[part 5 of The Road to Economic Triage and Mercenary Sexuality]
You notice all sorts of things when you walk and pray. And today, as I set out across the street for my fifteen minute session (with the dog walking next to me), to join in with the everlasting prayer of the High Priest of Heaven and the deep sighs of the Holy Spirit, I’m enjoying the summer heat: that still, dry-heat of the west. And not a soul to be seen anywhere, ’cause all the sensible ones are inside under the air- con.
We walk across black bitumen—which I’m hoping is not too much for the dog’s feet. But it’s okay, her pads take it in stride and she arches her tail up and points her nose tenderly at the epicentre of some new fragrance, which she’s found on a sprig of green sticking out of the curb. With a yank on her leash, I get her off the road and we walk to a park where the once-green grass is now straw-coloured stubble—thanks to the work of a council groundsman with a slasher.
The 40 degree, fast-rising air around us has a sterilised, autoclaved purity about it: a sharp contrast to the other side where a highway hums perpetually as it’s vehicles rev their motors, spin their wheels, pump their emissions, and fulfil the useful destiny of their lives. Avoiding that, we head down-hill, past the iron-sheeted back fences of old cement-tiled houses with dark green ornamental trees, towards a railway crossing. On the corner we come to a vacant block that’s been recently fenced-off in readiness for a new building project. And there behind the fence is one of my favourite trees, a rough, black Ironbark with a spray of purple on its trunk, the mark designating it for the rubbish tip. Touching the leaves that hang over the fence, I can’t help saying a few words as if I’m a priest offering the last rites. And I think of George MacDonald’s words, ‘To those who expect a world to come, I say, be mindful of your posture towards the creation around you, which is also eagerly waiting for the world to come.’ Christmas is only a few days away and this beauty won’t even make it, but I strongly suspect that one day I will again meet something of its music or even of it’s presence and this fleeting moment is somehow significant in a way that I don’t understand.
The tree gets me thinking about what I have in common with my green-conscious friends and then I think of what I don’t have in common: they revere and almost worship nature, I worship a human being (who also happens to be the Son of God and the one out of whose heart all these things came). And here I am walking, enjoying the sense of energy and the living presence of divinity in the sky, the hot breeze, and the earth under my feet, feeling kind of pagan. According to Dorothy Sayers Christianity is the ‘last surviving pagan religion’.
More days pass and the dog and I have more walks in the heat past the—now decapitated—tree. And finally here we are on the eve of Christmas, it’s late at night and I’m lying on the trampoline in the back-yard looking up at a sky filled with stars whilst talking on the phone with some dear friends who have been mauled by life: both the religious and the irreligious sides of it. As I talk it strikes me that a common thread in these conversations is the feeling of being slowly pulled apart by something that lurks in both the secular and the religious world. And whatever it is, it quickly kills off any sensitivity to the voice of God.
For some of us that ‘something’ seems to get embedded inside our deeply treasured worship-music, family-pride, directors’ meetings, home-groups and prayers; and for others it’s in the thrilling, mind-numbing experiences of concerts and after-work parties. Idolatry is what it feel like: lifestyle-idolatry. The kind that makes it hard for that still, small voice to be heard because of the white noise of a mantra that says, ‘Life’s about me and I’m going to make it work.’ Not that anyone—other than management gurus—actually says it so shamelessly.
This kind of idolatry betrays itself by an obsessive concern with the grapevine of its friends and colleagues and what they think about it. On the religious side; ticking the boxes of things like doctrine, zealous faith and family-life are important. On the secular side; ticking the boxes of things like healthy food, green technology and family-life, immaculate kitchens and so-called safe sex are important. Interestingly, the secular form of this lifestyle-idolatry holds the higher moral ground in our society and could even be said to be ‘on the side of the angels’—and for the purposes of this blog I will be leaving the religious form of lifestyle-idolatry alone and following the secular version.
So, how is genuine agape love ever going to survive in such a watched, face-booked and narcissistic vibe? According to St. Columba, ‘Love knows nothing of order’ because it is dependent not on systems but on the eternally-beating heart of God and the moment we try to give love a boost with a politically-correct law, we send a message to heaven that we’ve found a better way, that we can legislate love. But it would appear that God is happy with even the weakest efforts at keeping the golden rule, and such legislation—as much as we complain about the bureaucracy—has in fact proven to be of great help: duty of care and WH&S practices being just a couple of examples.
Even so, it was this respectable, secular, we-don’t-need-God lifestyle that imprisoned Anne Rice in a pit of despair, the escape from which she describes in her book Called Out Of Darkness. At one point she virtually said to herself, ‘You know what Anne. A transaction is taking place. On the one hand you have a long list of ‘good-girl gold stars’ from the atheistic, politically-correct world, bolstered-up by scoffings about the God-world and the problems of war, brutality and manipulation—and all these unanswered questions of a mature, adult and supposedly humble mind. But on the other hand there’s this list of so-called ‘subjective and therefore invalid’ experiences and memories from concerts and art galleries, music, graveyards and icons—all of which seem child-like and naive, but where you have felt God saying, “I love you Anne and I’d like to arrange for us to meet sometime.” And here you are, getting old, and about to permanently trade this for that dry old bag of sensible and responsible complaints.’
As Anne thought about it she became uneasy about the fact that the respect of her educated and skeptical colleagues was now emerging as a major reason for her unwillingness to act: to kneel and worship the true God. Then she says: ‘I knew the German church of my childhood was perhaps six blocks away from where I was sitting. And perhaps I’d remembered my mother’s words of decades ago: “He is on that altar. Get up and go.” … ‘I didn’t care about the framing of the doctrine, I cared about him. And he was calling me back through his Presence on the altar. He might have used the falling rain, he might have used Vivaldi … but no, he used the doctrine of the Real Presence.’
For Anne, it came down to a deeply honest and unadorned act of grateful worship when the knotted, excusing agony inside her came home and knelt before God. It’s good to ask ourselves when it was that we last indulged in the joy and relief of simply getting down on our knees and [forgetting what anyone else might think] doing what the human soul was made to do. Walter Brueggemann speaks of being so enamoured of this lifestyle-idolatry that we might come within a whisker of not being able to imagine our future in any way other than that prescribed, and of drifting aimlessly in a kind of bright but hollow world. Chesterton depicted such a society as a place where pessimism lives, the kind of “Pessimism” that’s “not … tired of evil but … tired of good. Despair,” he says, “does not lie in being weary of suffering, but in being weary of joy. It is when for some reason or other good things in a society no longer work that the society begins to decline; when its food does not feed, when its cures do not cure, when its blessings refuse to bless.” *
And if you want to see historical precedents re: what happened to Anne, there’s dozens—the era of chivalry for instance. Hoping to find some great meeting place between religion and courtesy, their hallmark became ‘humility and adultery’ (6aa), and their experiment failed notoriously. Despair has always stalked such grand social experiments, and whether we like it or not, Bertrand Russell’s statement holds good for us as it did for his generation: ‘All the noon-day brightness of human genius is destined to end in the vast death of the solar system and we must therefore build our lives upon the firm foundation of unyielding despair.’
Yes, the west is having a crisis of meaning and some are even saying that ‘belief is back’. But whatever happens next between the proud-but-broken secular world and the world of faith—the unpretentious worship of God will always carry some edge of offence to our pride and its liking for having things ‘just so’; for having the fruit without the seed; the body without the soul; the universe without the God.
And right now, as an embarrassed secular society contemplates the humiliating prospect of God, that offence is being felt everywhere—especially in the debate on sexual preference. In her influential book Gender Trouble (6aa.1) Judith Butler argues that gender is not a fixed attribute but a fluid free-floating variable that shifts according to personal preference. Gender is a “fiction,” a “fabrication,” a “fantasy,”6aa.2 that can be made and re-made at will. ‘Butler’s theory,’ Pearcey says, ‘became popular on college campuses, especially among transgender students … These are students who reject the binary male/female system as a mere social construction, and an oppressive one at that.
Pearcey goes on to say that “A New York Times article reports that some colleges now offer separate bathrooms, housing and sports teams for students who do not identify them selves as either male or female. At Wesleyan the campus no longer requires students to check “male” or “female” on their health forms. Instead they are asked to describe their gender history.”‘ 6a
Pearcey adds, ‘This fluid view of gender is typically presented as liberating—a way to create your own identity instead of accepting one that has been culturally assigned. As a magazine for homosexuals explains, people today “don’t want to fit into any boxes—not gay, straight, lesbian or bisexual ones.” Instead “they want to be free to change their minds.” The article was addressed to people who had come out of the closet as homosexuals, but later found themselves attracted to heterosexual relationships again. So ‘What am I?’ they wondered. Not to worry the author reassured them. The idea that one is born with a certain gender that cannot be changed is so modernist. Society is moving to postmodern view in which you can choose any gender you want, at any time.” Call it a PoMosexual view.’7 What is not being talked about so freely is the fact that once you have allowed the golden (and untouchable) cow of preference to walk freely in your society, courtrooms and governments will be on the road to losing the struggle against hebephilia and pedophilia. And thanks to the advocates of ‘preference at any price’, the future of millions of children is now in jeopardy.
One of the astonishing things about this ‘tidy, responsible & delightful’ ecosystem of the secular life is that even with its ‘crisis of meaning’ (with the wheels falling off everything), those caught in it feel that it’s better for them to remain loyal to it and drown than get out and just walk away. Somehow they feel scandalised by the silence of God and feel that if their Christian faith can’t include this playground of wonder and despair—then it’s not worth having anyway, and they would rather go down with the ship.But what they forget is that ‘badness is nothing more than spoiled goodness’** and that every bit of pleasure they have ever had was borrowed from goodness, so why keep spoiling it? Why not just enjoy it unspoiled?
The picture in my mind is of millions of souls sailing around on a sweet and intoxicating lake of despair until—during a series of long, dark nights—a mysterious storm wrecks their boats and they find themselves washed up against what we might call the ‘dark and impassable mountain of fear and wisdom’. Convinced that going up into the mountain would be a fate worse than death, they stay there at the foot of the mountain—starving to death and romanticising their plight with songs. The mountain being a metaphor of the proverb, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’.
Knowing what a sensitive soul Jesus was, and how deeply he loved his musical, sensual-hearted friends, the metaphor above helps me to get why he said such stern things to them about the necessity to ‘deny all right to themselves’; and ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it remains alone, but if it dies it bears much fruit’. Jesus knew that their very souls were at stake and there must be no dallying with serpents, ’cause it’s all or nothing.
Many years ago, when one of my mates was going through a long and terrible battle with pride and bitter anger, I said to him, ‘That motorbike is an idol. Get rid of it or you will lose everything!’ He left our community soon after on his motorbike and I wondered if perhaps I had been a bit too forthright, but a few years later he walked up to my front gate supporting himself with a walking stick and (with a wry smile) said, ‘God sent a brick-truck mate. The bike is now a coffee table.’
6aa Lewis C. S. The Allegory of Love p.114 ‘social conditions gave the new feeling its bent towards humility and adultery’
6aa.1 Butler J. Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 1999) , quoted in Pearcey N. Saving Leonardo p. 136
6aa.2 cited in Saving Leonardo by Pearcey N. pp: 46 – 48 2010 – B&H Publishers
6a Fred Bernstein, “On campus re-thinking Biology 101,” (New York Times) 7 March 2004
6 (San Francisco: Cleis press, 1997) – cited by Pearcey N. Saving Leonardo p. 49 cited in Saving Leonardo by Pearcey N. p.47, 2010 – B&H Publishers
7 Carol Queen and Lawrence Schimel, eds., PoMosexuals: Challenging Assumptions About Gender and Sexuality
* G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man
** CS Lewis