The Immaculate Conception: Rebellion against God as Father

What ties together all the philosophies of pride we have been looking at?  The theme of revolt and rebellion against God as Father runs through much of nineteenth-century thought. Indeed, it’s one of the curious marks of nineteenth-century atheism that its spokesmen often simultaneously proclaim the nonexistence of God, even as they shake their fists in angry rebellion at what appears to be a very present Nobody. It gives us a very telling clue for which Pope John Paul II provides an insightful diagnosis:

Original sin attempts . . . to abolish fatherhood . . . leaving man only with a sense of the master / slave relationship.( Pope John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994) , 228, emphasis in original. )

This Romantic notion of the liberator rebel casting off the shackles of oppression, already much admired because of the American and French Revolutions (not to mention the Reformation) , took on new and unexpected life in the literature of the nineteenth century and went far beyond mere political rebellion. For instance, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, in his Defense of  Poetry, argued that Satan is the true hero of Milton’s epic Paradise Lost (a development that would have shocked the Puritan Milton) .(“Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in ‘Paradise Lost.’ It is a mistake to suppose that he could ever have been intended for the popular personification of evil. Implacable hate, patient cunning, and a sleepless refinement of device to inflict the extremist anguish on an enemy, these things are evil; and, although venial in a slave, are not to be forgiven in a tyrant; although redeemed by much that ennobles his defeat in one subdued, are marked by all that dishonors his conquest in the victor. Milton’s Devil as a moral being is as far superior to his God, as one who perseveres in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent in spite of adversity and torture, is to one who in the cold security of undoubted triumph inflicts the most horrible revenge upon his enemy, not from any mistaken notion of inducing him to repent of a perseverance in enmity, but with the alleged design of exasperating him to deserve new torments,” Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defense of Poetry.) Similarly Marx, who (like Shelley) admired the myth of Prometheus (who stole fire from the gods and gave it to man), wrote poetry in which he voiced a wish indistinguishable from the promise of the serpent in Genesis 3:

Then I will wander godlike and victorious
Through the world
And, giving my words an active force,
I will feel equal to the Creator.(Karl Marx, “Human Pride” in A Book of Verse)

Likewise, Nietzsche declares, “Better to have no God, better to set up destiny on one’s own account, better to be a fool, better to be God oneself!” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, trans. by Thomas Common (New York: Modern Library, n.d.) , 213) So, too, Ernst Haeckel created a form of nature worship he called Monism that in Haeckel's Germany led inexorably to the deification of man, or rather, of one particularly unpleasant man named Adolf Hitler.

In short, the ideas of the 19th Century would have grave consequences in the 20th as they took shape in the greatest intellectual assault on the dignity of our origins in the history of human thought.  Next time, we will begin to look at how the Immaculate Conception is an answer to those ideas.

Representing the Holy Spirit that descended “like a dove” and hovered over Jesus when he was baptized.

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