St. John Paul II used to tell a story – a true story – about a colleague of his at a Polish university where the future pope was teaching ethics. The colleague was a physicist who claimed that he was an atheist when he was sitting at his desk, but found himself believing in God when he went out hiking in the mountains.
Ever since I read that story, it’s come back to me, with force, in different situations. You could simply read it as yet another example of the follies of intellectuals. So far as I’ve heard, the professor in question never resolved this contradiction, which you might think would be the central occupation of his professional and private lives.
But we’re a strange species and, in my experience, intellectuals are hardly alone in harboring starkly contradictory impulses on momentous matters, which they can’t resolve by their usual means.
Still, to me, his case is a sharp reminder that we all need to break out of the hot-houses of thought and action that we tend to create, insulating ourselves from reality, never more so than in modern technological societies, particularly just now by the digital revolution. And the lockdowns this year, which drove many of us to increased screen time, only made bad things worse.
It’s a common experience that encountering nature again, falling in love, having children – various such primal experiences – bring us to a larger, more human existence.
But we’re such a mass of contradiction and confusion much of the time that often suffering – confronting disease or death, injustice, poverty, prison – is the only thing that will wake us up, and ultimately bring us to sanity and peace. Francis of Assisi and Ignatius of Loyola came to themselves – and became the great saints we know – after experiences of war. In more recent times, great souls like Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn, and many others, known and unknown, found God – and themselves into the bargain – in political prisons.
Rod Dreher’s new book Live not by Lies draws on many examples of people imprisoned under Communism in the 20thcentury who made similar breakthroughs to freedom and even holiness. Dreher’s reason for recounting all that is not only historical. He believes that the “soft totalitarianism” that he sees rising in the Western democracies is going to require all of us to learn the lessons of those who faced the hard totalitarianisms of the recent past.
Things may not yet have reached such a pass; there may still be ways to avoid such tyranny. But that will require a new and different set of virtues than what we’ve displayed so far. As Dreher’s examples show, it’s not merely a matter of meeting threats with other threats, violence with violence, putting all our efforts on “winning” in the most superficial sense. It takes a kind of transformation into an entirely different mode of understanding the struggle and what it means to win.
There’s a lot of talk these days about how the COVID pandemic provides an opportunity for a “Great Reset,” which – so far as I can see – mostly means continuing the usual international utopianism about economics, climate, population, sex, and so on. It’s distressing that even the pope has accepted a large part of this agenda, which is not new except in the sense that it’s a new sales effort for some very old and very bad ideas and practices.
I’m enough of a utopian myself to think that maybe, just maybe, God intended a “Great Reset” to be one of the results of the various trials of 2020. . . .just not the poor excuse for a reset that we’ve been hearing about so far.
I don’t know what that changed mentality will be – I’m enmeshed in the current moment too. But I’m quite sure that it won’t only be a matter of different policies. And I would venture a guess that, to begin with, it will not be the continuation of the Twitterized way of thinking and acting in which we engage one another just now.
There’s such a thing as righteous anger. But it would be difficult to say that much of what we say to one another online, in anger, just now is righteous. A lot, in both substance and manner, seems to come from the Evil One.
The snarkiness of our online exchanges, which beget more and nastier snarkiness – and often something much worse than snarkiness – cries out for a different perspective. You can’t help thinking of Jesus’s own words: “But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.” (Mt.5:22)
It amazes me that so few Christians these days, particularly those who vehemently defend Christ’s teachings on adultery and divorce, which immediately follow this passage, or His warning against killing, which precedes this passage, think that this teaching somehow doesn’t apply to them. It’s easy to denounce mob violence when it breaks out. But where were you when online mob hatred demonized others, which led to the violence?
It wasn’t that long ago that I thought the Cold War was behind us for good. But it’s clear that there are lessons that we in the West have to learn from our friends who suffered under Marxism in the East. American arms played a role in the fall of the Soviet Union, of course. But the battle was not won by arms, but by the power of moral and spiritual public witness – in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and wherever people, including Western leaders, were willing to stand for the truth.
Almost no one except for a figure like JPII expected that moral witness would succeed. But it did and can again if enough of us, despite every threat, refuse to accept the violence and falsehood that are running wild among us.
*Image: Jesus Goes Up Alone onto a Mountain to Pray (“Jésus monte seul sur une montagne pour prier”) by James Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY]