It’s interesting to reflect sometimes on how humanity might remember the United States of America, centuries or millennia hence. Sometimes I think it will be remembered as a light to the nations, the proverbial City on a Hill. At other times, it seems to me that it will be remembered as a cautionary tale, proving that it is possible for a society to have it all and still fall apart.
Americans in 2017 live in a land of milk and honey. Our houses are large and our bellies are full. Even the relatively poor have comforts and entertainments that would have dazzled the emperors and noblemen of previous eras. Despite this, our society is saturated in envy and hatred. Advances in communication and transportation have literally put the whole world at our fingertips; on any day of the week, ordinary people can travel hundreds of miles, or talk to loved ones in any corner of the globe. Despite that, abandonment and loneliness are among our most serious social problems.
What is wrong with us? How should Christians respond? Archbishop Charles Chaput gracefully steps in to answer both of these questions in his new book, Strangers in a Strange Land. As we prepare ourselves for the season of Lent, this book strikes the perfect note.
This book is not a pep talk. Both the title and the cover immediately evoke feelings of alienation and loss, and the early portion of the book reflects that same mood. As a keen observer of American life, Chaput understands the spiritual desolation of our age, and offers a compassionate but bracing diagnosis of our condition, playing especially on St. Augustine’s contrast between the City of God and the City of Man.
St. Augustine understood that Christians of every era must help build the City of Man without fully being at home in it. Our true home is with God, and this allegiance impacts every aspect of our earthly life as well. Americans rightly call the United States our motherland, and as citizens, we should love and protect her as we can. Nevertheless, as true citizens of the City of God, we will always have some sense of being excluded, alienated, and separate. Learning to live with that tension is just a necessary aspect of leading a good Christian life.
This may seem like a gloomy state of affairs, but once we accept it, whole vistas can open before us. As citizens of the City of God, we can be perpetually dissatisfied with the world without becoming demoralized and mired in misery. There are, to be sure, excellent reasons to be dissatisfied with American life as we know it, and Chaput discusses many of these flaws in the early chapters of the book. He discusses chastity and the destruction of the family, the breakdown of traditional mores, and the morally stunting effects of a culture that has embraced a feel-good relativism. He discusses the corrosive effects of materialism, especially mentioning the many shallow but absorbing amusements that keep our brains transfixed while our souls slowly starve. Throughout this discussion Chaput draws on sociology, literature, philosophy, and popular culture, weaving a sobering but plausible picture of American life.
One of the most memorable aspects of this discussion is the continual emphasis on truth. In a sense, all of the degradations of our culture might be viewed as part of a sustained effort to escape the truth. We deny the truth about morality, marriage, the sexes, human nature, God. Referencing Scott Peck’s People of the Lie, Chaput points out that some among us have built whole lives on a web of carefully constructed lies. Those people are especially dangerous, but their example shouldn’t make us complacent; quite the contrary. In one way or another, almost all of us are deeply attached to particular falsehoods that make life seem bearable to us, even as they poison our efforts to draw closer to God. In light of recent furor about mendacious politicians, dishonest journalists, and “fake news,” it’s helpful to read these remarks and reflect on the extent to which our whole society (left, right, and center) is infected with these comforting-but-destructive falsehoods.
Before we despair, though, we should reflect back on St Augustine’s juxtaposition. Citizens of the City of God have always had reason to be discouraged. Earthly societies reliably fall well short of human perfection, and Christians are in a position to recognize this. But we shouldn’t give way to burning resentment or despair. We must do our best to live as Christians in the society that has been given us, taking hope in the realization that our struggles here are but temporary.
In the later chapters, Chaput offers a spread of suggestions for how to do that. This latter section reads as a kind of “mount up” lecture for Christians who may be drifting into a demoralized isolation. Drawing on sources from the Early Church, he reminds us that there is nothing terribly unique about our situation, and we must do what good Christians in every age have done: witness to the truth, serve the poor, honor our particular duties and vocations, and help build the Church in whatever way we are able. There is no particular reason to expect that the world will laud or admire us for doing these things. But when has it ever?
Strangers in a Strange Land doesn’t contain much by way of a road map for rectifying our broken culture. Though he agrees that Catholics should work to further the common good, Chaput mostly leaves the practical details to others. Still, the book is much more than just pie-in-the-sky moralizing. We might think of it as a book-length examination of conscience, for our nation as a whole or for any individual Christian living within it. In a time when nearly all of us seem anxious to blame someone else for our own unhappiness, Chaput urges self-criticism and patient perseverance. None of us can know the future of our anxious and hedonistic society. What we can do is retain our citizenship in the City that is ruled by the King of Kings. This is the true City on the Hill, which can never be hid.
(Photo credit: Joaquín Peiró Pérez/CNA.)