Wisdom, Christian Witness, and the Year of Faith

A long time ago in Germany, a man kept a diary. And some of his words are worth sharing today, because they’re a good place to begin our discussion.

The man wrote: “Speak both to the powerful and to every man—whoever he may be—appropriately and without affectation. Use plain language. Receive wealth or prosperity without arrogance, and be ready to let it go. Order your life well in every single act. Behave justly to those who are around you. Be vigilant over your thoughts, so that nothing should steal into them without being well examined.”

He wrote: “Every moment, focus steadily on doing the task at hand with perfect and simple dignity, and with feelings of affection and freedom and justice. Put away hypocrisy. Put away self-love and discontent with your portion in life. We were made for cooperation, and to act against one another is contrary to nature. Accept correction gladly. Teach without anger. Keep yourself simple, good, pure, serious, a friend of justice, kind, affectionate, and strenuous in all proper acts.”

Finally, he wrote: “Take care never to feel toward those who are inhuman, the way they feel toward other men.”

The dictionary in my home defines wisdom as “the understanding and pursuit of what is true, right or lasting.” If that’s so, and I believe it is, the words from the diary we just heard are wisdom. They offer us a map to living a worthy life—a life of interior peace flowing out of moral character and purpose. They’re as valuable today as when they were first written.

But what’s interesting is this: They were written more than 1,800 years ago. The author probably didn’t intend to see his work published. He wrote mainly for himself—to strengthen his convictions. And many of his thoughts, which we now call the Meditations, were written at war, at night, in winter, from the inside of a Roman military tent, on the German frontier. In his nineteen years as emperor, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus had no long period of peace. He spent much of his life away from Rome with the army. He fought one brutal war after another against invaders, and he did it to defend a society that had already lost the values he held dear. Moreover, in the long run he failed. The barbarians won. Rome rotted out and unraveled. His own son Commodus became one of the worst tyrants in history.

So why do we remember him? We remember him because nothing is more compelling than a good man in an evil time. Marcus Aurelius held absolute power in a corrupt age. Yet despite that, he chose to seek what is true and right and lasting; and he disciplined his own life accordingly. In the context of his time, he was a just man and a moral ruler. He achieved that dignity of character by giving his heart first to the pursuit of wisdom, and only then to Rome. He had a brilliant mind, but he had no love of intellect purely for the sake of intellect. Rather, he had a special disgust for intelligence without moral purpose.

That’s why he’s important for us today. He pursued wisdom above everything else. And though his beliefs were very different from our own, we can learn from his example. Those three qualities that Marcus Aurelius sought in his own life—the true, the right, and the lasting—are the pillars of the world. They’re the tripod that supports a meaningful life. Whether rich or poor, emperor or peasant, Christian or pagan, all people in every age have a hunger for meaning in their lives.

That hunger is a clue to the nature of our humanity. It’s a sign that points to what Jesus said to Satan: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Power, sex, knowledge, money, possessions—none of these things finally lasts. They’re narcotics. They can dull our inner hunger, but they can’t make it go away. Wisdom consists in turning our hearts to the search for what does satisfy that hunger, and then pursuing it with all our strength.

That brings me to the three simple points I want to put before you today.

Here’s my first point: The more secular we become, the less we care about the true, the right and the lasting. And here’s the reason: We don’t really believe they exist. Or we simply don’t care.

The word “philosophy” comes from the Greek words philia, which means love, and sophia, which means wisdom. In an earlier age, philosophy fed man’s nobility; it involved the love and pursuit of wisdom. Academic philosophy today is a shadow of its historic dignity in the Western tradition. It’s an ailing discipline because it has collapsed into either postmodern skepticism or materialistic scientism, and neither has any place for wisdom or love. The postmodern cynic rejects the search for higher, permanent truths about the human person as a kind of ideological power grab. And the materialist philosopher rejects the search because it demands going beyond what we can confirm in a laboratory.

As a result, our idea of “wisdom” has shriveled down to mean, at best, a kind of common sense based on experience; and at worst, a cheap and clever irony.

Real wisdom grows from the moral memory of a culture. The more we debunk and reinterpret the past according to some political or social scientific agenda, the less coherent our memory becomes, and the more irrelevant wisdom like the Bible seems. This results in a kind of rootlessness, a self-imposed amnesia, and it undermines our whole moral vocabulary. It also leads us to see and judge everything in terms of its utility, right here and right now. What’s useful and productive is judged good. What isn’t is judged bad.

Here’s my second point: Just as we transferred our belief in God to a belief in ourselves beginning with the Enlightenment, now we’re shifting a belief in ourselves to a belief in our tools under the cover of a scientific and technological revolution. To put it another way: Losing faith in God inevitably results in losing faith in man, because only God can guarantee man’s unique dignity. Without God, we turn ourselves into the objects and the victims of our own knowledge. And we’re now doing that at a moment when our tools have more destructive power than at any time in history.

This is why the witness of the Church is so important. The Church, as G.K. Chesterton once said, is the only thing that saves a man from the “degrading slavery of being a child of his age.” What he meant is this: People who conform their hearts to the ideas of the age disappear right along with the age. Nothing is older than yesterday’s “new thing” and the people who worshiped it. We were created to live in the present, worship God in the present, serve the poor in the present, and support each other in the present—but to ready ourselves for eternity.

That brings me to my third point: I believe that it’s exactly this vocation—this eternal perspective—that makes the Church the most reliable bearer of wisdom for the contemporary world. No one knows the human soul and the human experience as well as the Church. No one believes in the human enterprise more deeply than the Church. And that creates an interesting irony: In his lifetime, Marcus Aurelius bitterly persecuted Christians for being superstitious, obstinate, and seditious. But he did so not out of personal cruelty, or corruption, or arrogance, but out of piety for the old gods. If he were alive today, and alive with the same hunger for wisdom, he might see the world very differently. It might even be tempting to imagine him as a Christian—because what he sought from life in his own time, only the Church really offers today.

Now let’s revisit these three points in a little more detail.


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Regarding my first point: The more secular we become, the less we care about the true, the right, and the lasting. At the heart of the secular—or maybe the better word is “secularist”—worldview are several key ideas. They go like this: God doesn’t exist; or if he does, he’s irrelevant to our public life. Religion is dangerous, or at least suspect, because it divides people with conflicting fairytales about the purpose of life. What matters is material reality, here and now; and the principles governing our behavior here and now will change as our needs and circumstances change. Finally, a good society is one that provides the most material benefits to the greatest number of people. What we perceive as true and right is conditioned by our circumstances, and nothing lasts because our needs change.

Obviously I’m oversimplifying a complex social reality, but not by so very much. Wisdom in this kind of environment shrinks into sophistry or cynicism. And that’s exactly what has happened. We’ve become skeptical about our ability to really “know” anything, and we’ve simply stopped asking profound questions. We no longer really look for the true, the right, and the lasting because we don’t really believe they exist outside our own brain chemistry. We’re agnostic about human meaning in the same way we’re agnostic about God.

Let’s move on to my second point: We stopped believing in God and began believing in ourselves. Now we’re losing our faith in ourselves and putting our faith in our tools. We’re becoming the objects and the victims of our own knowledge. Forty years ago, if a scientist talked about hybridizing embryos to produce people to do certain jobs or live in certain environments, he was dismissed as a lunatic or a monster. Now we talk about the practical benefits of “perfecting” the human gene code, and the potential profits.

What we risk creating is a culture of unthinking scientific and technological boosterism. In some ways, it’s already here. In the words of Leon Kass, the distinguished physician and University of Chicago scholar of social thought:

The pursuit of [human perfection] scientifically defined and technically advanced, not only threatens to make us more intolerant of imperfection. It also threatens to sell short the true possibilities of human flourishing, which are to be found in love and friendship, work and play, art and science, song and worship . . . We triumph over nature’s unpredictabilities only to subject ourselves, tragically, to the still greater unpredictability of our capricious wills and our fickle opinions.

To put it even more bluntly: We’re fooling ourselves if we think our love affair with science is intellectually chaste, a kind of high-minded romance with knowledge. Chaste it’s not. Knowledge is power, and what Americans really love is the power knowledge brings—the power to penetrate, dominate, and exploit the natural world.

Exactly seventy years ago, C.S. Lewis very shrewdly observed that

There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. [But] for magic and applied science alike, the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men; the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as [terrible and] impious . . .

Americans love science for the technology we can extract from it, and technology does not have a conscience. As easily as it gives us iPads and smart phones, it also gives us Nagasaki, Zyklon B gas, genetic screening, and abortion pills. The more we subordinate the sanctity of the human person to the tools we create, the less human we become. Our job as Christians is to remind our culture that true and right and lasting things do exist about human nature—and if we abandon these things, we abandon who we are, and we abandon those who need us to speak on their behalf.

Next Page: Third and Final Point–>

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  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    Exceptional, extraordinary essay!I wish every student in high school and college could be given a copy of this address to understand the threat that modernity poses to civilization, Christian culture, and humanity. How demoralizing to learn that a pagan like Marcus Aurelius lived by higher standards than most people in the twenty-first century who refuse to grasp the rudiments of right and wrong, noble and base, honorable and despicable.

  • Caesar Augustus

    Chaput uses a technique of showing his learning to bolster basic points. I have had personal contact with him. While he is overall a good man, he is an opponent of the future Consecration of Russia. This, coming up to 2017 as Benedict XVI hinted at Fatima in 2010, is serious.

    • Gina101

      Oh, give it a rest. It’s been consecrated.

      • Caesar Augustus

        In Ireland, last Thursday, abortion was legalised. Gay marriage has been sreading all over the world. the world is getting worse. So, obviously you are unable to connect this to the lack ofTriumph of the Immaculate – you have the mind of a vegetable. Maybe you are one of these women who hate Fatima because it rebukes your immodesty of dress – so you have a hate agenda. Russia has not been consecrated. The gay vatican is lying.

        • Julius Caesar

          Caesar Augustus

          a few seconds ago

          And just today, in July 2013,
          Queen Elizabeth II grants the Royal assent for homo marriage. Russia has
          not been consecrated. Nuclear war is coming. This war could be softened
          if Russia was consecrated but the bishops are evil.

          • Najib Nasr

            Brother Caesar, I am assuming that you are Catholic, at least by name. For you to generalize with your last phrase, only shows that you have decided to go against your better judgment. Further reflections would have caused you to listen to the prompts of the Holy Spirit and ignore the prompts of our flesh and the prompts of the Devil, all of which can have an effect on us. If there is just one bishop who is pious and following God’s will, then you have exercised calumny against that bishop, and that is a sin. Even if you go and confess your sin and you receive absolution, there remains restitution to be effected. How can you put things right for that bishop among all who heard and believed what you said? It is close to impossible. If you cannot effect restitution on this earth, then, you will have to do that in Purgatory; and, if you do not believe in Purgatory, then, you would really be a Catholic in name. For, a Catholic is one who believes in all that God has revealed to the Apostles, and these are stored, guarded and dispensed to the faithful by the Catholic Church, “which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). Reflect and take action as per God’s will. God bless.

          • Caesar Augustus

            No it is not calumny. Jesus called the chief priests and high priest ‘evil’ also. Calumny does not apply when the greater good is at stake. The bishops have not consecrated Russia and so theyare evil. Bp. Chaput talks too much about everything and never about this consecrating Russia

          • Najib Nasr

            CCC 1753 A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just. The end does not justify the means. Thus the condemnation of an innocent person cannot be justified as a legitimate means of saving the nation. On the other hand, an added bad intention (such as vainglory) makes an act evil that, in and of itself, can be good (such as almsgiving).

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  • bill bannon

    This repeats St. Jerome’s mistake about stoicism ( he called Seneca “our Seneca” in “Against Jovinianus”). Jerome went on to say he got his ideas on marriage (sex) from Seneca. But Seneca affirmed infanticide as did Marcus Aurelius which suggests that both might be pro choice if they lived today…not Catholics. Many Stoics believed that a father had the right to administer the death penalty to his children up til the age of 15 years old because only then was a youth fully rational. Traces of their attitude can be seen later in the Mafia where the patriarchs have immoderate power over the younger and over the family. I’m glad the stoic ideas are illegal in the U.S. We need for high clergy to be touring their diocese not writing. Their are almost too many Catholic writers on the net. The last two Popes loved writing more than meeting the people or administrating. That’s how the abuse scandal lasted 50 years. High clergy…please administrate and let other Catholic writers write.

    • Alejandro I. Sanchez

      Why can’t they do both?

  • Stephen

    For, as gold is tested in fire, a worthy man is tested in the furnace of humiliation.

  • Caesar Augustus

    And just today, inn July 2013, Queen Elizabeth II grants the Royal assent for homo marriage. Russia has not been consecrated. Nuclear war is coming. This war could be softened if Russia was consecrated but the bishops are evil.

  • Najib Nasr

    A good article. The Archbishop is something else. My comment is that we need to say that nobody can redefine marriage. Marriage is between a man and a woman, and has been so throughout recorded history, and nothing has changed. There were homosexuals throughout history. The benefits of marriage as afforded by the state can be extended to those others. We are not against them. As God’s creation, we are to afford them their dignity and we are not to be disrespectful to them (CCC 1738, 2358). But, they must understand that they need to pick on other names to denote their lifestyle and whatever else they do.
    It is also required of us to advise them of God’s warnings through the examples in Genesis 18:20, 19:5, 27-29, and all in-between, and also, Romans 1:18-32. For those of them who profess Christianity, they must know that they cannot interpret the Bible themselves in a manner contrary to the teachings of the Apostles; and these are stored, guarded and dispensed only by the Catholic Church which Jesus Christ instituted. Peter warned against Personal Interpretation (2 Peter 1:20-21).

    God calls homosexuals to chastity, just as he calls heterosexuals to chastity. The government can teach them error, if they like it that way, but, we follow a higher authority and we do not wish our children to be exposed to unchastity. So, the State and the courts should not force us to do that, as they are presently doing.

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  • bluesuede

    Beautifully simple and direct.
    I knew the secular mindset has adopted science and technology as their god and reason for everything, but now I know why. Thank you. Please keep writing articles.

  • Marie Dean

    Excellent and thank you. Should be read from every pulpit in the Catholic world.