“Do not conform yourselves to this age.” ∼ St. Paul, Letter to the Romans (12:2)
Living in a world where much has been laid waste by forces hostile to faith and hope, the challenge becomes that of finding evidence for the things that one loves. Or simply going mad in the face of all that conspires to deride and deny those sacred tablets on which is written all that we revere. It is then, I imagine, that one is tempted to think that there are simply no sane or pious people left on the planet. You come to see yourself as the poor melancholy prince, for whom all Denmark “is out of joint,” while you alone are left to rail: “O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!”
The temptation to see oneself perched upon some austere and lonely peak of heroism, like the Hamlet of Shakespeare’s play, has got to be resisted. Why agitate at all against the aberrations of the age unless you are prepared to assume that others are equally appalled? Is the coarsening and corruption of the culture not evident to them as well? There’s got to be somebody out there harboring suspicions about the world in which we live. It is scarcely endurable that no one else is outraged by the hokum and humbuggery.
In the meantime, if things get much worse it will be too late to inoculate ourselves against the stain of toxicity threatening us all. Great numbers appear to have succumbed already. People who, while they profess to believe in nothing, seem quite willing to fall for anything. Like that crowded throng ceaselessly flowing over London Bridge, “so many,” as the poet Eliot would say, “I had not thought death had undone so many.” The image is lifted from The Waste Land, that great landmark of modernist verse, which Eliot himself had lifted from the immortal Dante—an exercise in poetic poaching that tells us how long the theme of death-in-life has been in circulation.
Why is it, I wonder, that the fashionable nonsense people glibly parade nowadays, for all that it wears the stylish disguise of enlightened opinion, is nothing more than sheer cowardice morphing into mindless conformity? “We will never know,” wrote Charles Peguy more than a century ago, “how many acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of not seeming sufficiently progressive.”
How prescient Peguy was! Also Fulton J. Sheen, who predicted that “the temptation for the Church in the twenty-first century,” which he did not live to witness, “will be to conform to the world.” And then of course one thinks of Chesterton, of that lapidary line reminding us that there is no slavery more complete than to be a child of one’s own age. Like all those suffragettes of whom he wrote, that in their full-throated frenzy of not wanting to be dictated to, promptly went out to become … stenographers. What an impoverishment it is when we substitute Groupthink for the failure to work things out according to the mind of Christ. Or even our own minds, for that matter, when set free from the snares of ideology.
Free, therefore, to attend to the timeless wisdom of Mother Church, who not only teaches the truth about faith, but reason as well. Because God having entrusted her with transmitting the life of grace, which opens up limitless horizons of glory, she is entitled to uphold and defend nature. What could be sillier than to imagine grace without some nature to perfect? Or sillier still, what about faith in the absence of any sort of reason to inform it?
What a train wreck it has been, therefore, when so little of the Church’s patrimony commands the attention, much less respect, of the world. When so-called progressive opinion disdains all that she stands for. How vast a treasury has been jettisoned in favor of that “chronological snobbery,” against which C.S. Lewis so often and eloquently warned. To genuflect before the world is not only unseemly, it is positively stupid. And what becomes of such people who disavow the knowledge and practice of the truth? They end up in a ditch. A bloody ditch, no less, where, quoting those last prophetic lines of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” with their grim foreshadowing of the coming Great War, they find themselves, “on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
We are like particles of dust blown about in the ambient air, no longer anchored to anything. So many “evil enchantments,” as Lewis called them, loom before us, leaving us helpless to resist the siren sound that summons us into doing and saying the dumbest and most destructive things.
Like extolling the death of unborn babies because, don’t you know, it really is best for the child, to recall a recent, repellent piece of sophistry that appeared in Time magazine (Oct. 27, 2014). Wherein one feminist, Kate Manning, touts the work of another, Katha Pollitt, whose book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, insists that to kill one’s offspring amounts to “an act of love.”
Or best-selling atheist author Barbara Ehrenreich, who, in answering questions (Time, once again, on April 14, 2014) about certain mystical encounters she had as a teenager, later transcribed in her widely celebrated book Living With a Wild God, flat out refuses—as a matter of stern a priori principle, mind you—to attribute any of it to a monotheistic God. “The religions that impress me,” she says with a straight face, “are those which involve ecstatic communion with a deity or spirit—like voodoo. I like that much better than belief. I have respect for that. But as I said, I’m not looking for anything, and I’m not going to church.”
Or, to mine yet another vein of inanity, there is world famous physicist Stephen Hawking, reminding us how paltry and pointless we humans really are. “Just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star,” he opines.
And, finally, there is two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Edward O. Wilson, telling us in his book, The Meaning of Human Existence, that we humans are scarcely an improvement over the ants (Professor Wilson is the world’s foremost expert on ants, by the way). Indeed, we are uniquely vile since, unlike those charming crawly creatures about which he speaks with an almost Mosaic authority, we remain irrepressibly religious, hence the worst possible species on earth. How he longs to place the leaders of all religions in the dock! And what would he then do to them? “Charge with blasphemy those who claim to speak with or on behalf of God.” (You mean, like the Pope, who dares to call himself God’s Vicar?) And why exactly are people of faith to be feared and hated? Because they alone represent “sources of ceaseless and unnecessary suffering … impediments to the grasp of reality needed to solve most social problems in the real world.” Faith, he says, “is the one thing that makes otherwise good people do bad things.”
Welcome to the Mr. Zeitgeist show. See how he traipses about the stage in full bloom, bowing before the adulation of the crowd.
What happens when people allow themselves to be seduced by the spirit of the age? It is simple. They lose their souls. They become like those wretched “trimmers,” whom Dante consigns to the Vestibule of Hell because, having set their sails to every prevailing wind in this life, they no longer possess “the good of the intellect” upon entering the next.
Who are these people? It is the question Dante puts to Virgil, symbol of high pagan wisdom, who shepherds him safely through the dark and fiery thickets of the underworld. These are the lost souls, he tells him, on whom neither blame nor praise falls.
They are mixed here with that despicable corps
of angels who were neither for God nor Satan,
but only for themselves. The High Creator
scourged them from Heaven for its perfect beauty,
and Hell will not receive them since the wicked
might feel some glory over them…
And their punishment? It is most fearfully condign. “As they sinned,” comments John Ciardi in describing their torments, “so they are punished.”
They took no sides, therefore they are given no place. As they pursued the ever-shifting illusion of their own advantage, changing their courses with every changing wind, so they pursue eternally an elusive, every-shifting banner. As their sin was a darkness, so they move in darkness. As their own guilty conscience pursued them, so they are pursued by swarms of wasps and hornets. And as their actions were a moral filth, so they run eternally through the filth of worms and maggots which they themselves feed.
Had enough? And suppose Dante were writing his Inferno today. Any idea whose ticket he might wish to punch for immediate dispatch to the eternal Vestibule? How about pro-choice politicians who get themselves elected over and over because by cleverly straddling the fence they manage to placate both sides? When it comes to equivocation, they are consummate masters. The mindset is everywhere, amply represented in congress and in the media and in faculties and classrooms across the fruited plain.
Even Catholic colleges and universities are on board. The president of Creighton University, for example, has just announced that beginning next year his school will provide benefits to legally “married” same-sex couples. One might call it giving grace to the gays. Of course, the Rev. Timothy Lannon, S.J., who sanctioned the change, is not exactly a trailblazer here, a number of Jesuit institutions having already gone ahead to permit the practice. Also non-Jesuit centers of higher learning, like Notre Dame, which is eager to follow suit.
Welcome to the Brave New World of Catholic higher education.
Having learned to trim their sails the better to accommodate the winds of the world, such people have ensured earthly success. Can we honestly blame them if, having convinced themselves that there is no other, they proceed to live for themselves alone, conscripting others to follow along? It’s time to put a stop to the nonsense. It is time to stand athwart the excesses of the age and to urge everyone to return to theological bedrock, to recover and renew the springs of truth and life. And while there are no lost causes, as Eliot long ago reminded us, because there are no gained causes, we nevertheless soldier on, fortified by the hope of keeping something alive, even if it be only a token or two of truth.
So go right ahead, dear reader, and stick it to the Zeitgeist. Who knows what shafts of light may then fall upon the encircling gloom.
Editor’s note: The image above depicts a statue of Spartacus sculpted by Denis Foyatier in 1830 and displayed at the Louvre.