In Defense of Discrimination

Years ago, the word “discrimination” was primarily used to make intelligent distinctions. A discriminating person was one capable of perceiving the crucial difference between good taste and bad taste, between beauty and ugliness, between a cultivated person and a coarse one, between moral good and evil, between normal and perverse. To call a person discriminating was a compliment.

The Sixties brought about not only political revolutions but religious, artistic, and cultural ones as well. Today discriminating has assumed an almost exclusively negative meaning: to be prejudiced, intolerant, unfair, politically incorrect. Many are those who live in constant fear of a lawsuit because of an accidental remark they made that is (willfully) interpreted as discriminatory. There are plenty of lawyers who specialize in cases of discrimination. This historical fact had the regrettable consequence of making us totally forget that we should be “discriminating.”

The curse plaguing our society was already identified by Isaiah: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness . . .” (5:20). “Dictatorial relativism” (so designated by Pope Benedict XV) commands us to eliminate distinctions: Statements and propositions are “true for oneself,” and not necessarily true for another person. To call some modern churches shockingly “ugly” is arrogant and undemocratic. To place Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven above rock music should be condemned as elitist, and an imposition of one’s subjective taste on others. The individual subject is the “measure of all things” (Protagoras). Truth, moral values, beauty are empty words; what matters is what the individual accepts as true, what he calls morally good, what he likes. It is up to the all-important “me.”

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This is “the climate of the time.” That it is nefarious and unhealthy is best proved by the Bible: One of the plagues affecting modern man is that he has caught the disease diagnosed by Isaiah quoted above — we no longer know how to discriminate.

Does it mean that there are no cases of illegitimate discriminations? Alas, this cannot be denied. It is the duty of both individuals and states to try to correct these injustices. But just as “there will always be poor among you,” so there will always be cases of injustices: This is our sad earthy condition. It sheds light on a surprising remark of St. Thérèse of Lisieux who, referring to St. Paul (1 Cor 4:5) exults at the thought that in heaven, there will be perfect justice. Knowing that man’s thirst for justice (already so profoundly incrusted in small children) is constantly frustrated on this earth, she rightly reminds us that in eternity every single person will receive exactly what is his due.

God gave the human persons a dignity that was denied to all other material creatures; man is given dominion “over every living thing that moves over the earth” (Gen 1:29). For centuries this has not been contested, but some contemporary thinkers have discovered that this is a clear case of discrimination. Societies for the protection of animal rights have mushroomed in recent years.

That cruelty toward animals is to be condemned need not be discussed (see Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Moralia). To be in a dominant position carries with it grave moral duties, and it is to man’s shame that some animals have been and are being brutally treated. This is not the question at stake.

The animal-rights philosophy is based on the claim that there is no justifiable reason for placing man above animals; after all, man descends from apes. As the latter have not yet evolved sufficiently to fight for their rights, the devil has found one courageous defender of these creatures in the person of Peter Singer, a professor of ethics at Princeton University. His basic principle is that a healthy animal ranks higher than a sickly human being. Performance is what counts. It is therefore legitimate to save a healthy whale that got stuck in an estuary and to murder unhealthy babies. This is a far cry from St. Augustine, who wrote: “And who would not rather be a man, even though blind in fleshly sight, than a beast who can see?” (De Trinitate, XIV, 14). We have progressed indeed!

In fact, the Bible is replete with “discriminations” shocking to modern man, whose enlightened mind can no longer accept unscientific stories. This clear case of discrimination against animals is only a first step in a long series of other injustices of which this famous book is replete.

It tells us that the Jewish people were God’s chosen ones. God never justified this election; He simply decided to give them this awesome privilege. Pious Jews know that it was not due to their own merits, and realize that this honor is a clarion call for them to be grateful to the Donor — to adore, serve, and obey His commands. Noblesse oblige. It is to them that God revealed Himself, and lovingly guided them by speaking to them either directly (as He did to Moses) or through His prophets, His mouthpieces.

But this was not the end of this clear case of discrimination: Aaron (Moses’s brother) and his tribe (Levi) alone were permitted to serve in the temple. This triggered the revolt of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. They objected to their being forbidden to perform priestly services; after all, the whole congregation was holy. Were not all Jews equal? (Nm 26). The punishment was eloquent: The earth was opened up, and they perished with their wives and children. That was God’s speedy response to their revolt.

Or take the case of David. He was preceded by seven brothers, all of them presented to Samuel who, guided by God, did not recognize in any of them the one that God wanted him to anoint. Samuel asked their father whether he had more children. Yes, he was told; the youngest, David, who was tending the sheep. He was the one whom God had chosen to become King of Israel. It was God’s choice. The seven brothers were “discriminated” against — but wisely did not revolt.{mospagebreak}

These are some (among many) of the divine choices that we find in the Old Testament. The “why” is not given, and a reverent creature, recalling the words of God to Job — “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (Jb 38:4) — would not dare raise the question.

In the New Testament, this discrimination is still more emphatic. A young virgin of Nazareth named Mary is addressed by Angel Gabriel as full of grace, and offered to become the mother of the Savior– the blessed one par excellence, the Theotokos. There were thousands of Jewish girls who longed to give birth to the Savior of Israel. Only one was chosen. Why was Mary unaffected by original sin and placed above the angels, upsetting the metaphysical hierarchy that gives priority to pure spirits over human beings? Because it was God’s will.

When Christ started His public life at the age of 30, He chose twelve apostles, those whom He pleased (Lk 6:13). No explanation given. Three among them were clearly favored: Peter, James, and John. Peter alone is chosen as the head of the Church — Peter, the Rock, the one who had denied Christ. Christ did not give pride of place to “the one that He loved,” John. So was His will.

The parable of the men working in the vineyard and being all paid equally, even though some worked from early morning and some only toward the end of the day, is bound to trigger screams of protest, even though the first had agreed to the amount they would receive. The master of the vineyard, aware of their jealousy, reminded them that they had been fairly treated. Why should they object to the Master’s kindness toward the latecomers?

When James and John requested to sit at Christ’s right hand, and the other at His left hand “in his glory,” the Savior answered “It is for those for whom it has been prepared” (Mk 10:40).

After His resurrection, Christ became visible only to those whom He chose (Act 10:40). Always, again, we are reminded that He is the Lord. In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke writes: “After he had given commandments through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen . . .” (1:1). When, on Ascension day, He walked for the last time through the “faithless” city, accompanied by His disciples, He was invisible “to the eyes of the people who denied Him, but visible to His disciples . . .” (Guéranger, Ascension).

In his Epistle to the Hebrews, Paul tells us, “And one does not take the honour [of the priesthood] upon himself, but he is called by God, just as Aaron was” (5:4). Meditating on the divine choices, we can come to two conclusions.

First, there are questions that one raises only when one adopts a wrong metaphysical posture — that is, when a “creature of a day” (as Plato calls man in The Laws) raises his fist in protest. Such arrogant questions would not cross the mind of the person who is reverent and humble. The devil tempted Eve by raising an illegitimate question. When God prohibited our first parents to eat of the fruit of a certain tree, they did not question His order. Satan, with diabolical cleverness, injected poison into Eve’s mind, suggesting that she had a right to know. (In the same line of thought, St. Peter Damian accused the devil of being the first grammarian because “he taught us to decline God in the plural: eritis sicut dii.” There should be no plural to the word God; there is only one true God.) Satan knew that the questions had to sound “legitimate” and “reasonable.”

This gives us a key to the question of the right of women to be ordained to the priesthood — a question that only women suffering from “unholy rage,” as Donna Steichen calls it, think of raising. It is inconceivable, for instance, that a St. Teresa of Avila would have flirted with it. The Age of Faith always reminded creatures of their metaphysical status. Secularism, on the contrary, nourishes metaphysical arrogance.

Kierkegaard wrote that we should read the Bible on our knees, “like the letters we receive from our fiancée.” He who reads this holy book in this reverent posture would never dream of putting God in the docks and challenging Him to give an account of His decisions. Yet today, God has been excluded from the European Parliament.

“Europe is the faith and the faith is Europe,” wrote Hilaire Belloc. Today, God is an undesirable guest who — to refer to Kierkegaard — has to wait in the porter’s lodge to find out whether politicians vote unanimously to allow Him to enter. Just as the rebellious Jews were terribly punished every time they turned against the One who had blessed them, one trembles in thinking of the fate of a Europe that has apostatized.

Some 60 years ago, Dietrich von Hildebrand diagnosed a metaphysical sickness that, in the meantime, has become endemic: Man forgets that he is but a creature (The New Tower of Babel). In his last work, The Laws, Plato laments the fact that man “considers, foolish fellow, that he is his own God.” He reminds us that our weak metaphysical position should teach us some modesty and some wisdom. {mospagebreak}

In His speech in Regensburg, our Holy Father has made it eloquently clear that philosophy (the love of wisdom) is of crucial importance in human life. It also enables us to share with people of other faiths, on the basis of sound reason, some fundamental truths and principles of human life.

But alas, many so-called philosophers have betrayed philosophy. In the Republic, Plato already laments the fact that bad philosophers make “blessed philosophy” very unpopular by forgetting that a philosopher should be, first and foremost, “an ardent lover of truth.” Corruptio optimi, pessima. Starting with the Renaissance, true lovers of wisdom have been more and more replaced by what Jacques Maritain calls ideologues — who, “preferring themselves to truth” (Plato), have their own subjective agenda. The amount of harm they have done cannot be calculated.

Some of these thinkers are clearly revolting against man’s creaturehood. In his book The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach makes the discovery that the being we call God is only a projection of all good and noble human qualities into an imaginary being. It is high time that man reclaims what is his own, rightful possession.

Once this great discovery was put into print, it was almost inevitable that following thinkers would draw the logical consequences and view God as man’s enemy. Dietrich Kerler wrote that even if God’s existence could be proven mathematically, he would still reject it because it would “limit his self glory” (quoted in de Lubac, Le Drame de l’Humanisme Athee). Nietzsche, pursuing the same line of thought, declares bluntly that he does not want God to exist. If God existed, how could he stand not to be God? Truth no longer matters: Man’s will should be the measure of all things. It is a question of choice and taste.

The non serviam of Lucifer is now couched in philosophical terms: Atheism is a willful choice. Man is tired of being a creature: weak, dependent, a metaphysical beggar, constantly depending upon an authoritarian master. Man has come of age. Man should now be in command. The mindboggling scientific and technological advances of the last 60 years naturally seem to validate this arrogant claim.

The whole question hinges therefore on whether man’s claim that he is god is justified. The big obstacle to this claim is death. Is not the freezing of embryos a pitiful attempt to make us immortal — in a frozen state and eagerly looking forward to the day when death will be defeated? In the meantime, facing death — this fearful moment of truth — is a grace, for it makes us experience our metaphysical impotence. To deny one’s creaturehood does not make us gods; it just proves our stupidity. This attitude of revolt gives us the key to the “drama of humanistic atheism,” as de Lubac’s put it, which is the cancer of our society.

The intelligent attitude of someone who realizes that he is but a creature is to listen and obey. Once again, the Bible gives us examples of these religious men who became heroes of faith. Abraham was told to leave his country; he did not discuss with God — he obeyed. Moses, although afflicted by a speech defect, was ordered to go to Pharaoh and tell him to let the persecuted Jewish people leave Egypt. He certainly had to overcome himself in order to fulfill what seemed to him to be an unwise order. He obeyed.

When the young Samuel heard a voice calling him by his name, he got up immediately assuming that Eli had called him. He was told that it was not the case. The same scenario was repeated twice, then Eli said to the young boy: “It is God who is calling you.” When the voice was heard again, the young boy only said; “Speak O Lord, thy servant is listening.”

When Deacon Philip, on his way to Gaza, was told to join a pagan in his chariot, he obeyed, and brought a soul to God. This is the attitude adopted by all saints.

Modern man seems to find his inspiration in the witty opera of Pergolese, La Serva Padrona (The Bossy Servant). Instead of saying, “Speak O Lord, thy servant listens,” she says, “Listen, O Lord, thy servant commands.”

John tells us that at the end of times, the diabolical attacks will increase in intensity because the Evil One is running out of time. In spite of the darkness in which the world is now living, there is ground for rejoicing because the Lamb of God will triumph.


  • Alice von Hildebrand

    Alice von Hildebrand is professor emerita of philosophy at Hunter College of the City University of New York and the renowned author of many books, including The Soul of a Lion (Ignatius, 2000), The Privilege of Being a Woman (Veritas, 2002), and Man and Woman: A Divine Invention (Sapientia, 2010).

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