The Constant Temptation: On Man's Pursuit of
False Gods | Fr. James V. Schall, S. J. | July 26, 2011 | Ignatius Insight
The Constant Temptation: On Man's Pursuit of False Gods | Fr. James V. Schall, S. J. | July 26, 2011 | Ignatius Insight
"This is a constant temptation
on the journey of faith to avoid the divine mystery by constructing a comprehensible
god who corresponds with one's own plans,
one's own projects."
-- Pope Benedict XVI, Audience,
June 1, 2011.
The notion of a "comprehensible god" is an intriguing one: to only
admit a god we can understand. The Catholic view of God is not that we can know
nothing about God, but that what we know is remarkably less than what is to be
known. The mystery of the Christian God is not how little we know of Him but
how much more there is to know—even when we know a lot, including what He
has revealed to us. We are not skeptics, but we are careful. We consider the
question of whether God has revealed anything of Himself to us over and above
what we might know by our own reasonings. We find that a rather considerable
amount of what God is and is like has been made known to us. Yet, we must put
this knowledge in place and proper order. The relatively little that we do know
of God, as Aristotle said, is worth all our efforts.
God did not reveal everything we need to know about everything. He
expected us to figure out many things by ourselves. Indeed, what in addition,
beyond our own reflections, was made known to us was designed for our own good.
We were told things about God that were helpful to reach Him. The reaching of
God was itself the purpose of our creation and subsequent redemption; it was
the purpose of the Resurrection and the gift of eternal life.
Aquinas stated we were given a more clear idea of God's inner being
with divine revelation. Beyond what we could figure out by ourselves, we were
provided with further insight into what was right and wrong in our lives. We
were told of the relation of our thoughts to our actions. And we were
explicitly told of further rewards and punishments so that we could grasp the
importance of our own lives and what we do with them. None of what were told
about God coerced us or removed our freedom to reject Him. But it did give us
reasons why it might well be God who was addressing Himself to us.
As Benedict XVI tells us, however, whatever God indicates about
Himself, either in reason or revelation, we have an abiding or constant
temptation to "avoid" it. We can ignore what we know of God in reason and
revelation. We give excuses. We think that revelation is unimportant or
insignificant. We can get along without it. We don't need God to be good. We
can set up our own good. Yet, we cannot leave it at that. We cannot just live
on a negative theory of our own making. We must find something more to our
We want a "comprehensible god." We want a God who does not make us
think too much or who does not ask us to do much. It has often been remarked
that the Christian God is too "complicated." He requires too much thought of
us. The Muslim god is much simpler: four or five basic rules and acts do it for
everybody; God as Trinity and Incarnate is specifically rejected. And yet, as
we see from Christianity's earliest days, it is precisely in thinking about the
Trinity and the Incarnation that we learn most about ourselves and our world.
Indeed, thinking of them, paradoxically, enables us to philosophize better. It
makes us suspect reason and revelation have the same origin.
Yet, if we reject the information of our reason and what is also
revealed to us, this rejection does not leave us alone. We can't just walk
away. We seek to put in its place something "better," something we concoct by
ourselves. We think we can improve on both our being and our destiny. We do not
put it this way perhaps, but this is what we are about. We come up with
theories and technologies that, we insist, are better than what is promised to
us. In so doing, however, we are implicitly left to ourselves. We have nothing
left but ourselves. We think that we can come up with a better explanation of
why and what we are. We do not notice that what we are doing is substituting a
divine plan for a human one. We declare the latter to be the more important
one. We can "create" ourselves. Men will be like gods.
If a real order of things does exist, however, the human enterprise
consists in discovering what this order means and where the human being fits
into it. Logically, this approach will mean that we find a correspondence
between our mind and existing things, almost as if the two things, mind and
being, belonged together. Thus, we begin with a capacity to know which capacity
we do not give ourselves. It is already there. It is not something we can set
But we do not actually know anything until we begin either haphazardly
or systematically to observe, reason, and reflect on things that are really
there before us. We realize that many things are there whether we like it or
not. We did not put them there, just as we did not give ourselves our own
existence or our own capacity to know and do things. We find ourselves coming
to be in a world that already exists. We are not the causes of what it is to be
human beings. This seems odd to us.
Our desire to know things is already there within us, moving us on. We
did not give this desire to ourselves either. We find it constantly provoking
us, prodding us to find things out. We become aware that we did not give or
make ourselves what we are. We can look
on this fact as a restriction or as a freedom. It is a restriction if we insist
that nothing out there has any relation to us. We can act as nothing but
ourselves exists and we have no meaning or structure except what we give
On this supposition, freedom will mean not following what is right or
proper as already inherent in our being. Rather, it will mean doing whatever we
want because nothing out there binds us. We even have to deny that we have a
"nature," human or otherwise, as that would imply some reason why we are human
beings and not something else.
The second and more classic form of freedom acknowledges that our
freedom is not based on anything but on what we are. We are already a certain
kind of being. We are only free if we know what we are and what we are intended
to do. We are thus free to obey the law or reason. We are not free to make up
whatever we want. From the beginning, as we see in Genesis, we are tempted to
make our own rules.
In Salt of the Earth, Joseph
Ratzinger remarked: "Truth and reality belong together. Truth without reality
would be a pure abstraction ... Man is degraded if he can't know truth, if
everything, in the final analysis, is just the product of an individual or
collective decision" (66-67). A freedom not based on truth can and will degrade
The "constant temptation" is that there is no truth because there is no
reality that makes any difference to us. If truth is just a "decision," it can
always be changed by another decision. Nothing is stable. We usually do not
call what we substitute for God another god. We recall the warnings in
scripture about idols. We are not tempted by graven images or by stone poles or
by golden calves. But we are tempted by ideologies, by fancy explanations of
things that are supposedly easier to understand—evolution, or progress,
In Jesus of Nazareth (Vol. 2),
Benedict brings up the question of the learned and their unbelief. Contrary to
what we might expect, the more many scholars know, the less they know about the
important things. "This combination of expert knowledge and deep ignorance
certainly causes us to ponder. It reveals that the whole problem of knowledge
that remains self-sufficient and so does not arrive at Truth itself, which
ought to transform man" (207). We can have a view of our own knowledge that
makes it "self-sufficient." It admits no limits outside of itself.
"What Jesus says about ignorance, and the examples that can be found in
the various passages from scripture, is bound to be upsetting for the
supposedly learned today. Are we not blind precisely as people with knowledge?
Is it not on account of our knowledge that we are incapable of recognizing
Truth itself, which tries to reach us through what we know?" (208). The Pope
here brings up a question that goes against the grain. We like to think that
the more degrees we have, the higher our "intelligence," the more likely we are
to know the truth.
But, in practice, it does not always work this way. It is the humble
and the simple who enter the Kingdom of God first. The learned are tempted by
their own self-worship. It has long been recognized that the most intellectual
of the vices—the origin of the vices—is pride, the one vice that is
simply thought. Lucifer, after all, was not tempted by anything but himself.
Irenaeus of Lyons, the great bishop of the second century, had already
encountered this Gnosticism in the early church. The Gnostic temptation is an
abiding one. It has its own doctrine that rises above anything that normal men
could understand. Eric Voegelin characterized our age as Gnostic. That is, it
is an age in which revelation is rejected in favor of philosophical
constructions of the learned, constructions that do not conform to reality or
revelation but to the intellectual's own mind.
"Do not look for anything above the Creator, for you will not find it;
your maker is without limits," Irenaeus advised the learned of his time.
And do not dream up
some other Father above God, as if you had taken all His measurements, as if
you had explored His entire creation, as if you had considered His whole depth
and length and height. Your dreaming will come to nothing. Thinking against
nature, you will become foolish. And if you persist you will fall into
insanity, regarding yourself as loftier and better than your own Creator,
imagining that you can pass through and beyond the realm of God (Against
Heresies, #68, Ignatius, 1990).
This is the "constant temptation." It is as present in our time as it
was in the time of Irenaeus. It will be formulated differently, but its essence
is the same. It wants a "comprehensible god" who is pretty much one's own
projects and understandings, not that of reason or revelation.
Biography of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Jesus of Nazareth (Part 2) available March 10, 2011
Other Recent Books by Pope Benedict XVI
All books by or about Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Excerpts from books by Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Articles about Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
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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
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!