Spe Salvi 42: Belief, Non-Belief, and Labor

Let’s delve more deeply in the notion of Judgement as a setting for learning and practicing hope.

42. In the modern era, the idea of the Last Judgement has faded into the background: Christian faith has been individualized and primarily oriented towards the salvation of the believer’s own soul, while reflection on world history is largely dominated by the idea of progress.

Not surprisingly, one finds this individualization in conservative Catholicism, where it’s often about getting into heaven, and bypassing the Last Judgment. That’s something for the sinners, Judgement, if they’re considered at all.

The fundamental content of awaiting a final Judgement, however, has not disappeared: it has simply taken on a totally different form. The atheism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is—in its origins and aims—a type of moralism: a protest against the injustices of the world and of world history. A world marked by so much injustice, innocent suffering, and cynicism of power cannot be the work of a good God. A God with responsibility for such a world would not be a just God, much less a good God.

This may be true in part. I also think that people see the Church not working against injustice. Yes, some few acknowledge the Church’s role in efforts like hospitals and schools. The former look like part of a corporate health system, more and more. The latter have their own agenda, or appear to.

It is for the sake of morality that this God has to be contested. Since there is no God to create justice, it seems (we ourselves are) now called to establish justice. If in the face of this world’s suffering, protest against God is understandable, the claim that humanity can and must do what no God actually does or is able to do is both presumptuous and intrinsically false. It is no accident that this idea has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice; rather, it is grounded in the intrinsic falsity of the claim. A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope.

For the person of faith, this is true. But even for people without belief, there can be an awareness that human weakness will always thwart the best efforts at justice, whether cooperating with God or not seeing the Almighty as part of the picture.

No one and nothing can answer for centuries of suffering. No one and nothing can guarantee that the cynicism of power—whatever beguiling ideological mask it adopts—will cease to dominate the world. This is why the great thinkers of the Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, were equally critical of atheism and theism. Horkheimer radically excluded the possibility of ever finding a this-worldly substitute for God, while at the same time he rejected the image of a good and just God. In an extreme radicalization of the Old Testament prohibition of images, he speaks of a “longing for the totally Other” that remains inaccessible—a cry of yearning directed at world history. Adorno also firmly upheld this total rejection of images, which naturally meant the exclusion of any “image” of a loving God. On the other hand, he also constantly emphasized this “negative” dialectic and asserted that justice —true justice—would require a world “where not only present suffering would be wiped out, but also that which is irrevocably past would be undone” [Negative Dialektik (1966), Third part, III, 11, in Gesammelte Schriften VI, Frankfurt am Main 1973, p.395]. This, would mean, however—to express it with positive and hence, for him, inadequate symbols—that there can be no justice without a resurrection of the dead. Yet this would have to involve “the resurrection of the flesh, something that is totally foreign to idealism and the realm of Absolute spirit” [Ibid., Second part, p.207].

Perhaps Pope Benedict XVI has assumed that every human being has or seeks a god. It’s not always a choice between atheism and theism. Sometimes people recognize they have little impact and there is little real hope for change based on their own actions, but they possess an inner impulse to do what they can. Not really much different from the Christian.

This document is Copyright © 2007 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana. You can find the full document online here.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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