Monday, January 23, 2017

Spending the End of Civilization with the Beatles

So I’m starting to compose this post. I’m perfectly sickened by everything that’s been rolling through my Facebook feeds — the infantile tantrums of the left, the smug snarkiness of the right, the eerie messianism of Pres. Trump’s personality cult, and above all the collection of insane clowns, corporate puppets, and pious frauds we must now call the Government of the United States. I’ve just read John Pavlovitz’s rebellious jeremiad, and I’m ready to compose my own Nolo consentire.

And in the background, I hear my mother’s TV set. The Golden Girls are on; she must have watched every episode at least twenty times. Bea Arthur and Estelle Getty are dressed as Sonny and Cher (I’ve seen this one) and singing, “I Got You, Babe”.

Suddenly, everything’s okay. God speaking to me, saying, Dude, I got this. Trust Me.

In case you’re wondering: No, I didn’t suddenly lose all sight of our many social, economic, and political woes. No, I didn’t suddenly gain complete trust in the National Circus. No, I don’t expect that He Who Must Be Called Our President will lead us to a land overflowing with milk and honey or a worker’s paradise. (If it’s a materialist paradise at all, it will be only for the most thoroughgoing materialists in the USA — the one-percenters.) If anything, I suspect that the cascade failure of Western civilization is closer than I first suspected almost seven years ago.

It’s still okay.

I tend to think that, when the Western Empire collapsed, the ordinary people didn’t realize it — except, of course, for the occasional Vandal or Ostrogoth raid. Historians try to draw bright lines, choosing events that mark the end of one era and the beginning of another era. To the people actually living, working, playing, fighting, and dying in those times, such boundaries must seem, if they could have known about them, like bisecting a sneeze. (Apologies to David Gerrold for stealing such a marvelous simile.)

As the Colosseum began to crumble and the Temple of Artemis fell apart, people farmed and fished and wove and raised their children to do the same. Shepherds grazed their lambs on grassy-grown cairns in which were concealed the glories of Greece and Rome. People built new towns and cities on the ruins of the old. And when History invaded their farms and burned their villages, they fled or died, only to return, rebuild, and take up the tiller and the loom again when History went to play somewhere else.

Perhaps the occasional monk, copying the intellectual remnants of that buried world, stopped to reflect on the fact that once his people had been part of a great and glorious empire. But nostalgia rarely contributes to survival in the now. “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” No, the monk didn’t know Satchel Paige, nor did he know Lennon and McCartney. But you can still imagine the people singing, “Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on ….” They knew how to laugh, love, and play in those days, even without Facebook and X-Boxes.

In writing about the Bible and slavery a couple of years ago, I found a passage in Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man on the subject which dropped a seed in my mind:

Christ as much as Aristotle lived in a world that took slavery for granted. He did not particularly denounce slavery. He started a movement that could exist in a world with slavery. But he started a movement that could exist in a world without slavery. He never used a phrase that made his philosophy depend even upon the very existence of the social order in which he lived. He spoke of one conscious that everything was ephemeral, including the things Aristotle thought eternal. (op. cit., p. 195)

Everything is ephemeral. Or, as the song from Avenue Q puts it, everything is only “for now”. In a contingent, ever-changing universe, this is to be expected; only one thing is necessary (cf. Luke 10:38-42).

The mistake we Christians often make is in thinking what happens on the national level is more important than what goes on among our families, our neighborhoods, and our communities. Nations, like buildings, aren’t built from the top down but from the bottom up. And when the foundation gives way, the whole structure comes crashing down. America is as ephemeral as anything else. Nothing in this world of sin and sorrow lasts forever, though one wonders about Keith Richards.

At no point in the New Testament are Christians instructed to seek political power, as if Christ had commanded the apostles, “Go and take control of all nations, forcing them to observe all that I have commanded.” The Law of Moses and the Sharia of Islam are external controls to force a show of uprightness. Jesus exposed virtue as a matter of the heart (cf. Matthew 15:1-20). Even a Gentile is pleasing to God if he is righteous: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (Romans 2:12-16). What matters, then, is not how we order the nation but how we order our own lives.

Change hearts and you eventually change the culture; change the culture and the laws will eventually follow.

Modern determinist man is afflicted with a curious sequentialism in his thinking. He assumes the future will resemble the past but is choosy about which parts of the past it will resemble. He assumes we will progress, but forgets that to progress is merely to go forward; one can make just as much progress going downhill as going up, but with greater ease. The calendar did not stop when the German Odoacer placed himself on the throne of the Caesars in Ravenna as his soldiers declared him King of Italy. It did not stop when Constantine XI Palaiologos hanged himself as the bashi-bazouks of Mehmet the Conqueror pillaged the wealth of Constantinople. And it will not stop when the final recession reduces the US to a fractious collection of impoverished nation-states, or forces the oligarchs to provide us with a First Citizen, even as demographic winter sets in. We will still have progressed, though that progress be through the gates of Dystopia.

Do not put your trust in princes, /in mortals, in whom there is no help. /When their breath departs, they return to the earth; /on that very day their plans perish. (Psalm 146:3-4)

Meanwhile, the common people will find a way to survive the wrack. In his oddly prophetic work The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis postulated that “if the eugenics are efficient enough,” the success of those he called “the Conditioners” would last “till the moon falls or the sun grows cold” (op. cit., p. 68). Even he assumed that what we call progress would continue indefinitely. Yet Man adapts to survive. Our postmodern Conditioners have not so far succeeded as to “engineer” us out of further adaptation; in truth, it’s that very facility upon which they depend to reshape our society. And in our nation of 3-D printers, smart cars, and tractors there are still corners where blacksmiths pound their anvils and farmers hitch horses to plows.

While the gantries of Cape Canaveral rust disused and the wind whistles through the broken windows of an empty Trump Tower, fishermen will still be putting out to sea and farmers still be bringing their vegetables to the market. Perhaps, as they do so, they’ll sing, “Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on ….”

The soul of a nation isn’t found in its laws, its speeches, its monuments, or its governors. It’s found in its families and in its communities. That’s where the Church lives — not in the marble grandeur of St. Peter’s Basilica but in the homely brick and mortar of the local parish. It shouldn’t be our concern to Make America Great Again so much as it should be to make its people disciples, to baptize them in the Name of the Holy Trinity, and to teach them to observe Jesus’ commandments (cf. Matthew 28:19-20).

And if in the process America does become great again, why, blessed be God forever. But it would be better if Americans became holy, even if greatness be irretrievable, even if the name “America” be blotted from the maps of the future, its ruins buried or surrounded by the bustle of a people who never heard “The Star-Spangled Banner” or pledged allegiance to Old Glory. Empires and nations are abstractions; people are concrete realities. Even America is only for now.

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way. This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-4)

I can’t promise you I’ll never criticize the government again. That’s part of the prophetic office of the Church: to say to those in power, “You’re doing it wrong.” But I will pray for the Trump Administration and the 115th Congress just as I prayed for the previous Administration and Congresses. It can’t hurt. And while I don’t discourage well-considered efforts for social justice at the national level, I submit the Church can be more effective at the community and family levels. That’s where solidarity and subsidiarity begin — ubi caritas et amor, ibi Deus est.

But if the National Circus does succeed in wrecking and looting the nation, that’s okay. We’ll survive somehow, whether or not we’re the world’s policeman. And life will go on.