In the spirit of C.S. Lewis, here are some emails to my friend Malcolm for the Holidays.
I understand how busy you are during the holiday season, and I knew I would eventually hear from you when you had time.
And, no, it’s not too late to say “Merry Christmas”. As a Catholic, every day in the “Octave of Christmas” is a solemnity, and in a sense Christmas Day lasts for a full week—and really for twelve days until Epiphany—the “Twelve Days of Christmas”.
But I speak of octaves and solemnities with caution. I know you don’t like to hear about Catholic traditions and all that and I understand you’d rather hope for good things to flow to you from “the Universe” rather than from God. Frankly, I think that’s simply silly, but I do share your aversion to the so-called “War on Christmas”.
In fact, I read an article recently that pointed out that Christians used to say “Jesus is the reason for the season.” They used to encourage people to focus more on Christ and less on consumerism during the holidays. Now they focus on the so-called War on Christmas, demanding that stores allow employees to say, “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays”. This is an interesting shift, because the battle in Christian circles used to be Jesus vs. Shopping. Now it’s Shopping-for-Jesus.
I may be making too much of this, but I really think it’s about what I would call the “deification of desire”.
For instance, all young Christians I know simply sleep around. They don’t think anything of it. They think promiscuity and faith can go hand in hand. That’s understandable, perhaps, given the culture we live in and the sexual saturation we’re soaked in. Indeed, you can view this phenomenon in terms of supply and demand, which is right up your alley, Malcolm. In a market where sex is cheap, what you get is Cheap Sex. In other words, even if a young devout Christian woman would rather be chaste and not sleep around, she will have much more trouble finding a man to date who will respect this choice than she would in a market where promiscuity is more rare, as it was before contraception and pornography became ubiquitous. Guys can get “virtual” sex anywhere there’s a wifi or a cell signal, and there’s also plenty of women willing to “hook up” with them, and so, like it or not, market forces will make “waiting for marriage” a real challenge these days. You might want to hold out for $15 an hour, but if all the other potential workers are willing to accept $7.50, your labor is cheap—even if your skills are intrinsically valuable. Your competition determines what you can “charge”, not just you.
I know you think this “Invisible Hand” is always somehow providential and that there’s a mysterious wisdom to market forces (and maybe that’s why you pray to “the Universe”, the Great Impersonal Vagueness), but this is how economics works – even economics without monetary exchange, such as the dating and marriage market. Impersonal forces have personal consequences.
But getting back to “the deification of desire”. There’s a trend in the Catholic Pop Culture of Catholic Celebrities peddling something they call the “Theology of the Body”. I know you think I’m an old crank, Malcolm, and I know if we lived in the same town, you and I would be among the old guys who drink coffee and complain to one another every morning at the local diner (well, I’d be at the local diner, you’d be at McDonald’s, but Distributism is not my point here). But this old crank (yours truly) has not only researched this so-called “Theology of the Body” extensively, I’ve actually read St. John Paul’s Wednesday Audiences, which is what the “Theology of the Body” is supposedly based on—but it’s not. The Pop Catholic version is a joke. (By the way, don’t spread the word that I said this. I can say things to you via email, my friend, that I dare not say publicly. Lots of people have vested interests in the Pop Theology of the Body, and they’d come down on me hard, as they did when I was publicly writing on this issue regularly, several years ago—that is, if I spoke as blunty publicly as I do to you privately.)
The whole point of the Pop Theology of the Body is, I think, ultimately the whole point of Shopping-for-Jesus and the whole point of the politics of the Christian Right. The Pop Catholic peddlers of TOB imply that sexual desire brings us to God. Of course, sexual desire is a good thing, but the idea that indulging in it for its own sake is not only harmless but virtuous—that there’s a kind of “sex magic” that connects physical release with religious ecstasy – is a return to Paganism. The Pop Catholics deny that this is what the TOB peddlers are selling, but it’s what they’re selling—though it’s merely implicit and hinted at in everything they say, which makes it even more alluring.
You see, we don’t want to conform our desires to Christ. We want Christ to conform His expectations to our desires. “Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God,” St. Paul told us, but I’ve heard no challenge like this issued from the pulpit for years, at least at the many Catholic parishes I’ve visited on my travels, with very few exceptions.
And, I know what you’re thinking, “Leave Christ out of this!” But even you, Malcolm, Proud Agnostic that you are (Chesterton said that “agnostic” is the Greek word for the Latin word for “ignorant”) realize that things have changed in “Christianity”. In fact, even in most Catholic circles, things have not only changed, they have completely reversed. Man is now God, so that even the teachings of Jesus on marriage and divorce are wiped away and we set the standard, God doesn’t. Man does. Worse than that, we twist God and His teaching so that He agrees with us! We deify our desire. Our desire is God—whether that desire is for a new wife or a new sexual partner or if it’s a desire to stamp the consumerism of Christmas with the Seal of Good Christ-keeping.
And don’t get me started on politics! But we see the same pattern. A candidate endorsed and supported by Christians is a Christian candidate because Christians endorse and support him. Our desire to see the candidate win trumps his own “walk with Christ” or lack thereof. We want what we want when we want it. Desire is God—even if that desire is lust, cupidity or a craving for political power.
Well, maybe you’re right. Maybe I am an old crank. The longer my emails are, the angrier I get! So I’ll end this one now.
Happy New Year, Malcolm! Give my best to Betty.
You really think that the “sexual revolution” as you call it is a good thing? You are really willing to overlook the generations of pain and anguish that the “sexual revolution” has caused simply because you enjoyed Betty—and a few other women—before you were married?
Of course people have been having sex outside of marriage since long before the Church was founded and they always will be. Do you think I don’t understand human nature? I’m a Christian because I understand human nature and I know how unfixable we are without grace.
And I’m not saying that sex is bad. You really think I’m a prude, Malcolm? You know the sorts of jokes I tell when we’ve had a few whiskeys. Sex is a great gift. I’m not attacking sex. My point is summed up by St. Paul (again) when he tells us that there are many “whose god is their belly”, though I would say there are many whose god is a few inches below their belly.
And we know we agree on this when we discuss Distributism vs. Capitalism. You admit that capitalism is bad when it becomes “crony capitalism” or “monopolism”. Capitalism is not bad because of “capital”; it’s bad because it allows for the abuse of capital; we can agree on that. Money is a great gift. It is a cultural tool that is helpful like fire or the wheel. But unrestrained desire for money is the same as unrestrained desire for sex. The goods we have been given must be used by us acting as worthy stewards; they must be placed in their proper order. They must be prioritized, according to the hierarchical structure that we discover in them; they must be restrained and utilized in their relation to our lives and our happiness. Man was not made for money, but money for man. Man was not made for sex, but sex for man. You can say this about anything we desire—food, attention, recreation. Are we so culturally impoverished that I have to make these remedial points even to you, Malcolm? Allowing a good to run unchecked and unrestrained through our lives … there’s a word for that. It’s called “sin”.
“Everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” I won’t tell you who said that, since you don’t “believe” in Him. But when we allow any good thing in our life to dominate us, we do indeed become literally dominated by it, as a slave is dominated by a master. We see this most clearly with drugs and addiction to drugs. Ignore Christ if you will, but don’t ignore psychology. Don’t ignore the facts.
And it’s not even that sex can obviously become a sin if it’s not controlled and managed and kept to its proper place and function. You admit that the accumulation of capital that runs to monopoly and market domination and that allows for the control of Big Government by Big Business is a bad thing. But why is it a bad thing? Monopolies, business and government collusion, the crushing effects of competition in a broken market, wage slavery—these things are bad because they keep normal people from being happy in normal ways, by running successful family businesses or living lives not controlled by policies set by interest groups and lobbyists.
And here’s the kicker: when a good is abused, the good can no longer do the good God made it to do. After a point, if you’re a glutton, too much food will eventually kill you, not keep you alive. The same is clearly true for drugs, which can heal the body in proper doses, but which can destroy the body if overused.
And so with sex. We have forgotten something about sex because sex is abused all around us. People don’t make love; love makes people. Sex makes babies—dirty, smelly babies. At least it’s supposed to. You know how hard it was for you and Betty when you found out you could not have children? You remember how you anguished over that?
Your infertility, your “barrenness”, is a cross. But, Malcolm, this same infertility, this same barrenness, this same life without children is embraced as a blessing—even by most “devout” Catholics! I know of several Catholic couples who are deliberately childless. And this for the most selfish and insipid of reasons, typically. To never see the light of day, to never exist, because your mother chose to cut other people’s hair and didn’t want you to interfere with her “career”, or because your father would rather spend his time on the internet or with video games after work, rather than loving, teaching and raising you! And this attitude is everywhere in our culture, and it’s made worse by Catholics who have no children or one child in their entire marriage and congratulate themselves for using what they call NFP. But don’t get me started on that.
Sex is supposed to be an expression of love, a means of establishing a family, of bringing new life into the world. Similarly, food is supposed to be a means of nutrition and conviviality and enjoyment. Capital is supposed to be a means of providing for families and helping owners and workers develop their capacities and talents in ways that are meaningful and productive and beneficial to the common good. But unrestrained sex turns a population sterile, or else produces babies that fathers don’t want and won’t raise. Too much food turns a population fat and sluggish and sick. Runaway capitalism gives us everything we see around us, including the fact that Karen and I (as small business owners) will have to pay $21,000 in insurance premiums this coming year for a policy that has a $14,000 family deductible.
All humans everywhere in all periods of history have recognized the need for discipline or restraint, the fact that discipline and restraint are called for by the very nature of reality. We are the first people to deny this. Such discipline and restraint is called “maturity” or “responsibility”. In sex, it’s marriage. In food, it’s healthy eating. In economics, it’s Distributism.
You worship the “universe”, Malcolm. Well, if the “universe” is anything, it’s reality. If the universe is reality, then insofar as it is reality (and insofar as there is nothing else outside of the universe), then the universe is God. (The Universe must be God; after all, you worship it.) So why don’t we start obeying the laws of God? Why don’t we start obeying the laws of the universe? Such as 2 plus 2 makes four and one man plus one woman makes one or more babies?
Well, you got me going again. I’ll save the rest of my invective for future emails. My New Year’s resolution should be to stick with mindless topics in all my correspondence! I’d have more friends that way. (But at what price! Those kind of friends would bore me to death.)
Are you going to Dave and Pam’s for New Year’s? Give them my regards! It’s going to be mighty cold. Take your big coat—though I’m sure Betty will make you.
Thanks for the internet greeting card featuring the Roman god Janus! After all, since men are two-faced, why can’t a god be?
Yes, I have a headache. How did you know?
We went to Tom’s party and yours truly, crank and prude that I am, told that joke about the girl on the beach and the pair of nuns on roller skates. At least Karen says I told it. I don’t really remember. We did have fun.
Thank you for the predictions. No, I don’t agree with you. I don’t think 2018 will be the year the Russian Collusion is proven.
The problem, as I see it, is not any coordinated collusion with Russia. It’s the fact that the U.S. and Russia are both headed in the same direction: kleptocracy—rule by criminals, rule by thieves and scoundrels, which is a form of anarchy, or “might makes right”. Russia’s been there for a while now. We’re not there yet, but we keep slip-sliding in that direction.
And Russia has us beat big-time in one major skill. The powers that be in Moscow have learned how to manipulate the perception of reality with the bread and circuses of TV and the internet. “Fake news” is always the friend of the tyrant. Because the more news is “fake”, the more we simply shrug our shoulders and give up even trying to find out what’s true. If you can’t believe anything you hear or read … well, then, you can’t believe anything. Any kind of information overload can do this, and Leo Strauss even noted that the Great Books can do this. A student unguided in his reading of the Great Books will find that they often contradict each other and so will lead him to skepticism. (This happens at more than one Great Books program, even at Catholic colleges, by the way.)
This “fake news” skepticism—shrugging your shoulders and walking away because “who can say what’s true?”—is the same skepticism of the relativists we meet everywhere we go—even at New Year’s Eve parties.
I do remember saying this last night. “What do you mean we should agree to disagree? What do you mean that what I’ve been arguing is true to me but not true to you? I want to know what’s true—period! And I want to conform my thinking and my acting to it. That’s what life is all about. And so, if I’m wrong and you’re right, don’t let up on me until we both agree to what is right. I refuse to agree to disagree! It’s pointless to discuss anything if you agree to disagree!” Well, when I get like this, people can never be sure if I’m joking, so I let it go and went back to another salacious story. And another drink. Another drink—too much of a good thing, as my head now tells me. (But I went over that concept last time!)
We rang in the New Year with laughter and joy—and we were together, Karen and I. A true blessing. Our kids were celebrating elsewhere, having fun with their own friends at their own parties.
I went to Mass last week and thanked God for all of the blessings of 2017. I was tempted to thank the Universe, but I didn’t know if I should tip my hat to Alpha Centauri or to Globular Cluster M-13.
So I gave up praying to the Unknown God and prayed to the One I know instead.
Happy New Year, Malcolm! Give my best to Betty. Let’s email again soon.