Posts Tagged ‘Albert Camus The Fall’

Run-of-the-Mill Hedonism

Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

After our youngest child went to college, we cut down to one car, and I began to take Chicago’s public transportation system, the CTA, more often. This led me back to some late nights on the bus and train, and has found me also schlepping my library books back and forth in canvas bags like the student I was years ago.

In these canvas bags are books culled from among some seventy libraries in Illinois. I order books electronically during the week, and pick them up at the university library before the weekend. The books rest beside me on the floor “on the CTA.” Also riding beside me may be the quietly desperate, the drunken, the pierced, the kindly, the overworked, or the preoccupied, many of whom are indeed busy with their phones. For part of my ride, I try to pray, despite the Blue Line’s urine scent. Sometimes in my reverie I try to imagine what relationship might exist between the books that I read and the people whom I meet.

The books I schlep are sometimes about high philosophical topics, the latest debates between believers and high-brow atheists. I suspect, however, that few, if any, of my fellow riders–say, the woman with the cursive cliche inscribed above her breast loudly discussing with her friend on the phone her desire to have her tattoos removed–pay much attention to the high-brow atheists in my canvas bag.

My public commutes have led me to reflect that the greatest impediments to religion are thus not so much outright rejection, but distraction, not so much disbelief, but forgetfulness, not so much disavowal, but abandonment.

Philosophers have sometimes asked, “What should we be doing?” and Peter Drucker decades ago queried, “What business are we in?” A very useful alternative question with the potential to “back us in” to a similar set of truths is: “What are we doing instead of what we should be doing?”

What are nominally Christian parents doing instead of taking their children to church on Sunday? Oftentimes, they are going to sporting and educational events. Having served on a number of Catholic school boards, I learned that even the board members with children were in some cases choosing sports over Mass.

It somehow still surprises policymakers that college students find other things to do besides studying. According to federal statistics, about a quarter of college students abuse alcohol often enough to hurt their academic progress.

What are many young urban adults doing instead of forming traditional male-female, two parent families? My answer may surprise you: They are not, except in the rarest of instances, forming same-sex parenting couples, who represent but a tiny statistical fragment in American society. Many young people instead join for a time the largest claimant families of all: street gangs, whose members number in the tens of thousands in many major American urban areas, and whose scope overshadows all other non-traditional aspirants to family standing. The street gang, with its false pose as “family,” is far and away the greatest physical threat to authentic family and religious life, and should be a national ministry priority.

Thousands more people get intoxicated and miss worship events than do miss them because they are reading Nietzsche. Alcohol and drug abuse aside, many people think they have something more fun and satisfying to do other than praying and serving others: watching or playing weekend sports, or simply going shopping.

All this leads me to propose that run-of-the-mill hedonism poses a graver threat to religion than does high-brow atheism.

Hedonism is not “all Animal House all the time” as it is life by the pleasure principle. Simple pleasures will do. To update Camus’ adage from The Fall, we can sum up our age: Modern men and women fornicated (often alone) and went on the Internet.

Despite the fact that many of today’s young adults went to sports, school, or gang activities most weekends instead of worship, drank their way through their college-age years (elite students confining their hedonism mostly to the weekends), live in a “boozetown” young adult entertainment district, engage in virtual violence, fornicate on the Internet, and rarely practice formal religion, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins had almost nothing to do with this result, and Nietzsche didn’t give them the idea except maybe by wafting words through the Zeitgeist by way of the arts, letters, and film, some of which are indeed produced by Nietzsche aficionados.

Run-of-the-mill hedonism, predating just about every atheist who anticipated his or her own eternal non-existence, appears to take its own course, amplified and extended by profiting media, now targeted and consumed individually. “Sexperts” and cultural provocateurs like Dan Savage ride this turbulent tide, which nevertheless would flow without them.

Does the believer take arms against this sea of troubles? There is little point for religion to argue with run-of-the-mill hedonism, since hedonism is about enjoyment—like Pinocchio on Fun Island—only while it lasts. Jiminy Cricket could not talk sense into Pinocchio, who had to find out for himself–after the cruel metamorphosis of a boy into a donkey–the consequences of the simple decisions that kept him a puppet.

The alternative to run-of-the-mill hedonism ever is God’s unfolding love, but where beyond the choir is that Gospel heard? Believers continue to refute both atheism and hedonism, but their messages are jammed by the crackling static of hedonism, through which only random sound bites and tweets appear to penetrate. The faith, hope, and love encyclicals of the recent popes contain inspiration, but who knows it? Benedict XVI overturned Nietzsche and reclaimed Eros for the Christian in Deus Caritas Est (extending John Paul II’s Theology of the Body), but who has heard? Pope Francis has said that, contra hedonism, no one person is disposable:

The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor.
Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 1, accessed 12/17/13.

Sometimes, Pope Francis’s words do break through the hedonic noise, drawing significant bandwidth and brain-width. How? Is it simply that, like St. Francis de Sales, Pope Francis offers beads of honey instead of barrels of vinegar?

To understand this Francis Effect upon hedonistic attention, we can consider in layers our responses to hedonism, from the high-brow on down. The high-brow response includes journals like First Things, which nobly strives to prevent Nietzsche aficionados from sowing more weeds. The middle-brow response, set at the level of the old Great Books discussions and of Venerable Fulton J. Sheen, now dwells on the plateau of the PBS series–like Fr. Robert Barron’s numerous New Evangelization and new media efforts–and continually plows new ground. The low-brow response–wrestling in the mud with the hedonists–merely spreads around the mud.

But Christians have a fourth option. For this they must be willing to go “lower” than the hedonists, to go “no-brow.” In Pope Francis, Catholicism is once again reemphasizing this “no-brow” “rhetoric of the heart” (my son Mike’s phrase) that bypasses disputation through concrete personal acts of love and solidarity. Catholicism partially diverted from this approach after Vatican II when clergy became webbed within a pestilence of useless internal meetings during the era of “collegiality gone wild.”

The “no-brow” strategy includes the direct, personal living out of the Works of Mercy, both corporal (Matthew 25) and spiritual (I Thessalonians 5), and practices those good works (Romans 12) which take us directly beside another, and keep us there: to the hungry person who needs to eat, the sick person who needs care, the prisoner who needs a visit, the pregnant teen considering abortion, the student who needs to learn, the warrior regretting a war. Modernity has bureaucratized the work of the physician, the nurse, the teacher, the cleric, and the parent beyond recognition. But the “no-brow” stand of Christian personalism takes works of charity and justice back to immediate, direct human companionship, to “get beside” and “stay beside” another in joy. Hedonism has no answer, save slander and persecution, for the Beatitudes. That is in part how the message of Pope Francis continues to break through.

Believers hold that there is a truer joy in parting from hedonism. Happily one point of “finding out for ourselves” remains both divinely and naturally ordained: Because youth is ever fleeting, the same words that thirty-something Augustine was urged to tolle, lege, ever speak to us:

“Do this because you know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh. (Romans 13:11-14 [from NAB])”

At the bottom of my canvas bag, each week I put several meal bars, in case I should encounter one of the “brothers Christopher”–a lovely old phrase indeed.

© Copyright 2013, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved

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Science vs. Religion vs. Fornicating and Going on the Internet

Friday, November 23rd, 2012

In the science vs. religion debates, how few people who claim to base their lives on either science or religion actually do so!

Instead, we as a society follow politically correct, symbolic, faux science and religion.

If we did base our lives upon real science and religion, we as a society would, for example–

  • Eat right and exercise to avoid disease, and structure our homes, schools, and work environments to help us do so;
  • Treat alcohol and addiction as diseases in terms of public health and homeless assistance policies instead of politicizing “the homeless” to be used as a partisan footballs each election cycle, without actually healing their ills;
  • Treat sexually transmitted diseases in order to cure and to eliminate them, without regard to political correctness that instead enables and thereby spreads them;
  • Follow proper agricultural conservation principles;
  • Consistently focus educational resources based simultaneously upon ability and aspiration and achievement, and not simply upon one or upon another;
  • Maintain our roads, bridges, transportation, utilities, and communication systems in a self-sustaining manner using scheduled preventative maintenance;
  • Run our businesses, our charities, our government, and our bureaucracies based upon established scientific quality control measures to advance better customer service and achievement of mission and purpose;
  • Better match sources of funds with uses of funds in public policy decisions, e.g., pay for alcohol treatment with the alcohol tax, tobacco-related illness with the tobacco tax, instead of funding every other use of funds with a mishmosh of every other source of funds;
  • Regularly measure and test the effects of government action and taxation on a municipal, regional, national, and international basis (political parties are terrified of an unbiased, third entity measuring their actual achievement);
  • Educate prisoners while in prison, since abundant research shows that the more a prisoner is educated, the greater the reduction in recidivism;
  • No longer build homes or businesses in flood plains (which politicians allow generation after rebuilding generation; e.g., please see Ian McHarg’s 1969 book, Design with Nature, for a prediction of exactly where in New Jersey and Staten Island, New York, not to build because of the flooding potential of these locations; McHarg’s predictions were borne out by Hurricane Sandy);
  • No longer build homes, businesses, government projects, schools, or laboratories without adequate safety (especially fire) and without adequate security provisions.
  • But we are no more a scientific society than we are a religious society. We are instead really neither. Our familiarity with science and technology usually ends with the tips of our fingers. Our trust in God too often ends with the mottoes emblazoned on our coins.

    After lip service to both science and religion, when it comes to very important issues of human organization, we as a human society fundamentally ignore both.

    We are instead the uninformed and selfish inertia society, propelled by unenlightened self-interest pointed in the same direction that we may deny we have long been pointed: toward ourselves.

    But even there we miss the mark. Hamartia, for the Classic Greek author the hero’s tragic flaw, for the Christian the New Testament word for sin, literally means “to miss the mark.” We are indeed both a tragic and a sinful society that does not even act effectively in our own self interest:

    “A single sentence will suffice for modern man. He fornicated and read the papers. After that vigorous definition, the subject will be, if I may say so, exhausted.”

    Albert Camus, The Fall

    In her 11/11/11 talk at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture annual conference entitled, “Forgetting Jerusalem: Has the West Lost Its Way?” University of Chicago scholar Jean Bethke Elshtain updated and paraphrased the Camus quote above as: “We [Modern Man and Woman] fornicated and went on the Internet.”

    In her same presentation above, Prof. Elshtain mentioned hearing Julian Huxley confidently predict many years ago a scientific, non-violent, non-religious society “by the year 2000.”

    Julian Huxley apparently forgot that for scientific principles to be applied to address society’s problems, a certain amount of social altruism is needed.

    But scientific reason has heretofore not been the principal fountainhead of human cooperation and unselfishness. It is religion which has steadily, despite notable failures, urged its adherents to think and to act with the well-being of others in mind. The reason of science follows the altruism of religion.

    Catholicism in particular specifically recognizes not only Rome (Church teaching) and Jerusalem (Scripture), but also Athens (Reason).

    Science needs religion-based altruism in order to implement society-wide its best findings in the human interest. Religion needs science in order to separate altruism from self-centered self-deception.

    Both science and religion require a lifetime of study and work in their pursuit, which may explain why both science and religion–to expand G. K. Chesterton’s famous usage about Christianity–are “found difficult and left untried.”

    The greatest threat to religion is not atheism, but consumerism and one of its effects: weekend sports scheduled during times of worship.

    The greatest threat to scientific advance in society is not religion, but the scientifically-verified fact that approximately 25% of the collegiate population is abusing alcohol to the point that it interferes with their studies.

    The search for scientific truth and the pursuit of religious truth are compatible pursuits which spring from a human hunger for truth.

    Those who search for the truth of both the body and of the Spirit need each other in order to implement the best of their gifts of knowledge and wisdom to positively change our world.

    Otherwise, just fornicating and just going on the Internet will continue to shape society according to both tragic and sinful human inertia.

    Science is needed to prevent and to recover from tragedy, and religion is needed to prevent and to recover from sin. Both tragedy and sin stand in the way of human progress.

    Because the world thirsts for both an end to tragedy and an end to sin, science and religion can work together to more quickly advance a better humanity and a better world.

    © Copyright 2012, Albert J. Schorsch, III
    All Rights Reserved

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