The Oldest Religion

In a recent essay in this magazine, I failed to adequately define terms early in the piece and subsequently created confusion for some readers. This article will seek to rectify that problem and explore new dimensions in the original thesis.

When a major airline suffers a plane crash, one of the first things investigators look for is the black box. It has two components: the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder.

These two components often play a crucial role in helping investigators understand the events that led up to the crash. Pius X’s tour de force encyclical, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, published in 1907, is a kind of black box for the reader in identifying the roots of Modernism and its corrosive effects inside and outside the Church during his day and beyond.

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His black box identified the cause of the plane crash of Modernism as some kind of combination of (1) the philosophical agnosticism of Kant; (2) vital immanence or immanentism (also from Kant and especially from Schleirmacher); and (3) radical evolutionism from Hegel.

Put simply, with Kantian epistemology, we can’t really know whether divine revelation rooted in Scripture and Tradition is true or not. We cannot look for the truth from outside of ourselves but must look within.

The Holy Father defined this immanentism as “a philosophico-religious system which, in its most rigid form, reduces all reality to the subject, which is said to be the source, the beginning, and the end of all its creative activity” (emphasis mine). This vital immanence denies the transcendence of God (the God “out there”) and encourages the individual to depend on a kind of subjective, religious sentiment that may or may not agree with divine revelation rooted in Scripture and Tradition and taught by the Magisterium.

The “truth” acquired by religious sentiment is open to change and the historical evolution rooted in the dynamics of Hegel’s thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Church teaching that is over two millennia old can be overturned as the Zeitgeist twists and turns (e.g., Amoris Laetitia).

The Ubiquitous Culprit
When we look at the black boxes throughout history and survey various philosophical, religious, moral, cultural, political, and economic “plane crashes,” we often find the same culprit being aided and abetted by different bad actors. It has different names—Autonomy, Subjectivism, the God Within—but its modus operandi is always to reject transcendence (the God “out there”) and his divine revelation that comes from without.

God is removed from his throne and man takes his place. The horizontal replaces the vertical.

Israel wed itself to many idols: Baal, Astarte, Moloch, et al. Autonomy is promiscuous and can join itself to whatever lover suits its purposes: reason, science, religious sentiment, sentiment without religion, sexual desire, or utopian political schemes.

In surveying the wreckage left in the wake of reliance upon the god within, Chesterton had this to say:

That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within. Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain. The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely recognized an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners.

All this was crystallized in a statement by one of the most ardent members of Team Francis, Fr. Thomas Rosica, Vatican advisor and the CEO of Salt and Light: “Pope Francis breaks Catholic traditions whenever he wants because he is free from disordered attachments… Our Church has indeed entered a new phase… With the advent of this first Jesuit pope, it is openly ruled by an individual rather than by the authority of Scripture alone or even its own dictates of tradition plus Scripture.”

And, indeed, Fr. Rosica is accurate when we consider Amoris Laetitia and the pontiff’s pronouncements on the death penalty. We also see this indirectly in his kind and laudatory words after the death of the heterodox and scandalous prelate Cardinal Godfried Danneels, a Zeitgeist puppet and abortion advocate who never met a tenet of Modernism he didn’t like.

The Oldest Religion
But, as the author of Ecclesiastes says, there is nothing new under the sun, and the biblical narrative traces such Autonomy back to the timelessness of pre-history and subsequently chronicles one cataclysm after another: revolt in heaven, sin and death entering the world, Israel being taken into captivity, and heresy in the early Church. Reliance on the god within is the oldest religion.

How else do we explain Lucifer trying to usurp the Throne of God and taking one-third of the angels with him in his rebellion? He then peddled his Gospel of Autonomy to Eve who was seduced and convinced Adam to do likewise.

Eve looked within in making her decision: “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).

Israel’s checkered history can be summed up in the last verse of the Book of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25). Ancient Hebrew wisdom commanded the Israelite to “trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Prov. 3:16) while providing a complementary, cautionary observation: “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end, it leads to death” (Prov. 16:25).

Later, in the New Testament and early Church, a Gnostic heresy would arise whose followers were exhorted to embrace a kind of gnosis from direct experience, an insight into our true nature as divine, thereby releasing the divine spark from the prison of our physical, earthly existence. All heresy throughout Church history has the same pattern: there is the faith once delivered from without rooted in Scripture and Tradition on one side, and the proud heretic on the other, who consults the god within and simply knows better than the sacred deposit and its long line of guardians throughout history.

In major moments in the biblical narrative, the transcendent God and his divine revelation come from without: in the Garden with the commandment concerning the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, at Sinai in a burning bush and later with the giving of the law, and most especially in the Incarnation.

God did not tell Adam and Eve to look within concerning how to live in the Garden. He did not tell Israel to follow their divine spark but gave them hundreds of commandments.

Fans of immanentism may point out that Christ said that the kingdom of God is within you but a better translation is probably “in your midst,” “among you,” or “within your reach.” And, remember, Christ gave scores of instructions which makes no sense if all we need to do is consult the god within.

It is true that Aristotle, without divine revelation, using primarily reason and interpretation of the Natural Law, gave us the Nicomachean Ethics. However, the history of the West is replete with examples of gulags, gas chambers, guillotines, and killing fields when God and divine revelation are removed from the scene and reason is operating alone.

Reason is like a scalpel: it can heal or kill depending on whose hands it is in. In the twentieth century alone, it seems that for every Aristotle there were ten Pol Pots.

The Other-ness of Christ Should Humble Us
To say that Christ came from without is a vast understatement. He made the leap from eternity to time, from “unapproachable light” (I Tim. 6:16) to a manger.

As Barth and Kierkegaard opine, he is Wholly Other and had an infinite qualitative chasm in contradistinction to humanity. It was a much shorter distance for man to become a cockroach than for him to become a man.

This is evidenced in the conflict he had with the religious authorities, crowds, disciples, and even his inner circle (i.e., Peter, James, and John) in the Gospels. He is Other: it wasn’t that they often weren’t on the same page with him or even in the same book; no, they weren’t even in the same library.

Such distance from our Creator should humble us: if people were basically good, it would make sense to be more autonomous because such independence would, by definition, produce good results. However, the prophet Jeremiah has a different take: “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (17:9).

Even after Baptism, when we are given the Holy Spirit, “…the new life received in Christian initiation has not abolished the frailty and weakness of human nature, nor the inclination to sin that tradition calls concupiscence…” (CCC 1426), meaning that it’s still not a good idea to “follow your heart.”

There is a time and place for Subjectivism: you may want to listen to jazz instead of classical music or you may be in the mood for Italian food instead of Chinese. That is all well and good but such consultation should end when we enter the precincts of Church doctrine and practice or must make decisions that determine our eternal destiny which can profoundly affect the lives of others.

In the Garden, a fallen, Adamic DNA was written into the different dimensions of the human species. The apostle John identifies this DNA as the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (I John 2:16), and we see these three forces when we revisit Eve’s response to the serpent’s temptation:

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food [the lust of the flesh], and that it was a delight to the eyes [the lust of the eyes], and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise [the pride of life], she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate (Gen. 3:6).

These are the primary dynamics that work within us to pull us toward Autonomy while the devil and the world work from without (though the devil can work from within in cases of demonic oppression and, on rare occasions, possession). Acquiescence to these forces causes us to pursue what Aquinas identified as the four substitutes for God: wealth, pleasure, power, and honor.

The Vision of Saint Antony
There are many diabolical moving parts here and it is healthy for the practicing Catholic to feel small and overwhelmed in the face of such opposition. This is what St. Antony felt in one of his most important visions.

In the Apothegmata, Saint Antony comes out of his hermitage in the Egyptian desert and looks out and sees the many snares of the devil spread out over the entire world. He cries out to heaven: “My God! How can anyone be saved?” A voice responds from heaven: “Humility.”

Humility is the foundation of our victory. We see this in Christ’s temptation in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11).

He was tempted with the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life: “turn these stones to bread”; “all these kingdoms will be yours”; and “throw yourself down.”

He prevailed because of his humility which was evidenced by his prayers, fasting, and radical dependence on the Father. Our only hope in this time of many snares both within and outside the Church is to baptize ourselves daily in this humility.

We must affirm the truth of Ash Wednesday throughout our lives by admitting that we are dust, fallen, and not capable of being the arbiters of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. We are desperately in need of supernatural, sanctifying grace and can receive this at the vast sacramental, devotional, and intellectual banqueting table that the Church—the Pillar and Ground of Truth—has provided for over two millennia.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail of the relief panel “Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise” from the main (central) portal of San Petronio, Bologna.


  • Jonathan B. Coe

    Jonathan B. Coe writes from the Pacific Northwest. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

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