The "godless" who focus entirely on temporal goods, the medieval Cistercian monk Geoffrey of Auxerre states, "walk in a circle," and they do this because they reject the "natural desire for the highest good," namely God, and instead turn their lives from that one goal to "seeking to obtain first the lowest and least" of all goods, including, surely, sexual pleasure wherever and however it may be found.
CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - During Easter Season, the Office of Readings, which is part of the Liturgy of the Hours, contains a series of readings from the Revelation of St. John. As a consequence, I decided to read, as an aide a l'interprétation, a series of sermons on the Apocalypse by the medieval monk Geoffrey of Auxerre.
Geoffrey of Auxerre (ca. 1115-20 to ca. 1188), also known as Geoffrey of Clairvaux, was a disciple of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. In 1140, he experienced a radical conversion to Christ when St. Bernard came to Paris and preached a sermon enjoining the clergy to conversion entitled De conversion ad clericos.
Geoffrey promptly joined the Cistercians, became the secretary for St. Bernard, and so accompanied St. Bernard in his indefatigable efforts to preach the Gospel in France and Germany, to convert the Albigensian heretics back to the Catholic cause, and to promote a crusade to recover the Holy Land from the clutches of Islam. Eventually, Geoffrey was appointed to be the fourth abbot of Clairvaux, the mother-house of the Cistercians. He became one of the chief authors of a biography of the saint.
In one of his sermons of this series on the Apocalypse, the thirteenth, Geoffrey addresses the warnings to the "church at Pergamum" found in Revelation 2:12-17. These warnings are spoken by the "one who with the sharp two-edged sword," which is to say, Jesus.
The city of Pergamum (or Pergamon) was one of the most important in the Roman Empire at the time that St. John had his visions recounted in the Apocalypse.
The Church at Pergamum--located at the city referred to by St. John as the place "where Satan's throne is," i.e., where there was a strong pagan presence and flourishing emperor worship--is an internally compromising church, a church that compromises itself by its sexual laxity as a result of the dissipated social conventions of where it finds itself. (Rev. 2:13)
The Church at Pergamum does not go so far as to deny the faith externally, as it "hold[s] fast to my [Christ's] name," and has "not denied . . . faith in me." But its failure is that it holds the "doctrine of Balaam, who instructed Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat food sacrificed unto idols, and to play the harlot." (Rev. 2:13-14) In St. John's vision, Christ also excoriates them for holding to the "doctrine of the Nicolaitans." (Rev. 2:15)
Balaam is an Old Testament figure (See Numbers 22-24). St. Peter calls him a false prophet, in the line of prophets that advocate "licentious ways," the result of which is that "truth will be reviled." (2 Pet. 2:1-2) It is this false doctrine that was found in the "godless world" that surrounded Noah and drew God's ire in the flood. Likewise, the doctrine was found in "godless" Sodom and Gomorrah, populated by an "unprincipled people" who oppressed the righteous Lot by their "licentious conduct" which displayed itself in men's desire for men. (2 Pet. 2:5-7). The followers of Balaam are "those who follow the flesh with its depraved desire, and show contempt for lordship." (2 Pet. 2:10) Like Balaam, they "abandon the straight road, they have gone astray." (2 Pet. 2:15). The apologists for Balaam "promise . . . freedom, though they themselves are slaves of corruption, for a person is a slave of whatever overcomes him." (2 Pet. 2:19).
In the epistle of Jude, the followers of Balaam are said to have "indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh," just like those in Sodom and Gomorrah. (Jude 7)
Not much is known about the "doctrine of the Nicolaitans," except that the Nicolaitans, like the Balaamites, tended toward licentiousness. They were moral antinomians, advocating little if any restriction with respect to sex. With respect to sex, they were "anything goes" or "whatever floats your boat" sort of people.
In his epistle to the Trallians, St. Ignatius of Antioch calls the Nicolaitans "lovers of pleasures," which means they were hedonists, and that they were "given to calumnious speeches," which means they vilified their opponents who raised the issue of their sexual sins. (Ep. ad Trallianos, 11) In his letter to the Philadelphians, they are described as those who see pleasure as man's ultimate end, and who therefore support "unlawful unions as a good thing," thereby corrupting their own flesh. In so doing, they become "void of the Holy Spirit, and a stranger to Christ." (Ep. ad Philadelphenos, 6).
St. Irenaeus, in his book Against Heresies, accuses the Nicolaitans of leading lives "of unrestrained indulgence." (Adversus Haereses, I.26.3; III.11.1) Clement of Alexandria suggests that the "doctrine of the Nicolaitans" was a doctrine of promiscuity. (Stromata, III.4) They "abandon themselves to pleasure like goats, as if insulting the body," and so "lead a life of self-indulgence . . . while their soul is buried in the mire of vice." They follow not the doctrine of the "apostolic man," but rather "the teaching of pleasure itself."
In short, in modern context, the Balaamites and Nicolaitans might be identified with "godless" secular liberals who seek to keep God out of the public square so that the government becomes Hobbes' "mortal God," from whom there is no appeal to the natural moral law or to the law of God.
More specifically, we can identify the Balaamites and Nicolaitans with modern secular liberals who normalize sexual vices, loosen marriage restrictions, liberalize marriage laws, and advance the political agenda of the LGBT community (including the notion of "unlawful unions" of St. Ignatius which today we call same-sex "marriage" or "civil unions"). The result is the promotion of promiscuity, licentiousness, and sexual vice associated with these--and other--"alternative lifestyles," which creates harm to what Pope Benedict XVI called the "moral ecology."
In his sermon, Geoffrey of Auxerre quotes from Psalm 12:8: "The impious walk about in a circle (in circuitu/κύκλῳ), when vileness is exalted among the sons of men." The "godless," Geoffrey of Auxerre states, "walk in a circle," and they do this because they reject the "natural desire for the highest good," namely God, and instead turn their lives from that one goal to "seeking to obtain first the lowest and least" of all goods, including, surely, sexual pleasure wherever and however it may be found.
Applying this insight to our contemporary situation, we note that it is the godless secular liberal who "walks about in a circle," since he seeks to have "vileness . . . exalted among the sons of men." (Ironically, he does this often under the color of a rainbow, which ought to remind him of the God of Noah, but it doesn't.)
As a matter of principle, political liberalism of the secular bent brackets out--excludes--any notion of God and any notion of an objective good, particularly any notion of a final or ultimate good shared by all men. This goes against the best of Western tradition, and certainly against the Judaeo-Christian moral teachings which have informed our political tradition.
Traditionally, happiness was tied to the good or virtuous life. This notion was possible because it was believed that man had a final end, an ultimate good, a finis ultimus, a summum bonum, and that this was God, the source of all lesser goods. Therefore, all goods were under God, and had to be ordered to God.
Liberalism disposes with that nexus between happiness and the good life. Hobbes makes a statement in his book Leviathan that is classic liberalism. The statement is found in his discussion of "manners," by which he means "those qualities of mankind that concern their living together in peace and unity," in other words, those things which define the common good or life together.
"For there is no such finis ultimus (utmost aim), nor summum bonum (greatest good), as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers," says Hobbes. Naturally, the state in such a situation becomes absolute, a "mortal God," because there is no appeal to a greater truth.
John Rawls--the philosopher of modern liberalism--was "godless" and a modern Hobbesian. His baneful political philosophy--which seems to be the majority opinion of the "intelligentsia" and the purveyors of secular manners--touted autonomy as the highest good (which means there is no objective "good," only an infinity of "goods," all of which are subjective and not subject to criticism).
Rawls maintained that each person was entitled to select his or her own "plan of life," whatever that plan may be, even if it was something as insane as a plan to "count blades of grass in . . . park squares and well-trimmed lawns." Rawls's "definition of the good forces us to admit," he says, "that the good for this man is indeed counting blades of grass." Insanity, be thou my good.
That position is irrational: indeed, insane. A political fool it is who says in his heart there ought not to be any God in the public square if it leads him to where Rawl was lead. (Cf. Ps. 14:1)
While counting blades of grass may be insane, it at least is innocuous and not a sin. We can all tolerate the town idiot.
What, however, if the "plan of life" includes a sin against nature, such as homosexual activity, or some sort of other deviant form of sexual satisfaction, or some sort of abhorrent thing, such as abortion? Then, it is not "insanity, be thou my good," but a truly satanic "evil be thou my good."
That position is more than irrational: indeed, it is both irrational and evil. Can we really tolerate this like we can idiocy? Is this a good that ought to be promoted? The town fool can be tolerated, but the town murderer, the town profligate?
When a finis ultimus (utmost aim) and summum bonum (greatest good) are rejected, as advocated by both Hobbes and Rawls, we walk in circles because there is absolutely nothing outside of ourselves that serves as a beacon, as our North Star. Every direction is north (or south, or east, or west), since there is no such thing as north (or south, or east, or west). The cardinal points are what we want them to be.
It is well-known that hikers without a compass, or for that matter a compass that does not point to north, walk around in circles. Well, the same happens in both morals and politics, which is what Geoffrey of Auxerre is pointing out in his sermon.
The only way out of this vicious circle, is to realize that, pace Hobbes and Rawls, there is a finis ultimus and a summum bonum. It is further to realize that none of the goods of this world--and especially the satisfaction of unnatural and licentious sexual desires--even if placed all in one basket and all enjoyed by one man can play the role of the finis ultimus and summum bonum of man.
"It is is impossible to complete this circle, impossible for one person to obtain all the other things first so as at last to desire the highest good alone," says Geoffrey of Auxerre. In other words, the finis ultimus and the summum bonum must be something other than contingent goods, the created goods of this world whether properly ordered or not. It must be good itself, which is God.
This is the exact opposite of Hobbes: "Felicity"--by which Hobbes means happiness--"is a continual progress of the desire from one object to another, the attaining of the former being still but the way to the latter." God is irrelevant to Hobbes. Hobbes is stuck in the liberal circle, from which he cannot get out. He sees "continual progress," but it is a fiction because he is not going anywhere, but going round-and-round-and-round-and-round since he refuses to use his compass.
What, then, does the medieval Geoffrey of Auxerre teach us moderns? It is this.
So long as we wallow in the goods of this earth, as Hobbes and Rawls advocate, we will walk in circles like a hiker without a compass. To get out of this circle of liberalism, we have to re-introduce the notion of a finis ultimus and summum bonum of man. "This good," the good known as the finis ultimus and summum bonum of man, "can be grasped not by assembling the lesser goods," says Geoffrey of Auxerre, "but by leaping over them."
"By leaping over them!" We need to "leap over" the circle of liberalism, leap over Hobbes and Rawls, "leap over" any suggestion that material goods are all there are, and this by an act of faith in God as he has revealed himself in Jesus, the Word of God made flesh. This is the same Jesus, who, in his message to the Church at Pergamum, identified himself as "one with the sharp, two-edged sword" (Rev. 2:12).
More than that, we need not only faith, but obedience. We need to "leap over" the circle of liberalism by repenting of our sins, particularly those of a sexual nature which are so rampant in our society. We must reject the notion that deviant sexual alliances, "unlawful unions" as St. Ignatius called them, are normal and should be protected and even promoted by law. "Therefore, repent," says He with the "sharp, two-edged sword." "Otherwise, I will come to you quickly and wage war . . . with the sword of my mouth." (Rev. 2:16). I am not sure what that means, but it does not sound particularly good.
We must become "imitators of God," "and live in love as Christ loved us," which means that no "immorality or any impurity" must be mentioned among us, "as is fitting among holy ones." (Eph. 5:3) A Catholic, indeed, any Christian, ought not to be found among the Balaamites or Nicolaitans of the modern world, and he ought not to be a complacent member of a church like the Church of Pergamum.
It's time to take the leap, and repent, and turn to the merciful Lord, in both our private and public lives.
Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is married with three children. He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum. You can contact Andrew at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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