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The Eclipse of God & the Culture of Death
Steven Meyer, S.T.D. 12 December 2018
St. John Paul II describes a culture of death as rooted in a grave misunderstanding of four roots: personhood, freedom, God, and moral conscience. A culture of life would be modeled by Mary who, in her openness to conception and life from God (cf. Lk 1:26-38), shows these four things properly. Continuing my reflections on Evangelium vitae (EV), this piece serves as a comment on St. John Paul’s third root of a culture of death: “the eclipse of the sense of God and of man, typical of a social and cultural climate dominated by secularism.” (EV 21.1)[i] Here I will consider the image of a solar eclipse for the Christian imagination, in understanding some of the teachings of Vatican II, and for our secular context.
St. John Paul uses the image of an eclipse of the sense of God to describe our age. This analogy comes from an important influence, existential philosopher Martin Buber. Buber’s book (collection of lectures) Eclipse of God is, on one level, an argument against a Nietzchean “death of God” mentality.[ii] For Buber, God is the great “Thou” to our human “I.” We might ignore or live as God does not exist, but this does not change God, like the sun, having an objective radiance of being despite our loss of sight.
St. John Damascene proclaimed, “Since the creation of the world, the invisible things of God are clearly seen by way of images.”[iii] The Christian imagination might consider the image of the sun, like Buber does, from literal, allegorical, and moral viewpoints. The physicality of an eclipse is obvious. The sun, the greatest solar phenomena, is the star that provides light and life for the world. It illuminates our daily activities. It serves to help regulate biological life in the world. During an eclipse, the sun is temporarily darkened by the passing of the moon in front of it. This results in the temporary diminishing of light and a strange casting of shadows. Ancients considered an eclipse as a sign of the end of the world or the death of god. The sun has long been an important image in Christian typology. Pope Francis in Laudato si (2015) expresses this from the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi and brother sun, sister moon.[iv] Analogically speaking, Christian tradition links the universal symbol of the sun to the Trinity and the universality of Jesus the Son and King. This is clear through His own words and actions, for example, “I am the light to the world” (John 8:12, cf. 9:5 ) or during his Transfiguration where “His face shone like the sun…” (Mt. 17:2). Hugo Rahner points out that ancient Christians inhabited the culture of the Sol invictus, the feast of the unconquered sun. Aware of the link between the sun, the king and the divinity, Church fathers purposefully kept the image of the sun but radically altered its meaning in light of Christ’s revelation. Pope Benedict XVI specifically used the Buber/John Paul II image of an eclipse of the sense of God as casting shadows in our moral vision. These shadows result in the sense of sin and the guilt of sin being lost.[v] The eclipse today leads us to degrade Christian sexual morality, and with it a stable family life, religious vocations, and the work of evangelization.[vi]
Some Vatican II background on this image is in order. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium, famously begins not with the Church but with, “Christ is the light of nations”.[vii] The patristic analogy to this being, “the Church is like the moon, all its light reflected from the sun.”[viii] The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes (GS), lays out how the Church dialogues with the world in order to fulfill her mission of bringing salvation in Christ to the world. The document contains an important theological anthropology claiming only in communion with God can we find the proper meaning of human dignity.[ix] One section of GS identifies eight types of modern denials of God under the category of atheism which lead to errors in understanding human nature (GS 19). Surprisingly it admits that modern atheistic errors are, partly, the fault of members of the Church who historically and today give counter-witness to the Gospel through: moral and political scandals, improper presentation of the Gospel, and open disunity/fighting between and among professing Christians.[x] The Christian response today should be to always reveal and not to conceal the true face of God to the world.[xi] The laity as having a vocation particularly in the world of secular affairs.[xii] Cardinal Francis George once noted, “The greatest failure of the post-Vatican II Church is the failure to call forth and to form a laity engaged in the world politically, economically, culturally, and socially, on faith’s terms rather than on the world’s terms…”
If loss of God is a root for a culture of death, what should we make of professed atheists for life?[xiii] A recent Pew study, if one deems these credible, shows that atheists are overwhelming pro-choice and have little to do with consulting religious teachings.[xiv] [xv] While pro-life atheists seem to represent a small percent of atheists, they should be welcomed into dialogue and possible alliance in support for the defense of all human life. As Gaudium et spes puts it, “While rejecting atheism, root and branch, the Church sincerely professes that all men, believers and unbelievers alike, ought to work for the rightful betterment of this world in which all alike live.”[xvi]
We in the United States today are certainly living in a secular age. St. John Paul II defines secularism as, “…a movement of ideas and behavior which advocates a humanism totally without God, completely centered upon the cult of action and production and caught up in the heady enthusiasm of consumerism and pleasure-seeking, unconcerned with the danger of “losing one’s soul”.”[xvii] One effect of the secular is that it results in the de-sacralization of the activities in everyday life, and this includes relationships. We must remember, as Thomas Howard puts it, “The “secularization” of life urged on us by science and commerce and modernity generally is surely one of the bleakest myths ever to settle down over men’s imagination.”[xviii] The image of the eclipse of the sense of God serves as a reminder of the abnormal nature of our time in human history. The further one travels back in history, says Christopher Dawson, the more one finds religion and belief in God intimately connected to everyday life. Our age needs to be understood as something mysterious in the long term plan of God’s Providence where “one day is as a thousand years.” (2 Pet. 3:8; cf. Ps 90:4)
[i] See Steven Meyer, “The Gospel of Life and the Roots of the Culture of Death” https://www.societyofstsebastian.org/index-sp-03-22-18-ev-meyer; ibid, “The Culture of Death and the Person,” https://www.societyofstsebastian.org/index-sp-03-22-18-ev-meyer; “Evangelium vitae and the Truth About Freedom,” https://www.societyofstsebastian.org/copy-of-sebastian-s-point-10.
[ii] Put in the book information; credit the introduction and define things like death of God and other atheists he takes on here. Example, death of God or a God does not matter for me approach
[iii] Damascene as found in the Aquilina book.
[iv] Pope Francis in Laudato si often references of the natural and created reality of the sun and moon and the interdependent relationships between us, the earth and these cosmic realities. He then goes on to quote the prayer of St. Francis in 87 who calls the sun our brother and that it points us analogically to the Son who is Christ. See https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html
[v] In his Angelus he speaks of the loss of the sense of sin and the guilt of sin in light of King David committing murder. https://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/angelus/2011/documents/hf_ben-xvi_ang_20110313.html; For a short reflection on the eclipse of God and Benedict XVI see Benjamin Mann https://catholicexchange.com/eclipse-of-god
[vi] In his address to the Pontifical Council for the Family he again uses the image of the eclipse of God to speak of the current crisis of the family which undercuts the effectiveness of evangelization. https://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/speeches/2011/december/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20111201_pc-family.html
[vii] Lumen gentium article 1. http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html
[viii] Catechism of the Catholic Church article 748. http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P26.HTM
[ix] Opening section; and GS 22 of JPII.
[x] See Gaudium et spes, 19-21 http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_cons_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html; see also the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2125.
[xi] John Paul II, General Audience https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/audiences/1999/documents/hf_jp-ii_aud_14041999.html
[xii] Gaudium et spes 36 says, “Moreover, let the laity also by their combined efforts remedy the customs and conditions of the world, if they are an inducement to sin, so that they all may be conformed to the norms of justice and may favor the practice of virtue rather than hinder it.”
[xiii] For example, see Bryan Kemper, “Confessions of a Pro-Life Atheist” https://www.lifenews.com/2012/02/28/confessions-of-a-pro-life-atheist-why-i-fight-abortion/
[xiv] For example, a 2016 Pew Study, found online at the link below, states that atheists are overwhelmingly pro-choice (87%), admit no link between God and morality (53%), and that only .1% consider consulting religious wisdom in regards to seeking guidance. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/06/01/10-facts-about-atheists/. Studies depend on how the questions are asked.
[xv] This article consulting a Gallop poll says 19% of atheists/agnostics are pro-life (higher number than the above poll) claiming there are “closeted” pro-life atheists. https://friendlyatheist.patheos.com/2014/03/11/yes-there-are-pro-life-atheists-out-there-heres-why-im-one-of-them/
[xvi] Gaudium et spes 21.6
[xvii] John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Reconciliation and Penance, article 18. https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_02121984_reconciliatio-et-paenitentia.html
[xviii] Thomas Howard, Hallowed Be This House (p. 19)
Steven Meyer, S.T.D., Dr. Meyer currently serves as an assistant professor in theology for the University of St. Thomas School of Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary and is on the Editorial Board of the Society of St. Sebastian's Journal of Bioethics in Law in Culture.