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The Modern Age: "Life Without Eternity" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | May 18, 2010

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"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 without eternity."
-- Benedict XVI, Homily to Biblical Commission, April 15, 2010 [1]

"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." [2]


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 soon discovered.

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 us.

"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.


[1] Benedict XVI, "Christ Shows Us the Way," L'Osservatore Romano, English, April 21, 2010.

[2] Donald Keefe, S. J., "Liberation and the Catholic Church: The Illusion and the Reality," Center Journal, I (Winter 1981), 53.

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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, 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 website.

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