Eighty-one years ago, G. K. Chesterton wrote a book entitled What's Wrong With the World? His answer to that question was that, while there is general agreement as to what is wrong with the world, the real problem is that we cannot agree on what would be right. This absence of public consensus on what is good and right in life led him to remark in another work. The Man Who Was Orthodox, that “humanity has passed through every sort of storm and shipwreck but never before was it so doubtful which was the storm and which was the shipwreck, and which the ship and which the ship’s crew; and what we are rescuing from what.”
The situation we find ourselves in today is similar to that in which Chesterton found himself. We can still reach general agreement on the evil of such things as drugs and divorce, but we cannot seem to agree on how to deal with these problems, because we cannot agree on what would be right or good for society. This means that what is really at issue is not just abortion, or assisted suicide, or gay rights, or any number of other matters of public debate, but differing views of the nature of reality.
This is particularly true with regard to the situation the Catholic Church finds itself in today, embattled as it is both from without and from within by people whose fundamental views of reality are radically opposed to the Church’s. In the first rank of those who hold views radically opposed to the views of the Church are the feminists, in particular those feminist theologians who call themselves Catholic. Indeed, the difference in views here is so great that what the Church calls good these women call evil, and what the Church calls evil these women call good. Even more alarming is the fact that the feminists themselves are only the tip of a very large iceberg in society today. Large numbers of Americans, and their numbers grow with each passing day, have adopted, to one degree or another, some consciously and some not, a view of reality not fundamentally different from that of feminism. That view of reality rests, in the final analysis, upon a rejection of the sacramentality of the good creation as the Catholic Church understands that sacramentality.
By way of illustrating the fact that we are confronted with two very different views about what is happening in our world and about wherein lies the good, let us consider certain observations of, on the one hand, the current Pope, and on the other, two feminist theologians.
In 1976, the then Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was invited by Paul VI to deliver his annual Lenten retreat. The Cardinal’s talks on that occasion have been published in book form under the English title Sign of Contradiction. In the course of one of them, John Paul II notes with regard to the Fall in the third chapter of Genesis that it was only the first step in a larger pattern of fallenness that in history has taken man farther and farther from God, leading in the final analysis to what he characterizes as “the extreme form of denial, the one adopted by present-day man.” That extreme form of denial, according to John Paul II, is one that has led modern men and women to embrace, with all of its implications, the temptation offered by the serpent that we ourselves become like God, that we in fact take His place.
John Paul II sees in the modern world an active, willful displacement of God by man and believes that this displacement of God, more than any other single factor, explains the human catastrophes of the twentieth century. When we turn to the feminists, however, we are confronted with a different account of good and evil.
Sr. Sandra Schneiders, Professor of New Testament and Spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, last year published a book entitled Beyond Patching, in which she speaks of the “God of the Judeo-Christian revelation” as “just men-writ-large,” of the Bible as “an intrinsically oppressive text,” and of hierarchy as “the root of sinful structures,” the eradication of which is “nonnegotiable.” The central thesis of her book is that the Catholic Church has become so corrupt over the centuries that it is, indeed, “beyond patching.” A whole new church must, from the feminist point of view, be constructed, because, as Schneiders puts it, “At some deep level [the feminist Catholic] believes in the Catholic faith tradition, but she sees more and more clearly that every aspect of it is not just tainted but perverted by the evil of patriarchy. It is not that the tradition has some problems; the tradition is the problem.”
Mary Daly, Professor of Theology at Boston College and one of the early radicals of the feminist movement, saw clearly the ultimate implications of this line of thinking some eight years ago, when, in her book Pure Lust, she concluded that the fallen angels are “important inspirers and allies” of women, because they were the first to reject the Father God of Judaism and Christianity.
Is hierarchy the real evil of our world and is the Judeo-Christian God nothing more than its tool for oppressing women and others, or is the real evil of our world the human will gone awry to the point that it wishes to displace that God? These two points of view present us with a clear either/or. The conflict here, however, is not really about the nature of God, however much it might appear to be. The real conflict is about the nature of man, about what it means to be human. At the heart of that conflict lies the Catholic view of the sacramentality of creation and of the fall as a rejection by man of that sacramentality.
A sacrament, as we all know, is an outward or material sign that effects or actualizes or brings into existence the grace it symbolizes. A sacrament, therefore, is a created, material entity symbolic of something that transcends the purely created order of which it is a part. In traditional language, it symbolizes and actualizes supernatural realities within the created order. Bread and wine, for example, become the Body and Blood of Christ, just as baptismal water effects or actualizes the new life of sanctifying grace in the believer.
It follows from this understanding of sacrament that, if creation is sacramental, there must be something in creation itself that corresponds to this definition of sacrament. And in point of fact, in the creation narratives in the first two chapters of Genesis, we find one created being who is constituted in his creation by God as a sacrament. That being is man himself. The critical text is Genesis 1:27: “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”
There are two elements in this passage which tell us that man is constituted as a sacrament right at the outset. First, man is created in the image of God. This means that man is created to be a sign or a symbol of God in creation; indeed, man is, according to Genesis, the only being created to be a sign or a symbol of God. However, this alone is not enough to constitute man as a sacrament, because a sacrament is not just a sign, a sacrament is an outward or material sign. Although man is obviously a material being, this does not necessarily also make him a sacrament. For it is possible to think that man is the image of God only insofar as man is a spiritual being, as indeed so many Christians have thought over the centuries.
But the Genesis text not only says that man is made in the image of God, it also tells us explicitly that man is made in God’s image as male and female. In other words, man’s imaging of God is material as well as spiritual, as much bound up with his body as with his soul. It will be to the everlasting credit of Pope John Paul II that he has made his papacy the occasion for insisting upon the fact that our imaging of God, as given in the revelation, involves the whole human person in all of his psychosomatic reality. Indeed, the Pope speaks explicitly of the sacramental character of man’s creation.
The sacrament, as a visible sign, is constituted with man, as a “body,” by means of his “visible” masculinity and femininity. The body, in fact, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery bidden since time immemorial in God, and thus be a sign of it.
The second chapter of Genesis adds a new dimension to our understanding of man’s creation as male and female. There, in Adam’s search for a suitable helpmate, is revealed the fact that man’s creation as male and female has a communal dimension to it, a communal dimension that is explicitly marital. As John Paul II puts it, “the words which express the first joy of man’s coming to existence as ‘male and female’ (Gen. 2:23) are followed by the verse which establishes their conjugal unity (Gen. 2:24), and then by the one which testifies to the nakedness of both, without mutual shame (Gen. 2:25),” Herein is revealed to us, as the Pope puts it, the nuptial significance of the body which, as male and female in the communion of marital love, makes visible in the created order the invisible reality of the Trinity as a community of love.
All of this may seem quite beautiful, leaving one to wonder how any human being could possibly take exception to such an understanding of man, male and female. But there is a catch here. In the Genesis text, it comes in the form of a command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. What relationship, if any, does this command have to the creation of Adam and Eve as the sacrament of God?
Many people view God’s command in Genesis as nothing more than a way of establishing his authority as Creator over Adam and Eve as His creatures, and their disobedience as nothing more than a refusal to accept His authority. But much more than this is involved in the text itself. We know this if only because of the form the command takes, a form often overlooked by careless readers, as exemplified by the fact that so many people advert to the “apple” Eve ate. Eve did not eat an apple. The tree is not an apple tree, and that alone should tell us that God’s command is not simply an assertion of His authority. If it were, an apple tree would serve His purpose as well as any other. But when the text avoids something simple like “apple tree” and goes out of its way to provide us with something as cumbersome as “the tree of knowledge of good and evil,” it does not, as they say, take the brains of a rocket scientist to grasp that something more than a mere assertion of authority is at stake.
Let us, for a moment, try to put ourselves in the position of Adam and Eve, and see what implications flow from the situation in which they find themselves. God has created us in his image and likeness, This defines us. As the Pope points out, “There is no adequate definition of man but this one.” It also defines our end, or purpose, in creation. We are supposed to make visible both in and to the world the invisible reality of our Creator. Now just what, concretely, are we supposed to do under these circumstances? There is only one answer to this question, and it is so obvious it hardly bears mentioning: namely, we don’t have the remotest notion what we are supposed to do, because we don’t have the remotest notion what it is we are supposed to be rendering visible. Only God knows God; only God knows how His own nature and inner life can be rendered visible, Therefore, only God knows man and what man is supposed to do. Man cannot define this for himself and at the same time be faithful to his purpose, to his vocation, if you will, of imaging God to the rest of the world. And so we arrive at the command.
Much ink has been spilt over the meaning of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Most people are tripped up by the word “knowledge.” We think of knowledge primarily in the sense of information acquired about already-existing realities. However, this meaning of knowledge cannot possibly apply to the text, since there are no already-existing evils to be known. Everything God has created is very good (Gen. 1:31). In the Old Testament, however, knowledge can also mean the ability to name something. This form of knowledge, naming, does presuppose knowledge in the ordinary sense, that one knows enough about something to be able to name it.
We see knowledge, in this sense, being exercised by Adam when he names the animals. His naming of the animals presupposes that, as they parade by him, he is able to understand them well enough to give them names. And that does indeed seem, from within the text, to be the case, because in the first instance, God accepts the names Adam gives the animals, and, second, Adam certainly does understand the animals well enough to recognize that a suitable helpmate for him is not to be found among them.
The knowledge of good and evil might therefore be rendered as the ability to name things as good and evil, an ability which presupposes a sufficient understanding of reality to make such naming possible. It must also refer to good and evil not in some general sense, because in a general sense there is nothing evil in existence. It must refer to good and evil in a relative sense, that is, good and evil in relation to Adam and Eve themselves. In other words, the command God gives them can be translated as: Do not claim the ability to name or to define what is good and evil for yourselves, because you do not know enough about me to know what you are supposed to do to be my image in the world. Only I know how I can properly be imaged, and therefore only I can tell you what is good and evil for you.
Man is given dominion over the world. The world does not image God, and therefore man does not have to understand God in order to have dominion over it. In fact, as the Pope points out, the world is created as gift for man. Therefore, the world is properly the sphere of man’s governance. But man is not given dominion over himself. That dominion God reserves for himself, because only God knows what it means to image God. In fact we see God use that capacity to name good and evil twice in the Genesis text, first, when He names everything He has created as “very good,” and second, when He names, for Adam and Eve, the eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as evil for them.
The Fall comes about because of an act of pride, because of an act of disobedience, to be sure. But it also comes about because Eve does exactly what God forbids, not just in the literal, but also in the symbolic, sense. In the literal sense, she eats the fruit she has been commanded not to eat. In the symbolic sense, she names good and evil for herself, the very thing the eating of the fruit symbolizes as the forbidden act. “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate” (Gen. 3:6). God had named the eating of this fruit evil for Adam and Eve. Eve, on the other hand, looked at the fruit and came to the conclusion it would be good for her, a source of wisdom in fact. And so what God had named evil she renamed good.
God acknowledges this usurpation of his authority by saying, “See, the man has become like us, knowing good and evil.” Adam and Eve claimed for themselves the right to moral autonomy, the right to decide for themselves what they would regard as good and evil and not to accept good and evil as God defined it for them. In so doing, they rejected the sacramentality of the good creation, because they rejected the vocation God had written into their very being, the call to image Him rather than to assert themselves. In the words of the Pope:
Creating man and woman in his own image and likeness, God wills for them the fullness of good, or supernatural happiness, which flows from sharing in his own life. By committing sin man rejects this gift and at the same time wills to become “as God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5), that is to say, deciding what is good and what is evil independently of God, his Creator. The sin of the first parents has its own human “measure”: an interior standard of its own in man’s free will, and it also has within itself a certain “diabolic” characteristic, which is clearly shown in the Book of Genesis (3:15).
Feminist theologians are today thought by most Catholics to be interested primarily in the ordination of women to the priesthood. This might have been true at one time, many years ago, but that time is long past. Feminist theologians today have, by and large, abandoned all efforts to breach the priestly fraternity, because they have, by and large, abandoned all interest in priesthood as the Catholic Church defines it. What the feminists have learned was that their own initial presuppositions, which had led them at the beginning into conflict with the Church over two primary issues—contraception and the male priesthood—in fact constitute a wholesale denial of sacramentality at every level of Church teaching, whether it be the seven sacraments, the Church as sacrament of Christ, the marital union of Christ and the Church as the great sacrament, or the sacramentality of the good creation rooted in the creation of male and female as the image of God. Indeed, it was their denial of the sacramentality of creation in the human sacramental imaging of God that undermined for them the entire sacramental structure erected on that foundation. And that denial was implicit in the origins of the feminist opposition to Church teaching on contraception and on the male priesthood.
When Rosemary Radford Ruether declared, in defense of the ordination of women, that “Theologically speaking, then, we might say that the maleness of Jesus has no ultimate significance,” she was really saying that no one’s maleness or femaleness has theological, that is to say, sacramental, significance. And when feminists from all sides declared that the ban on contraception kept them imprisoned in their biology from which they demanded liberation, they were declaring war on any notion of the body as sacramentally significant. Nothing made this clearer than the feminist manifesto urging women to take control of their reproductive functions. The language itself betrayed a view of the human body as a kind of machine that could be artificially manipulated to produce or not produce, and of babies as objects, that is, as the products of a process of reproduction. These two strokes, by which human sexuality in particular and then the body in general were robbed of any sacramental significance, made it impossible to sustain any notion of sacramentality consistent with the Catholic faith. Catholic feminist theologians, for good or for ill, soon found themselves engaged not in a refurbishing of the Church and the world, but in a total destruction and reconstruction of both.
In a seminal feminist work, Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion (1979), the two editors, Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow, observed in the introduction that “feminists have called their task a ‘new naming’ of self and world.” It was already apparent then that this new naming of self and world was simply the most recent rerun of Eve’s renaming of the forbidden fruit back in the garden of Eden. But this renaming constituted, as it does today, the heart of the feminist agenda. Without this renaming, liberation as the feminists conceive it is not possible. For what they seek is precisely a liberation from the constraints of being called to image God. They wish to be self-actualized, self-realized beings, conforming to no one’s image, not even God’s, but naming for themselves just who and what they shall be. As Mary Daly put it, “Metamorphosing women do not imitate/copy some ‘fully realized’ paternal form or model. Rather, we are Realizing/Forming/Originating . . . . We already have the powers to will our own further evolution.”
In all fairness to Daly and her colleagues, it should be noted that they are operating with a view of reality in which there is no Creator God, there is no call to image God as male and female, there is no revelation apart from female consciousness itself, and then only when that consciousness has gone through a process of consciousness-raising in which the unreality of the Christian revelation becomes transparently obvious. Once this consciousness is achieved, the view that we were created in the image of God and the command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil are seen to be nothing but two parts of a single larger process by which the powerful males of the past have defined man and morality in order to oppress everyone else. As a woman in the audience of a “Moral Perspectives on Abortion” panel at a conference sponsored by Women Church Convergence, a feminist body, put it so succinctly, “We have assumed that since patriarchy has defined the fetus as human life, we then call ourselves murderers when women choose to abort . . . . I’m sick of males defining our morality. For God’s sake, let us, as women, decide.”
From the feminist point of view, there is no trustworthy revelation of God in history. Everything that purports to be revelation is actually nothing more than the construction of human beings intent on some agenda. History is always and everywhere the record of the victors, and this includes every record ever made, including, of course, the Bible. Everything is a form of propaganda pushing somebody’s ideology. Nothing is to be trusted at face value. This is what the feminists mean by their “hermeneutics of suspicion.” It is on this foundation of suspicion that the feminists have constructed their ideological alternative to Christian faith.
The alternative view of reality supplied by feminism is apparent in the use feminists make of consciousness-raising itself. Consciousness-raising is a way of coming to view reality differently than one has previously seen it. Once this process has been accomplished, one is in a position, as the editors of Womanspirit Rising put it, to rename oneself and the world and thus to reshape the very nature of oneself and the world. Reality, according to this view, begins in the human mind and then proceeds to change the outer or material world, beginning with the body itself. All of reality is shaped by the human mind. In the past, according to this view, the human minds shaping reality were male. The future is to be shaped by the minds of women raised to this new consciousness of reality.
Most people are surprised when they first hear that witchcraft is enjoying an enormous revival in feminist circles, but there is a very important reason for this. Witchcraft is the very antithesis of the Catholic faith. It could find no place in a world informed by the faith. Once a view of reality diametrically opposed to Catholicism reappeared in the world, however, witchcraft was once again able to come into its own.
Why is witchcraft the antithesis of the Catholic faith? Starhawk, the witch employed by Fr. Matthew Fox at his Creation Spirituality Institute in California, tells us that the word “witch” comes from the Anglo-Saxon root word “Wicca” or “Wicce,” which means “to bend or shape.” According to Starhawk, witches of the past were “those who could shape the unseen to their will.” The unseen, the invisible, is in this view of things at the disposal of the human will, to be shaped (rendered material, that is) as the human will sees fit to shape it. This is the very antithesis of the creation narratives in Genesis. There the unseen, the invisible God, names things and, in so doing, shapes them and calls them into existence. The unseen shapes the seen to His will. In the case of the creation of man, the process is carried even further. God not only calls man into existence but specifically shapes him in such a way that man is able to image or render visible the unseen or God himself. God (the unseen) does not conform himself to the will of man, God expects man to conform himself to the will of God, and, most importantly, in so doing, to conduct his life, including his bodily life and most especially including his sexual life, in such a way as to render visible in the world an authentic image of the inner life of the Trinity. In witchcraft, the witch assumes the position of God, bending and shaping the unseen as she sees fit.
Hence, when the Pope says, for example, as he did in Familiaris Consortio, that when couples have recourse to contraception they are altering the value of total self-giving or love, feminists not only agree but assert that this is precisely what they are intent on doing. They are renaming themselves and the world, they are bending or shaping the unseen, in this case love, to their own will.
It should not surprise us that the feminist view of reality ultimately issues in the total displacement of God and the installation of man (or, rather, woman) in God’s place. God in creation defined man as His image. That is the only definition and purpose for our existence that God has inscribed in our being. He has left us free to accept it or to reject it, but He has not supplied us with any alternatives to it. Hence, when we reject the definition and purpose that He has inscribed in our being, as the feminist view does, we have only two choices at our disposal. We may choose, as nihilists do, to take the position that man has no particular meaning or purpose in life. “Life’s a bitch and then you die,” as cynical teenagers are wont to put it. Or we may choose, as the feminists among others do, to get into the business of defining our own meaning and purpose in life. In so doing, we usurp the place of God; we become our own gods. This does not change the fact that all paths lead to the grave, but it does mean that every person is now free to define for himself just what path he will take to his own particular grave.
In the final analysis, this freedom to define reality for ourselves is the liberation that feminism has preached from the beginning. One might argue that being called to image God is an inestimable privilege, but it is a privilege the feminists and many others today would and do gladly forfeit in the name of a newfound liberation from all of the constraints that living out our lives as the image of God places upon us. Those constraints, seen in the Gospel as necessary forms of self-mastery that ultimately liberate us to the greatest freedom of all, the freedom to be the sons and daughters of God, are experienced today by many people as more confining than the worst of prisons.
Feminism, as already noted, is but the tip of an iceberg—an iceberg, already large, that is growing daily. The feminists say, sometimes in terms far more sophisticated and even sometimes far more honest than many Americans would be comfortable hearing, what those Americans themselves really believe and already practice in their own lives.
This point was made much more effectively than any theologian could make it by John Chancellor, in his commentary on NBC Nightly News on the night of December 4, 1990, regarding the indictment of Dr. Jack Kevorkian for the aid he had given a woman to kill herself in the back of his van by means of his so called “death machine.” Over the past thirty years, Chancellor said, we have witnessed an enormous change of values in this country. This change, according to Chancellor, began in the 1960s with the introduction of the pill and other forms of contraception that made it possible for women to take control of their fertility. Indeed, as he pointed out, contraception has given women more power and control than either sex had ever had before over who enters this world and who does not. This “revolution of immense importance,” in turn, has provoked a situation in which, as Chancellor put it, “our system of values is changing so fast we can hardly keep up. One of the themes of change is that people are taking more and more control of their bodies and their lives.” This change in attitude, according to Chancellor, is something the law has not heretofore taken sufficiently into account. Hence, in his view, cases such as that of Kevorkian are to be welcomed, because “we need some guidelines on how to behave when people want to take control of their deaths.”
John Chancellor is right in his analysis of the impact of the contraceptive pill. All that remains to be said in that regard is that it took him until 1990 to figure out what Paul VI saw in 1968.
Chancellor’s analysis was borne out even more recently in last year’s publication of The Day America Told the Truth, a description and analysis, based on lengthy anonymous polls conducted around the country, of American religious and moral beliefs. Although some have criticized the methodology employed in this survey, the findings of the book’s authors, James Patterson and Peter Kim, are nevertheless worthy of attention. Patterson and Kim discovered, for example, that based on their poll, only 13 percent of the American public claim to accept all of the Ten Commandments. Only 40 percent accept five or less of the Ten Commandments as binding. The authors point out that Americans by and large no longer consult any traditionally recognized authorities when it comes to moral issues. “When we want to answer a question of right and wrong, we ask ourselves. What we don’t do is what people have done for a long, long time: take counsel and advice from our religious and political authorities, from the press, from our schools . . . . We are the law unto ourselves. We have made ourselves the authority over church and God.”
People intent on controlling their bodies and their lives are people intent on defining themselves and their purpose for existing. They are no longer interested, consciously at least, in living their lives in such a way as to make visible in the world the invisible mystery of God. They have set themselves up as morally autonomous agents, defining for themselves what is good and what is evil. Whether consciously or unconsciously (and I think, in the vast majority of cases, it is unconscious), they are not merely tasting the forbidden fruit, they are claiming it as their most precious right.
In 1882, Nietzsche, the great German nihilist philosopher, published a work whose English title is The Joyful Wisdom or The Gay Science. That work contained his famous parable of the madman who comes to the marketplace early in the morning to declare that God is dead, that we have killed God. Those gathered in the marketplace do not understand what he is talking about (hence their view that he is mad), which leads the madman finally to conclude:
I have come too early . . . my time has not come yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering—it has not yet reached the ears of man. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds require time even after they are done, before they can he seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.
Were it possible for Nietzsche to see our society today, I think he would say that his parable is as true now as it was 110 years ago. In other words, I think he would say that we have killed God, that is to say we have effectively eliminated God from our lives, but we still do not recognize that we have done so. Therefore anyone who would proclaim to us that we have done this deed would still be regarded as mad.
Nevertheless, and at the risk of being thought mad, I have to say that I think we have, by and large, effectively eliminated God from our lives today in America without yet having clearly faced the fact that we have done so. Americans claim in overwhelming numbers to believe in God. Patterson and Kim found that 90 percent of the people whom they polled indicated that they truly believe in God. But their poll raised questions about the nature of that belief.
In every single region of the country, when we asked how people make up their minds on issues of right and wrong, we found that they simply do not turn to God or religion to help them decide about the seminal or moral issues of the day.
For most people, religion plays virtually no role in shaping their opinions on a long list of important public questions. This is true even for questions that seem closely related to religion: birth control, abortion, even teaching Creationism and the role of women in the clergy.
On not one of those questions did a majority of people seek the guidance of religion in finding answers. Most people do not even know their church’s position on the important issues.
The unwillingness of people to be guided by religion in matters of morality in favor of their own standards of good and evil tells us a lot about their beliefs—or perhaps more to the point—their lack of beliefs regarding God. Again, Patterson and Kim note this connection.
We have established ourselves as the authority on morality. We now choose which commandments to believe and which ones not to believe. Clearly, the God of the 1990s in America is a distant and pale reflection of the God of our forefathers. This is not the “jealous God” of the Old Testament—six in seven people think that it is okay not to believe in God. Rather, Americans seem to use God to refer to a general principle of good in life—or, sometimes, He (or She) is the creator who set off the Big Bang but doesn’t intervene in human affairs.
For most Americans, God is not to be feared or, for that matter, loved.
This is precisely the sort of thing Nietzsche had in mind when he had his madman say that we have killed God.
If God created man in the image of God, then, even prior to the Incarnation, in the very order of creation itself, man is sacramentally linked to God. When man refuses to be the sacrament of God, the only definition God has inscribed in his being, he continues to exist as a material being, but he is no longer a sign or symbol, but only a cipher, signifying nothing whatsoever.
Unwilling to be God’s image in the world and unable, whatever claims some may make to the contrary, to become God in any serious sense of the word, modern man seeks high and low for something, almost anything, to inform him, to give him an identity: the cosmic consciousness of New Age, the magic and witchcraft of goddess mythology, the archetypes of Jungian psychology, Joseph Campbell’s hero of a thousand faces, Carl Sagan’s voyage through the Cosmos, the cults of Elvis, Marilyn, and Madonna, Robin Leach’s visits with the rich and famous, 1-900’s psychic counselors and personal astrologers, even in alarming numbers the demonic powers promised by Satanic cults. Virtually no stone is left unturned in this frenetic search for some hint or clue as to where to go from here.
Walker Percy, the novelist and convert to the Catholic faith, said in a self-interview published in Esquire in December of 1977 that
Despite the catastrophes of this century and man’s total failure to understand himself and deal with himself, people still labor under the illusion that a theory of man exists. It doesn’t. As bad and confused as things are, they have to get even worse before people realize they don’t have the faintest idea what sort of creature man is. Then they might want to know.
Man is created to be the image of God, the sacrament of God. He is created, in short, to make visible in the world, as male and female in the union of marital love, the invisible reality of divine love. The catch to this in creation, as I said earlier, comes in the form of the command. The catch to this in redemption comes in the form of the cross. The primary meaning of the cross, according to John Paul II, is that “Love not only uplifts us, takes us out of ourselves; it also lays burdens on us. And perhaps the burdens tell us more about love than do the moments of ecstasy and spiritual élan.”
Today, we are in flight from the burdens divine love implants within us and lays upon us. We are far more interested in our rights than in our responsibilities, in what we can claim from others than in what we can give to them. But even in this fallen state we have created for ourselves, we can never entirely destroy the good creation of God and the human imaging of him which constitutes our greatest glory and our greatest suffering.
As Philip Rieff notes in his book The Triumph of the Therapeutic:
There is no feeling more desperate than that of being free to choose, and yet without the specific compulsion of being chosen. After all, one does not really choose; one is chosen. This is one way of stating the difference between gods and men. Gods choose; men are chosen. What men lose when they become as free as gods is precisely that sense of being chosen, which encourages them, in their gratitude, to take their subsequent choices seriously.
We have lost the sense of being chosen, we have lost gratitude, we have lost responsible freedom, the taking seriously of the choices we make.
As Paul Johnson notes in Enemies of Society, “In the last resort, our civilization is what we think and believe. The externals matter, but they cannot stand if the inner convictions which originally produced them have vanished.” The most urgent task facing Christians in society today is to be a visible image, a living sacrament, and thus a prophetic witness to the reality of divine love, to the reality that we have been chosen, to the reality that the burdens of love can be embraced and sustained. Only when Christians are willing to do this will we see a genuine renewal both of the Church and of the world.
Joyce A. Little, a new contributor to First Things, is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas.