Peace, Justice, Ecology: The "Substitutes" For God | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | April 9, 2007 | Part 1 | Part 2
The Pope begins by recalling an article that he had read in a German newspaper about a professor who claimed that we could not prove or disprove the existence of God. Thus, the professor concluded that he was an "agnostic," someone who did not know and thought the question impossible to answer one way or the other. However, the professor continued, he did believe in hell. Many moderns agree with the agnosticism, but why would one believe in hell if he does not also believe in God? It seems illogical, yet, looked at more closely "hell is precisely the situation when God is absent" Consequently, if we look about the world of the twentieth century, Joseph Ratzinger continues, we run into "Auschwitz and the Gulag Archipelago and names like Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot." It is mindful of Dante who found hells in his descent that he could not have foreseen "in advance."
What about these modern "hells?" "These hells were constructed in order to be able to bring about a future world of the man who was his own master, who was no longer supposed to need any God" Ratzinger argues:
Man was offered in sacrifice to the Moloch of that utopia of a God-free world, a world set free from God, for man was now wholly in control of his destiny and knew no limits to his ability to determine things, because there was no longer any God set over him, because no light of the image of God shone forth any more from man. Whenever God is not, hell comes into existence ...The connection between modern political terror and dreams of utopia has long been known. It is one of the abiding reasons why we continue to read Edmund Burke, among others. What is important to note here is that the most dangerous of the utopias are attractive to us precisely because they claim, as their purpose, the improvement of the human condition as a direct result of the elimination of God.
If this connection between hell and ideology is valid, what is the function of the Church? "The Church is there," Joseph Ratzinger explains, "to prevent the advance of hell upon earth and to make the earth fit to live in through the life of God." Here the Pope makes two points: 1) that hell can indeed appear on earth in some form and 2) that what prevents or limits this invasion is the presence of the "light," I would say also, intellectual light, of God illuminating what is happening.
The making of the earth to be a "fit" place to live in, however, is not just the claim of the ideologies, but also the claim of the Church. Basically, the Church claims that her ways to achieve this very end, in the limited way it can be achieved in this life, are better, more rational and workable, than those of the ideologies. Indeed, the Church includes the claim that, even if a better world is achieved, our personal destiny is transcendent and ordered to the life of God as something more important than the whole world. This latter end is offered to all men in all societies in all times. In this sense, those who find themselves in the Gulags do not, on that account alone, miss out on the chance for eternal life. "What does it profiteth a man to gain the whole world and lose the life of his immortal soul?"--this principle remains valid even in face of the lethal worldly utopias.
The Pope next brings up themes that he later develops in Deus Caritas Est about the relation of knowledge and love. In a surprising reflection, Ratzinger says that the Church herself is not primarily concerned with "maintaining her membership or even in increasing or broadening her own membership. The Church is not there for her own sake." The Church has a task to perform for the world. What is this task? "The only reason she has to survive is because her disappearance would drag humanity into the whirlpool of the eclipse of God and, thus, into the eclipse, indeed the destruction of all that is human." The light shines in the darkness that it not be rejected. The rejection is itself the cause of the hells that come among us.
At this point, the Pope takes up the question of why the perfect city of man is being proposed as a result not of following God's laws, but of eliminating them. The argument for eliminating God is, in its own way, brilliant, even diabolically brilliant. Theologians maintain that in recent times we have passed "through three stages: from ecclesially-centered to being Christ-centered and, finally, God-centered. This, it is said, represents progress, but it has not yet reached its final stage." What is the "final stage?"
The final stage begins when we realize that there are those who do not believe in God. To accommodate them, it is said, we need to take one more step. If the Church or Christ "divide" people, then it seems, in the name of brotherhood and unity, we should eliminate them. "The Church divides people, but Christ also divides, so people say. And then people add: God, too, divides people, since people's images of God contradict one another, and there are religions without a personal God and ways of understanding the world without God." Thus, in the name of inner-worldly harmony, we must get rid of God and His claims altogether. They cause division, not unity.
What then? This is where the new "god" appears among us. We no longer can propose, with the New Testament or Augustine, a "Kingdom of God." We neutralize the idea of God of all transcendental and religious overtones. What is left is "simply 'the kingdom' as a cipher for the better world that is to be built up." This conclusion then is the trade-off. Evaporate religion of all its specific contents. What will be left is the "unity" of mankind. They will agree that there is nothing about God that can be agreed about.
Here is how Ratzinger explains what follows: "The centrality of the kingdom is supposed to mean," the argument goes,
that everyone, reaching beyond the boundaries of religions and ideologies, can now work together for the values of the kingdom, which are, to wit: peace, justice, and the conservation of creation. This trio of values has nowadays emerged as a substitute for the lost concept of God and, at the same time, as the unifying formula that could be the basis, beyond all distinctions and differences, for the worldwide community of men of goodwill (and who is not one of them?) and thus might really be able to lead to that better world." [italics added]The import of this profound passage is not to be missed. There is a "substitute" for God in the modern world. Politics have become religion with their own idol. That substitute is called the "kingdom," which is nothing less than a secularized version of the City of God, in which all distinctive religious and philosophic (that is, natural law) input is eliminated as precisely what prevents this glorious reign of the "kingdom."
Of course, Christianity has, in its own way, spent much of its history with these very issues, peace, justice, stewardship. Suddenly, they are turned on their heads to become alternatives to the God of Creation. "Has God become superfluous, then?" the Pope wonders. Can this trio deliver what it claims? "One who sees how this trio (peace, justice, ecology) has been handled, worldwide, cannot hide the fact that it is increasingly becoming a hotbed of ideologies and that without an all-embracing standard of what is consistent with experience, what is appropriate to creation, and what is humane, it cannot survive intact." Obviously, Joseph Ratzinger knows what is being proposed, debated, and funded in the United Nations and in the parliaments of the nations. Most of the vicious anti-life legislation is proposed in the name of peace, justice, and ecology. It is interesting that these three are proposed as a kind of anti-Trinity.
How does the Christian address this new "god"? The first step is to recognize that "values cannot replace truth." The modern sociological word "value" (usually from Max Weber) in fact prescinds from truth. It specifically means that truth cannot be rationally affirmed. Values "cannot replace God, for they are only a reflection of him, and without his light their outline becomes blurred." If we evaporate, in the name of getting along together, as this thesis does, we are left with no standard by which we can tell any difference between justice and injustice, between a world fit for man and one only fit for itself. Thus, the Pope here anticipates what he developed more fully in his Regensburg Lecture about the relation of reason to revelation. "Christian faith appeals to reason, to the transparency of creation in revealing the Creator." The Word is Logos.
What about "evolution?" Does it not eliminate any reliance on a Creator? "Can the Church still join the Bible tradition in appealing to reason, in referring to the way creation transparently reveals the creative spirit? There is today a materialistic version of the theory of evolution that presents itself as being the last word in science and lays claim to have made the creative spirit superfluous." The Pope suggests that this logic, which claims a materialist basis of the order of the world, is not persuasive.
"The option of thinking that the world originates from reason, and not from unreason," Cardinal Ratzinger affirms, "can be rationally maintained even today, though it must of course be formulated in conversation with the genuine findings of natural science." Recalling the themes of John Paul II's Fides et Ratio, Benedict affirms that "the appeal to reason is a great task for the Church, especially today, for whenever faith and reason part company, both become diseased.
The Pope suggests, in conclusion, that a world "substitute god," a "kingdom" of "peace, justice, and the conservation of creation" is coming to dominate a world that has abandoned the philosophical reason seen in the order of things. Following the logic of removing anything distinctive in reason in order to achieve this strange goal--this "substitute god"--we are left with a world in which we have no criterion, no standard by which we can distinguish and identify even these three "values." They have become simply what we want to make them with no relation to what we are. The elimination of God, ironically, is also the elimination of reason.
"The limited understanding of man is now making decisions alone about what should happen to creation in the future, about who is allowed to live and who is being shut out from the banquet of life; the path to hell ... then lies open," Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in a prophetic passage:
Yet faith too becomes diseased without the whole realm of reason. What dreadful destruction can then come forth from a sick religiosity we can see in abundance in our own present-day society. It is not without reason that the Apocalypse portrays sick religion, which has taken leave of the dimension of belief about creation, as a genuine power of the Antichrist.The Church exists in time so that the world will not be constructed against God and His order for mankind. That order can be rejected. It is more and more rejected in the name of autonomous man who maintains that the order of reason and revelation addressed to it is the cause of man's disunity.
The reflections of Joseph Ratzinger on the "substitute god" are particularly valuable in this connection because they demonstrate that the elimination of reason and revelation from world order leaves it with nothing to stand on but whatever it defines as "peace, justice, and the conservation of creation." If these are not each definite things the mind discovers as already present in existence because of their origin in creation and ultimately in the divine Logos, then the most logical alternative to their origin in God is their origin in our minds, which once we eliminate reason have nothing left to stand on.
A religion without reason leads to the "Antichrist." A reason without standards to define when peace is peace and justice is justice and things are things is a reason limited by nothing but itself. It is a reason that lapses into voluntarism, into a view of the world in which there is no order except our own and we can always change it to mean whatever we wish it to mean. The "substitute god" is just another name for what the Greeks, those rational men, called "chaos."
 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, "The Church on the Threshold of the Third Millennium," Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 288.
 William Cardinal Levada, "Notification on Certain Writings of Father Jon Sobrino, S. J.," L'Osservatore Romano, March 14, 2007, 11.
 Ratzinger, ibid., 285. All subsequent quotes are from "The Church on the Threshold of the Third Millennium," 284-298.
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Author page for Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning. His most recent books are The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006) and The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007).
Read more of his essays on his website.
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