Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

Against The Grass Eaters

Why 'good' and 'safe' are not synonyms, and 'peace' is not 'the absence of war'

If you are an engaged Christian parent, you will face a constant struggle over what sorts of books, movies, and television programs you will permit your children to see. This is difficult, and requires discernment. Some parents prefer to disengage on either end of the spectrum: some don’t want to be bothered with it, and let their kids watch anything, while telling themselves (parents) some kind of analgesic lie to soothe their conscience; other parents won’t let the kids engage with anything that hasn’t been utterly sanitized, to remove any possibility of moral contamination. Neither approach is responsible, in my view.

When I lived in Dallas, there was a Christian radio station that promoted itself on billboards as “safe for the whole family.” I understood what they were getting at, but boy, did that put me off. It telegraphed: bland, cheerful, and inoffensive. Every time I would see that billboard, I would think about this exchange from C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:

“Aslan is a lion — the Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”

Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

This is an extremely important point: “safe” is not a synonym for “good.” In some cases, it is an antonym. If a beggar is being beaten on the street by teenage thugs, the safe thing to do is to stay in one’s house and not get involved. The good thing to do is to intervene and try to save the beggar’s life.

We want to raise good children, not safe children.

When I argue with folks about whether or not our culture is in decline, many say — reasonably enough, on the surface — that the moral indicators are improving. There’s less teen pregnancy, for example, and less violence. What’s not to like about that?

They have a point. But to depend wholly on materialist criteria to measure whether or not a society is flourishing is flawed. After all, a police state can produce a low crime rate. And North Korea is doing much better than South Korea in shrinking its carbon footprint:

My point is not that it’s bad to shrink your carbon footprint, or bad to have a less violent society. My point is that the badness or goodness of certain outcomes can only be determined within context.

From an orthodox Christian point of view, the news that young people today are having less sex is welcome — but not if it’s because they’re too frightened or otherwise incapacitated to initiate relationships with others, or if they’ve given themselves over to pornography.

Once my wife and I were shown a house we were thinking of renting. As we walked through it with the agent, we could see that the family living there at the time were very conservative homeschooling Catholics. You could tell by the art on the wall and the books on their shelves. Normally this would have encouraged me, but the more time we spent at the house, the more the place struck me as a factory for manufacturing either totally docile conformists, or anti-Christian rebels. The parents seemed to take the moral and spiritual formation of their children seriously, but also seemed to think that the only way to form faithful Catholic children is to keep them from seeing, reading, or listening to anything that’s not the product of an extremely narrow, rigid, dessicated, and sentimental piety.

They created a “safe space” for their children, but I doubt very much that they created a “good space,” in the sense of a space in which the kids could refine their human desires and learn how to guide them to good ends — this, as opposed to learning how to deny those desires entirely. Goodness is not the absence of sin any more than peace is the absence of war. Brave New World presents not the same kind of dystopia as 1984, but it still depicts an inhuman tyranny.

This brings us to an especially good passage in Michael Brendan Dougherty’s reflections on Jonah Goldberg’s new book, Suicide Of The West:

The complex mix of social, political, and cultural attitudes produced by hyper-liberalism seems to be overcoming our human nature. I’m less worried about foaming tribalists drunk on natural passion than I am of a generation of grass-eating males, who mute the natural passions and ambitions through drugs, pornography, and the flickering of the backlit screens. And so, in the immediate future, I don’t fear a return to the natural, I fear our continued flight from it. Conservatives used to look at the falling rates of teen pregnancy in the 1990s as a sign of healthy recovery after the antinomian cultural revolution. Now I look at them with utter dread. This isn’t a return to chastity. It’s young people barely venturing out to do “what comes natural” and bonding with each other at all. Americans have fewer friends than they did a generation ago. They socialize less. They marry less. They have fewer children. And the ones we do have are more often than not half-abandoned by their fathers. But they certainly still participate in commercial society, and a small segment of them dream of creating the next major technological breakthrough.

Much of the nationalist reaction we have seen in America seems to me more like a futile gesture against the grass-eating-male future rather than a real political movement. This is particularly true of the alt-right variety, a movement that exhibits all the characteristics of abandoned male adolescents, who have too much time in front of screens and not enough real life.

True, true, true. More:

The diminution of religion and the refusal of so many to create a posterity is fatally weakening Western man’s capacity to lay aside his immediate desires for any greater good. There is simply no reward in his sacrifice if its value is not recognized in the hereafter, among his descendants, or by his society. This total disenchantment of our social life, in turn, gives even greater incentives for those with power to further de-rationalize any sense of national or “tribal” obligations, as they seek to liberate themselves from any residual duties to their own countrymen.

Trade, commerce, and invention all seem secure to me and able to withstand the current political spasms. What I worry about is that a society that de-rationalizes all sense of duty, sacrifice, and even glory will become so unlovely that anyone with a beating heart will wish its destruction even at the cost of trade, commerce, and invention.

Read the whole thing.

The sociologist of religion Christian Smith has written, and has told me in personal correspondence, that there is no way that the West can ever be re-Christianized through moralism. This is not at all to say that morality is unimportant, or incidental to Christian life and thought. It is rather to say that the Christian moral code must be organically linked to the felt experience of something greater. Kierkegaard taught that the bourgeois ethicist may be more mature than a hedonist, because he at least sacrifices his own desires to something beyond himself, but the rule-follower is still also something less than fully human.

In other words, it might be better to live a life of sober middle-class responsibility than to drift through life from pleasure to selfish pleasure, but neither way is truly Christian, or truly human, in the sense of achieving the fullest capacity of our given nature.

You’d have to be a fool to look around at the relative peace and prosperity we have achieved in this country and scorn it. What a rare thing that is in the history of human beings! But at the same time, you’d have to be anesthetized to regard it and not thing, “Is that all there is?”

The degenerate agnostic Michel Houllebecq is the novelist who, more than any other I’ve read, understands these times. He’s not for everybody, but if you can handle stern stuff, his breakthrough novel The Elementary Particles is prophetic. He writes about the dead end of a prosperous bourgeois people who have nothing to live for beyond satisfying their own desires. He writes about us.

Moralism will not awaken this generation. Nor will rationalism. The hope we need to help us see through this veil of forgetting will come, if it comes, through encounters with God made manifest in extraordinary beauty and extraordinary goodness. I spoke to my literary agent this morning, who called to find out how the redrafted proposal for my next book is going. I thanked him for the prompt, and told him I would get off my duff and finish it today. I sent him this quote from Mark Helprin’s novel A Soldier Of The Great War, as an indication of the kind of thing I want to talk about in this new book:

My conceits will never serve to wake the dead. Art has no limit but that. You may come enchantingly close, and you may wither under the power of its lash, but you cannot bring back the dead. It’s as if God set loose the powers of art so that man could come so close to His precincts as almost to understand how He works, but in the end He closes the door in your face, and says, Leave it to me. It’s as if the whole thing were just a lesson. To see the beauty of the world is to put your hands on the lines that run uninterrupted through life and through death. Touching them is an act of hope, for perhaps someone on the other side, if there is another side, is touching them, too.

The grass-eaters have their heads down, chewing their cud, and cannot see, much less touch, the lines that run uninterrupted through life and through death. We have right wing grass eaters, and left wing grass eaters, and grass eaters who take their grass without slant.

The point is not to be a grass eater. The point is to see, so that you might then touch, so that you might then be transformed by the eternal Love that moves the sun and all the other stars.



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