One of the sources of the atheism that plagues modern society is, according to Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, our alleged sense of being in control of things. But surely this is a mood, not a conviction. A stroll to the corner is usually sufficient reminder of one’s contingency. When are we not open to the unforeseen results of our choices?
In the evening news, great natural disasters vie with man-made horrors for our jaded attention. Anthony Burgess noted with delight the way the BBC World News signed off: “This is the end of the world news.” On many days, the news does have an apocalyptic tone. “What if this were the world’s last night?”
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Self-made millionaires are inclined to think that the economically unsuccessful simply haven’t put their shoulders to the task. All it takes is grit and determination. Call this the gospel according to Rush Limbaugh. (The first time I heard him I thought his name was Limbo, which seemed fitting since he might have been broadcasting from some prelapsarian site.) There is something very American, and very right, about pursuing objectives with the confidence that they can be achieved. We are free and responsible agents, and the way in which we use our freedom becomes our moral character. Still, as the bumper sticker has it, stercor accidit. The best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley.
Our moral choices take place in contexts often not of our choosing and in circumstances we cannot fully understand. If choice were a prediction about the future outcome of what we do, it would be impossible for us to choose well. The moral quality of our deeds, good or bad, is not identical with their outcome, good or bad. Our role is in a drama of which we are not the author. We are engaged, in Newman’s phrase, in a long twilight battle.
When Job is put through his paces by the devil, his reaction is not whining. He is genuinely puzzled. What has he done to deserve such misfortune? One of the lessons of the Book of Job is to make clear that the morally good and bad and good and bad luck are often asymmetrical. Good things happen to bad people all the time, though there isn’t a vast literature on the subject as there is on its opposite. Another lesson of Job is that this asymmetry must remain a mystery to us. “Where were you when I made the world?”
It is distraction rather than thought that explains our indifference to God. The most fleeting reflection can put us in His presence willy-nilly. Any action we perform involves the pursuit of a good and the avoidance of evil. But whence comes this sense of their opposition? John Henry Cardinal Newman found in the fact of conscience a proof of God’s existence available to any human agent at any time.
Atheism is a falling away from what comes naturally — namely, awareness that there is a God. We flatter ourselves into thinking that deep theoretical problems have made theism untenable to the modern mind. But most of the opposition has its origin in concupiscence and amounts to a desire to exercise our freedom untrammeled by rules. But God is good. Often He awaits us in the slough of despond to which our folly leads us.
The sense of sin is a more powerful stimulant than misfortune and at least as widely available. Our sense of accountability is an intimation of the divine. There is a book on human physiology that calls itself an owner’s manual. But we do not own ourselves. Our life is a gift, renewed moment by moment over the years, and one for which, as the parable reminds us, we must give an accounting.
Both St. Augustine and Newman assign priority to this inner moral experience. I used to think that was a philosophical option among many. But it need not imply idealism, as if our thinking were more obvious to us than the things we think about. There is a realist subjectivity, indeed there must be, lest God and the world seem merely ideas we have fashioned. The world around us may seem more real than He, but it would not even be without Him.
We know these things. We forget them for various reasons, none of them good. Great external disasters jog our memories. The remorse that comes from knowing that we have not done the good we know but evil reminds us of our moral contingency. We cannot be what we ought to be without God’s help.
Disasters bring religion into vogue, as well they might. The seed is sown everywhere. But there is another parable about what happens next.