Without God

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2008
Reproduced with Permission

A friend of mine, a very passionate atheist active in the movement towards the elimination of religion from public life, sent me an article that was supposed to prove a point he's made for a long while - that one does not need God in order to be morally good. The article is about a Lutheran minister from the Midwest who'd discovered that he'd lost his faith. He came to realize that "you can tell inspirational stories, grounded in social justice and tolerance and peace, without having to bring God into the picture".

This, of course, is something that many of us who teach religion have been arguing for years, although the point we intend to make is something else entirely. An inspirational story is not a prayer - and so we should stop employing them as prayer substitutes at meetings or over the school P.A. systems - , and a commitment to "peace", "tolerance", and the cause of social justice is not necessarily a commitment to the building up of the kingdom of God.

In fact, a person or institution can be committed to social justice, peace and tolerance, and at the same time be committed to the elimination of religion from public life, because religion is regarded as a highly divisive force that keeps a society from achieving the harmony it naturally seeks to attain.

The Christian is committed to justice, peace, and tolerance, but these mean something entirely different than what they mean for my devoted atheist friend, among others. The Catholic believes - or so he should, if he thinks like a Catholic - that although we can aim for these goods, the world cannot achieve them on its own, that is, without God. Why? Because man is flawed, selfish, wounded by sin, that is, we are born in need of a savior. The Christian believes in the doctrine of Original Sin, and the moment he forgets it marks the moment when he begins to lose a sense of who Christ - and what Christianity - really is.

The human person, a son of Adam, has a propensity to sin, that is, an inclination to selfishness. Left to ourselves, that is, without the aid of divine grace - which is a supernatural quality, not something we are born with - , everything we do is stained by this twisted motivation towards ourselves.

And because a man sees according to what he is, that is, because our vision of things is colored by our moral character, a flawed character amounts to a skewed vision of the way things ought to be. Who, in his own mind, isn't committed to justice? The problem is that justice for the criminal, for the atheist, for the Democrat, for the Republican, for the Marxist, for the Feminist, for the Muslim, and for the Catholic can and often do mean completely different things.

For the Catholic, being is prior to action. Moreover, a thing acts according to its nature. Hence, being must be emphasized first. In other words, it matters what you are. And who are we? We belong to Christ. We are a new creation (2 Co 5, 17). We have been bought back, purchased at the price of Christ's own blood (1 Pt 1, 18). We were lost, but we have been found. We are not naturally good willed, but must spend the rest of our days here doing battle against our tendency to sin and self-seeking.

But that battle is not futile, because we've been given the means - divine grace - to come out victorious. There is a way to enter into this new covenant and to acquire this new life of grace, which alone makes possible a genuine commitment to justice, not a vision of justice colored by the lenses of an atheist, a socialist, an individualist, in short, a son of Adam. Rather, I speak of a hunger and thirst after the justice of the gospel, which has been revealed as divine mercy. The way to enter into this new life is to "plunge" (baptizein) into it through baptism, to enter into his death, which destroyed our death, and restored our life: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that all who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life" (Jn 3, 16).

It is through conversion, through the faith in the good news of the resurrection of Christ, in the promise of eternal life, and through the sacramental life of the Church - the Eucharist, Confession, prayer, devotion to Mary, devotion to the saints, faithfulness to the two thousand year old wisdom of the Church, fidelity to her moral teachings, etc - that the deficiency in our vision of how things should be is restored so that we see the world from God's point of view - not our own - , and that we are given the grace that alone enables us to actually fulfill the will of God for us, which is always ordered to what is just, and so much more.

To put social action first is to put the cart before the horse, and if that is where the cart is positioned, the horse won't move and the rider will be frustrated. The Catholic institution that thinks it is Catholic simply because it teaches students to commit to alleviating poverty, caring for the environment, and tolerance, has lost a sense of who and what it is. And since institutions are nothing more than the people behind them, such an institution is what it is because the people that constitute them have probably, like the Lutheran minister above, simply lost their faith. Unlike him, however, some of them have yet to discover the sad fact.