CHAPTER XI –YHE BARRENNESS OF IRRELIGION
The barren human heart and the full human heart
If human hearts could be as easily scanned, the view would be no different. Every human being starts life with the rich soil of the human heart, that is, with no more than tremendous possibilities, like a plot of ground that has no claim to be called a garden other than the possibilities of its soil. It remains for the individual to determine whether that heart shall produce all the beauties of which it is capable, or whether its growth will be no more than scrubby, scattered vegetation. The individual determines whether his heart will be full or barren; whether or not it will attain the perfection for which it exists.
Minimum fullness of religion — a subjection of justice
In our last chapter we saw that the price of perfection was subjection to a superior; in the human order, subjection to the divine Superior Who is the first cause and the last end. Religion, the virtue which pays that tribute of honor and subjection, does no more than fulfill the demands of justice; yet in that minimum tribute to God lies man’s fundamental order, peace, stability and progress. It did not take extraordinary powers of intellect for men to conclude that, if this minimum subjection did so much for the perfection of man, still further subjection would mean still further perfection. And then the tremendous truth, the secret of sanctity, became clear to the mind of man: perfection is in perfect proportion to man’s subjection to his first and last cause. But to go beyond the demands of justice, beyond the demands of nature and the supernatural law-giver, man is forced to resort to a promise. Man can order, at least to some little extent, the actions of others in his behalf without a promise: he can command inferiors; he can pray to superiors. But for what he will do for others man must order, must oblige himself; he must impose an obligation on himself and that he can do only by a promise. Such promises, made to God, are called vows.
The perfection of fullness and the perfection of subjection:
Of will — vows
Of course there are many promises that are not vows. The first fervor of Lent may rush us hastily into promises of abstaining from candy or cigarettes, promises to hear Mass daily and so on. These are certainly not vows; they are good resolutions, proposals of sacrifices we are going to try to make, and none too optimistically at that. A vow is a much more serious matter. It is a promise by which we intend to oblige ourselves, to oblige ourselves under sin.
It was this notion of added obligation that made the vows so distasteful to Luther and the Reformers. To them vows were harmful, pernicious, immoral because, by reason of this added obligation, they injured human liberty; they fenced in the activity of man even more closely than did the law. These early Reformers saw clearly that the vows were chains binding a man; what they did not see was that the vows were golden chains, forged by the deliberate will of man, and worn joyfully as a divine trinket. The paradox of chains worn that man might be more free was utterly beyond them because they had lost sight of the fundamental truth that there can be no greater perfection for man than in binding himself to God; that there is no greater freedom than in being subject to a superior; in other words, that man reaches his greatest stature in bowing down in the name of religion.
The vows do bind a man, and they bind him to God. Their violation is a sin of faithlessness against One Who has the greatest claim on our loyalty. The vows bind a man to God because they are promises to Him; and by this very fact they are acts of religion by which a man subjects himself to God.
The modern world’s view of religious vows is comprehensively expressed in a great sigh of pity. They involve so much sacrifice! How much these men and women are giving up by their religious vows! And if people pity us long enough, there is danger that we shall begin to pity ourselves. This view of the vows has never been the Catholic view. To us the religious has been knighted by God, he has received a divine accolade. If the modern view does begin to color the Catholic view, it is because we have, disastrously, begun to absorb an outlook on life that is totally foreign to the doctrine of Christ. But such a view cannot be the Catholic view, not only because of its opposition to Christ, but because of the fact that it is always the result of muddled thinking or of no thinking at all.
After all, what we give to God is not like the food we give to the tramp at the back-door; it is not something we lose and God gains. It is not useful to God; but rather everything given to God is useful to us. This is the other side of the coin of religion: on one side we have the honor and reverence to God; on the other, inseparably and inevitably, we have the supreme utility to men. And this again is the vast difference between promises made to men and promises made to God.
When one of our fellows approaches us to the tune of, “will you do something for me?”, we know we are in for it. When God comes asking our promise we can take our treasures out of the strong-box and repack them more tightly to make room for the added treasure that is coming to us as a result of our promise to God. In more concrete terms, the obvious result, for us, of any vow whatsoever, is to give our will a solidity, a firmness in precisely the things it is best for us to do; the things that contribute most to our perfection.
A vow confers a kind of consecration. It fixes our will firmly to good as the oil on a priest’s hands fixes those hands to the body of God. It dedicates, not merely the stroke of a brush, the breath of a prayer, or the strong, firm step of a man, but the very faculties by which these acts are produced. It is not a thing of a moment, an enthusiastic cheer which leaves only an echo; it is an enduring, penetrating consecration far superior to the dedication of a medieval knight to holy warfare. A vow has a magic touch that makes a king out of a beggar; for the vows reach out to the whole field of man’s activity, and whatever they touch they drape in the gold cloth of religion.
A consecrated act is more praiseworthy than its fellow which proceeds from the good intention of a moment. For this reason it is a higher thing to do a good act from a vow, because the vow consecrates to God the act and the faculty from which it came. To God, mind you; for unless it is directed to God it is not an act of religion, and so cannot be a vow. A promise made to commit a murder or a theft obviously cannot be offered to God; indeed, even the good things we promise to the saints and Our Lady, unless we understand them to be further directed to God, are not vows but mere promises. But everything that is good and voluntary can be promised to God, can put on the royal robes of religion furnished by a vow.
A cautious man might decide to keep even his small change, and yet make a pretense of generosity by making tomorrow’s sunrise or the beating of his heart the subject matter of his vows. But God is not to be fooled. We must give Him what is at our disposal; our gift must be voluntary. And even among those voluntary things, we cannot sacrifice a greater good in order to vow a lesser one; for a vow is really a deeper inclination of the subjection of religion. In other words, a vow is a gracious gesture to God; it must be most pleasing to Him and most freely given by us.
On God’s side there is no end to graciousness. We run to the protections of divinity like chicks to the mysteriously dark safety of the hen’s wings. By vows we bring to God our stumbling wills to stiffen them up, inviting Him into the intimacy of our souls. By oaths we ask Him to come into our external life with others, to bolster up our means of communication with men by giving our words a ring of absolute certitude.
Of word — oaths: Their nature and liceity
A philosopher who, in a fit of piety, took an oath to the certitude of first principles would make a fool of himself. An oath calls upon God to witness the truth of what we are saying; it is to be used then only when witness is necessary, when we are dealing with things not necessarily true. Our oath-taking is always a matter of contingent affairs. Experience has shown that men do lie; again, experience has shown us the definite limitations of our minds. We cannot know the future, the secrets of human hearts; nor can we even know absent things with absolute certitude. Still we must talk about these things, deal with them, on a secure basis. So we call in the help of One Who cannot deceive, from Whom nothing is hidden, and Who cannot be deceived.
By its very nature an oath contains a gesture of reverence to God; on that score alone it pertains to religion. Yet that one tenuous claim gives it a part in the consecration of religion and makes unnecessary oath-taking illicit. Reverence is not the fruit of light-headedness or carelessness, nor is the danger of perjury a fit companion for the holy band of religious acts. The fact that we run so quickly and easily to God for the help we need does not mean that we take that help lightly. The awfulness of divine majesty forbids our tumbling into that presence in an angry uproar to have the King of Kings settle all our childish affairs. We go about this particular act of religion with caution born of the reverence due to God; our prayers may be an unceasing cascade falling in ever-changing beauty from our lips, but our oaths must be the last desperate S.O.S.
That is, after all, the precise purpose of an oath, to rescue us from the defects that lead one man to disbelieve another. It is no more desired in itself than the captain’s call for help with the ship sinking beneath his feet; it is only the necessity of our defects that make it at all desirable. Children, then, are forbidden to take oaths because, lacking the use of reason, they cannot give due reverence to God; those who have already perjured themselves are barred from further oaths because, again, there is the serious danger of lack of reverence for God. Moreover, says St. Thomas, ecclesiastics ordinarily should not take oaths; not because of the danger of irreverence, but because of the implied distrust. Ordinarily their words will not need confirmation. However, in some necessity, in a question of great utility or for the confirmation of some spiritual good, they too may take oaths. Thomas, with his deep reverence for divinity, frowns on oath-taking on great feast-days, especially when these oaths have to do with temporal things; but even here, his common sense would not permit him to put up an insurmountable barrier. If there is some grave necessity, the oath may be taken whatever the day.
Their triple condition
Even where there is no danger of irreverence or inutility, there are three essential conditions to be fulfilled for the liceity of an oath. It must not be taken carelessly, as we might toss off a remark about the weather; it must be taken with judgment. It must be done justly, that is, not in confirmation of some future, evil deed. And it must be taken with truth.
Men have been right in considering oath-taking as serious business. It is serious and it carries with it a heavy obligation. That obligation is first of all to truth, falling either on the act of swearing itself (in the matter of past or present things), or on the thing sworn to (in the case of future things). Thus, if a beggar has sworn to produce a million dollars within a week, his oath has lacked judgment; obviously he stands no chance of consummating the future act which he has confirmed by his oath. If a millionaire swears to produce a million dollars in the same length of time and within that week loses all his money, evidently he is not obliged to produce the million dollars, not held to make come true what he has sworn to. If a political candidate has sworn to murder his rival, he is not only not obliged to make that oath come true, he is absolutely forbidden to do so. When we call on God to help us, we cannot treat Him as a scullery maid, a simpleton or a devil; we must always treat Him as God. It is precisely that aura of divinity that has given an oath its sacred character.
Of power — adjuration
A man who walks with God goes much farther than the man who walks alone. That is true, not only of the man himself, but of all of his actions: of his sacrifice, his love, his bravery, even his power. It is evident that a man can firmly order his own dealings with others by promises; when those promises are linked with divinity they have the solemn sacredness of oaths and vows. It is equally evident that a man can order his dealings with others — superiors or subjects — by prayers and by commands. If either of these are linked to divinity or some holy thing, they too take on an added drive, the drive of adjuration.
With respect to inferiors or subjects, adjuration means an added obligation; to equals, an added inducement; to superiors, an added plea. It is really a stepping-up of the power of man through the subjection of that power to the things of God. By that super-charged power, the acts of man surge out of the limits of the human field into the wide fields of nature and into the halls of hell. By adjuration, i.e., by the power of the divine name, men can compel the devils themselves, resisting their attacks and safeguarding men. It is true that trees or mountains do not jump to attention at the command of a man; they are deaf to his puny voice. Nevertheless a fish did bring Peter the tax money, a mountain did move for Gregory and the birds came to listen to the sermons of Francis. For the irrational world does respond to this divine power in the hands of men; adjuration’s added plea to God can induce the touch of the Master to which these irrational things respond directly, as the arrow responds to the touch of the archer.
Great power is too often unsettling to men; the faintest promise of a power greater than that of other men is too often enough to coax a man into ridiculous and tragic mistakes. Such a mistake has been the appeal to the devil for help and knowledge, a gesture of friendship and dependence that is always both a degradation and a tyranny. The long wisdom of experience gathered by the Church, as well as the divine wisdom granted to her for the guidance of men, point out that the devil is a very good person to avoid. When we send out our invitations, we make very sure there is no chance of them being delivered by mistake to a Satanic address; for this wisdom has seeped deeply into Catholic hearts, making them avoid what even looks like a friendly smile toward the devil. In fact, even when our hostility is evident, when we are advancing to the attack openly by publicly compelling him to obey, we must carefully follow the rigid restrictions laid down by the Church. We cannot play with the devil, he plays too roughly for us; we cannot be broad-minded about him, he is too clever for us; we cannot be friendly toward him for he hates us. What we must do, in all common sense, is keep as far away from him as possible.
Language of the full heart — praise and song
In the last chapter, and so far in this chapter, we have fixed our gaze steadily on the double work of religion: the work of honoring God and perfecting man. Now it is a fact that we cannot fill the human heart and expect a man to keep still about it. He will whistle, hum, sing, shout, or, at the very least, he will talk. He may talk as unceasingly as a young father, making a lovable nuisance of himself; but he will talk.
Psychologically speaking, then, religion must have a language; it must have an outlet for the fullness of heart it brings to man. It is true that, looking at the First Cause and Last End of all things, seeing the ineffable, totally incomprehensible goodness and beauty of that Supreme Being, man is at a lose for words; and he must always be. Such a spectacle paralyzes speech; it is too much for the human mind. But the world about us, or the world within us, gives us that divine beauty diluted to a point where we can drink it in; and then inevitably we must at least talk. We must publish the praises of this supreme goodness and this supreme beauty.
In the world of men, every spoken word is in the nature of a revelation. It puts aside the veil of our hearts and allows men, angels and devils to peer into the sanctuary that only God and ourselves enter freely. Every man in the world has something to tell others, some reason for speech, even though he does not add to the wisdom of the world; for he has something that no one else can know in any other way but by his words. He has a heart of his own. Our speech with God and with men have totally different ends. Our praise of God is not to be likened to the slap on the back and the word of commendation given the office boy by way of spurring him on. Our praise of God is to give expression to the fullness within us; to awaken yet greater inner devotion and to stir the sluggish hearts of others to something of the same intensity. It is distinctly not for the benefit of God.
If song or chant accomplishes these ends, it is most useful in the praise of God; and so men have found it, for almost universally song or chant has been associated with the worship of God. There is the obvious danger of making a theatre of the church, using a song, not for worship, but for show, amusement, pleasure. Such songs are distractions; they defeat the ends of religion, not lifting men’s hearts to God but rather binding them to earth.
Barrenness in human life — irreligion
The picture of human life insisted on by religion is one of light, of order, of peace; a full-hearted exultation. Religion insists on man’s perfection because it insists that man take his proper place in the universe. The rich soil of the human heart is cultivated to its utmost by religion; it is metamorphosed into a luxuriously beautiful garden. On the contrary, irreligion and superstition work on other principles and to other goals. Fundamentally, they put man in the wrong place in the universe; instantly the harmony of the universe and of man’s life is disrupted by a flat, tasteless note — the note of disorder. By them the rich possibilities of human life are perverted, stunted or even destroyed. Even the richest soil can stand just so much abuse. Our growing American deserts are vague images of the rank growth of neglect or the weary stretches of sterile landscape that are spreading in the hearts of men and women today, like a fire licking its hungry way across a dry prairie. The human heart cannot be full if it is not subject. It can be wholly empty if it is subject to the wrong thing; and that is precisely the work of superstition and irreligion, to release man from subjection that he might be sold into degradation and tyranny.
The barrenness of superstition: In the worship of the true God
It is a mistake to suppose that superstition deals only with false gods and their mysterious powers. Just as a man can speak words of love with hate in his heart or be overwhelmed with sorrow while he maintains the smile on his face, so he can be superstitiously irreverent in the very gestures of religion made to the true God. I have seen a renegade, who had not been inside a church for twenty years, kneel down outside a church and piously touch his forehead to the sidewalk twenty times. He was, of course, flatly and openly superstitious; his religion was an exclusive concentration on externals, insisting that these are the essentials of divine worship. The results of these superstitions are usually weird, though not often as weird as the antics of the Holy Rollers; they are sometimes comic, as is the lusty bellowing of a burglar at his annual camp meeting: but they are always disastrous, for defect in the worship of God is inseparable from defect in the perfection of man.
In the worship of false god — a subjection of degradation: Idolatry
Principally, however, superstition is engaged in paying divine honors to false gods. Our history is a torn, tattered book with most of the first pages missing; but the comparatively short span covered by what pages still remain shows us a variety of false gods that is a diabolic burlesque of divine attributes. Every creature is a footprint of God and God is not far from anyone of us, but rather intimately within us; and men have made the grotesque mistake of saluting the footprint as the Person who made that print. They have found gods in the plant world, in the animal world, in the human world, in the diabolic world — yes even in that fragile artificial world produced by the skillful hands of men.
To look back over the barren wastes of that superstition is even more disheartening, more terrifying than to search the ruins of a city for the victims of war. It helps little to realize that behind this desolation was the hate of the devil, with its cynical eagerness to work wonders through the idols of men; for we know well what a great part man’s own ignorance and disordered appetites played in substituting the superficial beauty or power of the creature for the supreme beauty and power of the Creator. The children born of idolatry were worthy of such parents as ignorance and disordered affection murder, mutilation, sex perversions have all been put forth in the name of reverence and honor for divinity. In fact, St. Thomas says, there is no type of sin that idolatry does not induce or give occasion for.
Men blundering about in this murk of sin, degradation and tyranny were uneasy, terribly uneasy. In lieu of the Catholic’s trust in the providence of a heavenly Father, with its assurance of help and infinitely wise guidance, these victims of superstition had only the bitter bread of fear as sustenance for the future. They were tempted to resolve their fears by forging yet heavier chains by calling in the demons through the practice of divination. Sometimes this invocation of evil spirits was explicit, a total surrender to evil; at others, the devils were implicitly invoked in the study of the disposition or movement of other creatures for the prediction of future contingent things, a practice that made the flight of birds or the drift of clouds momentous things in the life of a man. Or again, this implicit invocation was contained in some action seriously put forth as a means of discovering the occult.
In twentieth century America we have all types of superstition still flourishing. The devil is invoked explicitly in the trance of a medium; implicitly in the astrologer’s charts and study of the movements of stars or in the deadly serious practices of drawing lots, casting dice and so on as a means of determining future things. All of these are superstition, for all attribute to creatures what belongs to God alone, namely, a knowledge of future things which cannot be known in their causes. As in the time of Christ, men today are seeking signs, signs that are certainly not given by God; signs that can have significance only if they are the work of the demon.
If we take into account the limitations of diabolic knowledge, and the goal of diabolic hate, all this is evidently a silly, fruitless business. The mind and will of man is a sanctuary to be entered freely by God and man himself, but inviolable to the devil. Moreover, the devil is ceaselessly active, not because of his love for men but because of his hatred for God and everything that belongs to God, particularly for the friends of God. How naive we are to expect favors from an enemy who cannot possibly forget! That things wonderful to our weak minds are sometimes made known through these means only makes the practice that much more dangerous; for then we are disposed to believe these predictions when they do deal with things that can be known only to God or when our enemy, the devil, deliberately lies. We simply cannot afford to associate with the devil, depending on our own powers; we are out of our class intellectually and we shall always be fooled.
The devil might, were he so disposed, make a better job of forecasting the weather than does the official weather forecaster; with his superior intellect, he should be a keener student of natural causes. But very few of the superstitious besiege satanic headquarters with desperate demands for weather charts. The fundamental fault that runs through all divination is an examination of things, not as causes, but as signs. It is not an attempt to gauge the natural powers of these things and their consequent effects; that is an intelligent procedure and divination is far from intelligent.
As if divination were not irrational enough, men went a step further in demanding that signs work as causes and produce effects to which they had no relation. Muttered formulas, esoteric scrawls, tokens such as a rabbit’s foot or a lion’s tooth were expected to produce knowledge or health, or to unveil the future. Much of this superstitious practice — which Thomas calls “observances”, and which also goes by the name of magic — has come down to our time and is actually taken seriously by men and women of this scientific age. lts very irrationality makes it difficult to understand how it could persist; perhaps because attacking the irrational by reason is so much like spearing a dream with a pitchfork. Evidently a rabbit’s foot does very good work in its own line — the transportation of a rabbit. But if it should win a horse race, it is going entirely outside the sphere outlined by nature for the foot of a rabbit; it is not producing this effect through any natural ability or natural power. Rather this effect must be traced to coincidence or to something far above the power of a rabbit, that is, to the power of the devil himself.
No one who has known the agony of tired ankles expects a rabbit’s foot to carry the weight of a stallion very far. Since they do believe in the magic power of this token, the very magic upon which they depend is no less than an agreement or contract entered into with the demon; a dangerous, devastating and futile contract for a man. Such a contract might bring some results; for instance, the devil might do something by way of help through his superior knowledge if he were lovingly seeking the good of man — which he is not. But certainly the devil can no more pour knowledge into a man’s mind or unveil the future than can a squalling infant. Only God has entry into the mind of man, and only to God is the future present.
Lest there be any misunderstanding, a clear distinction must be made between the futile dependence on mere signs and the use of medals, relics and so on, by the Church. In the latter case these signs are used from confidence in God or the saints, not for the signs themselves. When we make novenas, the nine first Fridays, tridua, or say five or fifteen mysteries of the Rosary, we are not playing a numbers game; we do not expect extraordinary results from the number nine, three, five or fifteen. We hope for these results from God and the saints to whom these things are directed; the number itself is a test and proof of our sincerity, our perseverance, or sometimes it is itself a charmingly significant gesture of reverence to a divine mystery.
A journey through the barren country of superstition is disagreeable. It leaves a sense of uncleanness, of foul darkness, of unhealthy mystery like that which comes as one stands by the Dead Sea in the short twilight, that is no more than a muttered threat which precedes the blow of night, and looks at the bare, tortured rocks that surround that lifeless sink. But at least superstition insists that reverence is due to a superior, even though it makes a bad job of reverence or a poor choice of a superior. Where the reverence given by religion in the name of justice is denied to God we have the sin of irreligion.
Barrenness of religious doubt and presumption: tempting God
The first of these sins was exemplified, time and again, by the atheist Ingersoll when he pulled out his watch and dared God, if He could, to strike him dead within five minutes. In the same unholy spirit the soldiers blindfolded Christ, struck Him and demanded that He prophesy who it was that struck Him. These men were putting God to the test; they were doubting the divine qualities of God, for we do not test that of which we are certain. These were explicit temptations of God, acts of open irreverence; normally, God in His mercy ignores these petty annoyances of men, giving them a little more time to puncture the balloon of their pride.
The devil tried to coax Christ into another sin of irreligion, when he suggested that Christ throw Himself down from the heights of the temple in the assurance that God would protect Him. The evil one was playing on our human tendency to exaggerate our own importance, the smiling face we turn to presumptuous thoughts. But, you will remember, Christ did no plunging; He came down from the temple as men should come down, step by step. Paul did not jump off the wall of Damascus expecting God to lower him slowly, safely, even gracefully to the ground; he was let down in a basket, presumably by a couple of very strong men. There is, then, absolutely no justification for the expectations of the student who prays hard to pass an examination but does not bother to study. We are not being pious, rather we are tempting God, when we expect a few ejaculations to take the place of a regard for traffic lights.
In these cases men spurn the ordinary, secondary causes by which things are normally accomplished and, without necessity or utility, they throw themselves directly upon divine action. They put God to the test through presumption; the failure in the examination and the broken bones are rightly put down to the individual. It is strictly true that God helps those who help themselves. Our very ability to help ourselves is one of the great human prerogatives, a participation in the causality of God Himself that marks us off from the world of driven things. In these sins, there is contained just as much, or more, contempt for man and man’s powers as there is doubt of God.
Barrenness of contempt: Perjury
We go a long step beyond doubt and flagrantly violate God’s rights when, instead of the humble gesture of reverence, we give Him the gnarl of contempt implied in every act of perjury. The perjurer takes it for granted that either God does not know the truth or that He is ready to connive with evil and confirm a lie. The perjurer, then, is not only a liar, he is an irreligious liar who tries to involve God in the mesh of his falsehood. He is a social threat; he not only perverts the means by which men communicate with each other, he undermines the solid support men depend on for certitude and security in the crucial moments of society’s existence. He makes a desert not only of his own life but, to the best of his ability, of the lives of those with whom he lives: his own life by the contempt he gives to God; the lives of his fellows by corrupting the society in which they live.
Less directly but no less certainly contemptuous of God is a sin that is becoming a commonplace in the twentieth century — the sin of sacrilege. It is a cowardly, helpless thing, like beating the maids of a man’s household through timid hatred of the master himself. Sacrilege attacks holy things, the things that have taken on a divine character by their dedication to God. The particular sacrilege may be accomplished by injuring, insulting or outraging persons dedicated to God, as has happened so frequently in the history of nuns. It may be a somewhat lesser sacrilege of violating holy places, such as the use of a church for a stable; it may be the desecration of holy things such as vestments, chalices, images of the saints. But the peak of sacrilege is reached when a man uses the very implements by which divine life is possible to him, as tools to dig his way into hell; when he violates the Sacraments, particularly the Sacrament of Christ’s own body. The sacrileges which involve physical violence bear the common mark of contempt and spite; they have all the mean destructiveness of helpless anger. God is not destroyed; his religion goes on; nuns continue to scorn the world; nothing is consumed but the rebel who tried to throw a thunderbolt at God.
Sacrilege is a brutish, clumsy, violent lout compared to the sleekly urbane deadliness of simony. It goes about its work quietly; it does not bomb a church, it corrodes it with the relentless stealth of rust feasting on steel. Simony not only destroys religion in its victim, it throws the filthy cloak of greed around the virgin beauty of holy things, making them repulsive to men. Its barrenness is eventually a sterility of a whole community.
The value of spiritual things cannot be measured in material terms; for the spiritual is always infinitely above the world of matter. Yet simony puts these things up for sale and haggles over their price with all the callousness of a white-slaver. Greed blinds a man to such an extent that he can see nothing, not even the things of God, except in terms of money. In a very true sense the perpetrator of simony is a thief; he sells what he does not own but of which he is merely the minister. He is flatly violating the instruction of His master, “freely have you received, freely give;” instead he jingles the thirty pieces of silver and goes gaily about the business of hanging himself.
The barrenness of atheism
In St. Thomas’ treatment of injustice done to God by sins against religion he makes no mention of atheism. As often happens in St. Thomas, what he does not say is as important as what he says; in this case the very omission has profound significance. On the face of it, there is a direct opposition between religion and atheism. One gives reverence and subjection to the first and last Cause, while the other denies and ignores a first and last Cause. But look a little deeper and you will see that Thomas’ omission of atheism wag due to his hard common sense, the common sense that kept him from chasing figments of the imagination when there were things to get done.
As a matter of fact, there cannot be atheism. Man may vociferously deny that he had any first cause, though his very existence reveals the falseness of his claim; but he cannot even deny that he has a last cause, a final end, without paralyzing action and reducing it to the spasmodic twitchings of madness. Man must go somewhere, for his life is a motion and every act is a step toward a goal. Man’s goal is his god – – an odd god, perhaps, represented by the figures on a bank statement, the sweetness of pleasure, the exhilaration of power, the oblivion of a party, a state, a nation, or even man’s own puny self — whatever it is that the modern atheist aims at, to that thing he pays the tribute of religion. That is his false god; more hideous, more ludicrous, more pathetic, more calamitous than the ugly idol of a savage.
Twentieth century barrenness: A negative statement — modern evaluation of religion
The abstract too often leaves us cold. But there is no need of keeping to the abstract in treating of the barrenness of irreligion. A glance at modern opinions of the nature of religion will give us a quick and accurate view of the barren spaces within the human souls of this twentieth century; a vivid, concrete summary of this chapter.
According to some men today religion was born of ignorance, consists in the worship of the mysterious as superior, and is destined to disappear with the advent of knowledge. That is, religion is unworthy of an intelligent man; or, at best, it is an object of amiable toleration because of the practical good it may accomplish among unlearned and simple souls. To other men, religion is a manifestation of fear, cowardice, a desire for escape. It is a perpetuation of the protections of childhood and flight from the realities of life; it pushes a solution of the questions of life farther and farther away, even into a distant, future life. In a word, religion is unworthy of a brave man. Still others see religion as a sop for failure, an excuse for lack of accomplishment and drive, the opiate of the downtrodden keeping them satisfied with the unsatisfying things of life. A thing, that is, unworthy of a successful man.
Or, again, religion is described as an emotional outburst, satisfying the side of man’s nature that escapes knowledge. It is a matter of feeling, of religious sense, of religious experience. Consequently it is as varied and independent as the emotions of each individual; it is strictly personal. At the other extreme is the school which today looks upon religion as a substitute for intellect or a rival of it. Religious intuition reaches the truth which reason falsifies. Ultimately this means that man is not a rational but a purely emotional animal; his guide is not his reason hut his feeling, even though that feeling be called religious.
A positive statement — twentieth century subjection:
Of intellect to falsehood — rejection of a First Cause
All this has been a negative statement of modern barrenness. The positive statement is no more encouraging, a statement that is readily had by examining that to which men subject themselves today. There is an almost universal denial of a first cause among contemporary American philosophers; translated, that means that man has subjected his intellect, not to God, but to the falsehood of a self-explanatory world, to a falsehood that the existence of the smallest of things effectively refutes.
Subjection of life to modern idols
If we look at the whole life of man, rather than at his intellect alone, we see that the men of our century have linked arms with the men of all ages in subjecting themselves to something; and they have embraced almost everything that has been offered by the ages in the way of a false god. We too have our modern idols, modern only in that they wear twentieth-century clothes: wealth, success, political prestige, party or race supremacy, even pure selfishness. There have been some men in every age who subjected themselves to false gods in pursuing false goals; which is to say, that in every age some men have subjected themselves to things beneath them and consequently have condemned themselves to degradation and tyranny. Our age is no exception.
A test of perfection — the crises of life
(birth, manhood, marriage, sickness, death)
If it is true that barrenness is spreading in the human heart of today, that is, if it is true that man’s perfection consists in his subjection to the true God whereas men of today are subjecting themselves to false gods, then this lack of perfection should show up in the lives of modern men. But does it? Well the natural place to look for an exhibition of perfection or a manifestation of its defects would be in the crises of human life. How do we meet those crises? Do we meet them strongly, as an evidence of perfection; or do we meet them with weakness, cowardice, surrender?
There is no need to develop this thought. Let us just mention the modern attitude toward such crises of human life as its inception. Are we meeting the crises of birth or exhausting ingenuity in trying to escape it? How about the crisis of manhood, when an individual comes to an age which demands that he face his own responsibilities, where he is his own master with his own rights and his own obligations? Are we admitting those obligations, embracing those responsibilities or are we trying to flee from them even at the cost of denying our humanity? And the crisis of marriage — are we meeting it squarely or are we leaving doors open, like cautious burglars, that we may escape from it at any moment? Do we face the crisis of sickness or do we hide it away in institutions, pushing it out of our minds while we rush into a whirl of pleasure to drown its least hint? The crisis of death? What is it to us today except the ultimate in despair, the end of all things; not to be met, but to be avoided as far as possible, as long as possible, at any cost — indeed to be escaped by denying life itself in asserting that only change exists.
The price of perfection
Paradoxical as it may seem, it remains true that man is perfect in exact proportion to the subjection he gives his superiors, to that subjection given the Supreme Being Who is the first cause and last end of every creature. This truth is buried so deeply in man’s heart that, however much he may reject God, he will still insist upon subjecting himself to something, to someone, because of that profound realization that only in subjection can he come to perfection. Religion, we have seen, is a matter of strict justice; it merely gives God His due. And we cannot give God anything without perfecting ourselves. There are two sides to the coin of religion: on one side is the worship of God; on the other, the perfection of man. The two are inseparable. As the worship of God is neglected the perfection of man decays; as man perfects himself, so also must he perfect the worship of God. There is no other recipe for perfection than that of subjection, for it is always true that he that will lose his life will save it, and he that will save his life will lose it. It is only by giving that life utterly to God that it becomes solidly our own.