The marcher’s placard on my Facebook feed read, “Treat people like humans.” “Yes,” I thought, “by all means! But how has this become a partisan assertion?” When the most obvious ethical principles are deployed as ammunition, you know something is amiss.
“Strangers in a Strange Land,” the new book by Archbishop Charles Chaput, provides a cogent answer for anyone confounded by the contemporary political landscape. This comprehensive review of such perennial questions as “What is truth?,” “How can we know it?” and “What does it mean to be human?” is supported by a list of references that reads like the titles in the smartest corner of the best bookstore you ever visited.
Distilling the essence of great thinkers from Aristotle to Augustine to Alasdair MacIntyre, the author also draws wisdom from western literary classics to illuminate our current circumstances with easy readability and startling clarity. “Adults,” he says, “deserve adult food for thought.” True to form, the archbishop doesn’t pull any punches, but just as characteristically, his delivery is so engaging as to make this unflinching analysis a pleasure to follow.
Those perennial questions weave through the book, folding back to reflect on each other through various prisms. The text is divided into three sections. Three introductory chapters review history. The next four focus on particular aspects of our current situation. The final five offer the possibility of redemption, or at least suggestions for how to live lives of virtue in a badly broken world. The explanatory central chapters offer the most immediate gratification for Americans bewildered by how we have come to such a sorry state.
From a classical conception of human existence as a sort of art that could be practiced and perfected through discipline, early Church fathers reoriented the meaning of human experience toward mankind’s relation to God. The Enlightenment began a process of shifting the focus back to man, an experiment concluded by our current public education system’s reduction of ethics and morality to matters of subjective opinion. In between, the United States emerged as “an experiment in moral nobility,” whose government by the people promised to avoid the corrupt heritage of man’s power over man.
“The Topography of Flatland,” the first diagnostic chapter, considers modern man’s shortsighted devotion to technological progress. In place of awe and wonder evoked by our visceral experience of the true, the good and the beautiful, we have come to revere as real and true only what we can quantify. The natural world is no longer a creation to steward, but raw material to exploit. Severing the sacramental connection between the spiritual and the material unmoors scientific inquiry from any moral ballast, and alienates it from any concrete end. Caught up in our devotion to progress for its own sake, we don’t even know what we’re missing.
Nowhere is the pathology of our naivete more evident than in the modern embrace of reproductive technology. Left to our own devices, human beings will naturally pursue self-interest. H.G. Wells’ Eloi may remain happily shallow, but in real life, the vanity that we can dictate the meaning of our sexual behavior effectively commercializes our most intimate relationships. The public repercussions of these private choices are most painfully apparent in the mental health of our young people, a problem so acute that “[w]e can’t speak candidly about this disaster for fear of hurting the collaterally damaged innocent or aggravating the guilt of culpable parties.”
Especially poignant for the current moment is the deleterious effect this consumerist lifestyle has on our body politic. More than democratic principles, our market economy defines the terms of American life. Driving consumer demand is “a vast and congenial river of baloney, humbug, and mumbo-jumbo” whose waters infiltrate every aspect of our culture.
We simultaneously take pride in our sophisticated expectation of spin from elected leaders and other “truth tellers,” and comfort from the flattery and reassurance of their lies. A whole host of logical fallacies, ranging from emotional appeals to deliberate ambiguities, have come to replace reasoned debate in our public square, and because character is formed by the accumulation of habits, this habituation to untruth compromises our powers of discernment.
“Junk thought,” writes the Archbishop, “is the human intellect weaponized to serve political goals,” and we find ourselves without a shield.
The first step Archbishop Chaput recommends is to turn off the noise. Once insulated from the din of popular culture, one can better access the cultural birthright of western civilization and begin the work of consciously reforming his or her personal character through the cultivation of virtuous habits like honesty, discipline, temperance and patience. For this to happen, we also need to find or create cultural spaces.
Rather than the judgment-free zones appearing on so many college campuses, we need intellectual communities in which the fear of reasoned scrutiny will not reduce the terms of debate into the emotivism we used to call demagoguery. Given the importance of passing this cultural birthright to our next generation, schools would be a good place for this work to start. The counter-cultural nature of the task is inherently isolating, so the cultivation of a like-minded community provides important support.
Informed by the knowledge of who we are and whence we have come, the work must lead back to re-engagement with popular culture, offering not the approval it demands, but the loving truth it needs. Reinterpreted for our time, it is the familiar call to be in the world but not of it.
Emily Rice is the art teacher and Director of Institutional Advancement at Regina Angelorum Academy, an independent Catholic classical academy in Ardmore.