Tuesday, November 19, 2013

By George

George Weigel
 I was having a weekend at the country home of a friend of mine some weeks back when I picked up George Weigle’s Evangelical Catholicism from the coffee table and began to page through it.  When I mentioned that I was finding it interesting, my host suggested that I take it as he “had no plans to read it.”  It had been a gift to him from a colleague who, not knowing my friend well, thought that he would like to read about Weigle’s idea of where the Church today needs to go.  My friend is a devout Catholic, but like most Catholics today, gets his particular brand of Catholicism from happy-clappy homilies at liturgies where they are still singing songs written in the unsophisticated ‘80’s  and where the priest wears a stole designed the needlepointed faces of hundreds of adorable boys and girls of every color of the rainbow.  He and George aren’t on the same page. 
Of course I hadn’t thought that George and I were on the same page either and that is what I found so interesting about those first pages I had perused on that late October afternoon in the mountains of the Maryland panhandle.  I resonated right away with his observation that our Christian culture has irretrievably broken down and we find ourselves in a milieu in which Christian/Catholic values are no longer just absorbed from the environment in which we live but which must be consciously and deliberately embraced as a value-choice.    Moreover, Weigle attributes this loss of culture to the pluriformity in which we find ourselves as our society has become less homogeneous.  I had not thought of this and was quite taken by his insight that cultural pluriformity subjects what had once been absolute values to relativism.  Think about it.  In the relative homogeneity of Eisenhower’s America our Judeo-Christian heritage taught us that marriage is the commitment between one man and one woman to establish a family.  Ward and June Cleaver never questioned that.  But here we are sixty years later.  Today the Judeo-Christian tradition is only one tradition among many in our society, and no longer the dominant one.  Our ethnic palate is much broader than it was in the blue-collar white America in which most of us boomers grew up.  Moreover, while growing up in the Catholic ghettos of the Northeast we may have known the occasional Presbyterian or maybe even a Jew or two, today we work alongside Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, practioners of Wicca and Native American religions, and people—many people—who have no religious practice.  We all bring different understandings—sometimes widely different undersandings—of marriage and family life to the table.  The diversity has taught us tolerance but often tolerance has, through our own intellectual laziness, degenerated into a lack of critical evaluation of diverse ideas and values.  Everything today is “relative.”  You have your ideas and values; I have mine.  And this is Weigle’s point: absolutes have collapsed into opinions. 
Case in point: “The Pill.”  “The Pill” has severed the essential link between sex and reproduction—giving sex a variety of roles within our society.  It can still be used for reproduction, of course, but recreation, bonding relationships, attaining of power, expression of gratitude, or just animal desire can all be the primary purpose for which it is sought in a particular situation.  Moreover, just as sex no longer need to entail the possibility (threat) of reproduction, neither does reproduction any longer need sex.  Nor is marriage any longer about reproduction—save by choice—and reproduction is not limited to marriage.  It is entirely respectable today for a woman—or a man—to choose to be a single parent and even to parent a child without a sexual union.  This separation of sex and reproduction has endowed same-sex relationships with an equal dignity to mixed-sex relationships and opened the door to same-sex marriage.  Mamie Eisenhower would be flushed Mamie Pink with Gin if she could see this. 
It is not only in the area of human sexuality that our cultural homogeneity has broken down.  Divorce is as common as marriage today and the presupposition that marriage is “until death” is no longer accepted even by otherwise devout Christians much less by our society at large.  Religious practices are more and more pushed behind the closed doors of family homes and houses of worship.  Classes—even at Catholic Universities, much less public schools—no longer typically begin with a prayer.  Fewer towns has a crèche or a Menorah in public squares during the respective holidays.  Crosses, even when they are no more than a piece of jewelry, are discouraged by human resource personnel.  Even in private homes of religious people, religious objects are relegated to the bedrooms.  Religious figures are sometimes the butt of media jokes and editorial cartoons.   I am not saying that these things are bad, but they would have been unthinkable fifty years ago.  And frankly, I think they are bad, but hey—that is just my opinion and you can have yours.  It’s all relative.    
We look at a movie such as A Wonderful Life and find George to be a charmingly naïve figure in his optimism and integrity.  On the other hand, our movies today are saturated with violence that robs human life of any absolute value. Children’s entertainment is no longer Fantasia or Darby O’Gill, but video games that find their entertainment value in killing and mayhem.  Fred, Ethel, Ricky and Lucy have been replaced by Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, Raj, and Penny as symbolic of the time.  Think about that: married couples replaced by networks of friends involving casual sex. Moreover—and I must admit that I am an avid watcher of Big Bang Theory, the characters are not religiously neutral as were the Mertzs and Riccardos, but openly contemptuous of religion.   
And then, in this land of Paul Bunyan, George Washington with his little axe and his surveyor equipment, and Benjamin Franklin, the Printer, manual work is seen as something beneath the American born.  Thrift has been replaced by convenience and sobriety of lifestyle by Kardashian excess.  This breakdown of culture has happened in a span of less than two generations.  I think Weigel’s insight of how cultural pluriformity breads down the social consensus that establishes the norms by which we live—and in this case the Christian consensus by a new post-Christian secular culture—is genius.  What does he suggest we do about it?
Before I answer that, while Karl Rahner did not trace the cause of the breakdown of the Christian consensus, he did make a similar statement and offer the alternative when he wrote:

“The devout Christian of the future will be a ‘mystic’, one who has experienced something, or he will cease to be anything at all.  For devout Christian living as practiced in the future will no longer be sustained and helped by the unanimous, manifest and public convictions and religious customs of all, summoning each one form the outset to a persona experience and a personal decision.

Rahner thinks that the breakdown requires a spiritual renewal, specifically a focusing on spirituality.  Weigel pooh-poohs spirituality as part of the problem, an anthropocentric self-indulgence by “man” looking for meaning in his search for God.  Weigel doesn’t think much of the “search for God”—he read somewhere in a pop theology book that God is in search of us and the idea has sort of stuck with him.  I will deal more with this in a future posting as I believe that God is in fact in search for us, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t in search of God. Weigel, for his part, would seem to do away not only with the new-age silliness that passes for spirituality today but for the sound traditions represented by Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Ignatius Loyola.  But more to that later.
Instead of spirituality, Weigel proposes that the Christian today—to be a Christian in this post-Christian world—must choose a life rooted in the scriptures and in the sacraments and he calls  the consequent life-system “Evangelical Catholicism.”  Safeguarding Rahner’s equally valid insight which, spirituality correctly understood, does not exclude Weigel’s call,  I am inclined to agree with him—or was inclined until he began to explain what he meant by rooted in the scriptures.  But more on that in a future post when I read more and am ready to revisit this topic.    

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