Written by Michael D. O'Brien
Monday, 03 March 2008
Sign of Contradiction
and the new world order
Michael D. O’Brien
Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother: “This child is destined to be the downfall and the rising of many in Israel, a sign that will be rejected—and you yourself shall be pierced by a sword, so that the hearts of many may be laid bare.” (Luke 2: 34-35)
Raised on older translations of sacred Scripture, I have heard the phrase “sign of contradiction” throughout my life, and know that it expresses dimensions which in newer translations are rendered alternatively as “a sign that will be rejected” and “a sign that will be contradicted.” Regardless of the translation, the intention of this passage is clear: Jesus will be a stumbling block, he will be a sign, he will be rejected. And Mary, participating intimately in his mission of redemption, will likewise suffer.
As children of Jesus and Mary, we too will experience “contradiction” and “rejection” as a part of our own missions in life. Every baptized Christian is a sign that refutes the limited rationalizing of human thoughts, strategies, and agendas, and which, moreover, confounds the designs and the malice of Satan. And every Christian will suffer in doing so. That is, if we live fully the life of Christ.
I have often pondered this mystery in relation to the role of Christian culture, and in Literature specifically. Story-telling derives from a human faculty that is found in all societies, ranging from the most primitive to the most sophisticated. It can take the form of a hunting tale told by stone-age men beside the fire where they are cooking the food they have stalked and killed. It can take the form of a play in a marble amphitheater beside the roaring waves of the Aegean Sea, as choruses and audiences chant the epic tales of Homer. It can take the form of a child’s poem inscribed on a leaf in Japan, or a monumental novel mentally “written” in a Siberian prison. And in a sense it can take the form of film, if content and style are integrated, true, and beautiful. It can take a multitude of forms, yet all of them arise from the natural law instinct within us, a profound sense that there is a story to be told, and that we are part of a larger Great Story.
Reduced to its most simple dimensions, story-telling universally communicates the following in some form or other:
* Life is beautiful and mysterious—and fraught with perils.
* Man is a mystery to himself, yet he may come to know himself, in part, through reflection on the meaning of his personal experiences, in overcoming peril, and by searching for truth.
* Each man’s personal story, which is universal because of the universality of human nature, is particular in character. Each soul emerges in this world within the context of a specific time, place, and culture.
* The highest form of literature reveals that each man’s story is every man’s story.
The novels of Solzhenitsyn come to mind, their politics embedded in the metaphors of cancer or the circles of hell. I think also of Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. By embodying the greatness and weaknesses of a people in their fictional characters, novels like these can speak of identity in a way that is (potentially) more profound, indeed more illuminating, than geopolitical and historical analysis per se. More than that, they reveal us to ourselves, helping us to better understand our personal dramas embodied in those of another. That man unjustly imprisoned is myself. That child cut to pieces in the womb is myself. That woman erased from the existential spectrum by a bomb dropped on her by my government is myself. All those myriad reductions of the human person to the level of disposable objects, are myself, my mother, my father, my child.
For these and other reasons, an artist (in any of the arts) should always be stringent in the self-examination of his motives, steeped in humility, and consecrated in the truth. He must never allow himself to become a servant of political or social-revolutionary ideologies, however benevolent they may appear to be, or however least of evils they may appear to be. The artist who sees himself as a hero or a prophet, or a priest of the socio-political forces to which he is loyal, which he believes are the historical necessities of his times, too easily becomes a puppet. He has no external measure with which to assess reality. Whether he submits to the forces or quarrels with them in part or whole even as he remains united to them, he has tacitly admitted that they take precedence over moral absolutes. Thus, morally neutralized, he allows his public persona to replace his true self, and then without knowing it he submits his gifts to the demons of his era. He loses his place in the continuity of time. He becomes dependent on social affirmation and the drug of exalted feelings common to all revolutionaries. He destroys even as he thinks he creates.
It is not customary for us to think of the reigning ethos in culture as political or social-revolutionary, for the widespread false assumption is that materialism (its foremost icons being the media and entertainment industry) is not ideologically motivated, is morally neutral, and is therefore outside those categories. This is a misreading of the very nature of materialism. By reducing it to consumerism alone, we forget that materialism is not only an abstract theory about the shape of reality, it is a perceptual consciousness that influences how we assess situations and respond to them. Thus, materialism is inherently political and, in its own perverse way, “religious,” for it seeks to present to mankind a coherent vision of the meaning and purpose of life. That it fails miserably in this regard, at enormous cost in terms of human suffering and death, yet continues to grow and devour much of the Western world, should alert us to a subtler dimension at work in this historical process.
Democracy is undone by the same vice that rules oligarchy. But because democracy has embraced anarchy, the damage is more general and far worse, and its subjugation more complete. . . . The truth is, excess in one direction tends to provoke excess in the contrary direction. — Plato, The Republic
Plato is here referring to states in which an excess of freedoms severed from responsibility have degenerated into open anarchy, which in turn precipitates tyranny. But what about a “republic” in which moral anarchy reigns in a matrix of prosperity, order, and apparent civic freedom? Can democracy be undone spiritually without a shot being fired within its frontiers? Indeed it can; indeed it is happening. Yet the psychology of perception, our own unrecognized consciousness-shift from the moral cosmos to the materialist cosmos now surrounding us, tells us that our situation is basically stable. We admit there are problems, even serious problems, but we feel confident that our freedom is intact, and that all grave threats come from exterior sources. This condition is more ominous than that of a people manipulated by an imposed overt tyranny with its propaganda machines and scary enforcers, its “citizens” rewarded for compliance by token relief from chronic deprivation plus a temporary reduction of fear. In his essay, “The Art of Not Yielding to Despair,” Josef Pieper warns that in contrast to overt tyrannies such as these, our condition is potentially far worse and nearly impossible to throw off, because it can always be argued that it is not, in fact, what it is.
Ours is a self-blinded condition, a willing cooperation with the very thing that is killing us—a slow and complex process that involves many pleasures of bodily and emotional appetite and the more dangerous pleasures of intellectual and spiritual pride. Our eyes do not penetrate beneath the surface appearance of the process, do not see the elaborate unfolding of sinful dynamics in which horror and pleasure are combined, as if in a diabolic ritual. We can only sense its presence from time to time. Then, to placate our self doubts, we make our minor protests, we state our positions in the apparently neutral public agora, and are suitably ignored—or worse, are absorbed into the liturgy of hell that depends for its success on all kinds of human instruments, good and ill.
Which brings to mind something C. S. Lewis wrote in his preface to The Screwtape Letters:
The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see the final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clear, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.
Who are these people? Did we elect them? In all probability we did, and we did so because they understood human nature sufficiently to offer us many apparent “goods” in a package-deal containing the great evils that are an essential part of their agenda. The very quality of our cooperation with the terms of the deal should tell us something about ourselves: we have come to accept as normal a complicity, albeit reluctant, with the most hideous crimes and endless self-justifications fostered by our governments, which have become aggressively materialistic in political philosophy (where there is any conscious philosophy at all). Our compliance is not enforced by starvation or the threat of torture chambers, but is rooted deep in the psyche, neo-Pavlovian and passive, for there are few things that condition human judgment as powerfully as security and dread, pleasure and the fear of pain, real or imagined.
During the 20th century, several nations experienced the crucifixion of their own peoples and churches at the hands of aggressive ideological materialism. In the 21st century it has mutated into a new form of “soft” totalitarian materialism that is promulgated and enforced not through jackboots or concentration camps, but through cultural and economic pressures of unprecedented power. For example, consider the ongoing struggle of the remaining Catholic nations to maintain their moral independence in the face of the European Union’s attempt to create a continental governance without reference to the Christian roots of Europe, and without regard for the moral principles of its subject peoples. The United Nations Organization strives to do the same on a global scale. If the new world order ideologues have their way, they would open the path for the destruction of many nations, dissolving and sweeping aside distinct identities, with the result of narrowing the spectrum of human freedom and responsibility, including the interior life necessary for knowing and serving God.
On March 24, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI addressed parliamentarians and bishops gathered in Rome to discuss the role of “values” in the emerging Europe. He stated that the “apostasy” of Europe from its Christian identity is the source of the continent’s current crises, and underlined that politicians must, for the true good of their own peoples and for the future of democracy, avoid the seductions of false “lesser evil” arguments.
This ends in the spread of the conviction that the “weighing of benefits” is the only method of moral discernment, and that the common good is synonymous with compromise. In reality, if compromise can constitute a legitimate balancing of different particular interests, it becomes a shared ill whenever it involves agreements that are harmful to the nature of man.
A community that constructs itself without respect for the authentic dignity of the human person, forgetting that every person is created in the image of God, ends up by not being good for anyone.
This is why it appears increasingly more indispensable that Europe should guard itself against that pragmatic attitude, widespread today, which systematically justifies compromise on essential human values, as if the acceptance of a presumably lesser evil were inevitable. Such pragmatism, which is presented as balanced and realistic, is not that way deep down, precisely because it denies the dimension of values and ideas that is inherent in human nature.
If the warning of the Mother of God at Fatima is understood in its broader sense, (“Russia will spread her errors throughout the world and many nations will cease to exist.”), what is now occurring globally is a new wave of the original forces that launched the tide of the French Revolution, followed by successive revolutions that increasingly secularized the human community. Then came the great waves of the Communist revolution, Fascism, and so forth, wave after wave that reshaped human societies and institutions—indeed the very perceptions of life itself. We are presently in the midst of the worst and most dangerous wave of all, the tsunami of worldwide Materialism.
A tsunami out in mid-ocean is barely noticeable, just a swell on the surface that seems harmless, hardly rocking the boat. But when the wave meets the shore it reveals its nature and the horrendous damage begins. That is why Catholic peoples, if they are faithful to their identity and stand firm in their respective nations, becoming fully who and what they are, will be “signs of contradiction.” I think of Poland, Slovakia, Croatia, Malta, Ireland, and others—few in number but not lacking in courage. God-willing, such signs will stick in the throat of the Beast and inhibit, perhaps even stop, its plans to devour mankind. Given enough time and perseverance, they may even succeed in turning the European Union back toward the original vision of its founders, which was Christian in its principles and was intended for the building of a community of nations, not the creation of a godless European super-state.
Resistance will cost much in terms of sacrifice, for it asks men of good will and good conscience to stand firm in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds. As Pope Benedict said in his concluding remarks on March 24:
… be present in an active way in the public debate on the European level, aware that this is now an integral part of the national debate, and accompany this effort with effective cultural action. Do not bow to the logic of power as an end in itself! May you draw constant motivation and support from the admonition of Christ: if salt loses its flavor, it is good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
The manifestations of the struggle vary from continent to continent, but are the same in essence: mankind is presently involved in a worldwide war against the eternal value of the human person. We cannot retreat from these conflicts, cannot abandon the field to the opposition. Neither should we presume that we can preserve a little space for morality by making a “separate peace” with evil. In this regard, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has much to teach us about governments, wars, and the personalities that shape our future: The passages where Saruman, a political realist, makes his compelling arguments for submission to the Dark Lord are significant, his brilliant malice obvious enough. But we should also keep in mind brave Boromir, a benevolent and idealistic political realist, who was a hair away from handing the whole world over to the Dark Lord without realizing he was doing so. And he would have done so, had not a small and humble person named Frodo run from Boromir’s ever-so-reasonable arguments. In his flight from deception, Frodo did not abandon his mission but rather preserved its integrity and in the end, against all odds, brought it to fulfillment. Fiction, myth, fantasy? Yes, in a sense, but ultimately more real than much of what we consume through the information media.
How easily we grasp at reductionist “realist” solutions. How swiftly we fall into fractures between the interior and exterior life, forgetting (or never having learned) that individuals and nations alike cannot long sustain two contradictory modes of interaction with the world: for example, one set of rules about human life for domestic policy, and a different set of rules for foreign policy. The interior and the exterior should be one, as well as positive and morally true, otherwise disintegration follows. Power and wealth may extend for a time a false equilibrium, but it cannot last. Moreover, its latter condition will be worse than its former.
Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. (Psalm 127)
What, really, is the psychological cosmos in which we now live? The larger architecture seems visible enough: the declining demographics of the West, the rise of China as an economic and military threat, the apparent instability of Islamic nations and subsequent Pax Americana, fear of terrorists ever-present like a gas in the atmosphere within the borders of our homelands, while our deepest terrors are anesthetized by the “soma” drug of consumerism. And all about us we are offered false either/or solutions. For example, look carefully at the candidate “choices” in the politics of democratic Western nations and you will find utilitarianism at every turn— camouflaged by idealist or patriotic or humanitarian or “liberal”-versus-“conservative” rhetoric, as well as its most odious offshoot, religious utilitarianism.
For the sake of illustration, imagine this scenario: You are presented with a choice. Threatened by a foreign leader with a Koran in one hand and in his other a nuclear weapon, you can choose to elect as your own national leader a figure with a Bible in one hand and in his other a nuclear weapon. Which of the two would you want to determine the future of the world? Oh, and as a supplementary detail, both of them are willing to drop the bomb on the other.
Recoiling in horror, you might then turn to an alternative set of candidates, thinking you must now elect a leader who, like you, abhors nuclear weapons. He may or may not have a Bible in one hand, but it is more likely he will have The Humanist Manifesto (a sacred text of Materialism) in one hand and a suction tube in the other.
Are these our only choices? If so, this is no choice at all. It is a piece of deadly theater.
Is there no third way? Why is so much public discussion about the current world situation lacking in creative imagination? Why is there so little serious examination of alternative paths through the maze of our current troubles? Has the entire world become gripped in a fierce lock-step fatalism that masquerades as realism? Has virtually everyone in governments lost faith in anything other than raw power and the instruments of death?
In his encyclical The Splendor of Truth, John Paul II wrote that “the morality of acts is defined by the relationship of man’s freedom with authentic good. This good is established, as the eternal law, by Divine Wisdom, which orders every being toward its end … Acting is morally good when the choices of freedom are in conformity with man’s true good…” (Veritatis Splendor, n.72, see also 71-83). Quoting Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, he goes on to warn that “while it is true that sometimes a lesser moral evil may be tolerated in order to avoid a greater evil, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (cf Romans 3:8)—in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order…” (VS, n.80).
Webster’s dictionary and the Oxford University dictionary provide excellent definitions of the term utilitarianism. Strictly speaking, it proposes that the moral worth of an action is determined by its outcome—in other words, the end justifies the means; one may do evil in order to bring about a perceived good. In a broader sense, utilitarianism can be defined as a philosophy (and I include here conscious and subconscious philosophies) that reduces the eternal value of the human person to a utility. He is a number; he is a mechanism; he is a component in an agenda. He is as valuable as what he can produce or to the degree that he can be used for production. He is disposable to the degree that his life impedes or has ceased to be useful for a perceived end, usually described as the “common good.”
Let us pause a moment here and recall two sayings about this very attitude:
“It is better that one man should die than the entire nation be destroyed.” (Caiaphas)
“The fruit of abortion is nuclear war.” (Mother Teresa of Calcutta)
Caiaphas is a master strategist, the arbiter of “lesser evils” for the sake of an apparent national religious good. In sharp contrast, Mother Teresa points to the real configuration of the world: individuals and nations cannot do evil without consequences; even the most “private” or personal acts affect the human community; internal moral evils will express themselves eventually in external moral evils, because the moral order has been broken at the foundational level; “lesser evils” on the national and international scale can unleash evils of catastrophic proportions.
When pondering the proliferating “isms” of our era, it is easy to get lost in the terminology. But for the sake of simplicity, it may be helpful to consider the two distinct moral philosophies of Materialism and Utilitarianism as alternate faces of the same phenomenon. Or put another way, they are incestuously united, producing in turn one deformed offspring after another. Put still another way, we could see practical utilitarianism as the working arm of theoretical Materialism; and by extension, religious utilitarianism as the working arm of religious materialism.
Religious materialism? How is that possible? Indeed, it is not only possible, it is abundantly evident all around us, and is manifest no more obviously than in nations that profess themselves to be religious while pursuing policies that wage aggressive war—militarily, economically, demographically, and culturally—racking up vast numbers of innocent victims while they invoke the national deities. Pious rhetoric notwithstanding, we should look at what they do. Utilitarians in practice (though not always in their lip-service) deny the truth that each and every person is a good in himself, of equal and eternal value. Utilitarians do not consider that “common goods” purchased by the destruction or exploitation of human life are not good. In fact, the evils they bring about are more insidious and corruptive when masquerading as virtue. Listen to their words, if you must, but observe more carefully their actions.
Such philosophy is possible only in minds that have succumbed to moral compartmentalization. Their fractures in perception and thinking lead to evil acts justified as “necessary evils” or “lesser evils” for the preservation of the apparent good. Some utilitarians reject even these categories, for they cannot conceive of their actions as “evil” in any way whatsoever. Thus, the abstraction of catastrophe—countless unique human lives are eradicated violently in the name of the “good”, and reduced to statistics. Domestic collateral damage and foreign collateral damage, all tabulated, interpreted, and presented to us as data, which supposedly we are to sagely weigh in a state of dissociation. That is the rhetoric of hell.
There is a deeper problem with all this, namely, that once utilitarianism, in theory, is defined and exposed, every Catholic would say, “Oh, yes, that’s evil.” Yet, all too often there is a disconnect between theory and practice, as if we feel that such evils are regrettable but unavoidable; and that it is impossible for us personally to bridge the great chasm between what we conceive as a Christian “ideal” and practical reality, what we feel are our sad but necessary compromises with evil. To the degree that we think this way, that is the measure of how badly we have become infected by utilitarianism. The objective reality here is that other human beings, who are as beloved by God as we are, will pay for our disconnect with their suffering and/or their deaths. We will continue to vote for the utilitarian who seems less evil to us or who offers us an apparent good, such as security or economic stability (which we have, consciously or subconsciously, decided is a higher good than the sacredness of human life). A problem deeper still is the inability to even see the disjunct. What is the cause of this? Is it utilitarianism alone, even the worst kind, religious, or is there something else that needs pondering here?
Perhaps it bears considering that the most terrifying form of utilitarianism might be the kind that is not only religious, but is spiritual as well. To become a “spiritual utilitarian” would mean that one enters a deeper realm of evil, where other souls are manipulated, exploited, and discarded for a spiritual end—in other words a Satanic level of evil. It is beyond the scope of this article to examine that dimension, but it begs a question: What prevents religious utilitarianism from becoming spiritual utilitarianism?
What, precisely, is the security wall that keeps us from slipping that far down? Is it our sense that we are the good guys? Is it a medicine bag of democratic nostrums and notions, an ethos, a vague sense of right and wrong, a line drawn in the sand over which we are sure we would never cross. Where is this line? What stops us from stepping over it, or from being pushed over it by perceived historical necessities? We are more than familiar with what bad guys do, the Hitlers and Stalins and Maos and suicide bombers of diverse persuasions, and all their lesser imitators. But what about us? Where, exactly, are our outermost limits of the permissible?
“If God is dead, then everything is permissible,” says one of the characters in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. But what if a person still believes in God and goes to church, perhaps even devotedly, yet his instinctive feelings and his choices remain those of a practical materialist? For such a person, “everything” is still permissible, but it is considered an unfortunate unavoidable necessity. Thus, he will need to find a self-justifying political philosophy, without which he could not live with himself. His philosophy may be brilliantly articulated or hardly articulate at all, but in its various degrees of sophistication it will do a common thing: It will deny that moral absolutes are authoritative in every sphere of human endeavor. He may bow to those absolutes when practiced in private life, but will negotiate them away in the realm of public life. The negotiations may be argued in sublime language, the moral questions sliced to molecular thinness, the compromises justified by impressive reasoning, but the end effect will be the same. The “liberal” and “neo-liberal,” the “conservative” and “neo-conservative” alike, will enclose the moral order of the universe in a ghetto, and he will do it in the name of freedom.
What, then, is the solution? At the very least it will demand of us, each in his own vocation and sphere of influence, a consecration to Truth as the final arbiter of reality in all situations that confront us. It will necessarily lead us to abandoning artificial constructs of interaction with the world—especially those strategies that would seek a good at the cost of hiding or equivocating the truth. It will demand courage of us, especially the willingness to lose everything for the sake of truth. Moreover, it will demand that in our very being we become presences of incarnated truth, bringing Christ into the so-called “naked public square” not only in our words but with our whole lives. It must be done with love, but it must also be done firmly, clearly, and with moral authority. Mankind does not need more rhetoric. It needs living words dynamically present in the agoras of the world. It needs steadfast men, it needs witnesses, it needs martyrs.
A generation ago, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said in an interview that the two most compelling evangelical gifts of the Church are its martyrs and its arts. The role of martyrdom in an apostate age remains what it always has been, though its forms are now many. But what can our cultural works do to resist the decline and fall of a civilization? For one thing, they can be signs of contradiction against the tyrannical character of the surrounding psychological cosmos, the anti-human, which is the overwhelming ethos of our times. For another, they can point to a coming dawn, the civilization of love that is still possible for mankind.
“We are not asked to have shining armor to overcome Goliath, but simply to know how to choose a few stones, the right ones, with the wisdom and courage of David.” (John Paul II)
Impossible in human terms, by human strengths? Yes, of course it is. But it is precisely the impossible to which we are called. The Gospels first revolutionized the world and gave us civilization because a small group of people dared to believe in the impossible. They knew that Jesus is the Master of the Impossible. His birth, death, and resurrection were the “impossible” surprise in history. And there are more surprises to come.