Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Anthony Esolen on reform and renewal

Anthony Esolen.
Let’s get straight to the point. We no longer live in a culturally Christian state. We do not live in a robust pagan state, such as Rome was during the Pax Romana. We live in a sickly sub-pagan state, or metastate, a monstrous thing, all-meddlesome, all-ambitious. The natural virtues are scorned. Temperance is for prigs, prudence for sticks in the mud who worry about people who don’t yet exist. A man who fathers six children upon three women and now wants to turn himself into a “woman” attracted to other women — he is praised for his courage. Justice means that a handful of narrowly educated and egotistical judges get to overturn human culture and biology, at their caprice.

We are not in partibus infidelibus. We are in partibus insanibus.

This is how Anthony Esolen, a writer I admire tremendously, begins his latest offering for Crisis, “Reform and Renewal Starts with Us”. Lest you get the wrong impression, though, the piece is not simply an attack on the Culture of Death. Rather, it’s a list of things the concerned Christian can do to “vote with their feet”; i.e., stop supporting the cultural collapse and begin rebuilding:

  • Build new schools, reform old schools, and abandon irreformable ones. Aristotle, in his Nichomachean Ethics, said that one of the proper aims of education was to teach students to like and dislike what they ought. If nothing else has been retained of classical education, Esolen implicitly argues that this has: “If your children are in the sub-pagan schools, it will require almost a miracle of God to keep them from becoming sub-pagan themselves. They too will learn to worship the three-poisoned god of our times, self, sex, State. Take for granted that everything in their classes will be sexuality and politics; even in science classes.”
  • Restore your parish church and bring reverence back to the liturgy. Incredible damage was done to churches and to the liturgy in the wake of post-Vatican II “reforms”, a period Esolen memorably calls “the Decade that Taste Forgot”. Even now, some pastors and parishes show preference for churches-in-the-round, “resurrectifixes”, sculptures so abstract as to be incoherent, and treacly faux-folk liturgical music. Sometimes it’s just the removal of an icon that makes the difference between a renovation and a “wreckovation”.
  • Acquaint yourself with the proper use of the zipper. This, of all Esolen’s suggestions, will be the hardest to put into play, because the old “scripts” are either lost or shredded, replaced with new scripts that emphasize the impermanence of marriage and the transience of sexual relationships. Kids model their behavior with the opposite sex on what they see their parents do; and their parents are in large part no longer trying for “’til death do us part”. Here is where Christian parents need to step up and live the gospel in private as well as in public.
  • Be social. Esolen calls for the rebirth of the parish as the center of Catholic social life. Like any other religion, Christianity, partcularly Catholic Christianity, is not a “do-it-yourself project; it’s meant to be a community effort ... the support group to beat all support groups. The more things we do in the company of our fellow Christians, the easier it is to live a secular Christian vocation.
  • Read good books. In a larger sense, this means going back to the classics in all the art forms, although it could very well mean strangling television and film as media that stifle rather than feed imagination. Ninety-nine-point-nine-nine percent of what our culture factories produce today is junk food for the mind and soul; time to junk it, and turn to the works that nourished the Western imagination, producing the great writers even up to the early and middle twentieth century.
  • Recover the human things. There’s a meme floating about which sums up the problem Esolen addresses here: it shows a flock of sheeple walking down a sidewalk, all gazing intently at their cellphones, and bears the caption, “THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE IS UPON US.” How disturbing it was to go to a Navy-North Texas football game and notice that many of the UNT students were spending the whole game on their phones, texting their friends! As well, I believe Esolen is looking at the many innocent, wholesome things people used to do more frequently for amusement, things that needed neither nudity nor four-letter words nor intoxicating substances to be enjoyed ... things that often required the physical presence of other people, not just their avatars.
  • Pray like the pilgrim you are. That is, pray with the understanding that you will die, that that death will likely come at a time and in a manner you won’t foresee, and that your goal in life is the place Jesus has gone to prepare for you with his Father when that death takes place.
  • Whatever you do, do it as if everything depends on just that. “It does, after all. Let no one say to you, ‘What difference does it make if you sing beautiful hymns at Mass?’ That’s the way the world thinks. For the world, despite all its pretense of love for every individual, considers men to be mere stuff, an accumulation or amalgamation. Do not believe it. The next person you greet may be on the verge of sainthood or damnation. Every moral choice we make repeats the drama of Eden. No one can do everything. Everyone can do something. Begin.”

It may be possible to nitpick Esolen’s commandments to death. And it’s a commentary on the sad state of our spiritual lives that we would spend more time shooting down others’ ideas than floating our own suggestions; certainly more people have criticized Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” than have actually understood it. (To be fair, though, the idea wasn’t very clear in Dreher’s head when he wrote his original post on the matter; otherwise, he probably would have named it something less misleading.)

One objection we can dispense with right away is that Thursdayite false sophistication which treats the calendar as the ultimate arbiter of the true and the possible. The presence of iPhones and tablets do not make altar rails, parish bowling teams, vegetable gardens, and Saturday-night poker games at your buddy’s house undesirable, let alone impossible; the year 2015 has not made learning to samba and play a guitar with a dropped D irrelevant. Certainly the year has been no impediment to reintroducing classical education, not only in homeschooling but also in private schools. It could be said that Esolen looks only at what was good and beautiful of the past; however, it needs to be proven that the ugly and evil of the past came packaged with the good and the beautiful, that we’re not mistaking coexistence for correlation and correlation for causation.

Where Dreher merely gives us a hazy vision of the Christian community of tomorrow, Esolen gives us specific imperatives towards making that community a reality. Are the obstacles formidable? Absolutely; however, the obstacles will be formidable regardless of what we do. The truly objectionable suggestion is to do nothing, to simply wait things out until some cultural savior comes along with a perfect master plan for surviving the Second Fall of the West. I also find it unreasonable to continue to allow the Culture of Death to dictate the direction and tempo of the culture wars, to deliberately keep ourselves in a state of defensive reaction rather than take positive action. (Thomas L. MacDonald quips, “Don’t just do something, stand there!”)

Dreher has given us an overall strategy; now Esolen gives us some tactics. How do we overcome the obstacles? As my buddy Larry Anderson once told me, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” I leave to other times and other writers the unenviable task of outlining the obstacles. I submit it would be easier to simply get moving on Esolen’s suggestions and wait for the real obstacles to manifest, rather than fill cyberspace with fears of potential attacks that may never be realized.

I’ve said before that I don’t believe we have the time to “take back America”, that the best we can hope for is to be in a position to pick up the pieces after the collapse of the First World. In any event, there are things we can do other than merely fight to keep the Culture of Death from shoving us back into the catacombs.