With the continued normalization of vice in modern life, the idea of preserving or recovering innocence seems somewhat irrelevant. For most people, a return to innocence is more likely to bring to mind a new age hit single from the nineties than a serious societal concern.
Today, only a few parents (usually of the Mormon or traditional Catholic variety) will take their family’s innocence seriously and do what they can to protect their children from the corruption abounding on every form of media and physical setting. They homeschool; they restrict or prohibit screen-time; and they take care to limit the company they and their children keep. In most cases, their more progressive neighbors will deride them as kooks and modern Pharisees, particularly when they see their children keeping their faith and living prudently while their own fall into every moral quagmire imaginable.
In light of such success, one might wonder why more people do not take care to follow these wholesome families instead of mock them. Some do, which explains why more traditional orthodox religious communities are growing rapidly while liberalized ones continue to decline nearly as fast. Others do not because of the failure to properly understand the meaning of innocence. Too often, it is cast in negative terms: not being exposed to evil influences; not observing or knowing about evil; not having evil thoughts or committing evil actions. If people view innocence as a collection of non-experience, then those who oppose it can reframe it as something that denotes ignorance, naiveté, and even callousness.
The consequence of this redefinition is clear to see, especially in schools, entertainment, and in family life. At school, children are systematically scandalized in their faith, their relationships, and their own identities. They learn early to equate religion with superstition, love with utility, and the self with accidental characteristics. Students who practice their faith, refrain from sex, and waive victim status are thought weird and draw universal contempt. By contrast, the gender-fluid students with many partners and no religion are increasingly celebrated and admired.
In their entertainment, children see good and evil relativized, with the villain often playing the hero and virtues like bravery and honesty dissolving into snark, incompetence, and shallowness (for examples, consider nearly every animated movie made by Dreamworks). Perhaps young viewers may learn to be nice to others; however, they more often learn to make fun of others, forget their manners, and act like clowns—much like Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, or Mr. Peabody.
In addition to absorbing the immorality of this entertainment, the act of passively consuming images and sounds on a screen draws children into addiction. There is no better way to take away the innocence of a whole generation than by turning them into junkies.
Of course, school and entertainment would not have so much of an effect on young people’s innocence if adults stood guard against it. Unfortunately, most adults have abandoned their post, leaving their homes in disarray and the children to fend for themselves. Encouraged by ubiquitous propaganda, they have less compunction about subjecting children to corruption. Thus, the children spend their formative years in homes where abuse, profanity, and lies are common.
Dangerously, this obliteration of innocence continues well into adulthood. Caught on the slippery slope, and thinking they have nothing more to lose, most adults continue to forfeit their innocence all the more. Their entertainment, education, and home lives become even more lurid and destructive to the point that extreme evils like abortion, euthanasia, and religious persecution start being perceived as desirable options for reforming the culture.
This situation leaves two options for the individual who still believes in innocence: fight or flight. In the short term, those choosing the latter may be more effective in contending with the downward moral spiral, but this will not do in the long term. The much-ballyhooed “Benedict Option” could work in a decentralized feudal society, which is what Europe became after the fall of the Roman Empire. It cannot work in modern country where an authoritarian government has the means and support to simply outlaw ideas and practices that run counter to its ideology. A quick glance at Canada’s laws overruling parental authority to push LGBT indoctrination, Denmark’s forcing its values on “ghetto” children, or Germany’s draconian laws against homeschooling, all indicate the eventual fate of families who attempt to steer clear of the corrupt secular culture.
Rather, the better option for preserving innocence is to fight the prevailing corruption. The first step requires recovering the proper definition of innocence. Much more than a mere lack of negative experiences, innocence is a trust in higher things—like truth, goodness, and beauty. A person who believes in the truth of God’s revelation, in the goodness of friends and family, in the beauty of creation and imagination, is innocent. Such a person has a transcendent view of world and is capable of seeing beyond himself. He does not reduce all experience to random material phenomena, but instead finds meaning in everything and everyone. As Wordsworth puts it, innocence was “a time when meadow, grove and stream, the earth and every common sight, to me did seem appareled in celestial light, the glory and the freshness of a dream.”
Because they have less experience that would cause them doubt in higher things, children are naturally more innocent. In his Sermon on the Mount, Christ, the very embodiment of innocence, clearly wants to preserve this quality in the young and recover it in the old: “Amen I say to you, unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3). Jesus does not command people to give up their responsibilities or knowledge as adults, as he makes clear three verses later in Matthew 18:6, but only to retain their innocence and their trust in God.
Fortunately, simply knowing or experiencing something ugly, evil, or false does not necessarily cause people to lose their innocence, though this will certainly happen if one is not careful. Dostoevsky illustrates this situation with his main characters in Crime and Punishment. Hoping to prove the theory that truly enlightened individuals can dispense with morality, the protagonist Raskolnikov commits a double homicide, losing his innocence not only in the legal sense, but also the spiritual sense. The ensuing misery he feels does not really come from his guilt over taking an innocent person’s life, but in his decision to give up truth, goodness, and beauty for the false empowerment of embracing sin.
In direct contrast, Sonya, his foil, has kept her innocence. She shines like an angel despite experiencing far worse evils as a prostitute supporting her alcoholic father, hysterical mother, and helpless little siblings. In her conversations with Raskolnikov, she is the innocent one asserting her trust in God and His love while he somehow feels qualified to tell her just how wrong and naïve she is, never minding his own stupidity in committing a crime for no other reason than to validate his adolescent hypothetical morality.
Rather than shun Raskolnikov to maintain her purity, Sonya patiently confronts him about his crime and challenges him to repentance. In this regard, she mirrors the saints who brandished their innocence in the face of corruption. They understood that this was more persuasive than any argument. St. Paul won more converts in Greece with his innocence than the greatest philosophers did with their dialogues and treatises. St. Augustine himself converted because of the moral examples of his mother St. Monica and mentor St. Ambrose, not from his philosophical education. St. Bernard of Clairvaux overwhelmed the celebrity logician Peter Abelard (during a time when such people existed) through the power of his convictions rather than his brilliance. St. John Paul II, a genius in his own right, dedicated his life to God after witnessing his father’s unwavering faith, which he considered his “first seminary.” None of this obviates the need for reason; it does indicate, though, that reason is much more compelling when it is coupled with innocence.
Besides offering proof of the power of innocence, these examples from the past point to using innocence as a practical remedy for a jaded present. Most obviously, those who have guarded their innocence must model it for others. They can expect pushback for doing so, but this will indicate that people are noticing and allow for deeper consideration of innocence’s alluring effects.
What is less obvious in these examples, yet still critical, is the subsequent need for material detachment. Innocence pulls men towards heaven; corruption pushes them away. One ceases to trust in truth, beauty, and goodness when spending time listening to lies, succumbing to addiction, and surrendering to self-absorption. Therefore, man must detach himself from these influences.
Such retreat happens for Raskolnikov when he spends years in a Siberian prison before finally repenting. St. Paul chose to live in obscurity for three years after his conversion before beginning his apostolate in Antioch. After his conversion, St. Augustine permanently retreated from the world and all its pleasures and practically formed his own religious order. St. Bernard joined the strictest monastic community in the France of his day, and St. John Paul II forfeited sleep to spend more hours in prayer. For all these men, material detachment provided room for innocence to take root and grow. They seemed to understand that without it, innocence would remain a faraway ideal that would induce more regret than reform.
In the Information Age, detachment has become increasingly difficult as new devices fill every nook and cranny of life, and devious inventors and psychologists incorporate “persuasive technology” to destroy the possibility of self-control. For this reason, one must be purposeful in changing one’s habits and reordering priorities. One can fill the time formerly wasted on television and social media with prayer, work, study, and relationships. If such a shift can be sustained without relapse, moments of innocence will emerge when the seeker will notice and be revolted by the profane, elated by the beautiful, and filled with gratitude at the many blessings in the world around him.
For many who have lost their innocence, the realization that it can be found again is an occasion of great relief, even emancipation. They need no longer despair at having been estranged from innocence, nor continue pretending that they were better off for having lost it. They can instead be buoyed by the prospect of becoming innocent anew, protecting the innocence of others, and confronting the forces that bring such stifling corruption to our society. In the end, a return to innocence through detachment is the only way to truly love one’s neighbors, and enemies, without losing oneself and enabling sin. It is the only way to combat scandals without being scandalized. Most importantly, it is the only way to God.