The Modern Age: "Life Without Eternity" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | May 18, 2010
The Modern Age: "Life Without Eternity" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | May 18, 2010
"And Soter is the
Savior, who saves us from ignorance, in seeking the last things. The Savior
saves us from solitude; he saves us from the emptiness that pervades life
-- Benedict XVI,
Homily to Biblical Commission, April 15, 2010 
"The Christian experiences not the terror, but the order of
history under the dominion of the Triune God, and the salvation which is
promised him, which he seeks and makes his own in the sacramental worship of
the church, is not a redemption from history, but from sin. History is God's
creation in Christ; it is very good, and not all the vice by which humanity has
deformed it has been able to obliterate its splendor, its mediation of God.
Between God and his creation there is no alienation."
-- Donald Keefe, S. J.,
"Liberation and the Catholic Church." 
Recently, Professor Kevin McMahon at St. Anselm's College in
New Hampshire chanced to send me an essay written over a quarter-century ago by
my friend, Father Donald Keefe, S. J., at Fordham University. In it, Keefe, in
his incisive way, brought together the essential principles explaining what
happens in this world—that is, behind it all, what finally is happening
to those who find human existence in the cosmos we see before us?
First, there is the Triune God, complete without the world.
Nothing exists outside this God as some sort of alternative to Him, arising
from some other origin. We recall the Genesis invitation of Satan to our first
parents that, by obeying him, they would "be like gods." But he "lied," as they
Nothing outside of God is God. But things outside of God do
exist. Nothing outside of God has its existence from some reality that is not
God. What is not God—the world and ourselves in it—displays an
order. (See my book, The Order of Things,
published by Ignatius Press.)
What is not God is not a terror. What goes on in historic
cosmic existence is the process of saving man, of his reaching the end for
which he was created. He cannot reach this end without his own cooperation. But
his end is a gift, not something he has a "right" to.
Man achieves this salvation in and through the Church's
sacramental worship. We are not being saved "from" history, but in history,
wherein we really exist. We are being saved from sin, not from time, itself a
real category. History is not the problem; sin is. History is the sequence of
time, studded with events that have taken place since creation began. It will
end, but in eternity, not in non-existence. We are in the "now" of this history
as it flows to its telos, to its end,
which includes our personal end.
Its end was its beginning. Creation is already "in Christ,"
who is the Word of the Father. Contrary to Nietzsche's presumption, redemption
did not cause the immediate context of Christ's Incarnation, namely sin, to
cease. But sin in the world does not make the world evil, as the Manicheans
among us think. Matter is not evil. All existing things, as such, are good.
There is, as Keefe says, no "alienation" between God and
creation. These are careful words. The hypothesis that such an alienation
exists becomes the premise of the modern age. This age exists to find an
alternate solution to the one proposed in revelation for our free acceptance.
The modern age is itself largely a theory of self-redemption, directly contrary
to the position found in revelation.
This premise that an alternate solution must be found is
what charges most of what is specifically called the "modern mind." Following a
whole development of philosophy, we see that overcoming this "alienation" is
what modern politics is essentially about. The major obstacle to this
overcoming is not "sin." All people are aware of some chronic "wretchedness,"
as Aristotle called it, in the human condition of the world. The real problem
is the rejection of the revelation that sin is redeemed by a birth into the
world of Christ, the Man-God, who originated on His human side from the seed of
Abraham and Isaac and David.
The history of classical religions has been pretty much the
effort to discover the proper way to worship the gods. Almost everything was
tried, from the sacrifice of animals and even human beings to incantations,
prayers, and rites. Most polities had their "liturgy," their official way of
appeasing or pleading with the gods. The core of the Incarnation and
Redemption, however, was to announce the arrival of a specific way for man to
render to God what was due to Him. This way, ironically the best way, turned
out to be the Sacrifice of the Cross, now present in the one Mass, which makes
present that one sacrifice amongst us.
Death among us does not cease at the Incarnation, though, as
Paul said, in the words of Dylan Thomas, it shall "have no dominion." And the
fact that death does not cease has become the real dividing line among us. Once
we reject the "eternal life," for which each existing human person is initially
created through the Word, we must find another "alienation," one that divides
those who must find a substitute for this eternal life from those who
understand that this eternal life is man's true destiny.
In practice, this means seeking an alternate immortality, or
better, an endless mortality which is now (so we are reminded in Spe Salvi) supposedly made possible by the scientific
revolution of modernity. This revolution, as Leo Strauss once intimated, now
directs itself not to the physical world but to the human corpus. It seeks to
improve its mechanisms so that it does not cease to exist in this world.
Political society in turn becomes involved in this very project of denying
death. We now allow only those to exist who have a possibility of this
inner-worldly, on-going existence. We replace the "eternal life" destiny of
each person, no matter who he is, with a pragmatic estimate of who and how many
of us we can keep alive.
Since no "eternal life" can be found, it follows that we
ourselves are entitled to control our existence. The billions of human beings
who have lived before us are simply gone; they cannot reach happiness. Their
existence is a sacrifice, as it were, for the perfect inner-worldly existence
of people down the ages whom they do not know.
From a scientific view, the human race does not exist for
each of its members in eternal life. It exists for progress towards the only
alternative remaining that can, apparently, guarantee the continuation of
actual human beings. This result is the "new humanism" that takes the place of
any transcendent notion of a human personal destiny addressed to each and every
actual human being.
In an insightful homily to members of the Pontifical
Biblical Commission, Benedict gave an extraordinary reflection. While being
"scriptural," it is mostly dogmatic and philosophic. Benedict is wont to do
this. When he studies Scripture, he does not forget Athens. Indeed, when he
studies other religions, such as Islam or Hinduism, even less does he forget
Athens. Jerusalem is addressed to Athens. Both in turn are addressed to Rome,
both the Rome of the Emperors and the Rome of the Popes. That is, they both, as
Pierre Manent suggests, become subsumed into the mission of explaining to all
the nations the truth that belongs to every man about his worldly existence in
its relation to eternal life.
To those who read the works of Joseph Ratzinger, Socrates is
a familiar figure. He does not forget what we can discover from the cosmos by
our own minds. Indeed, it is precisely this knowledge that makes us rather sure
that something else is going on out there besides just the cosmos. While
revealing its vastness and complexity, the cosmos also indicates to us that it
does not explain itself by itself. It reveals, as it were, a "Word" that is not
simply the word of the cosmos speaking to itself.
In his homily to the Biblical Commission, Benedict recalls
the statement of Peter in Acts (5:20), that we "should obey God rather than
men." This is a "Socratic" incident in the New Testament. Peter and John are
before the court, accused of preaching a doctrine at odds with the Jewish
authorities. Peter and John insist that it is not contrary to this source but
its completion. Peter, in obedience to Christ, now becomes free of the law. By
observing the instructions of Christ, he is free from the political and
religious law when they oppose what Christ hands down.
"And here exegetes draw our attention to the fact," Benedict
remarks, "that St. Peter's response to the Sanhedrin is almost word for word
identical to Socrates' response to the sentence at the tribunal in Athens."
This is an extraordinary passage, no doubt of it. If taken seriously would
totally overturn most of our political and educational orders to return them to
some semblance of the core of Western civilization.
Peter is told by the arresting Court that he can go free if
he ceases to state the truth with which he is charged to speak. He is asked to
exchange the freedom that God gave him for that offered by the Court. The Pope
here pauses to note that Peter's freedom is not the result of an arbitrary
freedom that has no relation to nature or reality. It is due to a freedom
itself rooted in obedience to a command. Peter does not himself formulate this
initial comment. He is not its source.
Though he is able to reflect on its wisdom, Peter is asked
simply to obey what he is told as if something is going on in the world that
is being carried forth by his doing what he is told, whether he likes it or
not. Benedict puts it this way: "Obedience to God has priority." Need I point
out that, in this short sentence, we find revealed the soul of every Catholic
politician, past and present. What is he first obedient to? Is it to God or to
ideology? The stakes are very high, not just for the country but for the very
souls of the politicians themselves. Caesar is not the maker of all laws to
which he is subject.
Benedict then proceeds to state the philosophic issues
involved. "The modern age has spoken of
the liberation of man, of his full autonomy, hence also of the liberation from
obedience to God." This is the liberty we are taught in the colleges and law
schools, the liberty practiced in the legislatures and the courts. It was
already accurately described by Aristotle when he said that the end of
"democracy" is "liberty." But it is a liberty that claims no grounding in
reality except in man's own choices. Right and wrong are replaced by "I will."
Nietzsche was right in sensing that this would happen.
Such claimed "freedom" insists that we be "autonomous." We
make of our own law presupposed to no truth. We turn in on ourselves, not
outward to what is, to what frees us
from ourselves so that we can see what in fact exists, including ourselves.
"This autonomy is a lie," Benedict bluntly tells us.
Plato, whom Benedict often cites, said that none of us would
want to find a "lie" in our souls about the most important things. And yet,
many of prefer this "lie" if it means that we must be obedient, if we must
discover ourselves better made in what we did not make, in what is revealed to
"The consensus of the majority becomes the last word which
we must obey. And this consensus--we know it from the history of the past
century--can also be a 'consensus in evil.'" How gently, how philosophically
this Pope can be, he still is so direct and blunt with us. We refuse to listen
to a "consensus in evil" of which our claimed autonomy is an essential part.
Autonomy does not set us free. "Obedience to God is a
freedom because it is the truth; it is the reference that comes before all
other needs." All human and positive laws exist only in "reference" to this
higher law. As Socrates put it, "It is never right to do wrong." Our
civilization is based on this principle.
And yet we now are proud that it is always "right" to do
whatever the demos, whatever the courts, whatever the legislature and
bureaucracy "want," whatever it is. "In the history of humanity, these words of
Peter and of Socrates became the liberation of man, who can see God and, in
God's name, can and must obey, not so much human beings, but God, thus freeing
himself from the positivism of human obedience."
Benedict then recalls the totalitarianisms of the Twentieth
Century, which were mostly the result of this same philosophical background. We
face something more subtle. "Today, subtle forms of dictatorship persist; a
conformism which becomes obligatory, thinking as everyone thinks, behaving as
everyone behaves, and the subtle assaults on the Church—or even those
that are less subtle—show that this conformism can become a true dictatorship."
Having said this, the Pope, not without historical reference, began to speak of
martyrdom. That is, he recalled the history of the Word of God in this world,
something he has repeated in his visit to Portugal.
The modern age, then, is precisely an effort of
self-redemption. It is a description of what life without God must logically
look like. What Benedict is saying is simply the obvious fact that this is what
we are rapidly looking like. "Life without eternity" is a life that no longer
addresses itself, as both classical philosophy and revelation did, to each
actual human person who appears in this world. It is concerned with some not
yet existing thing down the ages which, in fact, will never come to be. The
modern age is, at bottom, an age of futility.
Minus the eternal life promised to each person, and hence
the concrete responsibility we must devote to each
one, we end up with a polity that is meaningless because it does not know the
grounds of its own being. It was on these grounds that Socrates and Christ
died. They are still dying in our "democratic" polities, but we do not see
them, because we are autonomous. We make our own laws, and enforce them, in
spite of heaven and hell.
 Benedict XVI, "Christ Shows Us the Way," L'Osservatore
Romano, English, April 21, 2010.
 Donald Keefe, S. J.,
"Liberation and the Catholic Church: The Illusion and the Reality," Center
Journal, I (Winter 1981), 53.
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning,
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006),
The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007),
and The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays (CUA, 2008).
His most recent book from Ignatius Press is
The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Modern Age,
is available from St. Augustine's Press. Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!