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
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