de Lubac: The Drama of Atheist Humanism

March 13, 2014

The Drama of Atheist Humanism
Henri de Lubac, S.J.
(Meridian, 1967) [1950]
253 p.

As I understand it, Henri de Lubac was one of the leading theologians in the decades leading up to Vatican II who advocated and exemplified an approach to Catholic theology which emphasized engagement and dialogue with the modern world. I don’t know if that is a fair characterization of his work as a whole — for this is the first of his books that I have read — but it is a good description of what is going on in The Drama of Atheist Humanism, in which de Lubac sympathetically enters into conversation with the sources of contemporary atheism in an effort to both understand and challenge them.

For de Lubac, atheist humanism is rooted in the thought of a handful of nineteenth-century men: Feuerbach (and, through him, Marx), Nietzsche, and Comte. He considers each of them to be a “humanist,” in the sense of being one who takes a high view of the human capacity for greatness, and who wants to see that capacity developed and praised. Yet each conceives of the relationship between God and humanity as being one of competition, and it is in that apparent conflict that de Lubac identifies the principal motive of modern atheism: “Man is getting rid of God in order to regain possession of the human greatness which, it seems to him, is being unwarrantably withheld by another. In God he is overthrowing an obstacle in order to gain his freedom.”

Even the atheists, however, realized that the overthrow of God would exact a price. It was Nietzsche who perceived this most clearly; he foresaw “the rising of a black tide” as God’s influence over human affairs waned. He saw that to reject God was to reject everything founded on Him, and that this would be the greatest upheaval, both intellectual and moral, that the world had ever known.

de Lubac respects the honesty and integrity of these atheist thinkers, granting them credit where it is due, though of course he stops well short of endorsement:

“The criticisms which served as their starting-point were often shrewd, with a shrewdness cruel in its accuracy; and certain of their manifestations have an imposing grandeur which, for many fascinated eyes, masks the horrors that were their purchase price.”

It is Nietzsche, especially, who earns de Lubac’s admiration. Nietzsche was thorough and fearless: he followed his thoughts to their conclusions. It is notable that although he was of course opposed to Christianity, he refused even to argue against Christian theology, for to do so would have been to concede the eminence of truth, which would have been a concession to the principles of theism. Instead, the battle was for him a matter of values expressed through culture, a struggle of wills for domination. de Lubac remarks: “…never, before Nietzsche, had so mighty an adversary arisen, one who had so clear, broad and explicit a conception of his destiny and who pursued it in all domains with such systematic and deliberate zeal.” As I have said before, Nietzsche did everyone, theist or atheist, a great good service simply by clarifying the terms of the debate and its implications.

It is interesting that de Lubac saw the atheists of his time — the mid-twentieth century — as having assumed this same mantle of courageous and integral atheism. He writes, for instance, comparing them to the French philosophes and other early modern atheists:

“How timid those men now seem who, for instance, fought against the Church but wanted to keep the Gospel! Or those who, while claiming to be released from all authority and all faith, still invoked principles derived from a Christian source! “Free thinkers,” but not very bold and not very “free” as yet! Those who have come after them deride their illogicality as much as their impotence and lump them together with believers in a common reprobation. Those of the new generation do not intend to be satisfied with “the shadow of a shadow.” They have no desire to live upon the perfume of an empty vase.”

I have to wonder, however, whether this sort of high-octane atheist has survived into the present day in any large numbers. One of the principal criticisms of the crop of so-called “New Atheists” has been precisely that they are superficial, complacent, tame, and so forth. They take “values” for granted, coasting on the fumes of a religion from which they profess to have cut themselves off. It’s an interesting question. I wonder who were the mid-twentieth-century atheists whom de Lubac had particularly in mind when he wrote the above? Sartre and Camus, perhaps? If so, I think it would be fairly uncontroversial to say that our most vocal atheists today fall well short of the standard.

Yet in the end de Lubac argues that the atheists’ efforts to disparage God have, despite their often praiseworthy intentions, only ended up hurting humanity, and this because there was an obscure truth in the claim (made by Feuerbach and Nietzche) that God was a kind of mirror of humanity, in whom we find our highest ideals and ground our self-understanding. When we rejected Him, we quenched our own guiding light, lost our own balance. From a Catholic perspective, this had to be so, for God is in truth so intimately present to humanity that He could not be forsaken without doing damage to ourselves:

“For man, God is not only a norm which is imposed upon him and, by guiding him, lifts him up again: God is the Absolute upon which he rests, the Magnet which draws him, the Beyond which calls him, the Eternal which provides him with the only atmosphere in which he can breathe and, in some sort, that third dimension in which man finds his depth. If man takes himself as god, he can, for a time, cherish the illusion that he has raised and freed himself. But it is a fleeting exaltation! In reality, he has merely abased God, and it is not long before he finds that in doing so he has abased himself.”

Thus those who, as Comte said, set out “to discover a man with no trace of God in him” were on a quixotic quest, for the man so discovered would turn out to be a pale shadow, a cipher, or a mere tool.

(Parenthetically, to move from Nietzsche to Comte is rather like switching from scotch to lukewarm tea. Although he was in his lifetime apparently considered a formidable adversary of religion, a systematic thinker who rode the crest of modern “scientific” thought into an imagined blissful future, he has none of the guts and fire of Nietzsche. In this he resembles our “New Atheists” — though as a scholar of culture and society he easily surpassed even them. It is also, I confess, difficult to take seriously any man who thought sociology the highest of the sciences (!). But de Lubac does relate a hilarious anecdote about Comte’s overtures to the Jesuit order, whom he saw as potential allies to his ambition to bring about a secular world order. Alas, his knocks on the door went unanswered.)

***

de Lubac’s discussion of the leading atheists constitutes only the first third of the book. In the second and third parts, he turns to two prominent humanists who wrote in opposition to atheism. The first is Søren Kierkegaard, and the second is Fyodor Dostoyevsky. About the former he has relatively little to say — the discussion focuses on Concluding Unscientific Postscript and not much else — other than that Kierkegaard was a kind of herald of transcendence to a culture that had grown almost deaf to it. He called people back from abstraction and speculation to the inner life of faith, to a personal encounter with God. de Lubac cites his maxim from the Postscript: “Preparation for becoming attentive to Christianity does not consist in reading books or in making surveys of world history, but in deeper immersion in existence.” For Kierkegaard, contra the atheists, it was precisely by more serious and devout faith, by grounding oneself more firmly in God, that one could become more fully and maturely human.

The long final section of the book is a detailed engagement with the novels of Dostoyevsky, whom de Lubac sees as something like the archetypal man of our time: “in him the crisis of our modern world was concentrated into a spearhead and reduced to its quintessence”. He describes Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche as “hostile brothers,” united in their experience and understanding of a world conceived apart from God, but responding to that vision in opposite ways. For him, Dostoyevsky is something like an antidote to Nietzsche:

“To put the matter succinctly, he forestalled Nietzsche. He overcame the temptation to which Nietzsche was to succumb. That is what gives his work its extraordinary scope. Whoever plunges into it comes out proof against the Nietzschean poison, while aware of the greatness of Nietzsche.”

There are many atheists within the pages of Dostoyevsky’s novels; de Lubac identifies three principal types: the “man-God” (the individual who is a law unto himself), the “Tower of Babel” (the social revolutionary who proposes to ensure the happiness of mankind without God), and the “palace of glass” (the philosopher who rejects every mystery). Each is portrayed by Dostoyevsky, and each is, in a sense, refuted, not by abstract argument but by a means appropriate to a novelist and humanist: by exposing its defects from the inside. Although even those most sympathetic to Dostoyevsky might wonder whether Alyosha Karamazov, wonderful as he is, quite refutes his brother Ivan. But the point is sound: Dostoyevsky has felt the force of atheism but has pushed back in a way that merits the attention of thoughtful readers.

Among whom I hesitate to number myself. As much as I admire Dostoyevsky, and as much as I saw the importance he has to de Lubac’s overall argument in this book, I confess that I found myself skimming through this final section. To really sink one’s teeth into it one would need to have read the novels recently enough to remember many details, and in some cases it has been many years, too long, for me. Regrettably.

***

In closing, I will make mention of a short section of the book, placed somewhere near the mid-point and called “The Spiritual Battle”, which functions as something like an extended homily. de Lubac steps back from his analysis of atheist humanism to ask an important question: why has this movement arisen in our culture, and in what ways does the Church bear responsibility for its emergence? He concedes that many of the atheist critiques of Christianity — that it is stale and timid, say, or that its adherents lack true commitment to their professed ideals — have much truth in them that ought to be of grave concern to Christians. He sees, for instance, that even Nietzsche’s scorn for Christianity had something noble in it that we could profitably emulate. In a noteworthy passage he writes:

“Nietzsche’s feelings with regard to Jesus always remained mixed, and so did his judgments on Christianity. There are times when he sees in it not so much a false ideal as one that is worn out. “It is our stricter and more finely tempered piety”, he says, “that stops us from still being Christians today.” Thus his animosity is against the Christians of our day, against us. The lash of his scorn is for our mediocrities and our hypocrisies. It searches out our weakness, adorn with fine names. In reminding us of the robust and joyous austerity of “primitive Christianity” he calls shame on our “present-day Christianity”, as “mawkish and nebulous”. Can it be contended that he is quite wrong? Should “everything that now goes by the name of Christian” be defended against him? When he says of us, for instance: “If they want me to believe in their Savior, they’ll have to sing me better hymns! His followers will have to look more like men who have been saved!”—are we entitled to be indignant? To how many of us does Christianity really seem “something big, something with joy and enthusiasm”? Do the unbelievers who jostle us at every turn observe on our brows the radiance of that gladness which, twenty centuries ago, captivated the fine flower of the pagan world? Are our hearts the hearts of men risen with Christ? Do we, in our time, bear witness to the Beatitudes? In a word, while we are full alive to the blasphemy in Nietzsche’s terrible phrase and in its whole context, are we not also forced to see in ourselves something of what drove him to such blasphemy?”

He goes on to argue that the recovery of “the radiance of that gladness” must be the keen desire of modern Christians who hope for the Gospel to attract modern souls. We need, he says, a new infusion of joy and seriousness in our religion, and we must find the resources for this renewal by delving deeper into our own tradition, not by casting about outside it: “…it is not a case of adapting it to the fashion of the day. It must come into its own again in our souls. We must give our souls back to it.” It is only if we exemplify “gentleness and goodness, considerateness toward the lowly, pity for those who suffer, rejection of perverse methods, protection for the oppressed, unostentatious self-sacrifice, resistance to lies, the courage to call evil by its proper name, love of justice, the spirit of peace and concord, open-heartedness, [and] mindfulness of heaven” that Christianity will be an effective leaven in society, for

“it will never have any real existence or make any real conquests, except by the strength of its own spirit, by the strength of charity.”

And this seems a good thought on which to draw these notes to a close.

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