In his book on the transformation of sexuality in the Roman world brought about by Christianity, Kyle Harper observes that Christianity was experienced as a deeply liberating force by many in the empire. For Romans, the sexual energy of men was assumed to be basically boundless, however because of the chaos that this sexual energy could unleash, outlets needed to be created that lowered the stakes of sexuality, so to speak, by lowering the status and dignity of the people reduced to being sexual outlets.

A system of norms developed that effectively meant propertied Roman men could have as many sexual partners as they desired, provided they did not sleep with the wife of another propertied Roman man, which could create uncertainty about inheritances for that woman’s children. There was also generally a prohibition against same-sex relationships in which the powerful Roman man was the “bottom,” in the pair, as that was thought to diminish his social standing by placing him in the position of being dominated in the sexual act.

What these norms meant, in practice, was that the overwhelming majority of Roman women were vulnerable to the predations of men, as were many underage boys, and the empire’s many, many slaves. Sometimes this cruelty was made explicit, as when one Roman man said,

If your loins are swollen, and there’s some home born slave boy or girl around where you can quickly stick it, would you rather burst with tension? Not I—I like an easy lay.

When Christianity confronted all this, it’s teachings about the dignity of the human person, of every human person, shook the world entire.

De Lubac describes it well:

It is difficult for us to imagine the disturbance (these teachings) created in the soul of man in the ancient world. At the first tidings of them humanity was lifted on a wave of hope. It was stirred by vague premonitions that, at the recoil, sharpened its awareness of its state of misery. It became conscious of deliverance. To begin with, needless to say, it was not an external deliverance—not that social liberation which was to come, for instance, with the abolition of slavery. That liberation, which presupposed a large number of technical and economic conditions, was brought about slowly but surely under the influence of the Christian idea of man. …

But from the outset that idea had produced a more profound effect. Through it, man was freed, in his own eyes, from the ontological slavery with which Fate burdened him. The stars, in their unalterable courses, did not, after all, implacably control our destinies. Man, every man, no matter who, had a direct link with the Creator, the Ruler of the stars themselves. And lo, the countless Powers—gods, spirits, demons—who pinioned human life in the net of their tyrannical wills, weighing upon the soul with all their terrors, now crumbled into dust, and the sacred principle that had gone astray in them was redesicvered unified, purified, and sublimated in God the deliverer!

It was no longer a small and select company that, thanks to some secret means of escape, could break the charmed circle: it was mankind as a whole that found its night suddenly illumined and took cognizance of its royal liberty. No more circle! No more blind destiny! No more Moira! No more Fate! Transcendent God, God the ‘friend of men,’ revailed in Jesus, opened for all a way that nothing would ever bar again.

This is the move that Mark Sayers describes as the shift from Culture 1 (Pre-Christian) to Culture 2 (Christian).

However, we now live in Culture 3 (Post-Christian) which is veering rapidly into a fourth culture, which is something altogether new. It is not the pagan pre-Christian world but also less defined by hostility to Christianity, as in Culture 3.

In Culture 4, Christianity is not really central to the “religious” movements shaping culture, either on the left, which is able to accommodate itself to a progressive “Christianity”, or on the right, which is happy to continue to regard a heavily modified “Christianity” as part of their folk religion, same as ever. Neither right nor left is terribly concerned with much of what is explicitly claimed in the Creed, for example. They are more concerned when Christians try to restrict sexual freedom or gender expression on the left or when Christians demand certain treatment of people of color or foreclose the possibility of using certain political tactics on the right.

So how did this change come about? De Lubac argues that what emerges over time under modernity, fully blossoming (if that is the word for it) in the 18th and 19th centuries, isn’t so much a plain rejection of belief in the divine, but rather specifically an anti-theistic humanism. It begins with the thought that the spark of dignity and beauty in each person is derived not from their connection to God, but rather is something internal to themselves, which they possess without any necessary input from the divine.

But if this “divine” spark is not derived from a being existing outside of ourselves who created and redeems us but is, instead, intrinsic to the human person, then “God” is transformed from the giver of life to the enslaver of man, for “God” simply becomes a concept that can be used in a variety of ways to justify unwarranted, unneeded, and unjust violations of the freedom that is ours by right as human beings.

Here De Lubac’s argument reminds me much of Schweizer’s Hating God. What Proudhon, quoted by De Lubac, refers to as “anti-theism,” is quite similar to Schweizer’s idea of “misotheism.”

This means that when we think of “atheist humanism,” as De Lubac discusses it, we should think less about mere infidelism, you might call it, and more about the sorts of intellectuals whose positively stated conception of the good life is inherently opposed to God.

Feuerbach and Marx

In chapter 1, De Lubac begins his study with Feuerbach before continuing to Marx and Nietzsche. The progression he sees begins with Feuerbach’s reduction of Christianity to a sort of historical vehicle for identifying the inner spark in man that, now, needed to evolve as humanity outgrew certain ideas. Christianity was not wrong, necessarily, but merely outmoded. As man matured, growing in awareness of his own natural greatness, Christianity would need to change and expand to accommodate this new man.

In De Lubac’s telling, Marx’s contribution was to supply the materialist analysis and prescriptions required to help Feuerbach’s theory begin to take on flesh, as it were.

(Feuerbach’s critique) always remained for (Marx) something definitive. Not that he did not criticize Feuerbach’s doctrine: but when he did so it was not to call it in question in the slightest degree; it was only to pronounce it incomplete and still too abstract and vague. He reproached it with making religious alienation in some sort a metaphysical act, instead of explaining it more positively as a sociological fact. He endeavored to go beyond what Engels irrelevantly called Feuerbach’s ‘banalities’ by substituting, as Otto Ruhle said, the materialism of ‘social situations’ for the ‘materialism of the objective data of nature.’ To quote Engle’s book on Feurebach once more, Marx wanted to replace ‘the cult of abstract man,’ which was the center of Feuerbach’s new religion, ‘by the science of real men and their historical development.’ Thus he stripped from the human essence the mystic halo with which Feuerbach had kept it surrounded. Soon everything else seemed to pale, in his thought, before the technique of economics and the tactics of class warfare.

Thus Marx still maintains a spiritual connection to Feuerbachian anti-theism, but he replaces airy speculation with concrete economic policies.


De Lubac argues that Nietzsche also follows Feuerbach’s lead, but to different ends.

Religion is conceived as the result of a kind of psychological duplication. God, according to Nietzsche, is nothing more than the mirror of man, who in certain intense, exceptional states, becomes aware of the power that is in him or of the love that exalts him.

But, as these sensations take him more or less by surprise and he does not seem to be accountable for them, man, not daring to ascribe such power or love to himself, makes them the attributes of a superhuman being who is a stranger to him. He accordingly divides the two aspects of his own nature between two spheres, the ordinary weak and pitiable aspect appertaining to the sphere he calls ‘man,’ while the rare, strong, and surprising aspect belongs to the sphere he calls ‘God.’

Thus by his own actions he is defrauded of what is best in him. ‘Religion is a matter of adulteration of the personality.’ It is a process by which man is debased. The whole essence of the human problem will therefore consist in remounting that fatal slope so as ‘gradually to regain possession of those lofty and proud states of the soul’ of which we have wrongfully despoiled ourselves.

Thus you can find both the political and social program of Marx and the philosophical program of Nietzsche in Feuerbach, or that is De Lubac’s claim at least. It makes sense to me, though I don’t have a sufficient mastery of any of these three thinkers to substantiate the claim in any way beyond what De Lubac himself has done.

What to make of all this?

If De Lubac is correct, then the core question before us today is anthropological: what is a human being? what is a person? And the problem facing the church is that the claims of that inner, truer, somehow “authentic” self that resides inside each of us are absolutized because of how that inner self has come to be identical with that kind of inner spark of humanity that each of these thinkers venerate so. When Christianity confronts people who believe such things, the response is often incredulity—how can you tell me that this desire I have is wrong?

Of course, Christians ourselves are not immune to these trends and so we will often sense the dissonance internally before we ever try to speak of the faith to others. And we find ways of accommodating the faith to these realities, such that the lust for power and strength is made into something that is somehow reconcilable with Christian belief or the need to bow before that inner, authentic self is somehow rendered an act that pleases God even if it involves despoiling the bodies he has given us.

One thing we might recover that could be helpful, and this is my opinion rather than anything De Lubac has said so far, is the idea of human beings as passive creatures or, perhaps, as receptive creatures. There’s something counter-intuitive in this, I admit, both because of how we so valorize individual choice and because many of us are so fearful of vulnerability and passive beings are inherently vulnerable beings.

But this is an argument I try to make in the book that first came to me while reading Tish’s recent book: Part of what we do when we pray is we learn that there are types of vulnerability that are safe. The physical practice of kneeling as we pray teaches us this. Indeed, there is a sense in which this sort of receptivity actually creates a greater capacity for intimacy because in being receptive beings we open ourselves up to the other in a way that we do not when we simply assert our own being, express our own concept of meaning, and so on.

There’s something natural about this as well, of course. We all passively receive the gift of sunlight every day, to say nothing of water and air. Those come to us, mostly without interference although no doubt the capitalists would love to figure out a way to make each a consumable good. Likewise, when we read the Christmas story there is a striking receptivity about Mary that we are called to learn from and practice ourselves, joyfully receiving from the hand of God whatever he gives to us.

The point here is not, of course, that all forms of individual agency are bad. There are many ways in which we need to maintain a healthy sense of “mine,” as Chase is saying over on the main site today. And yet if De Lubac is right, then there’s also a very important sense in which we struggle to recognize what is not mine but rather what has been given to me from someone else. It is hard for us to see what we have been given, what we have not earned, which means that it is hard to recognize the ways in which all of us are vulnerable, all of us in need.

Which is perhaps another way of saying that the spirit of atheist humanism is a spirit with no place for grace. Which is perhaps why our culture increasingly has no place for mercy and, instead, spends so much time canceling each other, shouting at each other, and shaming one another. To recognize our essentially receptive nature as people is, implicitly, to recognize our need for grace.

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Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy and author of "In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World." He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.