Fresh air rustled in the fall leaves of aspen trees, flickering golden foliage. The prairies of Canada stretched before me, broken by a few rustic red barns and groves. I stepped into the farmhouse. The warm light glowed through the open door. There was a table surrounded by children, and a mother setting fresh food before them. My friends and I were ushered into the warmth and bustle. Fresh whole milk, red wine, or cool water were placed in our hands, and a homemade dinner spread before us.
This occurred on a recent trip to a conference in Saskatchewan; the theme was “Catholic realism in the postmodern world.” Heady discussions of modern philosophy during the day were a stark contrast to mornings and evenings at the family farmhouse. This led me to a deep realization of the “two ways” our world can take: the way of life or the way of death.
The past few hundred years (at least) have seen morality and religion heading in one of two ways: the way of the warm hearth, or the way of cold hygiene. The first way is, broadly speaking, the way of Christianity and what we call natural moral law; the second, of modernity, and a denial of the mores traditionally associated with natural law.
In his prophetic dystopia That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewis anticipates this division. One of Lewis’ villains, Filistrato, describes the intelligent life on the moon as “A great race, further advanced than we. An inspiration. A pure race. They have cleaned their world, broken free (almost) from the organic.”
The reason for this? “Hygiene. Why should they have their world all crawling with organisms?” In fact, there is a war between them and the “surface-dwellers,” the “savages” who still eat and procreate. The “pure race” is, according to Filistrato, “slowly spreading their hygiene over their whole globe. Disinfecting her. The savages fight against them. There are frontiers, and fierce wars, in the caves and galleries down below. But the great race presses on.”
In fact, the marriages of the “pure race” on the moon are “cold” and their wombs are “barren.” They are, as a character fighting against this evil way describes it, an “accursed people, full of pride and lust. There when a young man takes a maiden in marriage, they do not lie together, but each lies with a cunningly fashioned image of the other, made to move and to be warm by devilish arts, for real flesh will not please them, they are so dainty (delicati) in their dreams of lust. Their real children they fabricate by vile arts in a secret place.”
These prophetic words were first published in 1945; the decades thereafter would see pregnancies via artificial insemination, and a growing prevalence of the “cunningly fashioned” images of bodies in movies, magazines, and the Internet.
By contrast, the hearth represents, more than anything else, the united family and the warmth that radiates from it. Hygiene (to my mind) represents the modern manipulation of life, which does not truly allow it to flourish. It is at war with “loved life” yet mimics it, never truly creating it. For modernity, life is an enemy: everything from bacteria to men and women are sterilized.
The way of hygiene – what St. John Paul II called the “culture of death” – seeks the release of man from nature. For Lewis’ Filistrato, its goal is to “bring out of that cocoon of organic life which sheltered the babyhood of mind the New Man, the man who will not die, the artificial man, free from Nature. Nature is the ladder we have climbed up by, now we kick her away.”
Which becomes clearer when we look through the farmhouse door and realize that this comforting view will never exist if we take the sterilized road of “hygiene.”
The farmhouse way allows life to grow largely on its own terms, in its own time. organically. The other way dictates that, as much as possible, life should be manufactured, whether on gigantic farms or in artificial wombs. The first way leads to the caressing of horses; the other to self-driving cars. One leads to breastfeeding, the other to breast amputation. The one leads to the care of families, the other to their ultimate destruction.
Looking in the farmhouse door also brought to mind artists who exemplified these two ways. The medieval illuminator reflects the first way; painting with natural pigments on vellum, the artist (usually anonymous) portrays order without denying a place for humor and ribaldry. Saints and sinners, harvesting farmers and nursing mothers, reside comfortably alongside marginalia depicting jousting rabbits and farting squires. At worst, it was a fallen – and redeemed – humanity that medieval and renaissance humanism occasionally glorified.
Picasso is perhaps the “artist” most representative of the second way. Distorted and abstract shapes fill his canvases. The focus is on sexuality deprived of meaning and order, disproportioning of the human person, and darkness. As with similar “artists,” it’s not fallen humanity that is portrayed, but the human as physically, psychologically, and spiritually incoherent. For Picasso there were no human women, but (in his words), only “goddesses and doormats.”
Catholic tradition, rooted in multiple scriptural passages, has often spoken of these two “ways”, one to Heaven, the other to Hell: “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)
One is the way of hope; the other of despair. Hope because life is hope. Hope because love is hope. The one leads to warmth, and a will to fight the darkness and cold unto bloodshed. The other leads to meaningless nihilism. One leads to the crib of the Christ child, the other to the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. Which way would you go?