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Our Diabolic Age

Ours is an era of scattering, of chaos, of the denial of meaning outside the autonomous self

Over the weekend, I posted something about the etymology of the words “symbolic” and “diabolic,” something I had not known. In the Greek (and subsequently, the Latin) roots of the words, symbolic means “gathering together,” and diabolic means “tearing apart.” Of course I’ve known since forever that “diabolic” refers to the Devil, but I had never thought about “diabolism” as having anything to do with disintegration. I hope you’ll read that post. In it, the Catholic priest who pointed out the etymological differences here talked about how pornography is the No. 1 thing the young adults to whom he ministers are struggling with, and how diabolical it is, both in the spiritual sense and in the sense of separating and isolating the people who give themselves over to it. It trains its users to objectify sexual partners, and to see the sexual act as about nothing more than using another soul’s body for personal pleasure. And it traps the individual within himself, such that the priest worries that these young people may never be able to have a normal, loving, mutually giving relationship with someone else, because they have no idea what “normal” is.

I thought about that this morning when I read a Washington Post piece sent in by a reader; the report highlights a growing trend toward “ethical non-monogamy.” Excerpts:

Before online dating, before her two kids, before the Big Conversation with her skeptical husband, Jessie already had an inkling that maybe she wasn’t quite like the ladies she saw at church, that maybe the sexual strictures of life in D.C.’s monied suburbs weren’t for her.

Her first marriage, in her early 20s, had ended after an affair. (Hers.) Her second marriage, started shortly thereafter, was “happy — very happy,” but as her boys grew up and moved out and moved on, she was left faintly bored.

She thought about cheating on her husband of 20 years. She considered bars, parties, a review of the lapses in her mid-20s.

Instead, she sat her husband down and told him something that more and more progressive couples are beginning to realize. They loved each other and wanted to stay together — but in the age of Tinder and Ashley Madison and OkCupid, they also both wanted to have other options. Options they knew were just a click away.

So she and her husband signed up for Open Minded, a new dating app for polyamorists. Now, she’s having sex with four guys other than her husband, and he’s cool with it. Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher says that non-monogamy is a reversion to the way humans behaved during our hunter-gatherer prehistory:

“That’s all sliding away from us,” Fisher said. “We’re shedding all these agricultural traditions . . . [and] returning to the way we were millions of years ago.”

Internal data from Open Minded would appear to back that up: Thus far, most of its self-declared “monogamish” users are under 33. In other words, they’re women (and men) who paid off their own student loans, fooled around on Tinder — and grew up with a notion of personal independence much different from the one taught in the 1st century A.D.

For them, and for their more conventional peers, Jessie has some advice: Talk to your partner about monogamy. Listen “without judgment.” Keep, in all cases, an open mind.

“Whichever it is, make a real choice,” she said. “We’re told we only have enough love for one person. Does that sound right to you?”

And so, we are swiftly moving to legitimize the tearing apart of marriage and family, for the sake of individual sexual fulfillment. The Post article is headlined something along the lines of “How to resist monogamy without destroying marriage.” But you have destroyed marriage; Jessie’s marriage is a sham.

This didn’t start yesterday, but at least began with no-fault divorce. But here we are today. Diabolus. You wonder why Christianity places so much emphasis on sexual purity? This has a lot to do with it. For Christians, sex is the life force within us, a gift from God through which we can participate in the creative work of the divine. But released from God-given strictures, it tears society apart.

I wrote earlier this morning about the diabolic effect, in this specific sense, of modern finance.  Here’s something I find even more interesting. The war correspondent Sebastian Junger has a fascinating and disturbing essay in the current issue of Vanity Fair, in which he tries to make sense of why vast numbers of US soldiers have returned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from PTSD — even though the combat has been much less intense, overall, than in World War II, and even though the overwhelming majority of those soldiers never saw combat. If you allow for the fact that a certain number of these soldiers are faking it, as Junger does, that’s still a huge number of suffering veterans.

Junger has an interesting theory. He points out that many of these combat vets miss what they had back in Iraq or Afghanistan. Why on earth? Junger:

What all these people seem to miss isn’t danger or loss, per se, but the closeness and cooperation that danger and loss often engender. Humans evolved to survive in extremely harsh environments, and our capacity for cooperation and sharing clearly helped us do that. Structurally, a band of hunter-gatherers and a platoon in combat are almost exactly the same: in each case, the group numbers between 30 and 50 individuals, they sleep in a common area, they conduct patrols, they are completely reliant on one another for support, comfort, and defense, and they share a group identity that most would risk their lives for. Personal interest is subsumed into group interest because personal survival is not possible without group survival. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s not at all surprising that many soldiers respond to combat in positive ways and miss it when it’s gone.

War, then, gives these soldiers an experience of human solidarity that they cannot easily achieve back home. More:

There are obvious psychological stresses on a person in a group, but there may be even greater stresses on a person in isolation. Most higher primates, including humans, are intensely social, and there are few examples of individuals surviving outside of a group. A modern soldier returning from combat goes from the kind of close-knit situation that humans evolved for into a society where most people work outside the home, children are educated by strangers, families are isolated from wider communities, personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good, and people sleep alone or with a partner. Even if he or she is in a family, that is not the same as belonging to a large, self-sufficient group that shares and experiences almost everything collectively. Whatever the technological advances of modern society—and they’re nearly miraculous—the individual lifestyles that those technologies spawn may be deeply brutalizing to the human spirit.

“You’ll have to be prepared to say that we are not a good society—that we are an anti-human society,” anthropologist Sharon Abramowitz warned when I tried this theory out on her. Abramowitz was in Ivory Coast during the start of the civil war there in 2002 and experienced, firsthand, the extremely close bonds created by hardship and danger. “We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is about an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents. Our society is alienating, technical, cold, and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.”


Certainly, the society we have created is hard on us by virtually every metric that we use to measure human happiness. This problem may disproportionately affect people, like soldiers, who are making a radical transition back home.

It is incredibly hard to measure and quantify the human experience, but some studies have found that many people in certain modern societies self-report high levels of happiness. And yet, numerous cross-cultural studies show that as affluence and urbanization rise in a given society, so do rates of depression, suicide, and schizophrenia (along with health issues such as obesity and diabetes). People in wealthy countries suffer unipolar depression at more than double the rate that they do in poor countries, according to a study by the World Health Organization, and people in countries with large income disparities—like the United States—run a much higher risk of developing mood disorders at some point in their lives. A 2006 cross-cultural study of women focusing on depression and modernization compared depression rates in rural and urban Nigeria and rural and urban North America, and found that women in rural areas of both countries were far less likely to get depressed than urban women. And urban American women—the most affluent demographic of the study—were the most likely to succumb to depression.

At this point, a certain kind of reader of this blog is shouting, “But what about antibiotics?! What about dentistry?! What about air conditioning?!” It goes without saying that these and many other things are incomparable gifts of modernity, but recognizing that does not dispel the spiritual, psychological, and social problems of which Junger speaks. He goes on in the piece to talk about how human beings have evolved for group solidarity, and the experience of the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath (and, he might have said, the cultural politics of the post-Enlightenment age), with its radical individualizing, secularizing, and atomizing effects, is something for which we are biologically unprepared. “The chronic isolation of modern society begins in childhood and continues our entire lives,” Junger writes.

Here’s one more clip from the Junger piece:

“Our whole approach to mental health has been hijacked by pharmaceutical logic,” I was told by Gary Barker, an anthropologist whose group, Promundo, is dedicated to understanding and preventing violence. “PTSD is a crisis of connection and disruption, not an illness that you carry within you.”

This individualizing of mental health is not just an American problem, or a veteran problem; it affects everybody. A British anthropologist named Bill West told me that the extreme poverty of the 1930s and the collective trauma of the Blitz served to unify an entire generation of English people. “I link the experience of the Blitz to voting in the Labour Party in 1945, and the establishing of the National Health Service and a strong welfare state,” he said. “Those policies were supported well into the 60s by all political parties. That kind of cultural cohesiveness, along with Christianity, was very helpful after the war. It’s an open question whether people’s problems are located in the individual. If enough people in society are sick, you have to wonder whether it isn’t actually society that’s sick.”

Read the whole thing. It’s worth your while.

This bigness, this alienation, affects all areas of our lives. In Dallas, the late Orthodox Archbishop Dmitri had a theory that ideally, no parish should be bigger than 300 people, because the church then cannot do what church is supposed to do. Did you know that the average Catholic parish in 2010 contained 3,277 registered members — a number that’s bound to grow as the priest shortage grows worse. It’s impossible to expect priests to effectively minister to such large congregations, but what choice do they have? Protestant megachurches deal with this by using the “small groups” model; perhaps Catholicism will do the same. Alas for Orthodoxy, we can manage the priest-to-parish-size ratio for now because we need more people in the pews. The point is, the alienation is present even in our churches — and I would venture to say is especially profound for American Catholics, because many parishes are not united in belief, either, but are rather a congregation of individualists united only in their desire to affiliate with the Catholic brand.

So, to look back at my earlier reflection today on the documentary about the German banker, I am struck by the humanity of this banker, Rainer Voss — “humanity” in the “all-too-human” sense. He clearly sees what’s wrong with the financial system, how dehumanizing it is, how cruel, even, and how unsustainable. Yet he concedes, mostly implicitly, that he sees no real alternative. Is that not all of us, in the face of our own alienation? It is certainly me, to a large extent. Once you have experienced the pleasures of individualism, and the luxuries of the modern economy made possible by that individualism, it is hard to want to relinquish any of it for the sake of greater communal solidarity. I grew up hearing my father and members of his generation talk about the hardships of the Great Depression, none of which they want to relive, but they also talked about the joy of suffering together, and how the sense of community they had back then has never been recreated amid our prosperity. For a project I was working on last year, I watched an African-American friend’s old videotapes of his mother and her sisters, all elderly (they’re all dead now), reminiscing about growing up on the bayou during segregation. They were all poor, and God knows they were oppressed. But that’s not what they talked about. What they talked about was how wonderful it was to have each other, and to be close to family members and to others in their poor, oppressed, rural community.

Nobody wants to go back to poverty and segregation, of course, and nobody should want that any more than they should want to return to the days of deep, Depression-era poverty. Still, we have to be honest and recognize what Junger is talking about: that the blessings of wealth and individual liberty has exacted a non-trivial price, to the point where you wonder if it hasn’t been in some real sense a curse.

I will leave you with this passage from the Russian Orthodox philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev’s prophetic 1923 book The End of Our TimeIt is an analysis of the religious, philosophical, and cultural meaning of contemporary history, written in the aftermath of World War I and the Bolshevik revolution in his homeland. In the nearly 100 years since it was first published, some of the book’s predictions have failed to materialize, but what shocks about the thing is how much of it has come to pass, and indeed is coming to pass. In this passage, the “new middle age” of which the philosopher speaks is the current era. He believes that the old middle age ended with the Renaissance, but now the Renaissance era — the modern era — ended with the war and the revolution. We are in a new, transitional era, he says:

The approach to the new middle age, like the approach to the old one, is marked by a visible rotting of old societies and an invisible formation of new ones. Was the failing but tenacious modern order really “cosmic”? The nineteenth century was very proud of its law, its constitutions, the unity of its method and its scientific paraphernalia. But it is an interior unity that is conclusive, and this it did not realize: it was infected by individualism, by “atomism.” Throughout modern history society has been eaten away by a series of internal maladies, man turning against man and class against class: all societies have been characterized by the warfare of opposing interests, by competition, by the isolation and dereliction of each individual man. An ever growing anarchy may be justly pointed out in the spiritual and intellectual life of these societies, a radical lesion due to the loss of a true centre or of the vision of a one supreme end. Such loss conditioned the autonomy of all intellectual and social spheres as well as the secularization of society at large.

The modern spirit thought that freedom lay in individualism, in the right for each man and each cultural activity to decide for himself. We have gone so far as to call the process of modern history a process of emancipation. But emancipation from what and for what? From the old authoritarian theocracies, from the old idea of dependence? Those theocracies could no more subsist, and as for the old heteronomy, it was necessary that it should be got rid of; I do not claim for a minute that freedom of spirit was other than an indefeasible and eternal acquisition. But why and in view of what did there have to be an emancipation? Modern times have no answer to give. And in the name of whom, in the name of what? In the name of man, of Humanism, of the freedom and happiness of mankind? … The answer is not there. Man cannot be set free in the name of man’s freedom, for man cannot be the last end of man. We are faced with complete nothingness. If there is nothing towards which man can lift up his eyes he is deprived of substance. In that case human liberty is simply a formula without any content, and individualism is in essence a negative reform whose development can bring no help to anybody.

Individualism is founded on no eternal principle, it has nothing ontological about it; least of all can it strengthen personality and set off the image of man. … It is only when human personality is rooted in the universal, in the cosmos, that it finds an ontological ground to give it its chief substance. Personality exists only where God and the divine are recognized; otherwise individualism wrenches personality from its seed-plot, pulls it apart, and scatters it to the winds of chance. Individualism has exhausted all its possibilities and energy, it can rouse nobody to enthusiasm.


So has been brought about this latter time when men prefer not-being to Being, and as man is not able to serve and live for himself alone he makes false gods, if he does not know the true God. He has been unwilling to receive the liberty of God and perforce has fallen into a cruel bondage to deified deceits, to idols. He has been without freedom of spirit and it is not in the name of liberty that the man of the end of this age rises in revolt and denies Truth. He is in the power of an unknown master, of a superhuman and inhuman force that grips the society that does not want to know Truth, the holy truth of God. Only in Communism have we been able to learn something about the tyranny of this master. Nevertheless, it has already made what I have called a breach in the defences of modern history. We must choose. Liberty as a formula, as now understood, is discredited; it is imperative that we go on to its substance, to true liberty.

Berdyaev says that in the world now upon us — and remember, he was writing almost 100 years ago, from revolution-wracked Russia, but his words could be published as fresh today, with only slight modification — the affirmation of man’s image that was at the (intended) root of the Renaissance has given way to the denial of man’s image:

We live in a time of stripping, things can be seen as they are. Look at Humanism stripped naked and observe its nature, which appeared so innocent and good to another age. Where there is no God there is no man: that is what we have learned from experience. Or look at the true nature of Socialism, now that we can see what it really looks like. But a truth that stands out and can be seen no less clearly is that there cannot be religious neutrality or absence of religion: to the religion of the living God is opposed the religion of Satan, facing the faith of Christ there is the faith of Antichrist. The neutral humanist kingdom that wanted to establish itself in an order intermediate between Heaven and Hell is in a state of corruption, and the two gulfs, of height above and of depth beneath, are disclosed. There rears up against the God-Man, not the man of the neutral intermediate kingdom, but the man-god, the man who has put himself in the place of God. The opposed poles of Being and of not-being are manifest and clear.

For Christians, of course, a discourse that employs the terms “Satan” and “Antichrist” have specific meaning. But don’t for a second let Berdyaev’s terminology cause you nonbelievers, or liberal believers, to dismiss what he’s saying here. His point is that there is no stable middle ground; either we integrate and harmonize under the telos of service to God, or we dissolve in bondage to the telos of the Self. There is no middle ground.

Symbolus or diabolus. Gathering or scattering. Harmony or chaos. Construction or destruction. Life or death. You must choose, or the choice will be made for you, whether you want it to be or not. Every day brings evidence of the dramatic triumph of the diabolic — and this is something you can verify even if you do not believe in the Devil. Those who do not affirm the symbolic, and do so in community, will fall prey to the diabolic. This is a way of thinking of the Benedict Option: ideas to promote and to achieve the symbolic in the face of widespread diabolism.

We are not a good society, said the anthropologist. We are an anti-human society. 

Remember that.



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