Man as a god, God as Man: Medieval and Modernity

In a previous blog post, I referred to the the late nineteenth-century philosophe Frederich Nietzsche, who was something of a prophet for modern society. Nietzsche looked at the present and into the future and saw there, a world for which he hoped—a world without God. While some of his non-theistic colleagues (the “humanists”) in particular, insisted the loss of God would have little effect on human affairs, Nietzsche held them in contempt. For him, the death of God meant the advent of nihilism, the destruction of all meaning and value in life. This meant the destruction of all traditional morality.

Hence Nietzsche ridiculed the humanists who thought they could rid society of Christianity, yet keep its values. He spoke instead of the need to reconstruct all of our own moral values and the need to become gods. God was dead, he said, we would have to be our own gods now. And so we have been.

The Middle Ages, of course, saw things the other way around. To them, God was God and man was not, even if some men (typically royalty ) had the usual delusions of grandeur. God made the world meaningful and moral values—good and evil, right and wrong–to exist. God was the yardstick no man could measure up to, all fell short. Since man could not raise himself up, God bent Himself down, a divine humility to humble the pride of man. The great became small, the strong, weak, and in return man had to become like a little child. Man could not reach God, so God became man to bring the Unreachable into the grasp of humanity. And so, in the end, man could become like god. Accepting his smallness, he could become large. In the traditional formula, the Son of God became man, so that men could become sons of God.

Not so in modernity, no God-man there to humble the pride of man, only man who, in the language of Nietzsche, had to become a god. And so he has, creating his own meaning, right and wrong, and good and evil. He decides what life is, what marriage is, what humanity is. When morality is seen as only a social construction, the typical result is moral destruction. So there is nothing surprising in the recent string of undercover videos showing planned parenthood casually discussing the destruction of unborn human beings. Nothing shocking in planned parenthood discussing “less crunchy” ways of destroying them or talking about cutting across the face to procure an intact brain- all in the interest of maximizing profit. When right and wrong become social constructs, the weakest always suffer. When man has to become god, in the Nietschean sense, he really becomes a demon, preying on the weakest.

The same is true in other areas as well. This is why the thought of euthanasia, euphemistically called “death with dignity,” (as the unborn are euphemistically called “specimens”), is of such concern to advocates of the disabled. When humans decide what makes life worthwhile, it becomes too easy to say that the lives are the weak are not worthwhile- as with the unborn, so with the elderly, perhaps someday soon, so also with the disabled as well. Marriage too becomes redefined and again, the weak suffer, as children- denied a father and mother– become tools in the fulfillment of adult desires. Hence, when man becomes a god, he really becomes a demon.

When God becomes man, however, the issue is reversed. Then the Powerful becomes weak and omnipotence becomes poverty. And when the Great becomes weak, then there is cause to care for the weak. And so the early Christians ended the ancient pagan practice of infanticide and abortion (though modern pagans have again begun it) and provided care for the poor and weak, while later Christians worked to abolish slavery.

If man is a god, in the Nietzschean sense, he is not much of a god. Worse, he is not even much of a man. He is something worse, something capable of supporting the destruction of innocent human beings, their dismemberment, and their sale, sacrifices to modern man’s real god- the almighty dollar and his own ego.

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Breeding Like Rabbits? Procreation in the Medieval and Modern View

In the early Sixteenth Century, Henry VIII of England was a man with a very old and very normal problem: he wanted to change his woman. In the view of marriage common to the European nobility, the purpose of wives was to produce heirs and useful political alliances– not much better than the crude language of one of Thomas Kyd’s characters, “wives are made but to bed and feed.” Unfortunately, Henry’s first wife, who was really his only wife, had proved unable to produce any heirs. Since she had failed to serve her purpose, Henry tried to dismiss her and find a wife who could give him the heir he wanted. For him and his aristocratic brethren, this was the purpose of marriage: the production of children (and useful alliances). Since this was the overriding purpose of marriage, if a marriage failed to produce children, they tried to take this as sufficient reason to end the marriage.

The medieval Church, which supposedly thought the sole purpose of marriage was children might have been expected to agree with Henry and countless other similar nobles who also sought divorces for dynastic reasons. Yet, strangely, they did not, even when it was clearly in their political interest to do so. Hence, Pope Innocent III refused a divorce to King Phillip Augustus (II) of France, even thought Phillip was easily the most powerful monarch in early thirteenth-century Europe and Innocent was desperate for his support. As Henry VIII was refused his divorce, so was Phillip refused his.

This is of more than historical interest. It is often charged against the Catholic Church today that it considers the sole point of marriage to be children, hence contraception is forbidden and the Church expects people to, as the crude saying goes, “breed like rabbits.” While the modern world has moved on, the Church stays behind, convinced that the main purpose of marriage is to have as many children as possible.

Yet if this is so, it is strange that it be so. Strange that the same Church that is said to be obsessed with procreation still forbids divorce even if no children are possible. And it is strange too that the same Church forbids artificial reproductive technologies (though not natural ones), which are designed to increase the likelihood that a marriage produce children. Why should this be so, if it regards children as the sole point? Why should the medieval Church have forbidden childless couples to divorce if children were the key point of marriage?

There are two answers of course. The first is that it was never the Church that was obsessed with children, but the secular world. Pope Clement VII was not obsessed with children, but Henry VIII was: so obsessed, in fact, that he started his own church, declaring himself “supreme head of the Church in England” in order to give himself a divorce in an attempt to have the heirs he sought.

The second reason is this: the Church does not regard children as the main purpose of marriage. Rather, in the Middle Ages, as now, it saw the main purpose of marriage as the holiness of the spouses. Marriage was a sacrament, a physical sign of spiritual realities and channel of divine grace. In particular, marriage was as sign of the union between God, Jesus Christ, and His Church. Hence, while the purpose of marriage was not children, marriage was to be open to children; if either spouse was infertile, this was unfortunate, but it did not justify ending the marriage since its primary purpose, the sanctification of the spouses, remained. Hence, while a Catholic marriage will welcome children and not act actively against them, it will not be obsessed with them and may have many or few as circumstances allow.

The secular world, however, is obsessed with children either getting them (as was Henry VIII) through artificial means, or avoiding them through artificial means (whether contraception or abortion). This obsession reflects not a great love of children, but a great love of self, since the children become either tools of adult gratification or else obstacles to it. Where marriage can reflect no higher spiritual realities, people become their own gods and their own centers. If marriage cannot have a higher purpose, it must have a lower one. Fulton Sheen said that if love burns not upward in ascent, then it burns downward to destroy. The destruction falls on all society, the consequences evident in the world today.