THE RATIONAL INDIVIDUAL
Central to college and dear to the hearts of most college students is your identity as a human being. That’s right – YOU!! You are extremely important and valuable to everyone, everywhere in every humanities discipline. Sounds impressive, right? It is and that’s because YOU matter! How do you matter, let's count the ways –
Ø You will learn in the realm of political science that YOU are integral to any democratic political system, the central target of political socialization and its agents, and a very party to the social contract in which indispensable, inalienable and individual rights are of paramount importance.
Ø Literature courses everywhere speak righteously of the power of the individual spirit and the importance of one good, strong, determined person in a situation or world that is unaccommodating or oftentimes hostile to individuals. [Remember this one when you study Marxism!].
Ø Science, including medicine and psychology, emphasize the health and welfare of the individual physically, intellectually and emotionally in relation to his environment. Sociology, as a social science, emphasizes the role of family and individuals within society and within various social stereotypes and dynamics.
Ø Philosophy and its lovers of wisdom engage in the intellectual pursuit of understanding and defining “reality” and the individual in particular. The Renaissance illuminates and exalts the power of human reason and serves to remind us that our very dignity is found in one's ability to be rational, self-autonomous, free individuals.
Ø Even college religion courses can emphasize the power of one’s own individual spirituality or a pluralistic approach to religion in general that seems to accommodate everyone’s particular tastes and desires in religious or spiritual matters.
What lies at the core of all of this wonderfully fascinating and engaging learning is simply the notion of human dignity. Put another way, the humanities disciplines compel you to ask yourself what it really means to be human? College is one of the few times in your life that you will have the luxury of engaging and studying the very thing that Socrates was awed by and preoccupied with – the human condition. To “know thyself," according to Socrates, requires us to ponder and focus on this most basic of things. Truth be told, to focus on one’s self is the joy of college students and is in many ways the function and purpose of college overall.
It should not be surprising to realize that the human condition is, indeed, one of the primary focuses of Christianity and, more specifically, your Catholic faith. Pope John Paul II put it succinctly when he stated that “the foundation on which all human rights rest is the dignity of the person.” [ Ecclesia in America, Par. 57]. The dignity of man is found in its highest and fullest form by looking objectively at nature, the natural law, mankind’s history, human law, human reason, human faith, our Creator and Redeemer, and man’s relationship with God. Our lives and their meaning can be made no more dignified by our reason, our actions and our thoughts and beliefs than God has already made them; for our faith refers sincerely to “the incomparable worth of every person.” John Paul II writes the following in the opening pages of “Evangelium Vitae: The Gospel of Life”:
Man is called to a fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of his earthly existence, because it consists in sharing the very life of God. The loftiness of this supernatural vocation reveals the greatness and the inestimable value of human life even in its temporal phase. Life in time, in fact, is the fundamental condition, the initial stage and an integral part of the entire unified process of human existence. It is a process which, unexpectedly and undeservedly, is enlightened by the promise and renewed by the gift of divine life, which will reach its full realization in eternity (cf. 1 Jn 3:1-2). At the same time, it is precisely this supernatural calling which highlights the relative character of each individual’s earthly life. After all, life on earth is not an “ultimate” but a “penultimate” reality; even so, it remains a sacred reality entrusted to us, to be preserved with a sense of responsibility and brought to perfection in love and in the gift of ourselves to God and to our brothers and sisters. [Par. 2].
Yes, you read it right! His grace and your loving and obedient faith in God give you “fullness of life,” a share in the Divine life of God – the very same God who came to Jeremiah and comes to you saying “[b]efore I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” [Jer. 1:5]. Our Catholic faith is about our affirmation: “the affirmation of humanity, and of every individual human life, by a God passionately in love with his creation. So in love, in fact, that he sent his Son into the world for the world’s salvation.” G. Weigel, The Truth of Catholicism, p. 2-3 (Harper Perrenial 2001). The same Word Incarnate who wrapped his divine nature in our human flesh and through His love and Incarnation united himself with every one us and dignified our humanity to a level that the Angels themselves could not achieve. We are made in His image and likeness to share in the fullness of an eternal life that is made possible by God’s love, mercy and grace through His life, death and Resurrection – a life eternal, not just after death but in the here-and-now – with Him as He meets us in the Eucharist, blesses us with family, friends and opportunities, and prepares a place in eternity for us at His heavenly banquet and in His mansion with many rooms.
The Christian life and Catholic faith truly comprehend what it means to be human and has taught man’s inherent value and dignity through the ages:
“The Church knows that this Gospel of Life, which she has received from her Lord, has a profound and persuasive echo in the heart of every person – believer and non-believer alike – because it marvelously fulfills all the heart’s expectations while infinitely surpassing them. Even in the midst of difficulties and uncertainties, every person sincerely open to truth and goodness can, by the light of reason and the hidden action of grace, come to recognize in the natural law written in the heart (cf. Rom 2:14-14) the sacred value of human life from its very beginning until its end, and can affirm the right of every human being to have this primary good respected to the highest degree. Upon the recognition of this right, every human community and the political community itself are founded.”
Evangelium Vitae at Par. 2. When you contemplate your faith and God in earnest, you should gain an understanding of human dignity that surpasses that of many of the great philosophers, authors, leaders and professors that you will encounter in the Humanities. Pope Benedict XVI, a true teacher and modern-day Philosopher, warns in his recent work “Saved in Hope: Spe Salvi” against an individualistic understanding of salvation that is devoid of a full and ordered love, a true and trusting hope and genuine, sincere relationships with others, including Jesus Christ.
You are not just a “thing that thinks” as Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy would have you believe. Nor is your dignity based solely on your capacities for reason and self-autonomy as Immanuel Kant suggests. David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher, sufficiently demonstrated the limits of reason in his studied work “Treatise on Human Nature” and in his various Dialogues and Essays. Hume concluded that the notion of "self" was incomprehensible and that we are little more than bundles of sensory perception. Even less does your dignity come from theories of “Utility” or “Greatest Happiness” that are subjective, rooted in hedonistic pleasures, pains and cost/benefit analyses and commonly disguised as progressive “values.” We are not merely materialistic, economic or sensory beings nor are we the equivalent of all other living things as specieists will suggest.
But what about individualism and self-interest? They are compelling concepts to say the least. Much has been written and studied about the concept of “self-interest” in the humanities courses. Sophist philosophers like Protagoras and Callicles sound quite convincing when discussing relativism and the doctrine of the Superior Individual, both ultimately individualistic, self-interested philosophies at their core. The philosophies of Neitzsche, Dewey, Marx and Hume, as well as many others, endear one to an individualistic and perhaps existentialist approach to life that appears to empower. Secular and humanistic philosophies, and even some religions like Buddhism, also appear to offer a liberating, empowering view of the human condition.
In fact, individualism has many different names in the various disciplines. You might encounter this concept in ethics as individual relativism or egoism. It can be known as humanism, existentialism, materialism or any other number of names in the realm of philosophy. Liberals or progressives often attempt to transcend traditional values in the political arena by invoking individualism or unfettered choice as clear and distinct notions of liberty. New forms of individualism and names for it are being invented every day and taught in the name of tolerance, diversity and multiculturalism. Yet virtually all of them at their core invoke the primacy of the individual and the famous mantra from Protagoras of Abdera that “man is the measure of all things.”
Learn and study their views, comprehend what they say and confidently compare them to the teachings of your faith. The great themes of faith, human reason and human freedom have been repeatedly addressed by the current Pope, the late John Paul II and many others in the Church throughout the ages. Again, the words of Pope Benedict XVI in “Saved in Hope: Spe Salvi” are succinct and relevant:
“Let us put it very simply: man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope. Given the developments of the modern age, the quotation from Saint Paul with which I began (Eph. 2:12) proves to be thoroughly realistic and plainly true. There is no doubt, therefore, that a ‘Kingdom of God’ accomplished without God – a kingdom therefore of man alone – inevitably ends up as the ‘perverse end’ of all things as described by Kant: we have seen it, and we see it over and over again. Yet neither is there any doubt that God truly enters into human affairs only when, rather than being present merely in our thinking, he himself comes towards us and speaks to us. Reason therefore needs faith if it is to be completely itself: reason and faith need one another in order to fulfill their true nature and their mission.”
Equally eloquent in manner, Pope John Paul II writes at the outset of his encyclical letter entitled “Fides et Ratio: On the Relationship Between Faith and Reason” that: “[f]aith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth – in a word, to know himself – so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.” As you contemplate the concepts you study, recall that you are a child of the living God, a temple of the Spirit, made in His image and likeness and called to holiness and the fullness of life with Him for eternity. There can be no greater love, no greater purpose, no greater dignity for humanity. We are free “to live, forever, within the light and love, the giving and receiving, of the Holy Trinity.” G. Weigel, The Truth of Catholicism, p. 32 (Harper Perrenial 2001).
One final note - many terrific Church documents and Papal works exist on this topic! For quick reads and compelling insights, try the following Papal Addresses to the Members of the United Nations General Assembly and Pope John XXIII's widely-hailed 1963 Letter on Universal Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity and Liberty ("Pacem in Terris"). The following links are not intended to be an exhaustive collection but are provided as quick, topical references for your consideration and reading pleasure: