Tuesday, July 29, 2008

How then shall we live?

I've been involved in an interesting discussion in the last couple of days, which can be viewed here and here and in which it was my great pleasure to play the role of "gadfly".

It is one I enjoy enormously. There is little that bores and exasperates me faster than the usual inbox fare of these big Professional Catholic sites where someone writes an article that is meant to provoke discussion and receives a chorus of: "Great post Steve!" "Wow Steve! I've never heard it put that way before..." "I wish I were as eloquent as you are Steve, because you've really said what I've been thinking..."


Yes, and who really cares what you've been thinking, since it is clear you have nothing interesting to say about it.

It is commbox love-ins like these that makes the gadfly in me break out of his cocoon and make a beeline straight for any exposed flesh. Given that no one in our times has been taught how to have a friendly disagreement, I find it is quite a simple matter to make things more interesting. The plodding earnestness of the New Orthodox Catholics is just too easy a target, too juicy a bit of meat, to leave alone. The fact that they, mired as they are in their own private version of political correctness, can't abide the slightest dissent and have no sense of proportion or humour, really only adds to the fun.

(Long Aside: There was, of course, simply no way at all that I could have resisted the temptation of saying What I Really Think about breastfeeding in public. It's a fairly straightforward syllogism: I hate hippies and all of their pomps and works. Hippies started the whole "lets expose our private parts in public to shock our parents and then demand that society change its attitude towards our 'natural and beautiful' body parts" movement that I remember so well from childhood. One of the major themes of the early hippies was the demand to breastfeed in public. The hippies have, through these apparently small discrete incursions, destroyed nearly the entirety of the Christian social agreement that once sustained Western Civilisation. Therefore, I think women need to keep their clothes on in public in order to preserve Christendom. So when I saw a cluster of admiring NOCs congratulating Steve on how wonderfully he had come to the defense of the practise, using exactly the same rhetoric I remember only too well from the furry-armpitted, fright-haired harridans of my earliest memories ... well, it was just too much to expect me to resist. I was certain Steve wouldn't mind.

I will grant, perhaps, the excuse that most of the NOCs are too young to remember the hippie movement themselves, and were for the most part raised in safe middle class neighbourhoods in which they had no direct exposure to the filthy hippies and their Crusade for Indecency. It is perhaps somewhat understandable that they would not realise they were dutifully reciting and defending the hippie doctrines that have slithered quietly into every aspect of our lives and destroyed Western Civilisation. But take it from me who remembers well life on the hippie West Coast in the early 1970s and her mother's grubby, patchouli-doused friends talking about their plans: the determination to force the rest of the world to accept the "beautiful and natural" phenomenon of breastfeeding in public is a manifestation of the feminist hippie movement slithering into Christianity and I won't have it.

Also, breastfeeding involves bodily fluids. Anything that involves bodily fluids needs to be kept out of public view.)

Now, wait. What was I talking about?

Oh yes, the discussion at Steve's Inside Catholic column. Jeff Culbreath is someone whose blogging I have enjoyed for some years now and with whom I've discussed many of these kinds of issues in a list we used to belong to. I would say that most of the writing by Catholics, especially traditionalist Catholics, that I find interesting and important is focused on this question of how to live, knowing what we know, in a world that knows nothing of it.

I make light of it and poke my stick into the hornets' nest because the question is an important one that needs to be taken seriously. It can't be left to the mutual admiration societies that cluster into commboxes. Steve and I and a few others have been working on this, almost as the main background theme of all our writing in the last five years. Some of us believe that it is counter productive, not to mention more or less impossible, to remove oneself off to the woods or the country to attempt to re-create a Catholic utopia where all the ladies wear long skirts and all the kids can converse in Latin.

Others disagree.

But the bigger question is one that remains.

Just how do we live as Catholics in a situation like the one we have? What is the proper "balance" of living in but not of the world? How much of the world, and which particular bits, can we take in? What must we reject and of what may we say, "yes, this is part of the human endeavour of which I am naturally a part"?

How do we get the proper perspective on a culture in which we are ourselves completely steeped, to which we owe the very shape of our thoughts?

This raises other questions. Can we have friends "in the world"? Non-Catholic friends? Can we hope for the salvation of our non-Catholic loved-ones?

Do we set ourselves up as arbiters of who qualifies for membership in the Elect? If so, according to what criteria and by whose authority?

Does it matter that we are, while being systematically forced out of public life in the secular world, at the same time deliberately withdrawing ourselves from it? Is this exclusion and withdrawal a bad thing or a good thing? Should we fight it or help it?

There are all sorts of solutions, some better than others, but none The Right solution. Many retreat. Many give up the struggle. Many join groups that help them withdraw, like the SSPX. Some go out of their way to live near a place where there is some safety and the protection of something like a monastery or an Oratory. Some just try to go it alone.

Catholics in general, and traditionalist Catholics in particular, have a habit of looking to the past for precedent to figure out a way to cobble together a method of dealing with the problem.

Is there a precedent for our current situation? I think not an exact one. As someone said, although we are indeed returning to a variation on pre-Christian paganism, complete with child sacrifice, lawlessness and philosophical fatalism, there is a vast difference between a virgin and a divorcee. A Christendom that has spurned Christ in her maturity is not the same bride that was wooed in her innocence.

So, how are we to see our times? How are we to interact with our non-Catholic, paganised neighbours? Do we approach them with disdain? Do we not approach them at all?

Is it possible for a Christian to make use of the things of the pagan world that are, through the working of the Natural Law, still under the headship of Christ, though He is unknown?

Can we read Truman Capote? Do we dare laugh at the bawdy jokes on Boston Legal, or empathise with the moral struggles of Alan Shore? Can we see goodness in films and music that is not specifically Christian?

Did the early Christians read the Classical writers?

Augustine derided the pagan entertainments of his youth, but was he entirely right? (Terribly daring, I know, to question so venerable a Doctor).

The fact is, I do not know the answers to these questions. But I believe this is the essence of our task, having been stuck in these almost inconceivably dreadful times.

I'm a child of this civilisation. I'm even a child of the hippie generation, and I'm sure am also unconsciously greatly influenced by that movement. I want to know the world, not reject it. The world is full of human beings, and there is nothing so interesting and wonderful to a misanthrope like me as human beings.

I can't help it. I love the world.

And I understand that it was not entirely repugnant to the Father either.