America's Technological Ontology and the Gift of the Given: Benedict XVI on the Cultural Significance of the Quarere Deum

David L. Schindler
To put the matter in language not easy for moderns . . . Christianity [is at its] center concerned with grace—if that word is given its literal meaning. Grace simply means that the great things of our existing are given us, not made by us and finally not to be understood as arbitrary accidents. Our making takes place within an ultimate givenness. However difficult it is for all of us to affirm that life is a gift, it is an assertion primal to Christianity. Through the vicissitudes of life, . . . to be a Christian is the attempt to learn the substance of that assertion. 2
In the long run all that is not done through Love and for Love must invariably end by being done against Love. The human being who denies his nature as a created being ends up by claiming for himself attributes which are a sort of caricature of those that belong to the Uncreated. 3
No one can understand the world at all, no one can live his life rightly, so long as the question about the Divinity remains unanswered. Indeed, the very heart of the great cultures is that they interpret the world by setting in order their relation to the Divinity. 4    

These statements capture the burden of my argument: any act or order not formed in the logic of love—any act which is forgetful of being and its Source—must invariably end up, by implication, subverting the nature and destiny of things. 

Love consists in this, “not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son . . .” (1 Jn 4:10). The love characteristic of the being of the cosmos, in which the cosmos participates by virtue of its creation, is not a love that is first produced by the cosmos, but one that is always first given to the cosmos. As such it is a love that must first be received, through the power that is most basically that of the giver become effective in the gift, a power in which the creature is therefore always properly a filial participant. My proposal is that the mostly implicit ontology of modern culture—and I have in mind here especially America’s “exceptional” form of modernity—is one essentially of technology. Such an ontology abstracts from the logic of love proper to created being, and in so doing assumes a version of power that can only become in the end a caricature of the power of God, a power not of love but of a technical manipulation tending ultimately toward tyranny.

Pope Benedict XVI has made a point during the years of his papacy to affirm the necessity of natural law and the integrity of nature and thus the secular in Christians’ engagement with culture. It was striking, for example, that, on his 2008 visit to France, he said that we needed “a new reflection on the true meaning and importance of laïcité,” or what we might call secularity. On this occasion he also affirmed the “distinction between the political realm and that of religion,” while insisting at the same time on the State’s responsibility “to become more aware of the irreplaceable role of religion for the formation of consciences and the contribution which it can bring to—among other things—the creation of a basic ethical consensus in society.”5 Indeed, I should say more generally in this context that Pope Benedict has affirmed the distinctiveness of America’s form of the Enlightenment, acknowledging the difference between the French Revolution and “Continental” liberalism, on the one hand, and the American revolution and Anglo-American liberalism, on the other.6

It is interesting to note, however, that, at a meeting with cultural leaders on this same visit to France, Benedict stated that monastic culture, with its center in the Benedictine quaerere Deum, the “search for God,” still has something important to say to us. Indeed, he concluded his lecture with the statement that “what gave Europe’s culture its foundation—the search for God and the readiness to listen to him—remains today the basis of any culture.”7

My purpose in this article is to explore the meaning of Benedict’s thought as expressed here, in terms of the problem of secularity and religion, or religiosity, in America; and to consider also in this light the work of the Jesuit theologian, John Courtney Murray, whose arguments apropos of this problem are widely acknowledged to be among the most sophisticated in the history of American Catholicism. The main burden of my reflections will be to provide a reading of America and America’s cultural achievements, vis-à-vis the question of the dignity of human life, and indeed of the truth, goodness, and beauty of all creaturely being, in their original givenness as such.8

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