same thing. The Church is not
unmindful of this, finding a warrant for it in the same passage of Genesis.
Man, to be sure, is also a sinner. The Church does not cease to remind him of
that fact. The self-esteem that she endeavors to instill into him. is not the
outcome of a superficial and ingenuous view of the matter. Like Christ, she
knows "what there is in man". But she also knows that the lowliness
of his origin in the flesh cannot detract from the sublimity of his vocation,
and that, despite all the blemishes that sin may bring, that vocation is an
abiding source of inalienable greatness. The Church thinks that this greatness
must reveal itself even in the conditions of present-day life, as a fount of
liberty and a principle of progress, the necessary retaliation upon the forces
of evil. And she recognizes in the mystery of God-made-man the guarantee of our
vocation and the final consecration of our greatness. Thus in her liturgy she
can celebrate each day "the dignity of the human substance"  even
before rising to the contemplation of our rebirth.
These elementary truths of our faith seem commonplace today—though we
neglect their implications all too often. It is difficult for us to imagine the
disturbance they created in the soul of man in the ancient world. At the first
tidings of them humanity was lifted on a wave of hope. It was stirred by vague
premonitions that, at the recoil, sharpened its awareness of its state of
misery. It became conscious of deliverance. To begin with, needless to say, it
was not an external deliverance—not that social liberation which was to
come, for instance, with the abolition of slavery. That liberation, which
presupposed a large number of technical and economic conditions, was brought
about slowly but surely under the influence of the Christian idea of man. 
"God", says Origen, in his commentary on Saint John, "made all
men in his own image, he molded them one by one."  But from the outset
that idea had produced a more profound effect. Through it, man was freed, in
his own eyes, from the ontological slavery with which Fate burdened him. The
stars, in their unalterable courses, did not, after all, implacably control our
destinies. Man, every man, no matter who, had a direct link with the Creator,
the Ruler of the stars themselves. And lo, the countless Powers—gods,
spirits, demons—who pinioned human life in the net of their tyrannical
wills, weighing upon the soul with all their terrors, now crumbled into dust,
and the sacred principle that had gone astray in them was rediscovered unified,
purified and sublimated in God the deliverer! It was no longer a small and
select company that, thanks to some secret means of escape, could break the
charmed circle: it was mankind as a whole that found its night suddenly
illumined and took cognizance of its royal liberty. No more circle! No more
blind destiny! No more Moira! No
more Fate! Transcendent God, God
the "friend of men", revealed in Jesus, opened for all a way that
nothing would ever bar again.  Hence that intense feeling of gladness and of
radiant newness to be found everywhere in early Christian writings. It is much
to be regretted that this literature for so many reasons, not all of which are
insuperable, should be so remote from us today. What wealth and force our faith
is forfeiting by its ignorance of, for instance, the hymns of triumph and the
stirring appeals that echo in the Protrepticus of Clement of Alexandria! 
But if we look down the course of the ages to the dawn of modern times we make
a strange discovery. That same Christian idea of man that had been welcomed as
a deliverance was now beginning to be felt as a yoke. And that same God in whom
man had learned to see the seal of his own greatness began to seem to him like
an antagonist, the enemy of his dignity. Through what misunderstandings and
distortions, what mutilations and infidelities, what blinding pride and
impatience this came about would take too long to consider. The historical
causes are numerous and complex. But the fact remains, simple and solid. No
less than the Early Fathers, the great medieval scholars had exalted man by
setting forth what the Church had always taught of his relation to God:
"In this is man's greatness, in this is man's worth, in this he excels
every creature."  But the time came when man was no longer moved by
it. On the contrary, he began to think that henceforward he would forfeit his
self-esteem and be unable to develop in freedom unless he broke first with the
Church and then with the Transcendent Being upon whom, according to Christian
tradition, he was dependent. At first assuming the aspect of a reversion to
paganism, this urge to cut loose increased in scope and momentum in the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries until, after many phases and many
vicissitudes, it came to a head in the most daring and destructive form of
modern atheism: absolute humanism, which claims to be the only genuine kind and
inevitably regards a Christian humanism as absurd.
This atheist humanism is not to be confused with a hedonist and coarsely
materialist atheism—a commonplace phenomenon to be found in many periods
of history. It is also quite contrary in principle—if not in its
results—to an atheism of despair. But it would be dangerous to call it a
critical atheism and let it go at that. It does not profess to be the simple
answer to a speculative problem and certainly not a purely negative solution:
as if the understanding, having, on the attainment of maturity, set itself to
"reconsider" the problem of God, had at last been obliged to see that
its efforts could lead to nothing or even that they were leading to an end that
was the opposite of what they had long believed. The phenomenon that has
dominated the history of the mind during the last few centuries seems both more
profound and more arbitrary. It is not the intelligence alone that is involved.
The problem posed was a human problem--it was the human problem--and the solution
that is being given to it is one that claims to be positive. Man is getting rid
of God in order to regain possession of the human greatness that, it seems to
him, is being unwarrantably withheld by another. In God he is overthrowing an
obstacle in order to gain his freedom.
Modern humanism, then, is built upon resentment and begins with a choice. It
is, in Proudhon's word, an "antitheism". In Proudhon, this antitheism
operated first of all in the social field, where it was chiefly a struggle
against a false idea of Providence.  It was a refusal to be resigned to the
"economic contradictions", productive of poverty, for which a more
or less conscious conspiracy on the part of economists and property-owners
claimed the sanction of heaven and which they sometimes even went so far as to
extol as "harmonies". Thus Proudhon laid the blame not so much upon
God himself as upon a certain form of recourse to his authority. Subsequently
extending his conception to the metaphysical field, he still thought that God
was "inexhaustible": the struggle in which man necessarily wrestled
with God was an "eternal struggle"; "the hypothesis of a
God" was reborn every time "from its resolution in human
reality"; always, after the denials and exclusions, there was a resurgence
of something beyond man—Proudhon for the most part called it justice-which
imposed itself upon man and prevented him from ever taking himself for God.
Thus Proudhon, even when undergoing the influence and appropriating the
language of those whom he calls "the humanists" or "the new
atheists", expressly refuses to follow them.  Antitheism, as conceived
by them, is something more radical. They go farther in opposition and denial
because they set out from a more complete refusal. The story is a dramatic one.
At its maximum point of concentration, it is the great crisis of modern times,
that same crisis in which we are involved today and which takes its outward
course in disorder, begets tyrannies and collective crimes, and finds its
expression in blood, fire and ruin.
 See, for example, Clement of Alexandria, Stromates, 17, c. 3; Basil, Homilies. Cf. Dt 15:9. Cf. André Jean Festugière, L'Idéalreligieux
des Grecs et l'Évangile (Paris: J. Gabalda,
1932), pp. 23-24; Étienne Gilson, La Théologie mystique de saint
Bernard (Paris: Vrin, 1934), pp. 91-93 and 181-82;
L'Esprit de la philosophie médiévale
(Paris: Vrin, 1932), vol. 2, pp. 6-8.
 Gregory of Nyssa, In cantica,
homily ; De mortuis; Pseudo-Nyssa, First Homily on the Creation of
Man; Basil, In psalmum 48, 8, etc. "The masters", Meister Eckhart also says,
"teach that the least noble part of the soul is more noble than what is
loftiest in the sky": "Le Livre de la consolation divine", in
the French trans.: Traités et sermons (1942), p. 76.
 Gregory of Nyssa, On the Creation of Man, c. 16. John Damascene, De duabus
voluntatibus. Maximus the Confessor, Mystagogia,
Ambiguorum liber, etc. Cf. Isaac de Stella,
sermon : "Redi ad cor. Foris pecus es, ad imaginem mundi; unde et minor
mundus dicitur homo. Intus homo, ad imaginem Dei: unde potest deificari" (PL
 Origen, Fifth Homily on Leviticus; cf. First Homily on Genesis,
n. 12. Gregory of Nazianzen, 38th Discourse, c. 11. Andrew of Crete, First Sermon on
the Assumption of Mary. Jacob of Edessa, Hexaemeron. Meister Eckhart, "Sermon sur Luc 1, 26",
in the French trans. by Paul Petit: Sermons-traités (1942), pp. 14-15.
 Jacques Bossuet, Sermon sur l'Annunciation.
 Roman Catholic Mass, Offertory: "Deus, qui humanae substantiae
dignitatem mirabiliter condidisti...."Bruno of Segni: "Magnus honor,
magna nobilitas, ad Dei imaginem et similitudinem esse hominem factum!" Tractatus
de interiori domo: "Intellige
dignitatem tuam, nobilis creatura!" (PL 184, 547). Cf. Arnold of Bonneval
(PL 189, 1534), etc.
 We can subscribe to the following reflections of Commander Lefebvre des
Noettes, L'Attelage; le cheval de selle à travers les âges (Paris: Picard, 1931), p. 178: "Moral factors
are not alone in governing human destinies; there are, in addition to them,
pressing material conditions and, in our opinion, it would be impossible to
understand the social movement of the Middle Ages, one of the most profound
humanity has known, if one were to ignore the brilliant invention that, under
the first Capetians, revolutionized methods of transportation, endowed industry
with new and almost unlimited possibilities and made man a powerful
force." But, in his conclusion, the author exceeds the limits of his own
thought by writing that the study of this invention makes us penetrate
"into the profound area of causes". Robert Aron and Arnaud Dandieu
put it better in La Révolution nécessaire (Paris: Grasset, 1933), p. 78: "Thanks to those technical
inventions that have remained anonymous, the tendencies proper to the new
society can be freely developed." Cf. Hegel, Philosophie de
l'histoire (French trans. by Gibelin of Vorlesungen
über die Philosophie der Geschichte), vol.
2, p. 116.
 Origen, Commentary on Saint John, vol. 13, no. 28 (PG 14, 468).
 Cf. Festugière, pp. 101-15 and 161-69. Louis Bouyer, Le Mystère
pascal, pp. 111 and 115. The Apostles of
Christ were "the apostles of freedom": Saint Irenaeus, Adversus
haereses, 1, 3, c. 13, and 1, 4, c. 56.
 Mondésert translation, in the Sources chrétiennes series (1943). See particularly the first and last chapter.
 Saint Thomas, De malo, q. 5,
a. 1; Contre gentiles, 1, 3, c.
147. François Tolet, In primam partem S. Thomas. All the Scotists, etc.
 He says: "The myth of providence"
 Philosophie de la misère,
vol. 1, pp. 253, 388-89, 397-98, etc.
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Henri de Lubac, S.J. (1896-1991) was a French Jesuit and one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century. De Lubac was
ordained a priest on August 22, 1927, pursued further studies
in Rome until 1929, and then became a faculty member at Catholic Faculties
of Theology of Lyons, where he taught history of religions until 1961.
His pupils included Jean
Daniélou and Hans Urs
von Balthasar. De Lubac was created cardinal deacon by Pope John Paul II on February
2, 1983 and received the red biretta and the deaconry of S. Maria in Domnica,
February 2, 1983. He died on September 4, 1991, Paris and is buried in
a tomb of the Society of Jesus at the Vaugirard cemetery in Paris. For more about his life and a listing of his books published
by Ignatius Press, visit his IgnatiusInsight.com author page.
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