Christian happiness is the key to cultural renewal.
In the August/September 2015 issue of First Things, James Kalb explored the possibilities for rolling back the technocratic culture which dominates the modern West. Technocracy is a problem because it is based on the belief that nature is something to be manipulated according to our own desires, rather than a critical part of the actual reality which our desires must take into account if we are to be both good and happy. (The essay, “Technocracy Now” is available online, but it is not free.)
An excellent example of a technocratic approach is the belief that everyone should be permitted to choose a gender in order to maximize happiness. Why not? We can make a pretty good start at changing our gender now, and no doubt we will become even better at it in the future. And even if we don’t make any changes, should not a putative female who prefers to think of herself as male be encouraged to do so (and vice versa)? To those infected by the technocratic virus, this may not really make perfect sense, but it will nearly always make policy sense.
The twin assumptions involved are, first, that the fulfillment of desire is the key to happiness and, second, that man’s highest genius consists in manipulating nature through technology to make wishes come true. The same technocratic impulse is at work when we create significant imbalances in nature through the exploitation of natural resources, on the assumption that any significant problems that may arise will be amenable to technological solutions. The same impulse is again present in the rise of what we would consider unnatural institutions, such as gay marriage.
Kalb’s essay is timely, and not least because a serious challenge to technocracy lies at the heart of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato Si’. But Kalb is frequently timely. His most recent book is Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime Is Flattening America and the West and What to Do about It.
One could write at length on this issue, but let me highlight just a few points Kalb makes near the end of his essay, where he is beginning to consider the best strategy to use against technocracy. For example, in pointing out the importance of the argument that gay marriage, whatever it may mean for adults, is demonstrably bad for children, Kalb cautions:
This is an argument worth making. But continually to frame our objections this way in public debate has the perverse effect of reinforcing the logic of technocratic liberalism. We cannot win by claiming to be better technocrats than our opponents, better at bringing about equal preference satisfaction.
A little later, he fleshes out this point:
We must revive the fundamental principle of male-female complementarity, not only with regard to the fertility of sexual union but in all that principle’s psychosocial fullness. Marriage is a good to be defended, not because it is a vehicle for preference satisfaction but because the enduring union of a man and a woman is itself a good that is basic to the constitution of human life.
Today people take technocratic patterns of thought for granted, Kalb points out, and so the rest of us are in effect revolutionaries, attempting to reestablish connections with “history, human nature, a settled orientation toward something transcending utility, and patterns and attachments such as family and particular culture.” He believes that this task requires new forms of thought and action, even in the Church:
This is true even for Catholics, who in theory possess a rich intellectual patrimony but face difficulties because the attitude of Church leaders has made acceptance of liberal modernity the official stance. A Catholic who self-consciously rejects technocracy will lack the institutional support of the Church, will even be criticized as “antimodern”.
This thought leads Kalb to consider the foundational strategy of Catholic renewal, particularly the deliberate stress in the Church on openness to whatever is good in modern culture, which sometimes blunts our awareness of everything that is wrong:
Here the churches have a crucial role to play. The emphasis on common ground, which has prevailed in recent decades, has not worked; the Church has assimilated to the world, rather than the reverse. She must once again stand her ground, so that new and better social formations can grow up around her.
The key to happiness, or happiness the key?
Strategy is not a zero sum game, of course. The Church ought not to deliberately deny what is good in modern culture in order to more easily adopt an oppositional role. But Kalb is surely right that the time has come, not to deny common ground, but to place far greater emphasis on those differences which really do make all the difference. Even with all the inertia in a Church whose members are so often creatures of the larger culture, Catholics must find ways to form visible communities, or at least visible ways of life, which are joyful and luminous enough to attract others.
It seems to me that this is not primarily a matter of argument but of being. As I said above, there is a great deal of fruitful ground to be covered here—a great deal more that can and should be said. But witness is nearly always more effective than argument.
In any case, the present order—plagued by irrationality and excess—is inescapably passing away. The time will come when the stability and happiness of Christian communities, even under intense pressure, will make a critical difference to those who have forgotten what stability and happiness mean.
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