Kevin Williamson is one hell of a writer, and a hardcore, unsentimental libertarian. Like the (Catholic libertarian) reader who sent in this recent short essay of Williamson’s, I was struck by the tone and content of this Williamson piece in National Review. It begins:
This is the great paradox of our time: In 2017, it has never been easier for us to satisfy our wants, but we seldom have been more dissatisfied. In the United States, in Europe, in Latin America, and even (more quietly) in parts of Asia and in Australia, there is a sense that things are not going quite right, that the old order — not only in politics but also in commercial and religious life — is dead on its feet. People have turned to leaders and movements of very different kinds — Hugo Chávez, Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter, black-mask anarchism — in search of alternatives. In a sense, they are all the same: Those who had felt themselves to be on the outside looking in are now on the outside looking out.
I’m reading Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari — a book that is by turns brilliant and shockingly obtuse. Early in the book, Harari — who is a liberal, atheist, scientific materialist — notes that by any material measure, we are living in the best of all possible times. Yet why is it that rich countries today have far higher suicide rates than those not as rich? Harari theorizes that happiness depends not so much on actual conditions, but on expectations of what conditions should be. When conditions do not meet expectations, we can expect political turmoil, or something else — like, for example, the opioid epidemic. [UPDATE: Read Pia Maleney on the effects of downward mobility.] Harari says that the biochemical pursuit of happiness is “an existential threat to the social order.”
We have abandoned a religious outlook that restrains and questions the pursuit of pleasure. Harari doesn’t think this is such a bad thing. Anyway, he writes, no matter what religion says, “for the capitalist juggernaut, happiness is pleasure. Period.” Again, Harari is not criticizing capitalism. In fact, later in the book he praises it for all the advances it has brought to humankind, in terms of increasing pleasure and freedom of action. He says one of the great projects of the 21st century is going to be the use of technology to globalize pleasure. (Tellingly, nowhere in the book’s index is there a mention of Aldous Huxley or Brave New World.)
I hope to write a lot more about the book when I finish it. At this point, I want to point out that even if Harari’s vision is a good thing (it’s not, not in my view), and even if it were feasible, we would still be a very long way from achieving it. And there will be a hell of a lot of suffering ahead for people who have come to believe that happiness can be theirs if only they accumulate wealth and experiences. You can see from reading Harari’s book that economic growth depends to a disquieting degree on people believing that maximizing individual pleasure is the key to happiness, and that acquiring that happiness is possible for them.
Which brings us back to Williamson’s piece. Excerpt:
But the marriage and family that once was a source of security is today a source of insecurity, an unstable and uncertain thing scarcely defended by the law (it is far, far easier to walk away from a marriage than from a student loan) and held in low regard by much of society. Again, this works differently for men than for women: A single mother is still a mother, but a father who lives apart from his children and their mother is not a father in full. If he is not fixed in this world by being a father and a husband, and if he has only ordinary, unexceptional employment, what, exactly, is he? Self-sufficient, perhaps, and that isn’t nothing. But how does he stand in relation to other men, to his neighbors, and to those who came before him and will come after him? His status is vague, and it is precarious.
And there is the paradox within our paradox: The world is wondrous and beautiful and exciting and rich, and many of us have trouble finding our place in it, in part, because it is wondrous and beautiful and exciting and rich, so much so that we have lost touch with certain older realities. One of those realities is that children need fathers. Another is that fathers need children.
But these are what my colleague David French calls the “wounds that public policy will not heal.” Our churches are full of people who would love to talk to you about healing, but many have lost interest in that sort of thing, too. And so they turn to Trump, to Le Pen, to Chavismo (which is what Bernie Sanders is peddling), and, perhaps, to opiate-induced oblivion. Where will they turn when they figure out — and they will figure it out — that there are no answers in these, either? And what will we offer them?
Public policy can only do so much to fix this. What public policy is going to compel a father who has no interest in supporting his children to do so? What public policy is going to force him to be part of their lives? What law is going to force women not have babies without being married to the father? Are there public policies that can muscle troubled couples into staying married when the going gets tough? And what kind of school reform can make up for a child suffering from parents who don’t care about education, and don’t care to make a home life stable enough for their children to learn?
And so on.
About the churches that have lost interest in healing, I am reminded of something my former priest, Father Matthew, told me about this. He said that people often think they want healing, but what they really want is anesthetic so they don’t have to feel the pain of their own condition. There are plenty of churches willing to give patients nothing but anesthetic. A real church, though, will be willing to do the difficult treatment needed to heal the brokenness, not simply mask the pain from it.
We Christians have got to be that kind of church. It is likely to be the case that very many people will not want to come around, because we ask them to commit to something they don’t want to do. We tell them that they will not be able to baptize their pleasures here, but rather they will only find their lives if they are willing to die to themselves. People have never wanted to hear that, and perhaps never more than today, formed by a culture that tells them they can be like gods (the point of the book Homo Deus).
But there is no other way. There just isn’t. It’s the Way of the Cross, not the Way of the Big Electric Blanket. The reference is to a line by Flannery O’Connor, who also said, relevantly, “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”
This kind of grace-filled church will never fill auditoriums, not in this post-Christian consumerist culture. But it will be an ark to those who are willing to lose their lives in order to save them.