What's Next: Catholics, America and a World Made New
When you spend a couple of years writing a book like Strangers in a Strange Land, your brain ends up as a magnet. It starts collecting all sorts of data like little metal slivers that seem important, but don’t quite fit together as a whole.
Here’s an example. A third of American men will sooner or later have an anxiety disorder. So will 40 percent of women. More than 70 percent of American young people are now physically or mentally unfit for military service. At least a third of college seniors, even at our best schools and after years of elite education, can’t make a coherent argument. Nearly half of American men have genital infections caused by a sexually transmitted virus. And 16 percent of women in the Navy deployed to shipboard service come back to shore pregnant. That last item may not need a lot of explaining. Human nature is human nature.
All these facts are true. All of them come from the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press. But they don’t necessarily mean anything. We could just as easily find a bundle of good-news nuggets in exactly the same sources. So what’s my point?
It’s this. Benjamin Disraeli famously said that “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Information can be true without telling the whole truth. We live in what Peter Drucker called the world’s first knowledge economy. A Niagara of facts in a 24/7 news cycle. But knowing is not the same as understanding.
Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom, not knowledge, is the framework of a fully human life; the architecture of interior peace. Scripture is the Word of God, and Ecclesiastes tells us that “the words of the wise in quiet are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools.” Wisdom is more powerful than might and better than the weapons of war (Eccles. 9:16-18). Wisdom is more precious than jewels, and once we have it, then knowledge becomes pleasant to the soul (Prov. 8:11; 2:10).
And that brings us to our topic this morning. My job today is to talk about what’s next; to offer some thoughts about how to live as Catholics in a world that can seem radically new. There’s good news and not so good news.
The not so good news is that a “new” world doesn’t automatically mean a good one — or even a little bit better one. The good news is that we make the world. Augustine said it’s no use whining about the times, because we are the times. Our actions matter. Our choices matter. Our lives matter. It’s through us that God acts in society and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is carried forward. So we need to own that mission. And only when we do, will anything change for the better.
My remarks today will be brief. I’ll give an overview of where we are as a culture. Then I’ll share some thoughts about how to live in the world we see emerging around us. And I’ll end with some reasons why this point in our history — despite all of its challenges — is really a privileged moment for Christians.
This isn’t a time to retreat from the world. We need to engage the world and convert it. And in that work, we have every reason to trust in God and find in him our hope. If you do nothing else after this wonderful Napa conference, I want you to please read and pray over Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium,“The Joy of the Gospel.” It’s a great text, filled with energy, very easy to read, and I think the best of his pontificate so far.
Francis reminds us how vital it is to believe in Christ’s victory and to lift up our hearts. We need to see the world and its problems as they really are. Otherwise we can accomplish nothing. But we can’t let the weight of the world crush the joy that’s our birthright by our rebirth in Jesus Christ through baptism. If we cling to that joy, if we cling to God, then all things are possible.
So now let’s try to make some sense of the culture and pastoral terrain we face. Those of you who’ve read Strangers may recognize some of this. But it’s worth revisiting. I’ll boil things down to 11 simple observations.
First, people and nations change all the time. Change is natural and healthy, so long as it grows organically out of the past, and at a pace people can digest and absorb.
Second, the nature and the pace of changes in our culture today have no precedent. They’re extraordinarily fast. They’re also accelerating. And they’re also too radical for most people to integrate easily into their lives.
Third, this leads to a sense of discontinuity and confusion. The last 60 years have been a series of disruptions in what the words “America” and “being an American” mean.
Fourth, there are lots of reasons for this confusion. But among the most important are changes – and not just “changes” but transformations — in our legal philosophy; our sexual mores; our demography; educational philosophy; economy and technology.
Fifth, we can’t go back to the good old days. That’s partly because nostalgia is always misleading – the good old days had plenty of their own problems — and partly because the gulf between American culture in 1957 and 2017 is too wide and too deep to bridge. The world and the country are now drastically different places from the image we older citizens have in our memories. America is a much less biblically influenced nation than it was at its founding. And our moral vision of who we are and what our lives mean is much more fragmented.
Sixth, the birth control pill and the separation of sex from procreation have altered the fundamental meaning of sex. It’s worth noting that same-sex activism now runs on a moral passion for gay rights and social acceptance; and not just acceptance but approval. From a biblical point of view, that passion is deeply flawed. The arguments for religious liberty and erotic liberty stem from two very different ideas of who the human person is and what our sexuality means. But a moral passion, even when it’s wrong, is always powerful. Thus, concessions to nominal gay equality are no longer enough. It’s why a leader and financier of the gay-rights movement like Tim Gill now insists that he wants to “punish the wicked” – which means you and me.
Here’s a seventh point: Democracy advances equality by flattening out injustices and social inequities. But it goes much further than that. It also tends to flatten out distinctions and hierarchies of every kind. Unguided by religious faith, democracy flattens out even the human spirit because any kind of divine transcendence or human excellence also implies a kind of inequality. This is why Alexis de Tocqueville said that democracy creates not just a new and different kind of political order, but a new and different kind of humanity.
Eighth, democracy exists to ensure the freedom of the individual. That’s a good thing. But in doing so, democracy can easily become hostile to any obligations that the individual himself doesn’t freely create or choose. As Christians, we don’t invent our own stories. We’re part of a much larger sacred story that links us to the communion of saints across time and continents.
And that creates a political problem. Families, communities, Churches – all these things place pre-existing duties on the individual; duties that limit and channel his liberty. Therefore, they’re suspect and can end up being attacked.
Ninth, technology, for all its advantages, also carries with it some serious problems. We use our tools, but our tools also use us. They shape the way we think, the way we act, and the way we see the world. Technological man sees the world not as a gift of God — with its own purpose and meaning, to be treasured and stewarded — but as a collection of dead material to be organized and used. And that “utility attitude” eventually spreads to the way we treat the environment, other living creatures, other people, and our own bodies and selves.
There’s a big stress in the corporate and medical worlds right now on pushing ahead with advances in artificial intelligence and gene splicing. Facebook is exploring – and this isn’t a joke – how to message your friends and update your news-feed telepathically. And China now has a national campaign to record and track all of its citizens with facial-recognition technology, the better to understand and influence their behavior.
When our headlines claim that “Smart Machines Will Free Us All” and “The Gene Editors Are Only Getting Started,” it’s time to pay attention. The Wall Street Journal published both those stories just in the last few months.
10th, Americans are especially prone to this kind of technological thinking because we’ve always been a deeply practical, pragmatic, inventive people – traits we get from our Puritan Calvinist past and the need to subdue a rough new continent. Americans solve material problems exceptionally well. That’s what we’re good at. And we instinctively judge our worth by our material success.
11th and last, reality is much bigger and richer than we can measure with our instruments and senses. But we train ourselves to disbelieve in the reality of anything beyond our instruments and senses. This means that science and technology are never truly neutral. They always begin with the unstated bias that the world they can measure and prove is the only world we can be sure of. This ends up diminishing other important types of learning and wisdom, like the humanities, as somehow less “factual” and credible. And then the human spirit begins to gradually starve.
So that’s roughly where we are. That’s our trajectory. It’s hard to hear these things. Hard challenges imply hard solutions. Giving up is always easier than fighting for what we believe and living what we know to be true. Cowardice solves the problem of conflict – at least in the short run. But it abandons the many thousands of great young Catholic lay and clergy leaders who are already part of our landscape. I know many of them. And they look to us for example and support.
So what do we do about our situation? How do we live the Gospel faithfully in such a different new culture? It’s part of our American DNA to want a well-crafted strategic plan to get the Church back in the “influence game.” But cultures aren’t corporations or math problems. They’re living organisms. There’s no quick fix for problems we behaved ourselves into, and the culture we have is a culture we helped make with our appetites, distractions and compromises.
The only way to create new life in a culture is to live our lives joyfully and fruitfully, as individuals ruled by convictions greater than ourselves and shared with people we know and love. It’s a path that’s very simple and very hard at the same time. But it’s the only way to make a revolution that matters.
When young people ask me how to change the world, I tell them to love each other, get married, stay faithful to one another, have lots of children, and raise those children to be men and women of Christian character. Faith is a seed. It doesn’t flower overnight. It takes time and love and effort. Money is important, but it’s never the most important thing. The future belongs to people with children, not with things. Things rust and break. But every child is a universe of possibility that reaches into eternity, connecting our memories and our hopes in a sign of God’s love across the generations. That’s what matters. The soul of a child is forever.
If you want to see the face of Europe in 100 years, barring a miracle, look to the faces of young Muslim immigrants. Islam has a future because Islam believes in children. Without a transcendent faith that makes life worth living, there’s no reason to bear children. And where there are no children, there’s no imagination, no reason to sacrifice, and no future. At least six of Europe’s most senior national leaders have no children at all. Their world ends with them. It’s hard to avoid a sense that much of Europe is already dead or dying without knowing it.
But here, we still have time. And here, in this room, today, what can we start to do?
Hell has been described in a lot of ways, from a soulless bureaucracy, to a furnace of fire, to a lake of ice. But I think C.S. Lewis put it best in one of his novels when he says that hell is noise. If that’s true, and I think it is, then much of the modern life we share we also make hellish, by filling it with discord, confusion and noise. Every day, every one of our choices is a brick in the structure of the heaven or hell we’re building for ourselves in the next life. And we’ll never understand that unless we turn off the noise that cocoons us in consumer anxieties and appetites.
Silence is water in the desert of modern desire. God spoke to Elijah not in the majesty of a storm but in a small voice heard only in silence. When Cardinal Robert Sarah writes about “the power of silence” – his book, The Power of Silence, is terrific by the way; buy it from Ignatius Press – he reminds us that God renews the world by first renewing each precious, immortal individual person in the quiet of his or her soul. God is not absent from the world. We just make it impossible to hear him. So the first task of the Christian life today is to unplug, carve out the silence that allows us to listen for God’s voice, and make room for the conversation we call prayer.
If we don’t pray, we can’t know and love God. C.S. Lewis reminds us that we’re embodied spirits. Our bodies are part of our prayer. We can and we should pray anytime and everywhere. But kneeling down in worship at some point in the day acknowledges that the God of Israel is the God who made the stars without number. It helps us remember God’s words to Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4). Our humility in prayer is an act of justice. Fear of the Lord – the respect and worship due our Creator – is the beginning of wisdom. And wisdom, as I said earlier, is the framework of a fully human life.
So we need to create silence. We need to pray. And we need to read – above all the Word of God, but also history and biographies and great novels. If we don’t read, we condemn ourselves to chronic stupidity and a conditioning by mass media that have no sympathy for the things we believe. Television is not a channel for serious thought. It’s often just the opposite.
And the internet, for all its advantages, is too often a source of isolation. The Hulu television series, The Handmaid’s Tale, which is based on the Margaret Atwood feminist novel, is nominated for 13 Emmy Awards this year. It’s very well done. It’s also fiercely anti-religious in its content. The point is: If we fill our heads with poison and junk, we make ourselves angry and dumb.
Finally, we need to be skeptical about the world, while we also engage it with our faith. That means vigorously advancing our social ministries, which are vital expressions of Christian charity. It also means getting and staying involved politically. We can never build heaven on earth. But we can make this world at least a little more loving, free, merciful and just by our actions in the public square.
This is why the efforts of religious liberty groups like Becket Law and the Alliance Defending Freedom are so urgently important. The staffs of Alliance Defending Freedom and Becket are today’s real heroes in protecting our religious freedom. And I hope those of you here today who have the blessing of financial resources will support them generously in their work. If you want to do something practical and urgently needed to advance the kingdom, helping them in their efforts is a very good place to start.
I want to close with reasons for hope, and that leads me to two Scripture passages from the Easter season that struck me as meaningful as I started work on this talk for today: Acts 17:15-22 and 18:1; and John 16:12-15.
In the passage from Acts, Paul has traveled to Athens. To quote the text,
“… [Paul] saw that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and devout persons, and in the market place every day with those who chanced to be there. Some also of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers met him. And some said, ‘what would this babbler say?’ Others said, ‘he seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities’ – because he preached Jesus and the resurrection. And they took hold of him and brought him to the Areopagus saying ‘may we know what this new teaching is which you present? For you bring strange things to our ears’ … Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”
The verses from Acts describe a world like ours today, and the perpetual newness of the Gospel. They’re also a portrait of courage as St. Paul, Christianity’s greatest missionary, preaches the Gospel in the sophisticated heart of Athens. Jews call him heretical. Pagans mock the resurrection and call him crazy. But Paul persists. He understands that his audience has a fundamental hunger for the godly that hasn’t been fed, and he refuses to be quiet or afraid. Even though he leaves Athens as a seeming failure and heads for Corinth, the seed of faith has been planted and eventually grows into a Church with deep roots.
In the passage from John’s Gospel, Jesus – who knows that he’s heading for his crucifixion in Jerusalem – tells his Apostles,
“I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes he will guide you into all the truth … and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”
The words of the Gospel remind us that the future is God’s, and we should trust in the Holy Spirit who leads us in a spirit of truth. We don’t need to fear the future. We don’t need know it before its time. What we do need is to have confidence in the Lord and to give our hearts to the Father who loves us. The future is in his hands.
I’ll end with a story. A friend of mine was a student in France in 1967-68 at the Catholic University of the West. And one day her class visited a chateau in the Loire Valley. The docent took them into a room with an enormous stretch of hanging fabric, many yards across from one wall to the other. And on the fabric were hundreds of ugly knots and tangles of stray thread in a chaos of confused shapes that made very little sense. And the docent said, “This is what the artist saw as he worked.”
Then she led my friend and her class around to the front of the fabric. And what they saw is the great Tapestry of the Apocalypse of St. John, the story of the Book of Revelation in 90 immense panels. Created between 1377 and 1382, it’s one of the most stunning and beautiful expressions of medieval civilization, and among the greatest artistic achievements of the European heritage.
Here’s the point. We don’t see the full effects of the good we do in this life. So much of what we do seems a tangle of frustrations and failures. We don’t see — on this side of the tapestry — the pattern of meaning that our faith weaves. But one day we’ll stand on the other side. And on that day, we’ll see the beauty that God has allowed us to add to the great story of his creation, the revelation of his love that goes from age to age no matter how good or bad the times. And this is why our lives matter.
So have faith. Trust in the Lord. And believe in his love.
Thanks, and God bless you.
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