One soul at a time: The scandal of order is resolved in love
It is one of the most peculiar characteristics of post-modernity that the dominant culture has a love-hate relationship with the concept of “order”. On the one hand, the contemporary mindset seeks to justify every desire that was formerly considered “disordered” through the assumption that the universe is the product of chaos; on the other, this same contemporary mindset insists upon a socially uniform, consistent and orderly stance against challenges to this assumption. In other words, we wish to orchestrate a unified and orderly exclusion of the theory that both the material and moral universes are deliberately and intrinsically ordered toward intelligible ends.
The problem of randomness
We may safely assume that our culture’s commitment to chaos arises from a felt need to justify desires heretofore thought to be morally forbidden. This requires the denial of a moral order. Though it is irrational in itself to attempt to prove that everything arises from chaos, rational beings cannot long escape the process of rationalization for the things they choose to believe or do. In the present case, the bedrock argument or “fact” used to defend our culture’s self-justifying assumption of value-free chaos is what the physical sciences call “randomness”.
It seems that very few of our contemporaries realize that this argument fails because of a gross misunderstanding. What we call randomness in the modern scientific sense is not at all what we signify by “randomness” in ordinary speech. For in the scientific sense—which arises primarily from modern physics—randomness is simply a deviation of behavior within a highly predictable range. Everything we know in nature “holds together” and remains stable, and therefore observable for study, precisely because this “randomness” that scientists can observe is actually a set of modestly divergent behaviors occurring in a statistically predictable manner within a specific range of possibility.
To further address the root misunderstanding of randomness, we can affirm without fear of contradiction that scientific study (a) is not possible without an ordered universe; and (b) was born and nurtured only in particular intellectual cultures in which the recognition of a universal rational order was very strong. This is the most important reason that scientific development bloomed among certain Greek philosophers, such as Aristotle, and grew strong and pervasive only within the cultural worldview of the Christian West. In any case, it is logically impossible to claim to know anything at all under the theory that reality as we experience it is completely random in the normal sense of the word. Each claim to be “right” about anything is impossible within such a worldview.
It makes far more sense to assume that our insistence on a pervasive lack of meaning in the universe is the result of a fundamentally sinful rebellion. It is a question of protesting too much. We simply refuse to accept our innate perception that we participate in a moral order which often calls us to act in opposition to our own immediate desires. We refuse, therefore, to engage with the mystery of freedom.
In contrast, the Christian doctrine of the Fall, with its postulation of a dissonance in the human person between the flesh and the spirit, is a far more likely explanation of the perennial human temptation to resist the recognition of an intrinsic moral order which we constantly encounter—if only we would admit it. The first and most obvious universal indicator of this is every small child’s cry of “It’s not fair”—whenever the intrinsically obvious order of reality is disrupted.
The second universal indicator is our intensely moralistic insistence that every new theory of anti-morality must be systematically imposed on all, so that nobody will be able to disrupt the fundamental order of whatever behavioral system we attempt to create. Totalitarianism is essentially an intense moralism about the dominant desires of a given culture in the midst of a conveniently alleged chaos.
The scandal of order
What we find as human persons, however, is that we simultaneously perceive a moral order and resist that perception because we have not yet completed (or even begun) the task of subordinating our wayward desires to our moral perception. This is a paradox built in to what it means to be human. Our pursuit of the good is not a fully personal participation in the good unless we recognize the good and choose it even when we experience desires that are contrary to it. G. K. Chesterton thought the Christian doctrine of the Fall and Original Sin to be the one self-evident fact amid all religious claims—an inescapable dissonance between each human person and the Good which was more important to resolve than anything else.
St. Paul described it this way:
For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? [Rom 7:19-24]
This is what we might call the “scandal” of order. And because we are, in effect, interiorly scandalized by this dissonance with the good, we attempt to resolve it through a kind of instinctive self-justification. Our wayward wills instruct our intellects to rationalize, so that we can sweep aside those things which remind us of this order as it impinges upon us. Taken a step further, this necessitates the deliberate falsification of Christianity because its once pervasive moral assumptions stand as a sign of order—and a continuous warning against the disorder of our passions, and against sin itself. Call it a sign of contradiction.
On the other hand, the scandal of disorder is that it makes human happiness impossible. Just as we cannot be happy within an uncontrollably disordered world, which would render our own plans and desires meaningless, neither can we be happy giving free rein to our own disordered desires. Every form of disorder is in one way or another disintegrative of the stability of being. In the spiritual realm, it is precisely virtue cultivated in response to the knowledge of “the good” which leads to integration or harmony, and therefore to happiness.
This, of course, is why the modern campaign to banish “morality” (which is essentially ordered) in favor of “desire” (which is largely random) continually seeks to protect itself against any and all testimony to reality. Going down this path, we succumb to the illusion that it is simply the intransigence of moralistic “others” which prevents our happiness, when in reality our unhappiness is fundamentally rooted in our own slavery to the vices into which we have fallen through our more or less willful rebellion against reality itself.
Indeed, those committed to lifestyles defined by moral evil are far more easily “scandalized” than are those committed to an ordered perception of the good. This makes them far less tolerant of contrary goods than those committed to the good are of contrary evils—a psychological factor which very neatly explains the rise of one totalitarianism after another in modern secular states. St. John captured this mindset perfectly in his Gospel: “For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (3:20). Or as our Lord said in the famous parable of the tenants: “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’” (Mt 21:38).
Another factor in the scandal of order is the opposing assertion—which is necessarily also a fear on the part of those who seek to be free of moral order—that this life is all there is. Christians do not need to “get theirs” or “get even” in this life. But those who reject God do. It is all they can hope for. Suffering Christians are invariably happier in their virtues than triumphant secularists are in their vices. For the latter, there is always one more reminder of their sin that must be effaced from the world before they can be truly happy.
The solution of love
The only thing capable of overcoming such barriers is the sort of love that invites another to experience joy. Even for those Christians who make important contributions to contemporary debates or contemporary politics—and certainly for all the rest of us—it remains vital to form strong, joy-filled communities with plenty of outreach to draw at least some into what really amounts to a web of happiness. It is almost impossible for this to be accomplished argumentatively or politically, through tasks largely undertaken in what is now a battleground on which enemies confront each other. Instead, we need to find increasing opportunities for those who have drifted into secular mindsets to experience the love, joy and peace of genuinely Catholic familial and social life.
Most of us probably know of instances in which, through a combination of romantic attachment and Christian love, the right man has done this for the right woman, or the right woman for the right man, or both for each other. But on a broader scale, opportunities must be created that can draw those who are obviously questioning or who may not be nearly as far gone in opposition as they appear. As with politics and debate, it can be difficult to reach out in the online universe, because so many venues are already polarized. One of many reasons we try so hard to control our tone and attitudes on CatholicCulture.org is so that those who are seeking might actually encounter light here, and perhaps even more warmth than heat.
Still, this personal, familial and social accommodation of non-believers is usually possible only when someone is already interested and beginning to explore. In opening this possibility, there is no substitute for personal contact through work, school, clubs and other societies and activities with common interests, and through hospitality to neighbors and relatives. Speaking of relatives, I admit that a prophet is typically without honor wherever he is well-known (Lk 4:16-30; Mt 13:54-57), but I say “typically”, not “always”.
I am very bad at this personal outreach, being, when I am offline, the least social of men, with a weakness for solitude. But it is only love that reveals the beauty of order. Therefore, I take it as a given that we must all find ways to create opportunities for at least some who find themselves in that terribly disordered darkness which we call the dominant culture—some who sincerely wonder where they are going, and what world we live in.
If so we may take a cue from Our Lord’s approach in the first chapter of John’s Gospel. Encountering two men who had been listening to John the Baptist, Jesus asked, “What do you seek?” And when they wondered, in effect, where He was coming from, He said only this: “Come and see.”
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