America’s Technological Ontology and the Gift of the Given: Benedict XVI on the Cultural Significance of the Monastic <em>Quaerere Deum</em>

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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" (George Grant, “Two Theological Languages,†Addendum [1988], in Collected Works of George Grant, Vol. 2 1951-1959, edited by Arthur Davis [University of Toronto Press, 2002], p. 60).


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. (Gabriel Marcel, Man Against Humanity [London: Harvill Press, 1952], 55-56).


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 (Joseph Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004], p. 61).


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 Western 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.

The paper proposes a reading of America with respect to the foundations of the dignity of human life and of the inherent truth, goodness, and beauty of all creaturely life. This reading is framed in relation to two historical contexts: On the one hand, Benedict’s XVI’s call for a renewed reflection on the true meaning of laïcitè, or secularity, as well as his statement that the monastic quaerere Deum–the search for God and the readiness to listen to him–“remains today the basis of any culture.†On the other hand, the reading of America offered in the mid-twentieth century (through Vatican II) by John Courtney Murray (d. 1967), whose arguments regarding religion, secularity, and freedom/human dignity are widely acknowledged to be among the most sophisticated in the history of American Catholicism.




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