Sunday, May 03, 2009

Contemporary culture and the question of sanity

There are those in our world who believe wholly, but they are a minority; they do not affect the atmosphere, only breathe it. There are militant atheists, they too a minority, but they do affect the atmosphere. For they strengthen its dominant characteristic--namely to conduct life without reference to God. Moral, social, political decisions, like personal decisions, are made as if God did not exist. It is a kind of practical godlessness, God in a cloud not of his own too much light, but of man's too small interest.

There is no deliberate exclusion; it simply does not occur to the mass of public people that God's will could have any bearing on the public well-being; and the needs within a man that only God can meet are no longer felt as needs, but as an undiagnosed malaise, discomfort, unsatisfaction which they do not connect with any absence of God. All the affairs of the world they see as to be settled within the boundaries of the world, either because there is no other; or because the other is other, a world to be lived in separately by such as choose, the two worlds not impinging, only this one really mattering.

Seeing the time we live in analyzed like that, we are not likely at first to realize how much we are immersed in it. Yet it is a miracle if we are wholly untouched by it, even in our deepest certainties. We do not accept its denials or its doubts; but we are almost certainly affected by its emphases--unconsciously, for the most part. We believe in the Mysteries totally; we know that all holiness is in them, that death would be better than the denial of any syllable of them. And yet...

Let us look at the word 'Totally'. We feel the glory of having the Mysteries... but have we any equal feeling of the destitution that goes with *not* having them? ... Not what we *should* feel if others' starvation was bodily; for we do know the value of the bread that perishes. The world thinks that bodily starvation really matters and spiritual does not. It looks frighteningly as though we thought so too.

If we do not see God's revelation as mattering to everybody, then we have not grasped reality; we then believe it, but not totally. That this is not a fanciful inference from our behavior is shown by the phrase we too often use to dismiss their destitution--and our own inaction: they do not know that God has revealed our doctrines and our sacraments, we tell ourselves, therefore they are not sinning by not receiving them. Their starvation need not be relieved because it is not sinful--a strange reaction to starvation. There is such a thing as invincible ignorance, though there may be some responsibility in those whose refusal to reach insures its invincibility. People will not be lost eternally for what they invincibly did not know, true. But what of the richness, light, and nourishment they might be having here upon earth?

The mysteries, then, are not a luxury for the spiritually-minded (like us!); they are necessities of life for everyone. Not to see them as so is a key example of the damping and discoloration I have talked of...

... Insanity is all about us. I do not mean that men individually are madmen, but they add up to a society which is not truly sane. Sanity means seeing what’s there and planning life accordingly. And as a society ours does not see the major part of reality at all, therefore does not see aright the minor part that it is aware of, shapes its activities as though the mis-seen fraction of reality were the whole of it. Secular ethics means deciding our actions as though there were no God, while not settling the question whether there is or not. I do not mean that men of this mind are acting evilly: they may act nobly, (just as believers may act appallingly). But they would add a fuller rationality to their nobility if they knew the true order of reality.

To act without full vision is a formula for chaos. And in chaos we live, exhibited to us by every newspaper we read, yet disguised from us by the care and intelligence and good will expended upon the understanding and ordering of the fraction; disguised again by the mental muscularity, the almost blinding scientific and technological brilliance, with which the seen part of reality is analyzed, is formulated and systematized, packaged, and offered for acceptance. The chaos is amiable so far; but chaos cannot be relied on to stay amiable--there are parts of the world in which it has not.

Even short of some such catastrophe befalling our own part of the world, it is not good to be the sane minority in a society that has lost contact with God. We hold our own mental health precariously when sanity so partial and defective is accepted as the norm. Insanity is catching: we grow uncertain of the cadences of normal speech when all around us men are gibbering, and gibbering so learnedly and so gravely and so confidently. Our world at its best has all the airs and graces, the rationalizations and courtesies and card indexes of sanity, so that the notion that it might not be sane may not occur to us. The card indexes especially, so tidy, so efficient, so inclusive: only a fanatic would question the rationality of the mind that produces them.

‘Fanatic’ is the word. We can frighten ourselves with it. I have talked of assumptions and seepage that we are unaware of. But there is something else: the Catholic can be consciously embarrassed at his difference. There are those who feel out of step, self-conscious because out of step, self-questioning because out of step. If they have not made the mysteries of revelation truly their own, they may see life fluid and free, theology all bones. There is great psychological value in a strong affirmation, said Belloc. No affirmation was ever stronger than our world makes of its own rightness.

The temptation is to try to get into step with everybody else, while somehow hanging on to the truths. Short of denying them, there is a kind of scaling down and shading off, a resolute switching of the mind away from doctrines at which the world would raise an eyebrow. At all costs, one must not be a fanatic. St. Paul had met this attitude, right at our beginnings: “Be not conformed to this world, but be re-formed by the newing of your mind” (Rom. 12.1).

It is not only Faith that demands this, but sheerest common sense. On remembers a stock joke of the last fifty years—the old lady watching a line of soldiers on parade and saying proudly, “They’re all out of step except my George.” We all smile, we all assume without the shadow of a second thought that it is George who is out of step. But if everybody else in the battalion happened to be deaf, then George might well be the only one marching in time to the music of the band.

The parallel is exact. The follower of Christ does hear a music that does not reach the ears of other men: he is bound to be out of step with them, for they are out of step with it. But in our world we must listen to that music with unflagging attention: partly that it may not be drowned out of our own ears by all the tomtoms of chaos, partly that others may begin to catch from us first some hint of the rhythm, then some hint of the tune.
--Frank Sheed, God and the Human Condition, 36 (NY: Sheed & Ward, 1966).

[Hat tip to J.M.]

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