It is simply impossible to agree on ethics, on how to act, on what is good and what is not, if you disagree about metaphysics or anthropology. And since ethics is unavoidable, so is anthropology. Of the two words in the term “Christian anthropology,” I assume that I don’t need to define the word Christian because the Church has been doing that for two thousand years — they’re called creeds. But what about anthropology?
By anthropology I mean simply a logos about anthropos, a theory or philosophy about mankind or human nature. I don’t mean the empirical science of anthropology. Everyone, absolutely everyone, needs a philosophical anthropology, especially everyone in the medical profession. But not everyone needs to be a scientific anthropologist, or to have an anthropologist, as everyone does need to have a physician. Everyone needs a physician, but not everyone needs a physicist.
On the other hand, everyone needs not to have a philosopher, but to be a philosopher, though not everyone needs to be a professional philosopher. I think Socrates, the archetype and model for all philosophers, would say that a professional philosopher is a contradiction in terms, because philosopher means literally a lover of wisdom, so professional philosopher means a professional lover, and we all know what that means. Socrates would call people like me intellectual prostitutes. I sell not my body but my mind for money. And today the Catholic Medical Association is my pimp.
You can avoid being a professional philosopher, but you can’t avoid being a philosopher, a lover of wisdom. To love wisdom is simply to be human, just as to love beauty and goodness is simply to be human. The hunger for wisdom is an innate and universal hunger. No-one wants to be a fool. We have innate hungers not only in our bodies, but also in our souls. We have not only physical hungers for food and drink and sleep and sex, but also spiritual hungers for spiritual foods, such as duty and truth and goodness and joy and wisdom and friendship.
One of our spiritual hungers is for truth. Truth comes in at least two different kinds: scientific facts and philosophical wisdom. We get the first kind from sense experience and quantitative calculation. We get the second kind from understanding. The scientific method refines and amplifies our senses by inventing instruments like microscopes and cameras, and refines our quantitative reasoning by instruments like computers. But none of this can give us wisdom and understanding.
The author of Job understood this point over twenty-five centuries ago, when he put these words into the mouth of Job:
“Surely there is a mine for silver and a place for gold which they refine. Iron is taken out of the earth, and copper is smelted from the ore. Men put an end to darkness and search out to the farthest limit the ore, in gloom and deep darkness. . . . Man puts his hand to the flinty rock, and overturns mountains by the roots. He cuts out channels in the rocks and his eye sees every precious thing. . . . He dams up streams, so they do not trickle, and things that are hidden he brings forth to light. But where shall wisdom be found, and where is the place of understanding? Man does not know the way to it, and it is not found in the land of the living. The deep says, ‘It is not in me,’ and the sea says ‘It is not with me.’ It cannot be bought for gold, and silver cannot be weighed as its price. . . . It is hidden from the eyes of all the living, and concealed from the birds of the air. . . . God alone understands the way to it, and He knows its place. . . . He established it, and searched it out. And He said to man, ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to depart from evil, that is understanding.'” Job 28:1 ff.
The difference between science and philosophy, between knowledge and wisdom, is not a difference in degree but in kind. No refinement or amplification of factual knowledge will bring us one step closer to wisdom and understanding, just as no refinement of special effects will give a movie a profound theme, an engaging plot, or believable characters.
By the way, I think that’s the typical difference between the old and new movies and books and philosophical systems and works of art. That’s why in all these fields the crude and primitive often seems more profound than the modern and sophisticated. There are a number of distinctions between knowledge and wisdom, science and philosophy. For instance, science is content with immediate proximate explanations and causes, while philosophy seeks ultimate explanations and causes. But I think the most important difference is that wisdom always has a values dimension. Science is, or tries to be, values neutral. Its demand is that of Sergeant Joe Friday on the old Dragnet TV series: Just the facts, ma’am.
For instance, science tells you whether you can clone or abort or clone or heal an organism, and how to do it, if you can, but it doesn’t tell you whether you should do it, whether it’s good. Many contemporary philosophers believe that philosophy can’t tell you that, either. They are the moral sceptics, or moral relativists, or moral subjectivists. But philosophy at least raises such questions, tries to give you the answers, where science doesn’t. In that way, philosophy is like religion. Philosophy and religion have different methods: reason versus faith. But they ask many of the same questions. Science has not only a different method, but different questions. One of the questions both philosophy and religion ask is the question of philosophical anthropology. What is man? Know thyself, as Socrates famously said, echoing the Delphic oracle.
Another aside here. At the risk of offending many people in any typical modern audience, I shall use standard English rather than politically correct feminist English, and I shall interpret the word man inclusively, as referring equally to males and females, as all books did until the 1960s and 70s, when the linguistic puritans decreed that the word man meant only males, and excluded females, so that when all the authors of all the great books said Man is mortal, or Man is wicked, they really meant to exclude females, since they were of course male chauvinists like everyone else in that horrible oppressive system called western civilization, until the recent sudden enlightenment that went along with the recent glorious sexual revolution. Now, I really don’t enjoy offending people especially female people, since I regard them with awe and love and wonder. But honesty compels me to demur from jumping through the new linguistic hoops, because I cannot help suspecting that to tell Shakespeare and Milton and the translators of the King James Bible what they really meant to say seems to me just a wee bit arrogant. When the psalmist prayed “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” I cannot bring myself to believe that he was thinking of the awesomeness only of males. Or that he should be censured for not having said instead, “What are males, females, the transgendered, the hermaphroditic, and any other possible or actual arrangement of sexual identity and orientation, that thou art mindful of him, her, them or it?” I don’t think we have enough time or enough paper today to write like that, so doing that is not responsibly modern or up-to-date, for if we do it, we will require an ecological disaster in decimating all of our forests to make all the paper, and we will not have enough time left in our days to serve our slavemasters, our email screens.
The four most important questions philosophy asks are the following: First, what is real? That is the question of metaphysics. Metaphysics goes beyond physics not by focusing on the spiritual instead of the physical, but by asking the most universal questions, questions that pertain to everything real. Second, what are we who ask such questions? That is the question of philosophical anthropology. Third, what should we be and do? That is the question of ethics. Fourth, how do we know such things? How do we know anything? That is the question of epistemology, or theory of knowing.
The questions of ethics are obviously the most interesting, and the most important, and the most necessary, and the most unavoidable. But your ethics is always dependent on your anthropology, and on your metaphysics. For you can’t know what is good for man until you know what man is. And metaphysics always comes in, because what man is depends on what is.
For instance, if souls, spirits, gods, and heavens are all unreal, then you will have a very different ethics, and a very different anthropology than you will have if you believe that they are real. You will have a materialistic one. And if you believe that matter and bodies are unreal, as some philosophies and religions do, then again you will have a very different ethics and a very different anthropology. If spirit is only a myth, then the only real goods are material goods, and virtue is only the habit of giving material things and pleasures to others. If matter is only a dream, then you physicians are only playing with dreams when you heal bodies. If souls are illusions, man is only an animal with an attitude. If bodies are illusions, man is only a god with a disguise. It is simply impossible to agree on ethics, on how to act, on what is good and what is not, if you disagree about metaphysics or anthropology. And since ethics is unavoidable, so is anthropology. But my topic is not why we need a philosophical anthropology, but why we need a Christian anthropology.
Christianity is not a man-made rational philosophy. It is the God-made revealed religion. Christianity does not contradict reason; nothing true does. But its central claims are not provable by reason alone. That God is a trinity, that God loves us, that God sent his son to die to save us from sin, that Christ is both fully God and fully man, that we will rise from death because He did. To believe these things is to be a Christian, and to disbelieve them is to be a non-Christian. They are the articles of faith. Why are some people Christians? The only honest reason to be a Christian is that you believe these things are true.
Two other reasons often given for being a Christian are to be good and to be happy. Being good and being happy are indeed two very important things. They are both ends rather than means. No one ever wants to be happy only as a means to something else, like getting rich. No one says, “What good is happiness? It can’t buy money.” And — well, maybe some people do — and no-one ever should be good only as a means to something else, like getting rich or getting elected. No comment there. So happiness and goodness are both ends rather than means.
But truth is also an end, and an absolute. And I think truth even has to trump goodness and happiness, if necessary. And I don’t think that’s my private opinion, or some controversial philosophical theory. I think that is what you all believe and practice. And I think I can prove it. Is there anyone here who still literally believes in Santa Claus? No. But do you remember how good you were and how happy you were when you were three years old, especially in December, because you did believe that? See how honest you are? You can’t sacrifice truth either for goodness or happiness. The only honest reason why anyone should ever believe anything is that it’s true. Other motives can count too — that it makes you good and that it makes you happy are valid selling points; but truth has to come first as the foundation for absolutely everything else.
The fundamental reason we need a Christian anthropology, then, is that a Christian anthroplogy is true. Not, first of all, because it is a means to some other end, however important that other end may be, such as being wise, and being able to intelligently discriminate between good and evil medical practices. Yes, if we are Christians we will be wiser, because we will know extremely important truths and values that we would not know otherwise, so that we will be able to act more wisely and morally in medicine and in life generally. But truth has to come first; we need to know the truth just to know the truth. Truth is first of all an end, before it can be a means to any other ends. So I will try to list a few things that a Christian anthropology teaches us. Things that we probably would not know, or not fully know, or not certainly know, or not fully appreciate, or not fully understand, without Christianity. All these things also make us and our lives more happy and more good. But the first reason for believing them is that they’re true. If they’re not true, we shouldn’t believe them, even if they make us happy or good.
One thing that a Christian anthropology teaches us is a corollary of my point about the absolute value of truth: we must respect the honest motives of our non-Christian friends when they disagree with us about what is truly good. If, for instance, there is no God, no heaven, and no soul, and if there is no absolute moral law, and if earthly pleasure is the highest end, then suicide and euthanasia appear as quite logical options. Whose life is it, anyway? If it’s not God’s, it’s mine. If God is not my god, I am my own god. As a Southern Baptist preacher once said, “I can summarize the whole Bible in four words. God’s trying to get across just two things to us: Number 1 – I’m God. Number 2 – You’re not.” We keep forgetting that second part, don’t we?
Or, alternatively, if matter is a dream, as many Hindus and Buddhists believe, then it logically follows that medical services are optional and dispensable. And compassion and charity to the suffering and dying are not absolute moral obligations. It’s quite logical to believe that a dying derelict is working out his karma, the karma of his dream life, and that therefore we shouldn’t interfere. Now it may well be true that the motives of the non-Christian are dishonest motives. He may only be trying to weasel out of uncomfortably difficult moral obligations. But that may not be true. He may simply be being honest, like Dr. Rieux in Albert Camus’s The Plague, who cannot bring himself to believe in God, even though he knows that the meaning of life is to be a saint, and you can’t be a saint without God.
I’m not saying that we should not try to persuade unbelievers to act otherwise. Nor am I saying that the only way to do that is first convert them to Christianity. Often, we can appeal to reason, common sense, or the shards and relics of Christianity that they still have rattling around in their heads without their knowing that they came from Christianity in the first place. Notions like the intrinsic dignity of all men, or inherent and inalienable rights. Many unbelievers will admit such rights. And this admission can logically lead them to God as the necessary foundation of these rights. Just as belief in God logically lead to formulating these rights, historically. Both of those two kinds of argument are possible because you can reason back from the effect to the cause or forward from the cause to the effect. But it makes an enormous difference. If there are such inherent rights, they cannot be abrogated by other people, or by the state, because they were not given by other people, or by the state. If all men have inherent dignity and are to be treated as ends rather than means, then it is reasonable to argue that the only adequate metaphysical basis for this dignity is the existence of God, and the fact that he gave us this dignity by creating us in his image, as persons, as subjects, rather than mere objects. As things that can say I and freely choose.
But people don’t have to follow that argument all the way up to God in order to know that we do have inherent rights. Just as they don’t have to believe in the Creator in order to know a lot about the creation. For God has left in man’s conscience a much more clear and powerful witness about his will than the witness that he has left in man’s mind about his nature. The different religions of the world have radically different ideas of God, or the nature of ultimate reality, but they all teach a remarkably similar and remarkably high morality. And even atheists and agnostics often believe this high morality without believing in its metaphysical basis. Religion gives you a much stronger reason, a much stronger foundation, for those moral beliefs. And among religions, Christianity gives the strongest foundation of all.
I will now offer you a short list of some of the central truths about man that are indispensable for a Christian anthropology. They are indispensable because they make a radical difference. They have a radical impact on our lives, and our practice, and our choices, especially medical practice and choices. I divide the list into four groups, of four points each.
The first group is four truths that even intelligent, honest atheists and agnostics can know, and often do know, if they’re wise enough. The second is four truths that all the great religions of the world teach. The third is four distinctively Christian revelations, and the fourth is four distinctively Catholic ones. When I say distinctively Catholic, I don’t deny that many non-Catholics also often agree with the Church about these things, like contraception, for instance.
By the way, I find that my Protestant students at the King’s College in New York are much more Catholic on that issue and on many others than my supposedly Catholic students at Boston College. Boston College stands for Barely Catholic (B.C.). We used to be Catholic; now we’re Jesuit. Some of my best friends are Jesuits — never mind. Also many Jews, Muslims and even some Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians or Taoists believe some of the things I will call distinctively Christian, such as the loving benevolence of God, and the need for divine grace. Not all of them, but some of them. And many atheists believe some generically religious truths, like the need for humility before a cosmic mystery that engulfs us and transcends us.
So I give you sixteen theses in anthropology, in order of increasing specificity. Four each from philosophical wisdom, from generic religion, from Christianity, and from Catholicism.
I include all four levels because Catholic means two things, both something specific — the faith of the Roman Catholic Church, and something generic, for the word Catholic means literally ‘universal’. The pieces of generic universal human wisdom included by Catholicism are just as important as the specific uniquely Catholic points. For grace includes nature and perfects it, rather than setting it aside or offering an alternative to it. In each of these four groups I give you four points because of the four great philosophical questions: metaphysics, anthropology, ethics and epistemology.
Four Truths that All Can Know
First, the four truths about man from the philosophical wisdom that all can know, regardless of religious beliefs or lack of them. The first and perhaps foundational truth of all is the metaphysical truth about humility. Reality is such that man must be humble before it. Man should be like a child before anything–truth or meaning or value or design or mystery or intelligence–that transcends him, even if this is not God, and even if this is such a mystery that it can never be known. Even some so-called humanists can sense that man is not the supreme reality, and that we are taller when we bow. Even atheists who refuse to adore can be wise enough to have awe and wonder.
Imagine a teenager or young adult who has been raised in a religious environment but who has never personally internalized it, never experienced the basic humility and awe and wonder that is the psychological basis for all religion. This is quite common, for familiarity can breed contempt, and that’s true especially of religion, if it doesn’t take deeper root. Such a person often experiences religious awe and humility for the first time only after he has repudiated religion and become an atheist or an agnostic. He learns, for instance, about the incredible mysteries of the cosmos. Or he is shattered and shuddered by a haunting piece of music, or by a beautiful woman’s face. He has his first religious experience as an atheist. Sometimes that is a necessary beginning for his deeper return to God. God planned it. The prodigal son has to leave home in order to appreciate home.
The second truth is the epistemological truth about honesty and open-mindedness. This flows from the first point, the metaphysical point about humility before reality. We do not know everything. Even if there is no God, we are not God. Our beliefs about anything, therefore, should be revisable in light of future facts, future light, future knowledge. Socrates’ lesson number one is to know that we do not really know most of what we think we really know. In other words, there are two kinds of people in the world, fools who think they’re wise, and the wise who know they that they’re fools. The moral equivalent is Jesus’ lesson number two: there are two kinds of people in the world, sinners who think they’re saints and saints who know that they’re sinners. Without lesson one, we might think that we know it all already, and we won’t bother very much with lesson two. Or else we’ll limit lesson two to corollaries that we can deduce from our own lesson one, which is not Socratic humility and open-mindedness, but only whatever prejudices we have and refuse to examine.
This point about open-mindedness can threaten a believer’s faith whenever that faith is fragile and shakeable. But I think only a faith that has been shaken and has endured can be a faith that is unshakeable. And open-mindedness more often changes unbelievers to believers than it changes believers to unbelievers. It changes atheists to agnostics, and makes them open to future revisions, including religious ones.
I think if everyone in the world, believers and unbelievers alike, became much more open-minded seekers of truth, everyone would eventually become a believer. For we have been assured by the very highest authority that all seekers find, eventually. But those who do not seek do not find. Finding does not just happen by accident, anymore than eating does. As mouths need to be opened to be fed, so do minds. Minds cannot be force-fed; there is no intravenous wisdom. As the Koran says, there can be no compulsion in matters of religion.
A corollary of this epistemological point could be called the truth about truth. That truth is an absolute, even if there is no God, no absolute being. And even if there is no other absolute moral law except the law of absolute honesty before truth, man is made for truth. Without this there can be no integrity, no human wholeness. The rest of the things in the universe do not need to have that kind of integrity. Stones have integrity and hold together by merely physical forces, by the integrity of electromagnetism. Plants and animals hold together by their organic unity, by the living, active co-operation of all their organic parts to the single end of growth and health; by the integrity of their DNA. But man becomes one, becomes himself, attains integrity, only by the free fundamental choice to stand in the light of truth, by a fundamental honesty and will to truth, which is the foundation for all communication that is not manipulation. In that word communication we find the word common and the word unity. Man lives in community only by communication, a communication in truth, a common respect for truth.
By the way, in light of this point, I honestly believe that the single most destructive, dehumanizing and dangerous philosophy in the entire history of the world, the only philosophy I cannot see the slightest glimmer of value in, is deconstructionism, which is the denial of truth, and the reduction of all communication to power. Even the Nazis had a sense of truth. Some of them actually believed their strange ideology, unlike the post-war communists. That’s why the Nazis had to be defeated by war, while communism simply imploded by itself. And the Nazis even had some sense of honor, even how horribly perverted. But deconstructionism has none of this. Deconstructionism is nothing more than a very sophisticated and scholarly sneer. Deconstructionism’s hero is Nietzsche, a Nietzsche I think they make in their own image. And Nietzsche was the first philosopher to explicitly call into question the will to truth. He wrote, “Here is the most dangerous question: Why truth. Why not, rather, untruth?” This is not a mere mistake; this is deliberate. This is demonic. The Nazis may be have been mass murderers, but the deconstructionists are mass sneerers. Murderers may do more harm to their victims, but I think sneerers do more harm to their own souls. The heart of a murderer is nearer to repentance than the heart of a sneerer. A murderer enters the stadium and plays the game of good and evil, though he plays on the evil side. A sneerer refuses even to enter the stadium or play the game. He just stands outside and sneers at both sides.
Third comes the anthropological truth about the intrinsic value of every man. Man is not junk, not trivial. Not absurd, not waste matter. Every thing and every enterprise in human life, including medical enterprises, must serve man, rather than man serving things or enterprises. We eat to live, not live to eat. Even atheists can believe Kant’s categorical imperative: Never merely use anyone as a means; always respect everyone as an end. And this can be the basis for a worldwide humanism that is genuine and profound, even though not explicitly religious.
Fourth is the ethical truth about love. Love — the love that is not a mere passing emotion, but a resolved choice of the will, the will to the good of the other, good will, altruism — this kind of love is the highest value in human life. Because only love makes man fully human. Love is not only good ethics; it is good anthropology and good metaphysics, too. It is the way to become more human and more real, as well as more good. A lover augments not only his doing, but his being. Even though love sometimes entails sacrifice, that always pays, deep down in the long run. On your deathbed, you will not regret loving too much. And you will always regret loving too little. He who loses his life for love finds it, even in this life. Even if there is no next life, no resurrection, and no God.
Four Truths that All Religions Teach
Next come four truths about man from religion, that is, generic, global religious wisdom. First, there’s the metaphysical truth about human destiny, or the summum bonum, the greatest good: That the best answer we can know to the best question we can ask, the question of the ultimate meaning of human life, is the answer common to all the great religions of the world: that the meaning of life is something like God; that our destiny and our fulfillment and our happiness consists in something beyond this world, beyond the secular, beyond the visible and the temporal, even beyond the knowable and the graspable, something that is in fact beyond language to define.
Second is the anthropological truth about human nature: Just as objective morality is much more than it appears to be, so is subjective reality; so are we. We are capable of and destined for something like union with God, mystical experience, nirvana, satori, kensho, moksha, mukhti; an unending, unimaginable, inconceivable infinite ecstasy, something that eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man. If this is not quite the common teaching of all the world’s religions, it is certainly the common teaching of all the mystics of all the world’s religions.
Third is the ethical truth about morality: that the necessary way, the only way to this end, is moral. That morality is an absolute necessity. That you can’t be happy unless you are good, even in this life. And you can’t be happy in an otherworldly or godlike or heavenly way unless you are good in an otherworldly or godlike or heavenly way. You can be more real than you think, and more good than you think. But these two things are intrinsically connected. A corollary would be an even deeper truth about love. All of the religions of the world rise to a morality that is beyond pragmatic survival, beyond rational justice and equality, even beyond mercy and forgiveness and compassion. They all rise to a morality in which the self must be decentered, in which we must get off the throne of our own lives. They tell us not merely that we must perform acts of generosity, but that we must die to ourselves, die to all selfishness and egotism, however respectable and proper and admired it may be. That we must be born again, radically changed. Christianity alone incarnates this love in God becoming man, and suffering and dying for love of us. But all the religions of the world have at least a precious glimpse of this high and holy ideal.
Fourth is the epistemological truth about the secret of wisdom: The secret of wisdom is gratitude. No one can be wise without it. Why? Because everything is a gift. Existence itself is a gift. That is why Islam — not the institutional religion, but the heart of the religion, namely, surrender, submission — propounds the heart of all true religion; we must surrender to the gift in order to receive it. We are not just children who need to mature, or students who need to learn, or patients who need to be healed, though we are all that, too; we are rebels who need to surrender. It is pride, greed, egotism, lust, the demand to control and to win, that makes us stupid.
Four Distinctively Christian Revelations
Next come four truths about man from specifically Christian wisdom. First is the metaphysical truth about man’s origin as created in God’s image. Jesus revealed a radical new name for God: Father. And he told us to call God our father, too. Like father, like son; that’s what’s meant by the image of God. And our origin determines our nature and our destiny. And our worth, and how we should be treated. In hospitals as well as in homes. Christianity answers the three most crucial questions about us: our origin, our nature, and our destiny. Or, to quote the title of a famous painting, where have we come from, what are we, where are we going. The first determines the other two. If we came only from dust, or random chance, or apes, then we are only dust, or random dust, or apes. And our destiny is only that of dust, or chance, or apes. And of course, then, it is only right and natural to treat people that way, because it’s right to treat them as what they are.
What are people? Because we and Christ have a common father, we are his brothers, and each other’s brothers. Because the origin of our being is the fatherhood of God, therefore all people are our family and Christ’s family. More than that, they are Christ. They are organs in the body of Christ. Christ astonishingly tells us, “Whatever you do to one of the least of these my brethren, you do to me.” And he precedes this point with the rabbinical formula “Verily, verily I say unto you,” meaning, “You must take this in the strongest, most literal possible way. Do not water it down, nuance it, allegorize it, or patronizingly think it is an exaggeration to impress impressionable peasants without PhDs.”
Second is the anthropological truth about man’s nature as fallen and redeemed. According to Christianity, we are both much worse and much better than we think we are. Christian novelists like Dostoyevsky and Dickens, Tolstoy and Tolkien typically stretch our minds amazingly both up and down, to enter heavens and hells. Merely optimistic and merely pessimistic anthropologies are both left in the dust by this paradox. They are equally simplistic, and any anthropology that dully denies both of these extremes is doubly simplistic. If this is true, we should expect people to shock us, both by their vices and by their virtues. Evil men can have amazingly hidden resources of goodness, and good men amazing hidden resources of evil. In great sufferings, man is capable of incredible heroism, and also of abject despair. Great sinners can become great saints, and great saints can commit great sins. The man Christ chose as his first pope and nicknamed the Rock, the apostle Peter, denied his Lord at His trial. And persecuter Saul became the apostle Paul, the greatest evangelist.
Third is the ethical truth about man’s ultimate end, and destiny, and supreme good. It is to become not just a good man, but a son of God, something so glorious that if we saw it now we would fall down and worship it. John Paul the Great used to repeat his two favorite quotations from Vatican II, “Jesus Christ is the meaning of man,” and “Jesus Christ alone reveals man to himself.” The first means that Christ reveals what we must become, our ultimate end and destiny: we must become Christ. We must become not just imitators of Christ, but incorporated into Christ, organs in his body. He told us, “You must be perfect even as my Father in heaven is perfect.” That’s why purgatory exists. God will not rest until we have attained the high destiny of perfect holiness. That’s what he’s designed us for. Like a good human father, God is easy to please, but very hard to satisfy. And that Christ reveals man to himself means that because Christ is perfect man as well as perfect God, he alone shows us ourselves perfectly, as well as shows us God perfectly.
In other words, in Christ nothing is held back; there’s nothing more. And God and ourselves are the only two persons that we absolutely need to know, because they’re the only two persons that we’re never ever able to escape for a single second, either in time or eternity. All persons are eternal, destined for eternity, either for eternal holiness or eternal horror. As C. S. Lewis memorably put it, “There are no ordinary people; you have never met a mere mortal.” Nations, arts, cultures, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals that we work with, play with, marry, snub or exploit. Immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. And all day long we are helping each other to one or the other of these two destinies.
Why do we treat persons differently than we treat animals? Well, unless we are either vegetarians or cannibals, we eat animals and not persons. But why? Because persons are destined for eternity, not just death. You see, a difference in destiny means a difference in value. Imagine two horses. They’re identical twins. One is a gift to the king, and will pull the king’s chariot during his coronation or his wedding. The other is destined for the glue factory, or the sausage factory. We treat things differently that have different destinies. When we suffer and when we enjoy, when we get sick and when we get well, when we are born and when we die, we’re always moving. We’re on a road, and every step on the road gets its meaning from the road’s end. It’s true we are to live in the present, but it’s also true that we must live in the future. That’s what hope means: believing in the future, not just in the present.
For even when the road takes dark turns, it is a road to heaven or hell. And if that is not true, then our faith is the biggest lie ever told. It’s like a woman going through pregnancy and labor pains without there being a baby. Death is the biggie, as Woody Allen calls it. The big enemy, whether in bodies, or souls, or cultures, and Jesus turned death inside out, made death glorious and triumphant, for through its portals we enter into the presence of the living God. Death is the consequence of sin, and the last enemy. But it’s also the door to heaven. So Christians hate death much more, and they fear it much less, than anyone else does. They hate it more and fight it more because Christ did. And they fear it less because Christ conquered it. Without both of these transformations, we do not yet have the Christian attitude towards death. Christianity changes everything, because everything is either life or death, and Christianity changes both life and death.
There is also an epistemological truth about the secret of wisdom in Christianity. The secret of wisdom is love. Because love is the nature of God, of ultimate reality, love goes all the way up. And the reason is that God is a Trinity, not just one person who loves, but complete love itself: the lover, the beloved, and the loving. Now this is a point in epistemology because love is not only good ethics, but also the secret of wisdom. The reason why God understands you perfectly, the reason why he is omniscient, is that he loves you perfectly. That’s true for God as well as for us. The eye of the heart, the eye of love, is the profoundest, wisest eye of all. As Pascal says, the heart has its reasons which the reason does not know. The heart is not just feeling; it’s seeing. There’s an eye in it. And the reason that’s true for us is that it’s true for the God in whose
image we are made. Just as only the human being who loves you really understands you, so with God. He understands you only because he loves you. It follows that we can understand him only by loving him. That’s what Jesus said when the Pharisees asked him how they could understand his teaching, and he replied, “If your will were to do the will of my Father, you would understand my teaching.” The heart, the will, the spiritual organ that loves, is the source of understanding. That’s why simple saints like Mother Teresa are profound and brilliant, and scholarly theologians can be such idiots.
Four Uniquely Catholic Teachings
Finally, four truths about man from specifically Catholic wisdom. Christianity is the world’s most material religion, the most embodied, because of its central dogma that God not only created all matter and declared it good, and not only made us, his children, to be material creatures, but he even incarnated himself in it. And because the ascension was not the undoing of the incarnation, God has a human nature, body and soul, forever. With regard to matter, Catholic Christianity is to Christianity what Christianity is to religion in general. So the following four points are specifically Catholic, typically Catholic, because they emphasize the holiness of matter. But all four of them are not exclusively Catholic, for I find that many Protestants also believe them, in various degrees. And sometimes more deeply than many Catholics do.
The first is the metaphysical truth about the Church as the body of Christ. From this truth every other distinctively Catholic dogma follows, in the sense that Catholics believe all the distinctively Catholic and non-Protestant things that they do believe, not because they’ve figured each one out by itself, but because the Church teaches it. And the Church is Christ’s body. He said to his apostles, “He who hears you hears me.” And in saying so to the apostles, he said so implicitly to their successors, the bishops whom they ordained. They are still among us. And I call this a metaphysical truth, a truth about being, because it says that God, the supreme being, ultimate reality, is here with us now in his ecclesial body, the visible Catholic Church. When we say that the Church is Christ’s body, the word is not a metaphor, like the body politic. It is a real body, and its members are organs of this body, not members of a political party. The Church is visible because Christ is visible.
In fact, the Church is Christ as your body is you. You do not have your body; you are your body. Christ does not have the Church; Christ is the Church. Your body is not your corporation, or your prison house, or your instrument, or your house, or your slave, or your machine; it is you. The Church is not Christ’s corporation, or prison, or instrument, or house, or slave, or machine; it is him. He is not its CEO, or prison warden, or machine operator, or property tenant, or slavemaster, or machinist; he is her head, and she is his body. She is his bride, and he is her husband, and the essential formula for marriage is that the two become one flesh, one body, one person, one embodied person. That truth is not refuted by the sins and scandals of the Church’s members. In fact, that’s what makes those sins and scandals so horribly sinful and scandalous. Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians that when they have sex with prostitutes, they make Jesus Christ have sex with prostitutes. It’s that shocking and that literal. Read it. It’s in the book. Even when the Church looks like a slum, Christ is not its absentee landlord. What you, as physicians and nurses, are is extensions of God’s love to the world, restoring life out of love of life.
In other words, it’s God who raises you up, just as he raises up missionaries and preachers and priests and popes. You don’t just imitate his work, you do his work, just as they do. And when you heal, you don’t just heal bodies, you heal persons, embodied persons. Bodies are not hotel rooms for souls. When I slap your face, or kiss your face, I slap you, or kiss you. Healing your body is healing you. Fixing your house is not fixing you. But fixing your foot is fixing you.
The second distinctively Catholic truth is the epistemological truth about how we can know God. Since God is a person, in fact, three persons, rather than a concept, we know him by contact, not by concept, by what the Germans call kennen, not wissen. Or by what the French call connaître, not savoir, a knowing that is a touching, and this means the sacraments. For that is how God touches us. That is where he touches our very life, literally and physically. We know God by concepts, too; that’s what the creeds do. They correct our false concepts. But the sacraments correct something deeper: our lived isolation. The Church teaches that Christ established seven sacraments and that they all work objectively; the formula is “ex opere operato” (“from the operation of the operator”), which means not impersonal magic, a kind of spiritual technology, but by God’s objectively real personal presence and power in them. Just as I am in my slap or in my kiss, God is in his sacraments. There are also many sacramentals, like icons and holy water, and above all the Bible, which can also mediate his real presence physically. Though they do not work ex opere operato because they are not a permanent, personal divine presence always, and because they work through the subjective faith that they elicit in the heart of the believer and the user, rather than through themselves. But they, too, also mediate God’s real presence.
And we find sacramentals everywhere. Unlike sacraments, sacramentals have no clear borders. Anything material, like a Christmas present given out of love, can become a sacramental.
A human touch can mediate not just your love but Christ’s love. And it can do that even when it is indirect, when the touch is mediated by complex technology, because there’s a human touch at its source. If you touch another person with your prosthetic limb, or your scalpel, or your forceps, it is you who do the touching, not just the limb or the instrument. Our technology is like our own prosthetic limbs. You use a scalpel as a sharpened fingernail, or a forceps as an extended pair of fingers. All this resembles, in various degrees, the Eucharist, the archetypal sacrament, the most perfect sacrament. The most complete and perfect presence of Christ in this life is not an out-of- the-body experience, but an in-the-body experience. The most complete and intimate way you can know God, actually touch God, is not in any mystical experience, but in receiving the Eucharist. Even if you don’t feel it, every time you receive holy communion you do something angels would envy if they were capable of the sin of envy, something that exceeds the greatest mystical experience of the greates mystics of all time in its objective perfection and intimacy, though not in subjective feeling. God doesn’t give you a mystical high when you receive the Eucharist, because he doesn’t want you to get a spiritual sweet tooth, and fall in love with the feeling rather than with him. It’s training.
One very practical consequence of this doctrine of the Eucharist concerns death, and the approach of death and the fear of death. When you receive the last rites, the viaticum, and die in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and in the presence of Christ in the Church, that is, your family and friends who are also Christ’s family and friends, you die with Christ, on his cross with him, and then you see that the cross, like the man on it, is incredibly different than what it looks like. It is a rocketship to heaven. Just as you’d rather be in love in Detroit than divorced in Hawaii, you’d rather be on the hell of the cross with him than in heaven without him. Apologies to Michiganers. The very essence of heaven is the presence of Christ. He makes the worst thing into the best thing. So that the word we use for the day that saw the most evil, most horrible thing that ever happened in history is Good Friday.
Third comes the central anthropological truth in Catholicism, the truth about the body, and bodily life as holy. Tertullian said, “The flesh is the hinge of salvation.” If Christ had not physically shed his blood, we could not be saved. If the woman with the life-long hemorrhage had touched the garment not of Christ but of one of Christ’s apostles in the press of the crowd, she would not have been healed. Christ came to us in the body, and continues to come to us through others’ bodies. He was conceived and born and lived and died and resurrected and will return in the body, and he now saves us through bodies. Therefore, healing bodies is also healing souls. It’s not like repairing cars, but repairing drivers. It is healing something eternal, something that will be raised and recognizable. As Doubting Thomas saw His wounds, I think you will see in heaven the scars from the healing operations you performed on your patients in this life, and I think those scars will be made not of blood but of gold, like badges of honor.
Finally, my fourth distinctively Catholic truth is the ethical truth about the deeper meaning of sex. The sexual revolution is today the single most important revolution in our time, for it concerns not only certain areas of life, like politics or war, but the origin of life itself. Sex is the one area where almost all the conflicts and controversies rage. The area where the culture of death and the culture of life conflict the most. What kind of a difference does a Christian anthropology make to your understanding of human sexuality and the sexual revolution? Well, I’d say the same kind of difference it makes to be awake or asleep. But that’s going to take more time than I have left in this talk, because I’ve gone on for almost an hour, so I think I should leave time for questions, which is essential, because talks exist in order to stimulate questions. Talks are for questions, not questions are for talks. So I want to stop my own monologue now, and dialogue about this first talk now. I’ll finish it and give a brief version of my second talk afterwards.
Questions and Answers
So, are there any questions? There must be questions — or the beatings will begin. Aristotle once famously said to a class in his university who didn’t have any questions, “My lecture was on levels of intelligence in the universe, and according to my lecture there are three. There is the intelligence of the gods, the intelligence of us mortals, and the intelligence of the beasts. And you can distinguish human intelligence from the other two by the fact that humans alone ask questions, because the gods know too much and the beasts know too little. So, shall I now congratulate you upon having risen to the level of the gods, or shall I insult you for having sunk to the level of the beasts?” After that, there were questions. Any human beings among us?
Well, actually, I have a question.
It was very elevating to hear you explain about viaticum, explain the Eucharist, and I just would like to know the nature or the definition of intimacy a little deeper so that, you know, because — to explain it to my children, who are all adults, or to others.
It’s a term that can only be understood in experience. And this is why we need a personalist as well as an objectivist philosophy. Stones can’t be intimate with each other. Even if they’re crushed together to make one stone, that is not intimacy. Nor are mere thoughts intimate. The number three is no more intimate to the number four than the number two is. Only persons can be intimate. Only embodied persons can be intimate. What is the biggest thrill in sex? It is not the merely physical thrill; it is intimacy. It is the fact that this person invites me into his or her inner sanctum. So intimacy is personal presence, and we achieve that maximally with Christ in the Eucharist.
I have a question. Hi. I liked the Detroit joke, by the way. I had a question because I couldn’t hear you, and it was about man’s, I think you said, origins, destiny and was it ‘meaning’?
Nature. Origin, destiny and nature.
And the nature was what you were expounding on a lot in the middle. Thank you.
Yep. Where did I come from, what am I, and where am I going? Always connected.
Talk about your point about the intrinsic value in terms of universal truth. How do you address those secular philosophers who say that our value is based on utilitarian philosophy — the Peter Singers and those kind of people — your value is based on your potentialities; they wouldn’t say that it’s an intrinsic thing to us.
I think you use the Socratic method on them. Find out what they mean. Are they just confused? Maybe. If so, unconfuse them. Or if you find out that they’re not just confused, that they really do not understand that people have a kind of value that nothing else has, then you pray, because at a certain point, the best argument in the world will show you nothing. Suppose you believe that I am a robot. I was designed at MIT, and they have very advanced techology there, and the robots they design at MIT are so perfect that they will deceive any human being. They are perfect imitators, like perfect puppets, or shadow pictures, of persons, so that it is impossible for you to distinguish empirically a person from a robot. Some philosophers would say, well in that case there is no difference between a person and a robot, so we are nothing but robots. They just don’t see it. They just don’t see the meaning in the most astonishing word in the language, the word I.
As a graduate of MIT I can say that you’ve deviated from your programming.
You know, they did an experiment last year at MIT — because of all the politics in Massachusetts they did a mutual heart and brain transplant between a liberal and a conservative, and it didn’t work, because of two things: They couldn’t find a conservative who would give his heart to a liberal, and they couldn’t find a liberal who had brains to give to a conservative.
Dr. Kreeft, you wanted us to have an opportunity to ask questions, so you didn’t give us the part on human sexuality, and so as a question, I’m asking you to talk to us a little bit about that piece.
Okay. Sit down; I’ll answer the next question. What difference would — well, you’ll have to wait a while, because I was going to say, well, I’ll give you my talk on sex when you are a little older — about twenty minutes older.
Peter Kreeft. “Why a Christian Anthropology Makes a Difference”, an address to the The Catholic Medical Association’s 79th Annual Educational Conference (October 27-30, 2010).
Transcribed and printed here with permission of the author.
Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965. He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including: The Snakebite Letters, The Philosophy of Jesus, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer, How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in Crisis, Love Is Stronger Than Death, Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato’s Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, and Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
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