The Falsification of the Good Part Two: Dopamine-Despair and Rage

December 14, 2023
Communio Theology
Despair is the dopamine trigger of our age

The Falsification of the Good:

Part Two: Dopamine-Despair and Rage

“One of Soloviev’s fundamental themes … is the idea of ‘the falsification of the good.’ Evil can ensconce itself in the very substance of the good, leading to profound spiritual, theological, moral, and political corruption, through a terrible, demonic or satanic falsification of the good. This is the most insidious path that evil can take, since it insinuates evil in the very heart of goodness. It thus poses a grave spiritual temptation for Christians and all men of good will.”
Daniel Mahoney
(“The Idol of Our Age”, p. 46)

We live in an age in which the ties that bind us to Transcendence, and thus to one another, have been untied and thrown away as yesterday’s oppression.  There can no longer be any doubting of this basic sociological fact, even if we are not conscious of it since we all feel its reality in the desperate fractured isolation of our modern souls. We often experience it as a deep boredom, a world weariness, that goes far beyond the spiritual experience the great masters have called “acedia”. And this alienation from Transcendence, which we experience as an ill-defined and undifferentiated anxiety, is gravitationally locked together, as in a binary star system, with an equally diffused sense of a deep boredom with the very “goodness” of the good, the “credibility” of truth, and the “beauty” of the beautiful. Here I will repeat a quote from von Balthasar which was in part one of this series:

“In a world that no longer has enough confidence in itself to affirm the beautiful, the proofs of the truth have lost their cogency. In other words, syllogisms may still dutifully clatter away like rotary presses or computers which infallibly spew out an exact number of answers by the minute.  But the logic of these answers is itself a mechanism which no longer captivates anyone. The very conclusions are no longer conclusive.” (GL I: p. 19)

Some might way that this reality that we moderns experience has always been with us and so it is no big deal. Maybe this is so, but today it has become acute rather than chronic and the cultural ideological constructs that animate every structure we inhabit have been infected with this coronavirus of loneliness, boredom and nihilistic drift. We live, as I like to say, in an era of the nullification of God as part of the really real world, and as a result we all – every last one of us – bob around like unmoored ocean buoys and drift aimlessly over the abyss that lurks below, which is the default position of our psyche in its unguarded moments.

One can indeed transcend the culture and swim upstream but there is no way we can just crawl out of the stream altogether and posture as one who has an Archimedean objectivity that stands somehow above it all.  Therefore, even our upstream swimming will still bear the marks of precisely *this* stream against which we are struggling.  And we struggle because the metaphor limps a bit since it implies that all of the cultural waters merely surround us externally when in point of fact they are within us in deeply constitutive ways.

The name often given to this modern socio-political order in which we swim is “liberalism”.  Liberalism obviously comes in many forms but in my opinion (and that of others) there is a common denominator that links them all together. And that is the eclipsing of the Christian concept of God as in any way important to our social order.  And in its most logically consistent iterations, liberalism fulsomely and robustly rejects the Christian concept of God in a direct inverse proportion to the extent that the Christian evangel seeks to influence the public ordo.  Any attempt at such public applications of the faith, outside of its utility as a prop for whatever mood the social contract is resisted as an ongoing danger to the peace brought about by our secular order.

The cultural plausibility structures of this secular ordering conspire against real faith and holiness insofar as they create a system rooted in indifference to God and a self-limiting, minimalist account of the good, all the while masquerading as the great defender of this essentialized thing called “religious freedom.”  How absurd therefore are neo-con Catholics in their lionization of the American project when seen in this light. Because what kind of religion does it “allow in” and what sort of “freedom” is this? It is the freedom of the atomized individual adrift in an antinomian sea of Gnostic formlessness, thrown back onto itself without any mooring to any kind of a binding spiritual address.  The “religion” that emerges in this ordo is thus constitutively subjectivist and “private” (whatever that even means) on a par with my taste for Arugula over Kale, and my loathing of cilantro.

Therefore, in our current cultural ordinations religion is reduced to a sphere of freedom that is considered so inconsequential that the State grants it immunity from coercion just as it doesn’t dream of passing laws against eating fruit cake instead of rice pudding: De gustibus non est disputandum.  In other words, this secular ordo affirms the “equality of all religions” before the law but only in the sense that all religions are equally trivial in their positive constructions of reality.  What is privileged in this arrangement is any religion that is completely comfortable with residing within the confines of a pure interiority of an individual’s “spirituality”.

But even here, even if we might be tempted to embrace this “toleration” as acceptable “for now” we must be wide-eyed in our realization of just what such toleration will lead us into.  Where does spiritual latitudinarianism and relativism end in a culture where God is nullified in an overall atmosphere of the technocratic enhancement and economic advancement of the pleasure principle?

Because in an ordo that embraces the lie of a fact/value distinction in the public square, all that happens is that human desires of all kinds, lacking any teleological orientation to a normative and binding Transcendence, are treated as equals and they all are valorized in an apotheosis of those desires as expressions of the imperial, therapeutic self.  Therefore, inevitably those desires come into conflict with one another and they cannot all be granted privilege from the State and so the State must choose whose desires are more equal than others.  And in a culture wherein God has been eclipsed and nullified, turning the very concept of God into an epiphenomenon which perdures only within certain antiquarian and adolescent souls who need such psychological props, then those desires that give expression to the strong gods of the libido and of the dark violence of our Blut und Erde impulses, will impress themselves upon us with ever-greater percussive force and come to dominate our social landscape as the most fundamental “rights” of all.

And this is precisely what we see happening in Western culture today as we combine a pornified view of our libidinous desires with the balkanization of “identity” across the spectrum.  Thus we see how a degraded sexuality influences in an upward direction all of our other appetites, which is why the valorization of our various sexual fetishes as the preeminent cultural “right” of our time ends in the valorization of a runaway cult of blood and soil in our seemingly endless wars and America’s endless war-footed economy.  Because … you know… China…

This privileging of the desires of the atomized, therapeutic, pornified self over the desires of those who seek a communal experience of Transcendence, points as well to the fact that there is a liquid fluidity as to what constitutes “fanaticism”. And as our culture drifts hopelessly and endlessly in the currents of an aimless circularity over a bottomless abyss of vape shop meaninglessness, there is an in-built anti-teleological impulse that resists anyone who would say that we need to steer the ship into more directional currents.  “Directionality” becomes almost synonymous with the “fanatic” who will, if left unchecked, destroy the social peace created out of our negotiated settlement with nothingness.

Therefore, the fights over religious conscience rights are not an anomalous oddity, but are going to be increasingly common, and will remain common until the dragon of religiosity is put in its place and American Christians learn, like their European counterparts did long ago, to just keep their mouths shut and to shuffle along in muffled indifference. The freedom that liberalism embraces is thus one that *it alone* grants rooted in nothing more than its own stipulative assertions and containing within itself no inherent limiting principle beyond its own claim to itself being the granter of limiting principles. Liberalism admits of no limiting natural authority beyond its own political power and its very act of “self-limiting” that power based on nothing more than its own sovereignty over such matters is itself an act of nullification wherein no other authority beyond itself is recognized as inherently limiting state power. Thus, modernity postures as being against all metanarratives as inherently fanaticizing all the while being itself the most hegemonic metanarrative the world has ever seen.  It is the narrative which kills all rivals in a manner that would make the grandest of Inquisitors blush.  

Therefore, and this is key, the Church, precisely as the form of Christ born forward in time and space, cannot be, in such an order, what it most truly is, and as such the freedom it enjoys is the freedom to cease being what she is.  The liberal order privileges only those forms of religion that do not do violence to themselves when confined to the realm of the private and subjective, which is really the elevation, as I said above, of a kind of Gnostic interiority as the coin of the realm in matters of “spirituality.” Catholicism cannot coexist therefore with an ordo that denies her status as a truly “public thing” and which relegates her to the marginal realm of the unreal. As David C. Schindler puts it:

“At the theological core of liberalism is the most radical rejection of Christianity possible, because it posits and enacts an undoing of the very thing that defines Christianity, that makes Christianity Christian, namely, the Incarnation of the Son of God, which is an “extension” of God, so to speak, into time and space, through an assumption of nature in its deepest reality, an extension-through-assumption that aims ultimately to embrace the whole of reality: the cosmic liturgy.  As a political phenomenon, which is to say as a form of life and a way of organizing human existence, liberalism is the very incarnation of the disincarnation.  It is the making real, the institutionalizing, of the “un-Christening” that C.S. Lewis proposes as the defining feature of modernity.” (The Politics of the Real, pp. 8-9)

**Side note:  [I must quickly add here a bit of a digression in the form of a caveat.  In none of this am I implying, nor is Schindler, an approval for a restoration of an illiberal form of Catholic political integralism.  But that is a discussion for a different day. And as I hope to show in part three, the only true integralism possible today is the integralism of sanctity.]**

Political liberalism is thus predicated upon God, and therefore the Church, remaining in the safe space of “private preferences” along with Big Macs and dreams of unicorns with pixie dust manes. The putative “neutrality” therefore of political and cultural Liberalism toward the question of God is a grand lie rooted in the Enlightenment’s myth of origin, which is a myth rooted in a narrative of “original violence” wherein religion is portrayed as one of the most dangerous social phenomena that exists, requiring the Leviathan of the state to step in and impose the peace. (Cf. William T. Cavanaugh, Field Hospital: the church’s engagement with a wounded world, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2016, p. 185).  As Cavanaugh notes: “If the myth of religious violence and religious war is so incoherent and inaccurate, why is it so prevalent? Because it is useful for the promotion of certain interests.”

What appears therefore as “religious freedom” is in reality an “article of surrender” where the terms are dictated by those who would love to violently “bear the Kingdom away” if they had their way.  Which is exactly what we see today as in the example of our government deciding that the Little Sisters of the Poor are a threat to the social fabric and need to have their pieties taught a lesson and dragged into court, once again demonstrating that “conscience” is not what is at issue here.  Thus has the neo-con fantasy of a crypto Catholic America crashed and burned on the rocks of this myth of original violence.  We are somewhat safe (for now) in the dog kennels of our Churches because Disney World still wants money from the devout, but as religious observance wanes even further (and it will) even corporate America will turn on us, if they haven’t already begun to do so.  

Schindler’s approach is similar to that of Augusto del Noce who points to the radical revisionism at the heart of liberalism as it attempts to renarrate all of human history as a steady progression from the infantile stage of myth and religion to the adult stage of science and demystification. And this is the only “teleology” that modernity will allow. It is a faux teleology of “progress” in technical and scientific knowledge combined with a steady march toward a democracy of the unleashed apotheosis of the libido.  It is, therefore, a profoundly chaotic and inwardly contradictory teleology that ends in the destruction of all teleology in the broadest possible sense as this applies to the entire realm of spiritual value. We will have AI, better toilets, and virtual reality porn, but we will not have – indeed will not tolerate – the orientation of society around anything even remotely smelling like “religion” and the cultural apparatus that supports such benighted things.

As del Noce points out, this periodization of history is absolutely central to the liberal project because it must establish that sacral conceptions of society are immature stages of development and therefore the progression into the adulthood of liberalism was not a choice that could have been otherwise, but a necessity of the “curve of history.”  There is, according to liberalism, a “teleology” of a kind to history and its end point is the liberal order grounded in scientific reason alone.  It is precisely this progressive “curve of history” narrative that forms the narrative of our culture and, increasingly, of the Church.  And insofar as it has penetrated deeply into the Church its internal logic precludes a true awareness of the realness of God, of the eschatological horizon for our lives, and of the pursuit of holiness. And a Church of this kind has truly lost its salt and engenders nothing but a bored and boring pietism that is just a bunch of Jesus gravy on top of the progressive mashed potatoes. Furthermore, this represents the self-nullification of the Church since the liberal narrative of the inevitable curve of history necessarily demands a radical and revolutionary repudiation of every previous tradition, indeed of all traditions, insofar as they are real traditions in the classical sense, since liberalism demands the death of them all.  It is therefore, an anti-teleological, teleology, and as such the most insidiously destructive simulacrum of Christian theology that can be imagined.  As del Noce concludes on this matter:

“As Cotta correctly pointed out, relocating the great ‘breaking point’ to the beginning of modern thought, understood as a transition from childhood to maturity, from myth to criticism, implies that ‘the religious event of the Incarnation stops being regarded as the decisive turning point of historical existence.’ We often hear that periodization schemes are of a ‘conventional’ and ‘pedagogical’ nature. It is not true.” (The Crisis of Modernity, p. 4) (emphasis in the original).

Furthermore, given our reduction of life to economics, what the elevation of “scientism” and the logical positivism it entails really means is the ascendency of "applied science" (technology) to pride of place. Every aspect of our social life thus comes under the purview of technocratic governmental control, and all culture and every form of reason becomes a function of politics. And this final step, the submission of culture to politics, is, according to del Noce, the very heart of totalitarianism. Only, in this case, it is not the totalitarianism of the Nazis or the Stalinists or the Maoists ­ - - ­brutal, bloody, and quite vulgar in their unsubtle use of blunt violence - - but rather the much more seductive totalitarianism of techno-­nihilism, where our base bodily desires form what I call a "collective of concupiscence" which the government regulates, and the economy inflames. Our future is thus most likely to be a dystopian one. But it won't be the dystopia of the concentration camp. Rather, it will be Huxley's Brave New World with a strip mall aesthetic. Think here of a “Disneyfied” regime of “family values” weaponized as an anesthetizing narcotic against true spiritual meaning.  Which is why the rhetoric of “family values” from conservative Christians who embrace the valorization of wealth and bourgeois comfort as an almost theocratic entitlement falls on the sword of its own internal incoherence.

In other words, in an ordo where metaphysical first principles are delegitimated as public forms of reason what we end up with are penultimate principles, largely utilitarian in nature, masquerading as first principles that trend inevitably toward the merely pragmatic.  This is precisely what the neo-con blessing of the American order misses insofar as they underappreciate the extent to which liberalism’s minimalist account of the good (and it really has no account of the good as such in the first place) leads inevitably to a maximalist assertion of the sybarite’s pragmatism.  The word “moral” is still used but it literally means nothing and is just an act of linguistic legerdemain, and the true guiding principles of the social order become increasingly technocratic and demagogic, on both the Right and the Left.

Thus, liberalism inevitably trends toward the illiberal and our future is, as I said above, likely to be a technocratic dystopia described by Shoshana Zuboff as  the age of “surveillance capitalism.” (The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, (New York: Public Affairs, 2019).   Her text makes clear that what awaits us is the Antichrist of Google - - the Googlechrist - - that will preside over a society now divided, as C.S. Lewis presciently predicted decades ago, into the categories of the conditioners and the conditioned:

“The manmolders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique: we shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please.” (C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, New York: HarperCollins, 2001, p. 60).

It is possible for a certain pious religiosity to coexist within this unmoored aimlessness of liberal, technocratic culture, and even for there to be a certain measure of happiness perduring irrespective of one’s religious inclinations.  We are, after all, spiritual beings oriented to the good, and therefore there is an ineradicable teleology toward joy, and ultimately toward God, in our existence that no amount of nihilistic asphalt poured over our souls can kill in a final way.  Grass will still grow through the cracks in the sidewalk and, in time, even entire trees will rise up where once there was nothing.  Therefore, my point in describing our culture in nihilistic categories is not to counsel despair or to treat the entire affair of modernity as just one giant pity party that needs to be rejected tout court, root and branch.  

Nevertheless, grace is not automatic in its effects and as the parable of the sower makes clear it is possible for grace to fall on rocky soil and to produce nothing.  This is a key point since there is a tendency among progressive Catholics to so emphasize the presence of God’s salvific grace everywhere and in every person regardless of religion that one gets the impression that the soil of every culture everywhere and at all times is universally fecund and fertile.  But this is simply not true and it is possible for entire cultures to lose the sense of God so completely that our spiritual sight can become occluded with dense cataracts that let in only the faintest light and a few shadows. And most human beings do not seem to have the capacity and/or the desire to swim upstream against such cultural currents. Cataracts create shadows and in this case of the Platonic cave variety.

And our own culture bears this out. Regardless of the grass growing through the cracks, the sad reality is that the sense of God in the West has been in decline for several centuries now and we are currently witnessing a profound acceleration of this process.  All religions across the board in the West are hemorrhaging adherents by the millions and even among immigrants it only takes a generation or two before the children grow into non-believing, secularized adults.  So no, all of you little mini-me internet Torquemada’s out there, Vatican II did not cause this in the Catholic Church.  There is indeed something in our cultural water that is toxic to faith in Transcendence. It is a corrosive toxin that erodes faith most insidiously from within and has done so to all religions across the board for a very long time now.

Therefore, in reading the signs of the times it does us no good to complain that this or that analysis is just too dour.  Because our situation is dour.  So it is imperative to point out the overall sentimentalist ethos of our culture, its dysfunctional preferential option for nothingness, its dysfunctional inward dynamism toward the apotheosis of desire, the incoherence of its anti-first principles first principles, and the manner in which it has rendered the various goods of our existence into a jumbled mess.  And it is a mess that is so disordered and so fundamentally toxic to our souls in the inward incoherence it imparts to our experience of things, that it threatens to eclipse the reality of God. And that this eclipse is so severe that it ends up attenuating our religious sense to such an extent that for millions of people it is no longer realistically possible to experience the Divine in the normal course of things.    

Think on the sadness and tragedy of that fact and then complain about my “typical dour analysis” of our culture. Think deeply and dilate upon the silent anguish of a human being who has lost in a virtual sense, and barring a miracle of grace, the capacity to see and to know God. That is Hell. And I know it is Hell because there have been moments in my life, long since happily past, wherein I have experienced this. And this reminds me too that I am infected with modernity. I too have been in my past at times a “podperson” lacking any reality beyond that of an imitation of a real person.

And I do not mean that in describing this experience of God’s absence as “Hell” that it is merely “metaphorically” or “Hell-like” in some poetic sense.  I mean it is a true foretaste of Hell as an eschatological prolepsis of final absence. Hell as an inability to experience God because we have lost the sense of God in our souls and therefore we no longer even will to see God, even should God appear before us. This is the great point made by Jean-Luc Marion in his wonderful little book, “Believing in Order to See”, where he notes that God is not as “absent” or as “invisible” to us as we think.  That the problem resides in our own inability to see and that this inability is caused by our refusal to go beyond the compression chamber of cultural constriction in our concepts of what is imaginatively possible.   And further, that our loss of the sense of God and of the concomitant loss of the will to even desire God, which entails the loss of any memory of the taste of the Divine, curls back in upon itself in cynical rage at any remnants in the soul that even hints at goodness.  

And we see this phenomenon of the “curling back” against the good in our culture’s obsession with all that is debased, vulgar, ugly, fecal and feral.  Of its triumphant celebration of our animalistic side with the inevitable demotion of sex to a pathetic and ultimately boring panoply of grunts, sterilants, opioids, ointments, prosthetics, four hour pill-induced erections, and then a round of prophylactic antibiotics washed down with a shot of juiced wheat grass. This is not, of course, how most people have sex, if they are having much sex at all these days, but it is the pornified ideal of sex that is held up by our entertainment industry as the truest order of happiness, and now taught in our schools to kindergartners lest they “feel bad” somehow about their wee bits.  

All humor aside, this is serious business, and the humor is meant to highlight the absurdity of our cultural insanity.  And perhaps it is a sign that many in our Church actually no longer believe that experiencing God is the only true source of happiness and therefore, that our inability to experience God is a soul destroying tragedy of the highest order.  Better to focus on being “optimistic” and to avoid being a “Debbie Downer” about everything. I think there is such a lack of faith in the Church these days and I do not care if it comes across as judgmental. But in the place of faith (since, after all, these are “Church people” and there must be “something” to believe in), a cheap and shallow humanitarianism is brought in and dressed up in Gospel garb as the fulfillment, in completely superficial ways, of Christ’s Kingdom.   Here I will quote from Daniel Mahoney’s excellent text where he notes, following the philosopher Aurel Kolnai, that Christianity has created a humanitarianism that is a distortion of itself and the allure that this has for progressive church folks:

“Those who lose confidence in the promises of God, or repudiate the supernatural dimensions of their faith, fall back on a humanitarian ethos where ‘man as such’ is the ‘measure of everything.’ They tend to reduce Christianity to a concern for ‘social welfare’ and the alleviation of poverty and suffering.  Humanitarianism eventually is seen as that part of Christianity that is truly ‘essential’ and ‘worthy of respect.’ This view is held not only by secular humanitarians but by many liberal or demi-Christians who identify Christianity exclusively with a project of this-worldly amelioration.” (The Idol Of Our Age, p. 68)

Within this broad and vague humanitarianism the spiritual problematic presented to us by modernity is that in order to serve humanity in general we need to abandon all of the particularities that makes us distinctive.  The musical anthem for such a worldview is John Lennon’s execrable song “Imagine” which boils down to, “if we just give up believing in any higher powers or realities beyond the needs of the self, then we can finally all get along.”  This is precisely the worldview of modernity wherein we no longer have a binding spiritual address of any kind communicated to us via culture, and increasingly, shockingly, even from our Church which has in many ways succumbed to the de facto atheism of this message.

And even as some semblance or simulacrum of faith perdured in early modernity, its attenuation as a kind of “lifestyle choice” that took up residence in our attached garages amongst our golf clubs, fishing gear, and the accouterment of our other assorted hobbies,  could not stave off the rise of the radical dislocation of cult from culture in the West and the attendant bleaching of meaning from everything that this portended. And without a transcendent meaning which could act as an axiological principle for ordering our lives upward, we became isolated, alienated, and bored, even as the frenetic pace of our bourgeois “activities” increased exponentially.   The purely mundane then begins to denature the sacral realm and to dominate it, giving rise to what Ratzinger has called the priority of ethos (sentiment) over logos (Reason/Wisdom). And eventually the logos disappears entirely but in a strange act of vengeance turns around and drags ethos down into the pit of irrelevance with it.  It leaves us then with nothing but contrived, ersatz and utterly artificial experiences of diaphanous entities lacking in substantive being.  Eventually, there is no “there, there” and even our pleasures stop being pleasurable.  Indeed the world itself, and taken as a whole, becomes a pointless and boring Kabuki theatre of the absurd.  

The crushing of faith’s grip on the soul in modernity was itself caused in great measure by the emergence of a rapacious and reductive naturalism, with a world stripped of grace and “dappled things”, and this reduction has descended upon us like an odorless gas from above while we slept the sleep of bourgeois complacency. We are at once contented and terrified, smug, and yet riddled with agnostic paralysis.  And yet we are trapped in this apparently intractable dialectic, as the prison bars of our innate naturalism foreclose upon us any chance of escape, even as the Zyclon B nerve agent of modernity’s rootlessness floods our cells. This is to put it in its starkest contrast perhaps, but it is a necessary phenomenological description of our experience in order to name the demon of our malaise as the first step in its expulsion.

But this toxin only kills the soul leaving the outward shell of an unanimated body lingering in its loneliness and boredom and which, therefore, seeks out only bodily things and pleasures as an anesthetic that paradoxically combines dopamine and despair. Thus does despair itself become a kind of perverse pleasure and a marker of a kind of dark sophistication and enlightenment. The culture of the salon, for example, with its endless cigarettes, oddly mawkish-yet-dark poetry, and its caffeinated aesthetic of a cultivated insouciance toward the good, thus becomes the proprietary watermark of “post-religious maturity” that simply “knows” that there is no meaning to things. This despair, strangely but certainly, acts like a Pavlovian trigger for the dopamine pleasures which in turn leads to what the French historian Alain Besançon, following Soloviev, calls “the falsification of the good” and its concomitant grand reversal of values where what was good is now evil, and what was evil is now good.  (Mahoney makes extensive use of Besançon’s analysis here to which I am indebted).

And with regard to this falsification of the good, it is precisely because most people are “good” in the conventional sense of wanting good things for themselves and others, that they can be led into very destructive ideas and practices if evil is packaged as an attractive counterfeit. This is what this whole essay is about. How do we come to the falsification of the good? Through deception that is how.  Even the sketchy serpent in Genesis had to first convince Eve that eating that dang piece of fruit was a “good thing” that she “ought” to desire despite what mean ol’ God said. God is a buzzkill, but the world gives us liberating shiny things. The song by Billy Joel (“Only the Good Die Young”) articulates this nicely: “I would rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints”. What is good becomes bad, and what is bad becomes good. Sin causes an illusion that inverts reality through a regime of counterfeits. And Satan is the consummate liar. He knows nobody wants to be Hitler. You have to start small and build up to that through a series of clever commercials during the Super Bowl. That is why the best lies are lies that have an element of truth in them, and the best illusions are those that are not utterly fantastical, just as the best counterfeit $20 bill is one that looks shockingly close to the original. I can fool the clerk at the store with a well-made fake $20, but ain’t nobody gonna sell me squat if I hand over monopoly money.

Modernity thus presents to us a “bindinglessness” that is, in its radical libertarian implications, also boundlessly enslaving. My point is that our modern condition is such that we experience life today as foundationally “Godless” (consciously and unconsciously) and that this is imbedded within our culture in deeply structured ways that condition us sociologically to nullify God.  And that these deep structures thereby erect extreme psychological impediments to the kind of faith that actually changes things, and us, from within in transformative ways.   These structures become deep cultural impediments to grace, faith, hope, and, finally, charity.  We are deeply unsatiated in our material satiation, and deep happiness eludes us, so we ultimately come to view it as an illusion, or even a survival trick, generated from some quirk of our evolutionary psychology. Deep happiness is then viewed, paradoxically, as an epiphenomenal reality that is ultimately a marker of the tragic nature of human existence with its open-ended “horizons” that lead us nowhere and which come to nothing in the horizonless claustrophobia of the grave. Therefore, and with death as the ultimate anti-horizons horizon, eventually even our “horizons” are deconstructed as just so many projections of the will to power, and so it is best to remain within the regime of  a pure immanence stripped of any teleology.

There cannot be in such a worldview any talk of a transposition of lower being into higher Being such that the lower becomes more itself, not less, as it is so transposed.  This is the Christian view of existence with its nested hierarchies of goods which find themselves most constitutively fulfilled only when taken up into a higher register.  And it is also the Christian claim that unless these transpositions from lower into higher are made, that even the lower will cease to be what it is. In other words, in a world where “facts” are privileged over “values”, with the latter viewed as nothing more than some ersatz fakery imposed by that ephemeral thing called “mind” on that which alone is really real (stuff, sticks and shit) then soon those value-added realities come to be denied and are swallowed up by the world of facts. But then, even the world of facts ceases to have a hold on us, because why should we care?  

Modernity by contrast speaks incessantly of these same goods but accords them no such transformative telos via the path of transposition. And obviously, this is a far less noble view of humanity than that offered by Christianity, and one which leads to a very cynical view of life in general and of human society in particular. Because, as I have written before, regardless of what Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins might say in their more poetic moments when speaking about the “beauty” of the cosmos and of science, the fact is, if I am just an ape with a big brain, and an accidental byproduct of the cosmic chemistry of stardust remnants, then I really don’t give a fig about some gaseous blob, or even a vast number of “billions and billions” of gaseous blobs, ten million light years away. Or the “fascinating” mating rituals of fruit bats. Or the “poetry” of soil regeneration through dung beetle digestive cycles. In other words, when you are told endlessly that there is no meaning to existence, then guess what? You actually start to think that way. And then everything loses its flavor. Everything starts to taste like rice cakes. Therefore, you cannot have it both ways. You cannot bleach divinity and Transcendence out of the cosmos and tell everyone that the whole affair is just an aimless and pointless accident, and then turn around and talk to us about the “moral necessity” of this or that urgent social cause. Why should I even care about the future of humanity itself? Why should I care about the ultimate destiny of ambulatory, bipedal, chemistry sets?

Nothing brings this entire process of how sin distorts the intellect into full view more than the fact that serious Christians are most often these days thought of as “fanatics” inside their own churches.  In our modern suburban churches, it is okay to be a “good person”, but what counts as “good” is largely defined by the broader culture.  Thus, the truly radical Christian (radical in the good sense) often feels so alienated in his or her own church that they seek out Christian community in newer ecclesial groups, which are then in turn viewed as “suspicious” by the bishops and pastors, who are really only concerned with the fact that these groups might siphon off the parish envelopes or worse, demand that all of us need to repent.


This rather lengthy essay describes my analysis, in bare outline form, of the signs of our times.  And this reading of the signs is exactly what I think the current powers within the Church do not possess.  I claim no prophetic insight for myself. I am nothing and a nobody and that is not false humility.  I have arrived at my conclusions via the path of reading others far more prophetically insightful than myself.  And in following them I have concluded that the deficit of judgment among most of our current ecclesial leaders is a deficit of prophetic insight.  

This is why I have little time for the “popesplainers” who are constantly yakking away about how Pope Francis is completely orthodox. And it is also why I have no time for the traditionalists who are blathering endlessly on in the opposite direction.  Seriously, I.Don’t.Care. Because in my view they are all missing the point and engaged in an endless dialectical debate that is, ultimately, a complete pastoral non sequitur.  And before everyone clutches their pearls in mock horror that someone who applauds himself for being “orthodox” should say he does not care about the orthodoxy of the Pope, I can only say that the reason for this is that I have grown so weary of the point-missing nature of these debates that I have just given up even following them anymore.  

Hasn’t anyone in the Tradosphere or in the PopeFrancisosphere noticed that one can be perfectly orthodox and still be utterly clueless? That one can be theologically correct to an exactitude of a few microns of Thomistic perfection and still be a moral scoundrel and/or an intellectual dilettante who knows next to nothing of real, prophetic importance? Or that one can endlessly “listen” to everyone (tutti!!) and still hear absolutely nothing? Or worse, that you simply hear what you want to hear and then, triumphalistically, you announce to a breathless world that you have made the astounding discovery (just in time!) that the Holy Spirit sounds just like you?

And that is my claim.  My claim is that the current debates in the Church lack a prophetic sense of the signs of our times and therefore of what is needed to take on that challenge.  That both sides of these silly debates lack wisdom – the wisdom that comes with prophetic, christological eyes -- that one gains only through the chastening ascesis of an extreme humility which is characterized by a kenotic divestment of ideas grounded in various forms of what Pope Benedict called “ecclesiasticism”.  An ecclesiasticism that hides the searing image of the crucified Christ like a palimpsest covered over with the layerings of trivial things like the apartment privileges of Cardinals in Rome or whether Pius IX was right to have a Jewish baby snatched from its parents and raised a Catholic because some chambermaid, in a fit of fear over the baby’s possible death, baptized the lad. Good grief.  

The traditionalists think that a pugilistic, Bishop Schneider-Catechism style approach that engages in a scorched earth flame-throwing theology of weaponized Tridentine romanticism is the way to approach the errors of the age.  And regardless of what the private views of Pope Francis might be (who knows and who cares?) he has promoted to high office folks like Cardinals McElroy, Cupich, and Hollerich, who seem to think that embracing the rainbow alphabet sexual revolution is the way to go. And that we need to embrace the pastoral strategies that go with that wherein they deny the efficacy of grace or the centrality of the call to holiness in a “this is the best they can do for now” dumbing down of the christological provocation.  This is all going to crash and burn just as surely as it did among liberal Protestants before us.  And getting on board the Greta Thunberg train “The Carbon Neutral Express” is a sure sign of the false humanitarian gospel described by Daniel Mahoney at the heart of this most theologically superficial of papacies. And I believe in man-made global warming, which is beside the point really.

And you can call me an elitist snob who thinks he is a smarty pants who is “above the fray” all you want.  Once again, I do not care.  And just because I think that I am right does not make me wrong. And my critics from both of those benighted camps obviously think that they are right and I am wrong.  So let us set aside such silly deflections and get on with it.  

In my last installment in this blog series I will be discussing the kinds of saints we need today. In other words, what kind of sanctity is God going to raise up in order to not just “combat” the errors of our time, but to actually embrace those errors in order to transform them from within.  To treat the signs of the times prophetically means to call them out in order to call them up.  It means to “become sin” for their sakes, and indeed, for our own, in order to love it into its opposite via the path of vicarious suffering.  The great “admirabile commercium” of christ the God-man translated into a sanctity for our times.  

There is no other option other than the path of the universal call to holiness. Cultural Catholicism is dead and the Catholicism of “drift” is dead. Stasis is not an option.  What then are we to do? How does holiness look for us, now, in this moment?  That question will be the essence of part three.

Dorothy Day, pray for us.

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