Practices of Love in an Unimoon Era

Christianity offers something better than dating yourself.

This morning I read the following passage in Justin Whitmel Earley’s excellent new book, The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction:

One of my favorite cultural critics, Ken Myers, argues that the kind of atheism we experience in America today is not a conclusion but a mood…If secularism is not a conclusion but a mood, we cannot disrupt it with an argument. We must disrupt it with a presence.

The truth is that we live in a culture where most people are remarkably resistant to hearing verbal proclamations of the gospel. What’s more, it seems some of them really can’t hear it. We not longer share a common vocabulary for communicating whether truth exists, what can be called good, and what love means. But that is okay. God is not alarmed. Our secular age is not a barrier to evangelism; it is simply the place of evangelism.

Ever since returning from China, I’ve had an abiding interest in asking this question: “How is it that the West can be re-evangelized?” One of the reasons I’m so compelled by the life of habit is that I see habits as a way of light in an age of darkness. Cultivating a life of transcendent habits means that our ordinary ways of living should stand out in our culture, dancing like candles on a dark mantle. As Madeline L’Engle once wrote, “We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe . . . but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”

Though I think this passage risks short changing the value of intellectual argument, the overall point being made is, I believe, extremely important. Continue reading “Practices of Love in an Unimoon Era”

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Gotta Serve Somebody

When a friend sent me the link to this essay by a progressive bookstore employee, whose aching moral dilemma is whether to sell a book he disagrees with politically, my response was simple. I said, “American progressive culture has become mid-1990s homeschool chain email culture.” Here’s what I mean by that. Growing up in a conservative, evangelical, homeschool niche, I am quite familiar with the idea that there are certain ideas, expressed in certain books, movies, or rock albums, that people who want to keep their heart pure should just not entertain. This kind of avoidance ethic doesn’t feel strange to me. It feels nostalgic. If this blogger were talking about Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets instead of Hillbilly Elegy, if he had used all the same anathemas and descriptions and moral superlatives but applied them to Hogwarts instead of Vance, I would know his story immediately.

What this tormented bookseller has so helpfully demonstrated in his piece is that you can take a man out of church, but you can’t take church out of a man. If God is dead, that’s not the end of the story. You have to name a successor. For what feels like a huge slice of American culture, that heir is politics. God is dead, long live politics. This writer talks of Hillbilly Elegy not as if it were a piece of cultural criticism he dislikes, but as if it were a work of heresy that his very soul might be compromised by selling. I feel for him. I know the thought process he’s going through, because it’s the same thought process that prevented from me taking that high school job at the local video rental store, knowing there’d customers who wanted the films from the “back room.”

For this fellow’s moral dilemma, the attempts by New Atheists to find ethical guidance in biology are, as he probably secretly knows by now, ridiculous. Believing that our numinous sensations are neurological responses to biochemical reactions makes for some punchy Facebook memes, but it doesn’t help in a moment of true moral crisis. Human beings are built to believe. The question is not whether they will believe, but what they will believe if not God. For some, especially in our temples of higher education, to Believe means to be intersectional, to be committed body and spirit to a Tao of tolerance. For others, to Believe means to Look Inward, to Eat, Pray, and, to Love (at least, love those who aren’t bigots!).

The subtitle of Hillbilly Elegy–which is a book you should read–says, “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” Some smart people in our world say those words could just as easily apply to religion. Laugh these people out of the bookstore. Religious fervor is doing just fine. As Dylan said, “You gotta serve Somebody,” not talking about the customer.

How to Surrender the Earth to Thugs

In 1994, Michael Novak delivered an acceptance speech for the Templeton Prize entitled “Awakening From Nihilism.” Novak warned that the oppressive regimes of the 20th century relied greatly on cultural vacuums where transcendent values and religious beliefs had ceased to exist. The value-neutral nihilism peddled by many Western universities was, Novak observed, a breeding ground for totalitarianism and worship of the state.

For [relativists], it is certain that there is no truth, only opinion: my opinion, your opinion. They abandon the defense of intellect. There being no purchase of intellect upon reality, nothing else is left but preference, and will is everything. They retreat to the romance of will.

But this is to give to Mussolini and Hitler, posthumously and casually, what they could not vindicate by the most willful force of arms. It is to miss the first great lesson rescued from the ashes of World War II: Those who surrender the domain of intellect make straight the road of fascism. Totalitarianism, as Mussolini defined it, is la feroce volanta . It is the will-to-power, unchecked by any regard for truth. To surrender the claims of truth upon humans is to surrender Earth to thugs.

The “romance of the will” is the liturgy of individual autonomy and sexual nothingness. It is the spiritual void created when a society believes it can merely create its own meaning by an act of fiat. Leaving the realm of the absolute, the transcendent, and the supernatural does not free a culture from its lessons; it merely creates a job opening for those who demand to be worshipped as gods themselves.

In Europe, ISIS gains converts and recruits. How could a militant, murderous regime gain followers out of the eminently secular, eminently fashionable ranks of the modern West? Perhaps one answer is that Europe’s secular age has failed to answer the questions it insisted it would. A fragmented, irrelevant Christianity was supposed to open the doors to a joyous, thoroughly self-fulfilled consciousness of individual freedom and intellectual vigor. But it appears in 2015 that it has only resulted in a nihilistic embrace of suicide, either for the cause of Mohammed or for the alleviation of boredom.

Here in the US, revolts across university campuses express the indigestion that inevitably follows an intellectual diet of relativism and materialism. Students are dissatisfied with a university culture that displays contempt for tradition, except that tradition that flatters and profits the schools themselves. Long having abandoned any pretense of teaching moral reasoning or character formation, American halls of higher education find themselves powerless to articulate why social media should not dictate their very existences. The classroom has been surrendered to the activist.

You see what happens? The allure of secularism is the promise of a future without the intellectual and emotional boundaries that religion enables. A mind freed from the chains of anachronism is supposed to also be free from the dictates of tyranny. But that is not so. For what we see today is that secularism is not the end of religion but merely an open invitation to the will to power. Whether it be the promise of paradise through jihad, or the promise of equality through activism and intolerance, the human soul will not rest at secularism as a destination, but will pass by it, looking for more solid ground.

The Sexual Revolution Still Hates Women

Rebecca Traister, writing in New York Magazine, says that when it comes to sex, women are in a permanent position of disadvantage and injustice in our culture. All sex–even consensual sex–is dominated by a “power imbalance” that favors men and prioritizes male desires. Sex used to be feminist, Traister argues, but then looming specter of patriarchy intervened, and now women can’t even win for losing:

It’s rigged in ways that go well beyond consent. Students I spoke to talked about “male sexual entitlement,” the expectation that male sexual needs take priority, with men presumed to take sex and women presumed to give it to them. They spoke of how men set the terms, host the parties, provide the alcohol, exert the influence. Male attention and approval remain the validating metric of female worth, and women are still (perhaps increasingly) expected to look [like] porn stars…

[T]hen there are the double standards that continue to redound negatively to women: A woman in pursuit is loose or hard up; a man in pursuit is healthy and horny. A woman who says no is a prude… a man who says no is rejecting the woman in question.

Traister bemoans these “sexual judgements” and the way they position women to either leave unsatisfied or shamed. Even if consent and safety are present, women in today’s sexual marketplace too frequently disappear into the desires and dictates of men, leading to what one writer that Traister cites calls “Sex where we don’t matter.”

To which I say: Yes! Traister is exactly correct. The Sexual Revolution’s marketplace is indeed brazenly anti-women. When sex is a public commodity, women and children always have the worst, least valuable shares. This isn’t a wrinkle of sexual revolutionism; it’s a feature.

But Traister doesn’t want to challenge the reigning sexual nihilism of her time. In fact, she wants to make clear to anyone who might misinterpret her that casual sex and hookup culture are by all means beautiful and good. “This is not pearl-clutching over the moral or emotional hazards of “hookup culture,” she quickly clarifies. “This is not an objection to promiscuity or to the casual nature of some sexual encounters…Having humiliating sex with a man who treats you terribly at a frat party is bad but not inherently worse than being publicly shunned for having had sex with him, or being unable to obtain an abortion after getting pregnant by him, or being doomed to have disappointing sex with him for the next 50 years.”

If that isn’t a perfect summary of the self-deluded state of the modern secular self, I don’t know what is. You can see Traister’s thought process working towards the obvious truth: That maybe a culture of casual and irrelevant sex lends itself to an erotic Darwinism where the powerful and energetic will subdue others. You can hear the beginnings of a profound dissatisfaction with the terms of the Sexual Revolution. But in the end it is all stamped out by the glitz of modern accessories to our individual autonomy. Having humiliating sex becomes better than not having enough sex. Being taken advantage of is not as bad as carrying a child. Evil is bad, but at least it’s not boring.

But Traister’s honesty betrays her worldview. Her observations of the inequalities of casual sex are more durable than her rote progressivism. Traister begins the piece, after all, quoting a fellow feminist’s story about a drunken, unsatisfying sexual experience she once had with a group of frat boys. The fellow writer consented and everything happened seemingly according to the rules. The problems start when she wakes up. “But in the morning, she wrote, ‘I feel weird about what went down.'” There you go. When the alcohol stops coursing and the bodies stop moving, all that’s left is the throbbing of the soul, even if through cultural re-education and indulgence all that the mind can muster is, “That was weird.”

Rebecca Traister writes from the front lines of the Sexual Revolution’s civil war. It’s a civil war between nature and rhetoric. The rhetoric says, “We’re all equal and entitled!” The nature says, “I am stronger and more important than you.” Sex in which women “don’t matter” isn’t a rotting leftover from the Puritans; it’s the fresh du jour of the Darwinian world outside the world of transcendence, meaning, love, beauty, devotion, and God.  The chains of marriage and monogamy are loathed by the same culture that excels in sex trafficking, campus rape, and human consumerism.

Listen to Allan Bloom:

In all this, the sexual revolution was precisely what it said it was–a liberation. But some of the harshness of nature asserted itself beneath the shattered conventions: the young were more apt to profit from the revolution than the old, the beautiful more than the ugly. The old veil of discretion had had the effect of making these raw and ill-distributed natural advantages less important in life and marriage.

But now there was little attempt to apply egalitarian justice in these matters…The undemocratic aspects of free sex were compensated for in our harmless and mildly ridiculous way: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” was preached more vigorously than formerly; the cosmetics industry had a big boom; and education and therapy in the style of Masters and Johnson, promising great orgasms to every subscriber, became common…These were the days when pornography slipped its leash. (The Closing of the American Mind, p. 99)

Welcome to the Sexual Revolution, where the sex is free because the women foot the bill.