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Man Made God: The Meaning of Life

Man Made God: The Meaning of Life

by Luc Ferry, David Pellauer (Translator)
What happens when a conception of the meaning of life based on a divine revelation no longer makes sense? Does the quest for transcendence end in the pursuit of material success and self-absorption?

Luc Ferry argues that modernity and the emergence of secular humanism in Europe since the eighteenth century have not killed the search for meaning and the sacred, or


What happens when a conception of the meaning of life based on a divine revelation no longer makes sense? Does the quest for transcendence end in the pursuit of material success and self-absorption?

Luc Ferry argues that modernity and the emergence of secular humanism in Europe since the eighteenth century have not killed the search for meaning and the sacred, or even the idea of God, but rather have transformed both through a dual process: the humanization of the divine and the divinization of the human. Ferry sees evidence for the first of these in the Catholic Church's attempts to counter the growing rejection of dogmatism and to translate the religious tradition into contemporary language. The second he traces to the birth of modern love and humanitarianism, both of which demand a concern for others and even self-sacrifice in defense of values that transcend life itself. Ferry concludes with a powerful statement in favor of what he calls "transcendental humanism"-a concept that for the first time in human history gives us access to a genuine spirituality rooted in human beings instead of the divine.

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Man Made God: the Meaning of Life

By Luc Ferry

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2002 Luc Ferry
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226244857

Chapter 1 - The Humanization of the Divine: From John Paul II to Drewermann

The church resists, and not without good motives. If the tendency toward humanization of the sources of law, morals, and culture implies calling into question the vertical forms of transcendence of an earlier day, how is the credibility of a moral theology to maintain itself? How can one reconcile revelation and conscience or, to recall the terms of Jean Paul II, "the splendor of truth" and "individual liberty"? Isn't Christianity doomed to become a simple faith, a feeling of piety arising from the ground of secular moralities that will now provide it with what is essential about its concrete contents? The disenchantment of the world does not stop with the mere separation of religion and politics. It is not confined to the end of theological ethics, which is indispensable for the coming about of a secular public space; rather, it produces, in its depths, effects on individual beliefs and private opinions. Any number of inquiries confirm this. Most Catholics have become "deists," in Voltaire's sense of this term. Certainly they preserve a sense of transcendence, but more and more they are abandoning traditional dogma in favor of conversion to the ideology of human rights. They still callthemselves Catholics, but they submit the pope's commandments to the humanist test of critical examination, and hardly any of them believe any longer in the real immortality of the soul, the factual virginity of Mary, or even the existence of the devil.

The Humanization or Secularization of Religion Itself

In this sense, two trees conceal the forest. Two more or less conventional kinds of discourse hide the real depth of the arguments that today are found everywhere in the universe of religion.

The first of these--"God's revenge"--applies to all types of fundamentalism. It asserts, sometimes based on good arguments, that we are experiencing a "return of the religious." The Western world, however imbued with its sense of historical superiority, will secrete its own antidote--unless the reaction is found outside it in the last spasms of decolonialization, another variation of this type of discourse. Khomeini's brand of Islam, Monsignor Lefebvre's brand of Christianity, and the Judaism of the Israeli far right have to be understood as different faces of a single worrisome phenomenon: integralism.

On the other side, however, every serious sociological inquiry shows the amplitude of the movement of secularization that is winning the democratic European world. This is so to such a point that we ought to speak, especially with regard to youth, of a veritable "de-Christianization."

There is something true about these analyses. But they also have the drawback of concealing the way institutionalized religions themselves react, so to speak from within themselves, to the problems posed by the secularizing of the world. From this point of view, the concepts of integralism and de-Christianization are wholly insufficient. They do not allow us to take into account the way the immense majority of believers live and conceive of their relationship to the modern world. They contribute, on the contrary, to making invisible, hence undiscussable in public space, the two crucial questions that today divide the church. Yet, as we shall see, they reveal effects produced by the emancipation of believers from traditional figurations of the theological-political. As for nonbelievers, they too show to a tendency toward the humanization of religion that merits our attention and reflection.

The first argument, the one the encyclical Veritatis Splendor was meant to end, concerns the compatibility of the progress of humanism with the idea of a revealed moral truth. This has been a classic question since at least the end of the eighteenth century, but one that was singularly reactivated by evolutions occurring within the very heart of the church itself. The second discussion, which once again is an old one, is symbolized by the name of the German theologian Eugen Drewermann. It has to do with the status of the interpretation of the Gospels. Should the message about Christ be read in a traditional manner as revealing incontestable historical truths, as bringing light to human beings from the outside, or on the contrary as a discourse with a symbolic meaning, like other myths or great poetic narratives? When we read it psychoanalytically, for example, we see that it is addressed to individuals from within themselves.

These two questions, as I said, even for a nonbeliever, are worth reflecting on. It may be that they are the counterpart within institutionalized religions of the process by which secular morals themselves lead us back to the idea of a spirituality we currently lack, to a "God who comes through the idea." To the divinization of the human, to that new religion of the other to which contemporary philosophy so often leads us, would correspond not only the willing humanizing of the divine, making it more intelligible to human beings and closer to them, but also a reformulating of our relation to it in terms that would no longer be arguments from authority. It is as though the internalization of spirituality were to become, forreligion itself, an unavoidable requirement.

Freedom of Conscience or Revealed Truth?

Of course it is this tendency that the upholders of tradition react against. This is a comprehensible reaction if we admit that the essence of religion is exactly of a traditional order. Any concession to the freedom of conscience, which by nature is unlimited, represents a threat to the very idea of revelation. I cannot in good faith state that I will apply the principle of rejecting arguments from authority in one area and not in another, this far and no further. Thefreedom of thought is absolute or it is nothing. Here indeed is the danger that John Paul II even today, today more than ever, sees himself forced to confront. And here is where we get that "splendor" of a revealed and intangible truth that the pope believes he has to rehabilitate against the "deviations" of modernist Catholics. Here are the terms in which he defines the error that his encyclical is meant to cure:

Certain currents in modern thought made of freedom something absolute, which then becomes the source of values.... In this case it is the individual conscience that decides categorically and infallibly what is good and what is evil. To the affrmation that one has to follow one's conscience is added the affirmation that a moral judgment is true because it has its origin in conscience. The inescapable claims of truth disappear, yielding their place to a criterion of sincerity, authenticity, and of "being at peace with oneself." Side by side with its exaltation of human freedom modern culture questions-- oddly enough--its very existence.... The questions about freedom and morality cannot be separated. Though each individual has the right to be respected in his or her own journey, there remains a prior moral obligation to seek the truth.

We can understand what is bothering the pope here--and sometimes, I must admit, I find it difficult to grasp why so many Christians are quick to reproach him for his "authoritarianism." The church is not a political party or a cooperative enterprise, and from the traditional point of view, the argument made by Jean Paul II seems as legitimate as it is on target. He poses two questions that it is difficult to see how a Christian can avoid: Can the human conscience, by itself, provide or even simply discover the source of good and evil as, indeed, the end of theological ethics seems to imply? And if one answers in the affirmative, something the church cannot do without harming itself, how is one to avoid falling into an ethics of authenticity where sincerity takes the lead over any concern for truth? The objection follows readily, and John Paul II states it: it is not enough to be sincere, to be in agreement with oneself, in order to be within the truth, which first of all and above all else requires agreement with the divine commandments. And here again I find it difficult to see what Christians can expect from the pope, on this point at least, just as I find it hard to conceive, when it comes to matters having to do with love, that the head of the Catholic Church should appeal to virtues other than fidelity. Were the pope himself to make free conscience the sole criterion of truth, were the degree of conviction to become the sole support of a new moral theology, would this not come down to "the denial of the fact that God is the author of the natural moral law and not the human person"?

Faced with the claims of a humanism that, according to him, leads to reexamining the very idea of a specifically Christian morality, irreducible to the ideology of human rights, the pope issues afourfold call for a return to order: p. 231). In philosophical terms, here the pope is denouncing both the ethics of authenticity (which confuses sincerity with truth) and utilitarianism (which relativizes the meaning of an isolated act by limiting it to its consequences). What is at stake in this point is clear. It is a question of preventing Christians from giving themselves a "clear conscience" by excusing acts "contrary to truth" in the name of exceptional intentions or circumstances.

3. It therefore follows from this logic that one ought not to "model oneself on the present world." Because the current era sacralizes personal freedom does not mean it is necessary to transform the contents of Christian ethics in order to adapt it to today's tastes. On the contrary, genuine Christians are both "resisters" and (why not?) "revolutionaries." They should transform the world rather than adapt themselves to it.

4. Finally, and this is the ultimate point of the encyclical, conscience and truth are only in appearance opposed to each other. In the terms of Vatican II, "God wanted to leave man his ability to decide." He did not take away people's freedom--just the contrary. Simply, just as God created humanity in his image, it is in following the principles of divine truth in their actions that human beings fully accede to themselves. In the language of theology, one speaks of a "participatory theonomy" (sec. 41). More clearly stated: the moral law, yes, comes from God and not from human beings (theonomy), but this does not exclude their autonomy, since human beings, somehow participating in the divine, do not reach their full liberty except through obedience to the law prescribed for them: "Genuine moral autonomy for man in no way signifies that he refuses, but rather that he welcomes the moral law, God's commandment.... In reality, if the heteronomy of the moral meant the negation of the self-determination of man or the imposition of norms external to his good, it would be in contradiction with the revelation of the Covenant and the redeeming Incarnation."

These responses form a coherent whole. Apart from a few reservations (to which I shall return), they do not lack for elegance or for rigor, and from a traditional point of view they seem thoroughly justified. One ought not to underestimate, however, even from a Christian perspective, the breadth and legitimacy of the movement of secularization that they, rightly, claim to remedy. Does it suffice, if we admit the breadth of this movement, to draft such an encyclical, to recall the traditional truths? I want readers to be clear about what I am saying: the question is not whether this type of response is or is not "well adapted," strategically useful, or efficacious, but rather whether it is at the level of the challenge presented by modern humanism as regards truth, not tactics.

In this respect the position defended by John Paul II suffers from certain weaknesses. We sense that as a kind of countercurrent it will not suffice to hold back the flood it means to stem. When today's Christians, even those of good will, seek to give a concrete content to this revealed moral truth that has to limit their liberty (even if only better to express it), they are referred back to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. But this work is at times so contrary to the principles of a secular humanism, even to the teaching of the Gospels themselves, that one may doubt that participatory theonomy can leave any place for freedom of conscience. I would have expected, from reading Veritatis Splendor, that revelation came not to repress conscience, but to illumine and thereby to free it. But how can one attain this praiseworthy objective if the conception of truth, once made precise in concreto, turns out to be hostile to the very idea of conscience?

A single example, but a telling one, will make this difficulty apparent: the death penalty. I am leaving aside the fact that in the name of a traditional idea of nature homosexuality should be condemned as a mortal sin, on the same level as sex outside marriage, onanism, or medically assisted conception. We are far from the Gospel, but in the end the catechism belongs to a genre, as we well know, that is not always very subtle. But let that be. What, though, of the death penalty? How are we to legitimate the fact that the head of Roman Catholics should be able to give this content to a moral truth that he means to be "splendid"? How can he state that he recognizes "as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty?" The principle of such a penalty not only is contrary to the "spirit of the times," it diametrically contradicts the idea, so ardently defended by John Paul II, that intentions and circumstancescannot make an intrinsically bad act good. Does the fact of deliberately putting another human being to death belong to that theonomy that is said to illumine the freedom of conscience? And if, in good conscience, Christians have to oppose the institutionalized church on this point, why can't they do so on other points as well that seem to them not to belong clearly to Christ's teaching?

These remarks, despite how they may appear, are not meant to add one more voice to those who denounce the teaching authority of the church. They are aimed instead at bringing out a difficulty in the notion of a participatory theonomy once we grasp its concrete meaning. For a free conscience, even that of a Christian, agrees more easily with general principles than with particular prohibitions. The stamp of humanism can be felt even at the heart of the church, first in the very fact that it feels constrained to reestablish the primacy of truth over liberty, and second, because in doing so it exposes itself to the criticism of the faithful, including those who may find themselves in agreement with the general principle of a participatory theonomy.


Excerpted from Man Made God: the Meaning of Life by Luc Ferry Copyright © 2002 by Luc Ferry. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Luc Ferry teaches at the Sorbonne and at the University of Caen in France. He is the author or coauthor of seven previous books published by the University of Chicago Press, including most recently The New Ecological Order.

David Pellauer is a professor of philosophy at DePaul Univesity.

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