In one of his Christmas sermons, John Henry Newman explains the deep peace of mind that a Christian should strive to attain – like the depths of the ocean that remain in mystery-wrapped repose even when the fiercest storms roil the surface. And at the same time, says the great English convert, a Christian is also urged to joy – and fear: joy at what God has done for us and fear at what, by our sins, we do to God and one another. All this seems contradictory, obscure, true – but paradoxical in the extreme (this column’s title is not taken from a Robert Ludlum spy thriller).
It’s good to reflect on these puzzles between Christmas and New Year, even though the celebration of the savior’s birth is more a time for hope than reflection. When we look at the way the world and our dear country are going, there seem to be so many fundamental threats – disrespect for human life, the denaturing of marriage, the rise of a serious anti-Christian ideology in the public realm in America and the rest of the developed world, and the likelihood that they will all get worse in the coming year – that it’s hard to know what to do.
The first thing, as always, is to begin with ourselves. Newman’s advice: “How joy and fear can be reconciled, words cannot show. Act and deed alone can show how. Let a man try both to fear and to rejoice, as Christ and His Apostles tell him, and in time he will learn how; but when he has learned, he will as little be able to explain how it is he does both, as he was before.” This is why Catholicism is often accused of opposing faults: pride and subservience, simple-mindedness and cunning, strictness and laxity, otherworldliness and worldliness, slavishness to ancient books and unfaithfulness to the real Jesus. People who don’t understand what’s deeply in play in many questions won’t see why the Church seems to take such seemingly odd views. Why does this institution – almost alone – not simply get with whatever’s ascendant in the culture?
Lots of Catholics have, of course. Our Catholic vice president, just the day before Christmas, spoke to a TV audience about gay marriage: “I think there’s an inevitability for a national consensus on gay marriage. That is my view. But this is the president’s policy, but it is evolving. I think the country’s evolving.” The vice president – a self-proclaimed Catholic – did not say this in sorrow or apprehension over what it might mean to marriage or morals. He merely did the political triangulation with his boss and his political party – and no doubt went home to his family in a self-congratulatory mood.
Christmas is not the time to debate gay marriage. But it is the time to think about whether anything human is inevitable. If God made us and came into the world to save us, all bets are off. Yes, it’s highly likely that Chicago politics will continue to give corruption a bad name; that foreign dictatorships will denounce alleged American crimes in prestigious international forums; that rock and movie stars will enter rehab in a steady stream. And it’s likely that the decline that has begun amidst our almost chosen people will gain momentum.
But unlike the materialists and cynical know-it-alls, we are not determinists. We don’t believe that anything human is inevitable. The things that look inevitable in the news are always avoidable – if people repent and believe the Good News. If a vice president told us that it was inevitable that Americans will be racists or that our economy will tank, we would likely tell him: thanks a lot, we’ll take it from here. Even in the relatively crude matters of politics and economics, Americans mostly still think like a people formed by the Bible. We know it’s dangerous to pursue utopias and, at the same time, we work to achieve all the good we can. It’s a paradox, but not incoherent.
Augustus Caesar: his time has passed.
This season, I fear that our belief in human freedom is going to be sorely tried in the next few years. It’s not just the ways that governments everywhere grasp after power, both subtly and crudely. They’ve always tried that. What’s starting to slip is our belief that we can do anything about it, that our slide is inevitable.
But ask yourself this: around the beginning of the Christian era, Caesar Augustus was the biggest thing in the Mediterranean; his army dominated wherever it really wanted to; various philosophers and thinkers looked important to the imperial elite. Yet though we study them all, they mean little to anyone today. Instead, an obscure Jewish preacher changed all that, then replaced it with something else that still attracts about a quarter of the people on earth, deeply influences even more, and shows no sign of weakening – except in certain hyper-developed enclaves.
We Americans should feel both hope and fear at this longer perspective, because we have been given much and are obviously expected to play a role that we are failing in just now. And yet, we always still hope, not merely because decline is not inevitable. We have a far greater reason to think fresh forces can comes to us, if we decide to look for them.
Politicians can flatter the alleged “wisdom of the American people.” But whether we are wise, or not, depends on what we think and choose to do. At the moment, much of what we think and do is not Christian, even anti-Christian, and therefore bad for human flourishing in general.
But the biggest failure of all would be to think what we do does not matter, that we are not redeemed and free, but condemned to mere fate. The Christmas paradox is that God Himself has made it possible for us to do things no one could have anticipated.
Speaking of doing wonderful things, we want to thank all of you who donated so generously to our end-of-year fund drive. We’re at about 80 percent of what we need in this final week of the year. If you can, please, make an extra effort in these last few days so that The Catholic Thing can enter 2011 stronger than ever. – RR