Thursday, May 31, 2012

2 + 2 = 4 -- Really!

Previously human beings could only transform particular things in nature; nature itself was not the object… of their activity. Now, however, it itself has been delivered over to them in toto. Yet as a result they suddenly see themselves imperiled as never before. The reason for this lies in the attitude that views creation only as the product of chance and necessity. Thus it has no law, no direction of its own.

In the Beginning, 51

Reflection – Ratzinger, writing here at the height of the Cold War, is referring here to the threat of nuclear extinction. The very structure of physical reality—the ‘atomic’ level of matter—has been made accessible to physical manipulation, and in consequence destructive forces have been unleashed that could destroy us all.

Of course this is still true today, even though the specific political configuration has changed. The dangers of nuclear weaponry are still with us. I wonder, though, if Ratzinger is not touching on an underlying spiritual problem. There is, it seems to me, a fundamental crisis that has beset humanity over the past several centuries.

I would call it a crisis of humility. Where is our humility? Humility is the virtue of limitations, the virtue that constrains us to live within our true boundaries. ‘Humility is truth’, goes the somewhat clich├ęd formula these days. Humility is about choosing to live within reality, and not trying to shape reality according to our wishes, as if we were God.

For example, 2+2=4. We may want it to equal 5 or 3, but it really does equal 4. The looming global economic collapse is a result of all sorts of people deciding that we can pretend 2+2=5 and just keep juggling the books and shuffling the papers until it magically does so. I do realize that it’s more complex than that, but that’s precisely the problem.

2+2=4 is not complex, and a global economy based on real numbers and real goods and services being exchanged for real money is not so complex. We’ve failed in humility, and tried to create a fantasy economy based on funny math and imaginary money. We are not God, and our efforts at creation ex nihilo are failing.

The same holds true with human sexuality. Man and woman come together in sexual union, and nine months later, perhaps, a child is born. There is union, and there is pro-creation. There is a beautiful, radiant simplicity about the whole thing, and a clear conformity between that which is given (bodily structures of genitalia and reproductive organs), what is manifestly good (the creation and raising of children in a safe, secure environment) and what is done (pro-creative sex, in a stable committed relationship).

But we know better! We have all sorts of ideas about what sex is, how children should be created and raised, and so on and so forth. And so we disregard our bodily structures and combine, mix and match as we please. Now – be clear! I’m not talking about the weakness of all flesh here, and the struggle for sexual purity and chastity that is the lot of fallen man. I’m talking about ideologies—rewriting the moral law to suit ourselves.

A crisis of humility—and the same holds true with nuclear weapons. We seem to have thought that it was wise and good for some human beings to hold in their hands the ability to destroy the human race. Somehow, we thought we were strong enough, good enough, pure of heart enough for this. And now we have a terrible mess on our hands, a dangerous terrible mess, the details of which I hardly need to lay out here.

Humility—knowing our limits, knowing that we are not God, and that God has made the universe with ordered structures, with a purpose and a goal. And committing ourselves to listening, to praying, to seeking out the truth of things and serving the end of things. This is our human vocation, and humility is at the core of it.