Understanding the “Eclipse of God”

I am a man preoccupied by philosophy – but not in the typical, modern academic sense of the word.

When I call myself an “incurable philosopher,” I mean that I am compelled to examine the world around me, and to ask insistently: “Does this make sense? Is it right? And then, what is to be done?” In other words: “Are we living in accordance with Wisdom? And how are we to live by that standard?”

This, I believe, is the true and original meaning of philosophy: not to comprehend the universe with pure concepts (as if that were possible), but to discover our place in reality and live accordingly.

Philosophy, in this sense, is inseparable from life. It forces us to examine ourselves, and the situations in which we find ourselves. Thus, one of the main philosophical problems with which I have struggled is the current state of Western civilization.

I have spent years – first as a Buddhist-leaning atheist, then as a Christian – considering the paradoxes and problems of modern society: such as its obsession with the physical sciences; its dismissal of traditional morality; its combinations of hedonism and despair, information-saturation and ignorance.

There are many perils, both intellectual and personal, involved in studying the crisis of the modern world. One intellectual risk is to become lost in particular phenomena, and consequently, mistake the part for the whole – missing the forest for the trees, as it were.

For instance, it has taken me a long time to realize that the crisis of contemporary Western culture is not primarily a moral crisis.

This is counterintuitive, and not easy to see – in part, because so many new or enhanced forms of evil have arisen in modern times. To some extent, we have seen a deliberate turn against traditional moral wisdom: a process stretching back centuries, but which accelerated dramatically in the last hundred years.

Yet even this turn, I believe, is merely a symptom of a deeper sickness. The same is true of our technological, intellectual, and other problems: however much havoc they cause, they are more symptoms than causes.

If these are the symptoms, then what is the underlying disease?

Fundamentally, our civilization is in a metaphysical and existential crisis: that is to say, a crisis in regard to the nature and meaning of life.

That is a philosophical way to put it – bearing in mind that I see “philosophy” not as an academic field, but as the pursuit and practice of wisdom. Philosophically speaking, our modern sickness is the loss of metaphysical and existential truth – the wisdom bearing on life’s nature and meaning.

It is possible – and indeed, ultimately necessary – to express the same truth in religious terms. From a religious standpoint, we can understand the same crisis in a more profound and comprehensive way.

Understood from the religious standpoint, the crisis of the modern world is the “eclipse of God” – the disappearance of God from man’s sense of life.

During his pontificate, and especially in its second half, Benedict XVI used the imagery of an “eclipse” – or variations on it – to describe what he saw as the single most serious and urgent problem of our time.

This “eclipse of God” is not just a loss of traditional religious faith (though it includes that trend), but a more profound loss of man’s whole sense of transcendence, his consciousness of the Absolute. It is a growing blindness and deafness to the Eternal, a loss of insight into what lies beyond the finite horizon.

The two descriptions I have given, apply to the same single problem: the “eclipse of God” is the modern metaphysical and existential crisis, and vice versa. They are the same thing, seen from different angles.

*

The “eclipse of God” is the most succinct description of the modern crisis from the religious standpoint, and Pope Benedict used the phrase on several occasions.

He used slightly different language, but with the same meaning, in what I regard as his most important statement on this subject – made in a 2009 letter.

In that document, the Pope spoke directly about the crisis of the modern world, making it clear that he saw the “eclipse of God” as its root cause:

The real problem at this moment of our history is that God is disappearing from the human horizon, and, with the dimming of the light which comes from God, humanity is losing its bearings, with increasingly evident destructive effects.”

He also made it clear that the Church’s primary task is not to fight the “symptoms” of this problem – whether moral, intellectual, technological, or otherwise. While the Church should also address these “symptomatic” problems, her main task is something greater:

“In our days, when in vast areas of the world the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame which no longer has fuel, the overriding priority is to make God present in this world and to show men and women the way to God.”

Pope Benedict did not coin the image of God’s “eclipse “ or “disappearance.” For instance, the philosopher Martin Buber – whose work influenced both John Paul II and Benedict XVI – published a book entitled Eclipse of God in 1952.

Pope John Paul II, in turn, discussed this “eclipse” in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae. In that work, the Pope observes that that many modern moral evils stem from a metaphysical, existential, and religious crisis – in which a sense of life’s true nature and meaning are lost, along with the sense of God.

John Paul II speaks of an eclipse of the sense of God and of manas “the heart of the tragedy being experienced by modern man.” The human subject tragically limits himself to the horizon of this finite world, such that he “no longer grasps the ‘transcendent’ character of his ‘existence as man.’”

The depth of this diagnosis, however, has been somewhat lost in the subsequent reception of Evangelium Vitae – which is now probably best remembered for its frank language about the “culture of death,” and for reaffirming perennial truths about abortion and other crimes against human life.

Benedict XVI has revived and even sharpened the language of “eclipse”: first, by speaking simply and directly about the “eclipse of God,” full stop; secondly, by raising the issue on its own rather than in a discussion of moral issues in which it could be lost or downplayed.

Another major theme of Pope Benedict’s pontificate was the harmony of faith and reason. It is precisely because of that harmony, that we can speak of the “eclipse of God,” and the metaphysical-existential crisis of the modern world, as one single reality seen under two aspects.

It is important to understand both aspects. The philosophical perspective, in particular, helps us see that the disappearance of God is not simply the vanishing of one “object” from the human scene. The fading of God from man’s consciousness is catastrophic, moreso than is generally realized.

To understand why this is so, we must recall some fundamental – though perhaps too-little pondered – truths about God.

*

God is not, as some atheists imagine, the “top member” of a hierarchy of finite beings within time and space. He is the Eternal and Infinite, “in whom we live and move and have our being.”

He is – in the words of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy – “inexpressible, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible.” God is, in a word, the Absolute.

Thus, when man forgets or neglects God, it is not as though he were forgetting or neglecting some particular thing within his world of experience, or some particular fact about what happens to be the case.

God is transcendent; and He is simultaneously the source, the proper guide, and the true goal of what is transcendent in us: such as our freedom, our capacity for knowledge, and our insight into meaning. These capacities have a unique, direct relationship to God, and are meant to be exercised in union with Him.

Of course, we can exercise these higher capacities without acknowledging God, and even while rejecting Him. But, as a text of the Second Vatican Council reminds us, such ignorance has consequences: “When God is forgotten, however, the creature itself grows unintelligible.”

God’s eclipse means the loss of an infinite horizon, and its replacement with a purely finite sphere: in which our freedom has no higher goal or reference point, principled values are indistinct from mere preferences, and technical ability becomes the criterion of truth.

Man was never meant to live in such a world; he cannot make sense of it, or make sense of himself within it. Yet this – despite the persistent personal faith of a great many individuals – is the kind of world in which we increasingly live our common life.

The crisis of the modern world is not primarily its moral disorientation – which is serious, but largely symptomatic. Nor is it the loss of specific, traditional religious faith – which is also alarming, but is really one part of a greater whole. The crisis of the modern world is the “eclipse of God.”

In some of my future columns, I hope to address some key questions about the “eclipse of God” – most especially the question, “What is to be done?” For I agree with Benedict XVI: our greatest challenge, and top priority, is “to make God present in this world and to show men and women the way to God.”

image: Shutterstock

Benjamin Mann

By

Benjamin Mann is a Byzantine Catholic, former journalist, and incurable philosopher. He is preparing to enter monastic life at Holy Resurrection Monastery in St. Nazianz, Wisconsin.

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  • James Arthur

    This is the second article you ignited my desire to respond Benjamin Mann.
    I smiled when I saw your photo. Did not realize it was you starting the reading. Here is my e-mail address if you would like to send anything Newhofjah@yahoo.com

    First, anyone finding interest in your words may find Viktor Frankl ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’ a good read.

    I will make this quick, yet I felt you could, or may be will in the future touch more on the aspect of love. Wisdom is wisdom because it is truly the wisest way to conduct one’s self. It is through God’s love wisdom exist. Producing meaning within one’s life, cultivating wisdom, is truly the liberating path, the experiencing of God’s love. I feel it is your definition of philosophy. The ways of enslavement, immediate and short-term sensual and materialistic, gratification ultimately prove futile. It is unwise behavior and thinking, producing a lack of meaning. Your words: “God is not, as some atheists imagine, the “top member” of a hierarchy of finite beings within time and space. He is the Eternal and Infinite, “in whom we live and move and have our being.” I felt an embracing of God’s love, “God hath so loved us”, expanded upon your thoughts. Something tells me you will move in this direction in the future. Frankl’s ideas revealing meaning within suffering are also insightful. Send anything you deem interesting.

  • Laura Y.

    Thank you for your thoughtful article. I look forward to the follow up.

  • fwt

    Like Laura, I look forward to future columns on this subject. Your column struck a chord in me: “Man was never meant to live in such a world; he cannot make sense of it, or make sense of himself within it.” This I feel deeply many days — I can no longer make sense of the world, my place in it, or where I’m headed. I’ve thought it was “just” a problem with prayer life, but now suspect it’s deeper. Any suggestions for where to start reading to understand more?

  • sampojo

    And of course this convicts our education system, Not stressing the importance of logical thought, the basis of western judeo-christian civilization. And our first 100years of our nation, people were taught using the Bible very seriously. In dealing with with God, how can we not pick up logical thinking: John1: “In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Using “word” for the Greek logos may not drive home its meaning to some people, but it can be translated as wisdom and logic. So God is pure wisdom and logic. Congratulations Mr. philosopher, look whose foot steps you follow… Now look at the popular philosophy that our children are being taught in school and popular culture. “Nothing is true for everyone” a social engineer’s delight at inducing insanity. In Philosophy, logic would dissect this as a self-falsifying statement. How sad that most of our country would accept this philosophy to live on.

  • Sr. Margaret J. Obrovac, FSP

    This struck a chord with me, too, because it grieves me to see how our civilization has lost its moorings because we no longer know how to reason or believe. As the article says, our problems with morality are only a symptom of something deeper. My reflection that follows is longer than most I write, but bear with me. “Making sense of the world” is not, at its deepest level, a process of production, but of discovery. The former is initially subjective–what I make, the meaning I give to reality. The latter is initially objective. The former begins in the interior of the person and is imposed on the exterior (including on other people). The latter begins by observing external reality, asks questions about it and its value apart from what value I give it, and is absorbed internally. The former can never be universally true; the latter is not only universally true, but if claimed, becomes personally true and life conforms itself to the truth and its beauty. Only here is the secret to joy and peace.

    For example, an apple or a kitten are what they are regardless of how I perceive them or value them. What this apple or this kitten are individually is true of all apples and all kittens in so far as all apples or all kittens share the same nature of “appleness” or “kittenness.” My understanding of them is true in so far as it conforms to what they are in themselves, and they have value whether I exist or not. If we take the same process of 1) sense perception to 2) abstraction or universal definition, then to 3) individual application (from this apple to appleness, then to all apples) and apply it to persons, it becomes the key to understanding the truth about the human person and reverencing that truth. Others are who they are apart from who I think they are or how valuable they are to me. And what is true of one human being is true of all, in so far as all share the same human nature and human dignity.

    If my personally conferred meaning on reality is the basis for my relationship with it, and yours is different from mine, what criterion do we in society use to determine whose meaning prevails? And one will prevail. This is why relativism always leads, not to harmony, but to totalitarianism, with its “might makes right” ethic. But if you and I are interested only in searching for truth, converting our minds and hearts to it and conforming our wills to it, peace has a chance.

    God is “eclipsed,” not because he absents himself, but because the film of “personally produced meaning” covers the eyes of reason and faith he gave us to “see” him. And as Thomas Aquinas says, ultimately, the light of glory depends on how operative the light of reason and the light of faith have been in our lives. Healing from impaired vision is something we need to pray for, because at this point especially, it won’t just happen, either individually or culturally.

  • Marc

    Thanks Benjamin.

  • pete salveinini

    The diagnosis is spot on, AND all the messages from the Apparitions in the last almost 200 yrs are EXACTLY about the human race DECIDING TO FORGET GOD to Whom they must return or the consequences are going to be humongous, which we are now just about recognizing. There is that spiritual saying: the worst punishment God can do is TO LET US GO OUR OWN WAY WITHOUT HIM. HE has at the same time INTERVENED BY SENDING THE BLESSED MOTHER TO WARN AND PROPHESY TO US. And likewise, woe to those who dismiss her merciful intercessions.

  • JohnnyVoxx

    I enjoyed the article, and this subject bears in depth analysis. I was surprised, however, not to see any mention of the approved Marian Apparition at La Salette (France 1846), where the famous prophecy was reported as “The Church will be in eclipse, the world will be in dismay.” I have also found it interesting to note that Pope John Paul II was born during an eclipse and entombed during an eclipse. I do not mean to calumniate him personally, but it feels as though now and in the Pontificate of Pope Benedict, a certain veil or gauze has been lifted and more Catholics can see the truth of the Catholic Faith than before. I think there is much to explore on the subject of “eclipse” and here’s hoping and praying the light of the one true Faith is beginning to appear from behind its obstruction.

  • Ingrid Borah

    thank you for stimulating some thought. I am currently at the peak of an eclipse in my personal life. Talk about the purgative way….each day beset with difficulties, many directed at my family and faith life. I am reminded however, that the darkening factor is small indeed compared to the light source and eclipses do pass. Patience is the virtue we need for our time and considerable prayer for those living in darkness.

  • Timothy Johnson

    Good article. What came to my mind is this. I am in electronics. It is extremely important to always have a good , stable ground reference. You can have may different voltage levels, but they all must reference the same ground. Substitute God for ground and voltage levels the various cultures.

  • Rosemary58

    All our personal realities bumping into each other! We become a law unto ourselves, kings of our little kingdoms. Savagery and chaos ensue. Paranoia and psychosis, too. Without God, man cannot be satisfied.

    But the antipathy toward the Church is, in a sense, a result of its success in piquing the conscience of the world.

  • Hawaii Dave

    What a luminous article by our future Monk Benjamin, and profound response by our good Sister Margaret: I feel honored to be in your company! It opens a door for me, this reversal of morality and eclipse of God. Yes, surely the eclipse precedes and causes immorality.

    The bubble inhabited by Eliot’s J Alfred Prufrock comes immediately to mind in response to Sister’s “personally conferred meaning on reality”. The whole of Deconstruction is a highbrow dissertation on “personally conferred meaning” and the ensuing God-less chaos.

    JohnnyVoxx mentions the 1846 apparition of La Salette, and Lourdes apparition came in 1858. But closest to the future home for Benjamin in St Nazianz, less than an hour north near Green Bay at the foot of Door County, is the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, where Mother Mary came to the Belgian farmgirl in 1859. The shrine is overseen by the great Fathers of Mercy out of Kentucky. These shrines are harbingers of our God behind the eclipse.

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