You may have heard an expression that has come into vogue recently: “You do you.”
For some people, “You do you” means, “this is what I think;” “I do what I want;” “I believe in what I believe;” or “I make my own self, I am in control, I know who I want to be and I will do what it takes to be who I want to be.”
Usually there is also a second part of the statement that is implied: “Don’t bother me with what you think/your theories/ your beliefs. I know what is right, I don’t need you and I won’t change my mind.”
I believe “You do You” is far from modern.
It started in Eden with the conversation recorded in the Book of Genesis between Eve and Satan that went as follows: “‘Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?’ The woman answered the serpent: ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, “You shall not eat or even touch it, lest you die.” But the Serpent said to the woman: ‘You certainly will not die! No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad.’”
Today we’d say Satan “groomed” Eve with a small lie, followed by more lies, and as a result “The woman saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom. So she took its fruit and ate.” The rest is history.
What is clear is that Eve decided to be in control, she wanted to be like God, to know what is good and bad, and maybe even decide what is good and what is bad, but without God.
If the definition of good and evil is not universal but rather a matter of the power dynamic among people, then the truth can be different for different groups. And any time there are different truths, we are on a slippery slope. Truth becomes whatever the strong man or the ruler decides.
If the ruler’s “truth” doesn’t make sense, and there is no logical explanation for it, we have to look at the fruits. More often than not, it’s an attack on God.
Remember, there was no logic in Satan’s question to Eve; why would God make all these trees and tell Adam and Eve “not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?”
What were the fruits of this conversation?
For the woman, it was pain in childbirth. For the man, work became oppressive and burdensome. This is how death entered the world.
When a nation’s ruler decides what is good and what is bad according to his standard, the future is bleak.
The Nazis decided that one race was not fully human, so it had to be eliminated.
Communists in Russia decided that owners in general were bad people, so they decided to take what belonged to owners and give it to the “good” people. That’s the road to totalitarianism.
What happens if the government decides that marriage is not only between a man and a woman; that life starts at three, six, or nine months after conception; that the value of life depends on a person’s productivity? We can observe the results of such thinking all around us. The Equality Act of 2021, which strives to erase any biological distinctions between men and women, is only the most recent example.
One judge recently gave “non-human personhood” to an orangutan.
TransferWise, a company that provides international money transfers, closed a pro-life ministry account with the following explanation: “Please note that this is our final decision . . . . However, the fact that we cannot offer you our services does not mean that we consider your activities to be illegal or illegitimate, but only that the nature of these activities is something we cannot support.”
The list goes on and on.
Here is what St. John Paul II wrote in his 1993 encylical “Veritatis Splendor” (The Splendor of Truth):
32. Certain currents of modern thought have gone so far as to exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values. This is the direction taken by doctrines which have lost the sense of the transcendent or which are explicitly atheist. The individual conscience is accorded the status of a supreme tribunal of moral judgment which hands down categorical and infallible decisions about good and evil. To the affirmation that one has a duty to follow one’s conscience is unduly added the affirmation that one’s moral judgment is true merely by the fact that it has its origin in the conscience. But in this way the inescapable claims of truth disappear, yielding their place to a criterion of sincerity, authenticity and “being at peace with oneself”, so much so that some have come to adopt a radically subjectivistic conception of moral judgment.
As is immediately evident, the crisis of truth is not unconnected with this development. Once the idea of a universal truth about the good, knowable by human reason, is lost, inevitably the notion of conscience also changes. Conscience is no longer considered in its primordial reality as an act of a person’s intelligence, the function of which is to apply the universal knowledge of the good in a specific situation and thus to express a judgment about the right conduct to be chosen here and now. Instead, there is a tendency to grant to the individual conscience the prerogative of independently determining the criteria of good and evil and then acting accordingly. Such an outlook is quite congenial to an individualist ethic, wherein each individual is faced with his own truth, different from the truth of others. Taken to its extreme consequences, this individualism leads to a denial of the very idea of human nature.
Later on, in paragraph No. 35 of the encyclical, the pope writes:
Revelation teaches that the power to decide what is good and what is evil does not belong to man, but to God alone. The man is certainly free, inasmuch as he can understand and accept God’s commands. And he possesses an extremely far-reaching freedom, since he can eat “of every tree of the garden.” But his freedom is not unlimited: it must halt before the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” for it is called to accept the moral law given by God. In fact, human freedom finds its authentic and complete fulfillment precisely in the acceptance of that law. God, who alone is good, knows perfectly what is good for man, and by virtue of his very love proposes this good to man in the commandments.
“Veritatis Splendor” will definitely be on the top of my 2021 reading list.
(Christian Meert is director of the Office of Marriage and Family Life for the Diocese of Colorado Springs.)