Things Worth Dying For: Thoughts on a Life Worth Living
by Charles J. Chaput
Henry Holt and Co.
272 pp., $25.99

“Death is common to us all,” goes the old adage. The subject of mortality is certainly pertinent, given the current “great plague,” against which safety is dispensed by way of the great fear. It is therefore apropos that Charles Chaput, archbishop emeritus of Philadelphia, has written Things Worth Dying For: Thoughts on a Life Worth Living.

Chaput has written a meditative work that seeks to remind us why it is that we are mortal. The vital understanding that the Christian West once had of death is now eroded by faithlessness. Chaput seeks to return that faith.

The book is about a specifically Christian kind of courage in the face of death. “The supernatural love of God in Jesus Christ that gives courage to the martyrs helps us to better understand the natural loves of family, friends, honor and integrity,” Chaput writes.

The Christian is called to live heroically by embodying courage, wisdom, and love, thereby coming to understand death as that process whereby the flesh vanishes while the spirit gains independence and ascendency. Death is the completion of one stage of life and the beginning of another; the leap from the mortal to the immortal, from the ephemeral into the Kingdom of God. However, that leap into eternity takes two forms: salvation or damnation.

The task of the Christian hero is to defeat damnation and win salvation by being in the body, yet overcoming it; by being in the world, yet not losing oneself in it; by living, yet courageously preparing for death. In the words of Henri de Lubac, a French priest and one of the most influential modernist theologians of the 20th century, whom Chaput often quotes: “Belief in eternity does not tear us away from the present, as we are sometimes told, to make us lost in dreams: it works just the other way around. It is rather by disregarding eternity that Christians have disregarded their times.” By forgetting our mortality, we bring harm into the world because we forget the true structure of civilization, which is faith. To seek civilization mindless of the Kingdom of God is to pursue dystopic nightmares.

And yet the dynamic of Christian heroism is a paradoxical one, in that life must be directed to its true, deathless purpose because the body cannot be an end in itself. This heroic act consists in seeing the evil within oneself, while honoring the goodness in others. Such confounding of the world’s logic is also the beginning of Christian wisdom, which St. Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 1:1-13: “For the word of the cross, to them indeed that perish, is foolishness; but to them that are saved, that is, to us, it is the power of God.” Chaput propagates this wisdom through the “paradox of the good,” coined by the French historian of philosophy Rémi Brague, which guts the groundless surety of modernity. “The modern project is perfectly fine when it comes to producing goods,” according to Brague. However, “it seems to be incapable of explaining why it is good that there are human beings to enjoy the goods that are thus put at their disposal.”


above: The Stoning of Saint Stephen, attributed to Luigi Garzi (1638–1721) (Wikimedia Commons)

In other words, the famous Protagorian summation of man as the measure of all things is a perversion of humanity, if not a lie, for it makes man into an idol, either to worship or denigrate—because man remains an enigma, whom science cannot define. There is only the assumption about man—and this assumption has led to all kinds of atrocities. For example, man as a befouling element on this planet is the credo of modern cults of environmentalism, race, and politics. Man is the problem that needs to be overcome. And yet it is also man who must come up with a solution for himself as the “problem” by a fuller domination of all that is natural.

Such is the “salvation” into the Kingdom of Man, per the “gospel of science.” This then makes possible the ceaseless “reimagining” of an improved humanity best suited for life in the years ahead—from abortion, Critical Race Theory, environmentalism, transgenderism, and transhumanism. All these stem from the modern idol of man as the measure of all things, who must dominate via self-curtailment. In opposition to this stands the work of the Christian hero who seeks not to dominate but to transcend the world, thus negating all man-made utopias. Again, Chaput quotes de Lubac: “I do not have to win the world, even for Christ: I have to save my soul. That is what I must always remember.”

Such transcendence requires not only courage and fortitude but love. Therefore, this transcendence can never be domination, because it is love of one’s neighbor. The Christian hero blazes the trail that benefits others. This stands in stark contrast to the “new man” of modernity. “The modern project,” as Brague describes it, “wants man to be the master of himself as well as the universe; its aim is that he takes his destiny into his own hands.” Brague adds that it is on this point “the rhetoric of the Enlightenment was, and remains, inexhaustible. But this only states a necessary condition of the enterprise: mastery over himself precedes the domination of man over the earth.” Such is the poisoned fruit of man as the measure of all things.

In uncoupling life from its divine purpose, the “empowered,” autotheistic modern man worships himself all the more freely. “Rather, the cultivation of the world was a task that we received from God, with the duty to perform it as stewards, not rapists,” Chaput writes. “In the modern era, that stewardship has morphed into a project of mastering and exploiting the world.”

Thus, modernity is bound to fail, for it cannot understand man beyond immediacy and nature beyond human agency—and therefore the only solution left is the naïve one of anti-human, Malthusian fear-mongering, where humans are the “virus,” the “plague” upon the planet, who must be controlled and culled back to more “manageable” numbers, so that man’s effect on the totem of “nature” may somehow be lessened.

But here Chaput’s analysis needlessly veers into problematic areas when he takes at face value Eric Voegelin’s alignment of modernity with Gnosticism. Voegelin, he writes, “saw these various efforts, ranging from progressivism and Marxism, to psychoanalysis and positivism, to fascism and National Socialism, as modern forms of Gnosticism.”

This is not true. The modern sense of the term “Gnosticism” was invented by 17th century Protestant, anti-Catholic polemicists, who used it to delegitimize the Catholic-Other. This Black Legend caricature remained popular and was subsumed into 19th century German historiography, which then set out to “prove” the persistence and antiquity of “Gnosticism.” This eventually led to the construction of “Gnosticism’s” defining characteristics—dualism, Docetism, odd ethics—which Chaput repeats.

The term “gnostic,” on the other hand, is ancient, having been used by Irenaeus, Tertullian, Plotinus, and others. But by it they meant simply voices of dissent—and not well-defined ideology. The Nag Hammadi Library has shown this clearly, where the array of dissent shows no unified faith-structure that can be marked off as all-embracing “Gnosticism.”

Even the Cathars—heretics who professed a form of Manichaean dualism—were only medieval dissenters, rather than representatives of a persistent strain of what Chaput calls “ancient Gnosticism.” The very term “Cathar” is a 16th century literary construction, again for use in anti-Catholic polemic.

However, to be fair, his project is not historiography but philosophical critique, in which “Gnosticism” is a “language symbol” which means that peculiar habit of modernity to continually truncate reality—that is, a perpetual rebellion against reality—which is certainly true.

This makes Chaput’s analysis, grounded in Voegelin, symbolic rather than historical; but in which he repeats a disguised Protestant polemic. The roots of the Black Legend lie deep in modernity.

However, all this does not sap the strength of Things Worth Dying For, because Christian courage has always borne good fruit. Since we are dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants, it is indeed fitting to turn to the oldest English poem on Christian heroism, “The Dream of the Rood,” in which the True Cross is given voice. Here is a famous passage:

Then He stripped Himself, the young Hero, who was God almighty;

Strong and stern-minded He climbed the high gallows,

Bravely, in the sight of many; and from where he sought to free mankind.

I trembled then when the Prince embraced me; I did not dare bend low to the ground,

Fall into the bosom of the earth, for I had to hold fast.

Thus was I raised high as the Cross; I held aloft the great King,

Heaven’s Lord. I dared not bend.

This is the first expression, in English, of the Christian hero who, in imitation of Jesus, knows that his true purpose is to die into eternal completion. Death has no sting, and the end is not a whimper. “Man’s purpose is to know and love God,” observes Chaput. “Our true and lasting commonwealth is in heaven.” Or, as T.S. Eliot has St. Thomas Becket say in “Murder in the Cathedral:” “I give my life / To the Law of God above the Law of Man.”