Finding Oneself Beyond the Empirical Fence
“No,” my friend replied, shaking his head, “I still don’t understand what you mean.”
That made two of us. I knit my brows together and paused, a bit embarrassed. The question seemed so fundamental, and yet the answer rolled around in my mind like some impetuous boulder, an unwieldy idea unwilling to be hammered out into words. With a sense of my uncertainty, he pressed the point by posing his question a second time.
“I mean, don’t misunderstand me. I agree completely with most of the main teachings; the Ten Commandments, even the Beatitudes sound fine. But wouldn’t everybody act more or less the same if there were no religion and instead most of the same rules were held on a purely secular basis? Let’s assume that these rules were widely followed and respected. What would be the difference? What does Christianity really have to offer that can’t be recreated in a secular framework?”
In an attempt to avoid losing face, I blurted out a hastily constructed response, but after a bit more back-and-forth both of us parted dissatisfied. From time to time over the course of the next year, however, his question would return to harry me. Like a petulant homunculus crouched in the corner of my room, it would scratch, ever insistent, upon the doors of my mind. Every now and again, I would grant it entry, and in this way I pieced my answer together one fragment at a time.
The Christian faith, in a word, reveals man fully to himself, a feat far beyond the scope of our current secular culture. Whereas modern secularism must accept circumscription by the physical world, the mystery of man’s interiority lies far deeper than the revolution of atoms or the evolution of apes. In order to unearth the fundaments of his own being, man must bravely leap beyond the confines of the mundane in a heartfelt recognition of his true origin. For in so doing, he rediscovers not only himself but all of humanity, united by a common identity, by the shared destiny of a people called to fullness through the love of the Father and the Passion of His Son.
Before beginning, of course, the reader may rightly demand some clarification of a concept as sprawling and ambiguous as “secular culture.” Certainly, modern secularism eschews the notion of a comprehensive canon of beliefs to which all of its members must adhere; and as a result, opinions range vastly on many important issues. Such a state of affairs should not, however, surprise the reader. For the distinguishing feature of secular thought is not an affirmation, but a denial, not a presence, but a profound absence. It marks out a zone within which man is free to move as he pleases but beyond which, into the realm of the spirit, he may not tread. He may search out, for example, the laws that order the cosmos but not the Lawmaker from whose mind they sprung. In this way, a basic secular perspective shapes ideology more like a fence than a trellis, confining growth but not guiding it. In a fortuitous turn, however, this reality allows one to pursue the subject under consideration without engaging each of the countless secular commentaries on the question of human nature. Instead, we may content ourselves to trace an outline of the boundaries of secular thought, as it currently exists, and in this way to note its limitations.
This limits-based approach to defining modern secularism and establishing its relevance to our question reveals without much surprise that the perspective of its culture is largely empirical. With its intellectual roots in the work of British Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment scholars, empiricism altered academic culture by advocating for a much more concrete approach to knowledge. Thinkers from Bacon to Hume, dissatisfied with abstract, often a priori1 methods, emphasized the primacy of sensory experience in determining truths about the world. In this way, they set in motion the construction of a boundary between the physical and the ethereal, through which the status of inquiry involving the latter was greatly marginalized. Their new, secular perspective, centered as it was upon observation and experimentation, oversaw the ascendency of the scientific method and the subsequent series of advances that has culmi nated in contemporary technological society. With the increasing presence of scientific progress in everyday life, empirical verification has become a sort of gold standard for accepted truths.
For this reason, propositions appearing to contradict empirical findings tend to die swift and oft-deserved deaths beneath the current of mainstream opinion. For proof, consider the fate of geocentricism. Many other truly amazing theories, though, such as quantum superposition, may through empirical research be accepted on as solid a basis as 2 + 2 = 4. The body of truths susceptible to such research therefore forms both a core and a sort of limit to secular knowledge. Let us, then, in keeping with the purpose of this article, map the breadth of the empirical approach to our question and discover its insights on the subject of the human person.
In the empirical tradition, man is simply evolution’s most successful project. All of his distinctive characteristics, his bipedal form, his prodigious intellect and ability to reason, have therefore developed as instruments by which he might promulgate the species. Although held on a less sturdy basis, some evolutionary psychologists suggest that qualities such as the capacity for altruism and even for love itself are oriented toward the same ends. Through these adaptations, man has risen from humble beginnings to his current position at the apex of the animal kingdom. Note, however, that he rules from within this kingdom and not from beyond its walls. For all his advancement, man remains an animal, in most essential instances little more than a hairless, thinner-skulled, larger-brained ape.
Empiricism does encapsulate much of importance in the secular perspective, and yet it may be more accurately considered an inner gate, through which the secular may still step but beyond which nothing can be known with certainty. It is therefore worth pausing for a moment to consider the brighter regions of this outer zone. For, although some do conceive of themselves and others through a narrow, Darwinian focus, many others, without denying the science, hold much more enlightened views. The secular humanists, who acknowledge the vastness both of human potential and of human ethical responsibility, spring immediately to mind as champions of a more complete modern secular outlook. Others, like Schopenhauer2 and Camus3, that have preached the virtues of authentic lives built upon principles of compassion or community also deserve special mention here.
It is true, therefore, that empiricism has elevated man’s knowledge of the natural world to dizzying heights and enabled him, through technology, to alleviate a great deal of human suffering. It is also true that secular ideologies and mindsets have not infrequently aligned themselves with the causes of compassion, justice, and truth. Unfortunately, however, within a Christian framework they suffer from a dire incompleteness—a necessary inability to engage with mankind’s origin in the creative love of God. Without such an engagement, man’s life and experience prove to be wavering shadows of their divine potentiality. For only in the mirror of faith can man behold himself as he truly is, and thereby grow in the fullness of the grace to which his Creator has ordained him.
The history of this ordination begins, as one might expect, in the Book of Genesis. From its first chapter, the auspicious nature of humanity’s origin reveals itself in a way that informs the reader of his unique position in the order of creation as well as of the deep, foundational relationship with God that defines his life. In principio, as is written, the Almighty creates from nothing an entire world. He orders that light be made, divides night and day, separates earth from water and heaven from earth. The shutters of this new stage He throws wide open to the light of life. He populates the world with whales and birds, green herbs and wild beasts. Then, at creation’s zenith, God creates man. This marvel is not detailed, like the rest, before being passed over in favor of even greater works; for whereas all creation preceding man is good, he alone is called very good. Cast not in the mold of a brute, man shines forth from his summit as essentially different from his fellow creatures. Essentially different because God creates him, and only him, in His own image! This divine image contains a reason and a will oriented specifically towards a life of love lived, as shall soon be discussed, in communion with the Father. With this unparalleled addition, the Creator’s work at last achieves its completion. Only now does He rest on the seventh day, fully satisfied with the fruits of His labor.
The uniqueness of man’s position in the universe finds further grounding in the second chapter of Genesis’ more detailed account of the creation of Adam. Here, God sculpts mankind from the “slime of the earth.” The use of “fashioned” in this passage, suggests a remarkable degree of personal attention on the part of the Creator. Remarkable because, in contrast to the intimate involvement conveyed by this word, much of the remainder of creation finds expression in less involved verbs, like “make,” or even passive forms, like “be made.” The reader can imagine in this passage as nowhere else, God reaching down to touch His creation with, if an anthropocentric metaphor might be permitted, His own hands. Yet, the connection between man and his Creator manifests itself even more deeply in chapter two verse seven, which describes God breathing “into his face the breath of life”4. This shockingly close contact between God and man at the origin of human existence, a closeness paralleled nowhere else in the creation story, presents the image of a God that opens himself personally and intimately to humankind. As Father Benedict Groeshel affirms, “The Creator of all has breathed life into us, including a unique capacity for sharing in his divine life for all eternity.”5 It likewise calls man to an acknowledgment of himself as a creature rooted first in God, not by coincidence, but by the intentional bonds of an entirely unmerited love.
Nowhere in Genesis can one find a people bound without exception to a transient reality in which self-proliferation constitutes the ultimate end of human action. Nowhere either can one find a world order whose gears turn upon an axis of blind desire, a world in the context of which mankind cannot possibly strive for anything above or outside of itself, anything pointing to a destiny beyond this life. For the nature of man’s creation testifies to a divine and loving intention on the part of his Creator, a fundamental orientation that alone possesses the power to fulfill a human life. In keeping with this attitude of divine love, God carved out an exalted station for His most precious children, whom He has called from the beginning into a special relationship with Himself. Man therein finds an explanation of his own nature as founded in his condition as a child of God, a creature transcendent, called always into communion with his Father.
Nowhere does the nature of this communion call become more clearly revealed than in the New Testament ministry of Jesus Christ. Unifying men and women in the midst of deep differences, the radical love of His ministry reveals what it means to respond to this divine call. To respond faithfully means to open oneself to the love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ, and thereby to find, at last, the perfect grace that flows from a deep communion with God.
It is a relationship whose importance to our humanity transcends all possible conditions of circumstance or birth. Consider briefly the men and women that opened themselves to Jesus’ ministry during the time of His life on Earth. Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, poor fishermen, encountered Jesus on the Sea of Galilee6. This miraculous experience of God’s presence exploded the status quo of their lives as they “left everything” to follow Christ. From here, the list of those touched by Jesus’ love only grows: Mary Magdalene, formerly a prostitute7; Zacchaeus, a corrupt tax collector8; the Roman centurion of great faith9; the Samaritan woman at the well10; the Good Thief at Calvary11; and countless of the sick and crippled cleansed of their afflictions through the illimitable mercy of Christ. In each instance, one finds a loving confirmation of the sentiments of St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”12 Tax collectors like Zacchaeus acquired their wealth through fraud, charging higher rates in order to keep the difference for themselves, and were widely despised as traitors complicit with the Roman oppressors. The centurion commanded a legion actively maintaining said oppression. The Samaritan woman was marginalized not only on account of her poverty, like Peter and Andrew, but also in three additional respects: once as a woman, again as an unmarried woman, and once more as an ethnic minority. God’s love for man, therefore, is not contingent upon gender, ethnicity, cultural background, socioeconomic status, or even past deeds. Educational attainment, cognitive ability, personal interests and hobbies also fall into the same category. As important as they often are to us, God does not love His children on account of such things. He cherishes us simply because we are His, because He made us to know Him and to share in His inner life.
Finally apprehending in some aspect the divine love of the Son, and of the Father revealed through the Son, these men and women chose to respond with a yes. It was this heartfelt submission and affirmation that opened their lives to the grace of God. Transcending the differences in their respective conditions, they all managed to grasp the common anchor of their existence, the sustaining love of Jesus that is directed in a real and personal way towards every human being. Such is the common underpinning of our human identity, the full redemption of the human spirit. The intimacy of the Father in the beginning thus returns in the flesh through the compassionate ministry of His Son.
And yet, how strongly can we trust in this relationship? With what degree of confidence can we devote our lives to a friendship with God? One finds the most powerful answers to such questions contained within the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Reading through the beginning of the Passion narrative, it is not difficult to imagine the raw emotional intensity of Jesus’ nighttime vigil in the Garden of Gethsemane. Alone in the darkness, He pleads with God that His life might be spared, and yet, even shedding tears that fall to the earth like “great drops of blood,” He submits to His Father’s will. In this moment of acceptance, Jesus offers Himself up as a sacrificial lamb, so that humanity might once again be reconciled to the Father. To suffer and die for the sake of another, freely, humbly, and without bitterness, is the highest act of love imaginable, and Jesus Christ has so suffered and died for us. Not only does Jesus sacrifice Himself, but He consents to die an agonizing and ignominious death, crucified, like some common bandit, on the wood of a cross. To His tormentors and executioners, to all the sinful rabble of humankind, He never ceases to extend His loving mercy. ”Forgive them, Father,” he cries out in the clutches of a gruesome and undeserved death, “For they know not what they do.” We must remember that Jesus’ Passion is not some distant historical happening. He did not die for some people in some place at some time in the past. He suffered for each one of us personally, died for each one of us personally, for the believers and the nonbelievers, for the pious and the profane, in order that all might one day find their way back to the loving embrace of the Father. The relationship He thus seals with this act of boundless love shines as a true archetype of fidelity and trust. It is that same relationship, that same capacity for communion with God that stands at the center of our nature.
And yet, one might still harbor justifiable doubts in such a promise if Christ’s crucifixion had been His final end. The divine bond between man and God would have been severable by death, its power withered beneath the shadow of the grave. The transcendence of any aspect of human nature would have appeared utterly impossible. Death, however, did not conquer Christ, but on the third day fell prostrate before Him in the glory of the Resurrection. That Christ truly rose from the dead serves as a Christian’s strongest assurance of the immortal, transcendent nature of the love relationship binding God and man together. Through the miracle of the Resurrection, Jesus opens for humanity the possibility of a fulfillment of this relationship, namely a joyous reunion with the Father in heaven. He reminds us that we are not limited to this world, in which our mortal lives flicker ever so briefly. Rather, His love shepherds us upon a pathway that extends to embrace an eternity. This high destiny, implanted at the heart of our nature, of an end to exile, of a return to the Father, should seem so lofty as to be unattainable. Yet in the Resurrection of Jesus, we may always find hope.
A brief outline of the conflict between two competing worldviews, secularism and Christianity, has hopefully at this point been established. The secular certainly performs well within its limited sphere but quickly proves itself ill equipped when confronted with the deeper questions of human existence. Knowledge possible only through hundreds of years of empirical methodology, for example, has resulted in the development of technology that has revolutionized standards of living across the globe. Evolutionary theory continues to provide humanity with a powerful tool for understanding biological and even psychological changes over time. When man searches for his inner calling, and the full significance of his life, however, secularism can only shuffle its feet. Here, Christianity completes the picture. Beginning from Genesis, it presents a relationship with God as integral to man’s essence. The nature of this relationship, as further revealed through the ministry of Jesus Christ, is one of unfailing love, a love that calls man towards a life worthy of a final reunion with his Creator.
This reality demands acknowledgement, not merely as some theoretical body of truths to be apprehended by the mind, but as a vital presence to be woven into the fabric of our everyday lives. As most eloquently conveyed in the Gospel of John, “I [Jesus] am the vine: you are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bareth much fruit: for without me you can do nothing.”13 To strive to trust always in the light of Christ’s love allows us to participate actively in a relationship with God that leads us home through sin, suffering, and even death. Once we understand who we truly are, creatures called into a deep and eternal communion with God, our lives will surely “bear much fruit,” watered by the fount of life and love itself. In a perhaps surprising paradox, we bear our brightest light into this world only upon realizing that, by God’s love, we transcend it.
1. A priori: knowledge or methods not based on experience (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
2. See World as Will and Representation
3. See The Rebel
4. Genesis 2:7 Douay-Rheims
5. Healing the Original Wounds
6. Matthew 4:18-22 DR
7. Luke 7:36 – 50 DR
8. Luke 19:1 -10 DR
9. Matthew 8:5 – 13 DR
10. John 4: 1 – 26 DR
11. Luke 23: 39 – 43 DR
12. Galatians 3:28 DR
13. John 15:5 DR
Nicholas Zahorodny ’16 is a Ukrainian Rite Catholic from Westfield, NJ and plans to double-major in philosophy and economics. In his less serious moods, he enjoys puns, anagrams, and leisurely after-basks with Regal Rye tea. Sometimes he sleeps in until 7:30AM.Benedict Groeshal, Camus, Christianity, death, eternity, evolution, faith, friendship, hope, Jesus, love, morality, paradox, philosophy, religion, Roman, Schopenhauer, science, secular, truth