Meditation on the Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell for the Month of Novemberm – Written in 2005.

(The Loss of the experience of the self produces a stench from under the floorboards)

On the morning of the Conclave, Cardinal Josef Ratzinger announces the “dictatorship of relativism,” The pagan gods which arose within the epistemology of objects, i.e., within the sensible cosmos, were extirpated by the experience of God in Jesus Christ as Absolute (“You therefore are to be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect” [Matt. 5, 48]) that took place within the epistemology of subjects.[1] Christian faith that is the gift of self to the God Who is the Gift of Self in the Person of Jesus Christ is an experience of self given in free action, not through sensation. It is an experience of reality in an essentially different way than through experience in sensation. The gods of all time have been posited as the highest and most in the cosmos of sensation. The God of Jesus Christ is experienced as “I AM.”

Now, since the Enlightenment, we have progressively lost the experience of Jesus Christ as Person, we have neither God nor gods. Thus a remark by C.S. Lewis in which he expressed nostalgia for paganism as he/we confront a looming nihilism in which there is no truth. Absent the experience of God, there are no absolutes: except what looms before us, Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell: in the form of fear, guilt, yearning for ecstasy and loneliness-sadness-depression. Cardinal Ratzinger made the same observation in an interview in 1992:[2]

Ratzinger on the Catechism of the Catholic Church Re-proposing the Faith in the Face of Nihilism:[3]

 “Why publish a `universal catechism’ in 1992? Were previous catechisms inadequate?

Ratzinger: “The reason is that today we are in a situation exactly like that at the time of the council of Trent, which, held in the middle of the 16th century, marked the dawn of modern times.

        “Now we are close to the end of a millennium and in an entirely new historical period, indicated by schemas of thought, science, technology, culture and civilization, breaking completely with all that we knew previously.

        “This is why it was necessary to reformulate the logic and the sum total of the Christian faith. This is the fruit of a reflection, over some years, by the universal Church to rethink, re-articulate and bring up-to-date her doctrine.”

      “You are, like the Pope, extremely worried by the crisis of faith in modern society. And the new situation in Europe only aggravates the diagnosis since in your last work on Europe you go as far as to say that nihilism is rapidly taking the place of Marxism. How do you analyze this divorce between faith and modernity?

Ratzinger: “It is explained by the encroachment of relativism and subjectivism, an inevitable consequence of a world overwhelmed by the alleged certainties of natural or applied science. Only what can be tested and proved appears as rational. [Sensible] Experience has become the only criterion guaranteeing truth. Anything that cannot be subjected to mathematical or experimental verification is regarded as irrational.

        “This restriction of reason has the result that we are left in almost total darkness regarding some essential dimensions of life. The meaning of man, the bases of ethics, the question of God cannot be subjected to rational experience, verified by mathematical formulae. And so they are left to subjective sensibility alone. This is serious because if, in a society, the bases of ethical behavior are abandoned to subjectivity alone, released from common motives for being and living, handed over to pragmatism, then it is man himself who is threatened.

        The great ideologies have been able to give a certain ethical foundation to society. But today, Marxism is crumbling and liberal ideology is so split into fragments that it no longer has a common, solid, coherent view of man and his future. In the present situation of emptiness, there looms the terrible danger of nihilism, that is to say, the denial or absence of all fundamental moral reference for the conduct of social life. This danger becomes visible in the new forms of terrorism.”

      That is to say…

Ratzinger: “Even though perverted, the political, social terrorism of the 1960’s had a certain kind of moral ideal. But today, the terrorism of drug abuse, of the Mafia, of attacks on foreigners, in Germany and elsewhere, no longer has any moral basis. In this era of sovereign subjectivity, people act for the sole pleasure of acting, without any reference other than the satisfaction of `myself.’

        “Just as the terrorism that was born from the Marxism of yesterday put its finger on the anomalies of our social order, in the same way the nihilistic terrorism of today ought to show us the course to be followed for a reflection on the bases of a new ethical and collective reason”

…Are you not tempted, in this period of ideological emptiness, by a sort of Christian reconquest?

Ratzinger: “No, in the dialogue that I wish with all political and intellectual forces in order to define this minimum ethic, the Catholic Church is not seeking to impose a new kind of respublica Christiana. It would be absurd to want to go back, to return to a system of political Christendom. But it is true that we feel a responsibility in this world, and we desire to make our contribution as Catholics. We do not wish to impose Catholicism on the West, but we do want the fundamental view of Christianity and the liberal values dominant in today’s world to be able to meet and make one another mutually fruitful.”

  1. November is the month to consider the last things: death, judgment, Heaven and Hell. They are not preached because they are presumed to be beyond our experience. Nevertheless, the massive experiences in society are fear (of death), guilt (in judgment), ecstasy in drugs, pornography and the orgasmic (Heaven), and sadness and depression (Hell). The absolutes of the future are present now, making them.
  2. Yet, confessions are rare and tend to be trivial. They register interior events: anger, negativity, impatience, jealousy, victimization by others, unforgiving, defensiveness, distraction, etc., etc. The cause: amnesia of the self. Original and personal sins turn the self back on itself. There is no experience of self-transcendence.
  3. Jesus Christ is the revelation not only who God is, but who man is. The encounter with Christ by the Samaritan woman (John, chapter 4) and by Zacchaeus (Luke, chapter 19) are definitive.

Both the Samaritan woman and Zacchaeus must experience the personal entry of Christ into their lives. So do you.

            S. Woman: water as object. Desires water that is forever (discloses desire for Heaven). Christ changes the horizon of discourse: “Bring me your husband.” She reveals the waywardness of her personal existence: “I have no husband.” Christ reveals that she has had five. She moves to the transcendence of religion: “Sir I see that thou are a prophet. Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you say…” (Jn. 4, 20). She then says, “I know that Messias is coming (who is called Christ), and when he comes he will tell us all things. Jesus said to her, `I who speak with thee am he.’” (Ibid. 4, 26).

            Zacchaeus: self-accusing of fraud and exorbitant interest, Christ calls him down from the tree wants to enter into his house (his persona). (See JPII, Holy Thursday, 2002, Letter to Priests, #6 -7). Conversion takes place: “Half of my goods to the poor,” “If I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold” (Lk. 19,  8-9).

5)   The Sacrament of Penance: Encounter with Christ in the priest. You need to tell the truth about the self. Conversion. The key: Go to the causes that are absolutes under the event perceived as trivial. The talk by Msgr. Jim Mulligan, Washington, D.C: a) You can’t do it alone; b) it is not a work of will power but of grace and your correspondence. After the initial conversion, regular subsequent confession sustains it.

[1] For a presentation of this notion, see David B. Hart’s “Christ and Nothing,”  First Things 136 (October 2003): 47-57. I do not share the conclusion of the author, which is negative.

[2] “And Marxism Gave Birth to… NIHILISM,”Henri Tinq: Catholic World Report January 1993, 52-55:

[3] “At that time, I sent a small wok of mine to Hans Urs von Balthasar, who, as always, immediately thanked me with a post card and with his thanks added a pregnant phrase which I have never forgotten: `Don’t `presuppose,’ but `pro-pose’ the faith.’ It was an imperative that struck me…. The faith does not have permanence in and of itself. One can never simply presuppose it as something already concluded in itself. It must be continually re-lived. And as it is an act, an act that embraces every dimension of our existence, it must always be thought through anew and always borne witness to anew.’” in “What Does the Church Believe?” Catholic World Report  March 1993, 26.

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