I have to chuckle every time my fellow Catholics pray for world peace. It reminds me of an irreverent bumper sticker I saw years ago that encouraged us to pray for whirled peas. While praying for universal peace is a noble gesture, the thought of actually achieving real world peace on this deeply flawed earth is a fruitless exercise in self-delusion.
Peace on earth will never be possible because of what philosopher Emanuel Kant called the crooked timber of humanity. Wars, violence and other human evils are a regrettable but undeniable part of the human condition. Like the poor, wars will always be with us. To pretend that we can eliminate them is foolhardy and a sign of the materialistic disease of the spirit that has infected our culture.
Fantasies are fine for football leagues or poetry recitals but in the real world, utopian goals can only serve to distract us from our eternal destiny. In chasing such windmills of the heart as peace on earth, many of us have lost our moral equilibrium.
On the way to Sunday Mass, I often remark about how religious all the runners, bikers and other exercise fanatics are with their physical regimens. They are out there every Sunday and on many weekdays in all kinds of hot and inclement weather. What dedication they show for maintaining their sleek bodies. I can’t help wondering if they pay as much attention to their souls.
Our country is a sick society–morally sick amid a cornucopia of boredom, violence and material excess. We are restless and unhappy with the state of our society yet we can’t understand why. We have developed a propensity for ignoring the spiritual causes of our maladies that have given rise to a victimhood philosophy that has sapped the very strength of the American spirit, giving rise to a litany of social and moral pathologies such as pornography, infidelity, homosexual marriage, abortion and euthanasia. In other words we are knee-deep in a culture of death and the faucet is wide open.
To offset the emptiness in our souls we have vainly attempted to fill it with a culture awash in a flood of sex, exercise, weight reduction programs, jogging, marathons and spa visits to the extent that our lean bodies, which have become our personal idols, stand it stark contrast to our empty souls! This painfully evokes strong Biblical images of whiten sepulchers filled with dead man’s bones. Too many of us have substituted neuroses and psychoses for our venial and mortal sins. We often try to medicate away our feelings of inner conflict.
This is just one facet of the imbalance or the lost of moral homeostasis that our society has created. Just watch television or attend the local Cineplex. It is difficult not to see the nihilism perpetuated in the anti-heroes of the silver screen or on the average sitcom each evening on TV.
I used to read all of Robert Ludlum’s novels many years ago until I noticed that his characters and vapid plots always seemed to meld into a seamless garment of emptiness and despair. His protagonists, more energetic but less philosophical than Hemingway’s existentialist code hero, recognized no other power than their own physical skills or mental acumen. Ludlum’s heroes, especially the long-lived Jason Bourne, had no religious or moral faith. In that he reflected the barren spirituality of our own times. The current and ever-popular Lee Child’s protagonist, the infamous Jack Reacher is cut from the same amoral whole cloth.
Before the advent of the shrink’s couch and confessional TV, like Mother Oprah, philosophers stressed the need for keeping equilibrium between the spirit and the body. Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, whose TV show Life Is Worth Living used to be more popular than Mr. Television himself, Milton Berle’s show in the 1950s, warned that peace of soul was the only way to rid society of many of its psychological afflictions.
A few presidential candidates, such as Michael Huckabee and Dr. Benjamin Carson seem to be saying the same thing. Bishop Sheen constantly admonished Americans for standing outside the psychiatrist’s’ office when they should be kneeling inside the confessional.
Life in America has become so busy and so demanding that it is too easy to lose sight of our ultimate goal. Like Ludlum’s characters, too many of us never stop to contemplate the question all men and women must ultimately confront — the universal eschatology of what happens at death?
Gen. John Black Jack Pershing underscored this nearly forgotten reality when he challenged his troops, as they embarked from the New Jersey piers in 1918 en route to the war in Europe to consider the three possible outcomes of their service — Heaven, Hell or Hoboken.
I don’t know how many people are aware of it but atheism — make that militant atheism — has been on the rise in the United States for years. Perhaps it was all the years of the religious right and the strident battles over abortion and the separation of church and state. Whatever the case, they are angry and they are on the march. They have shelved their public indifference and are confident that God and His faithful are in certain retreat.
Like their forebears from the French Revolution, they see the Church as an institution founded on unreason and superstition. It is their mission to chase such foolish ideas from the public marketplace. Since nature abhors a vacuum, they have found their god in science and a religion of man. Or what the intellectuals calls secular humanism.
While Charles Darwin was not an atheist, his theory of evolution later became the adopted intellectual child of atheists around the globe. The leading Darwinian atheist is Richard Dawkins, author of the 2006 bestseller, The God Delusion. Another godless priest is Sam Harris. In his 2004 book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Religion, Harris takes more of an apocalyptic approach. He believes that people must renounce religious faith or it will mark the end of civilization, conveniently ignoring the destruction of more than 175 million people at the bloody hands of atheistic governments during the 20th century.
However the debate has not been the same since the priesthood of unbelief lost its presumptive leader in 2014. For much of his adult life, Christopher Hitchens, the author of What’s So Good about God? waged a take-no-prisoners war on faith and its believers. His energy and quick wit knew no boundaries nor took any prisoners. He was probably the only man in history who had the temerity to publicly lambaste Mother Theresa.
I have had very little personal experience with atheism or atheists. When I had a weekly radio program on WGNU in St. Louis, one of my most frequent and memorable callers was a man who sometimes used the handles Gunboy Jim or Jim from Ferguson, Jim was very bright, more of a library autodidact philosopher who proudly proclaimed his atheism.
He was also ardently pro-abortion. For obvious reasons the two often walk hand in hand. He would come up with the most creative arguments that justified in his mind a woman’s right to choose to kill her unborn child.
One time in the late1980s in an off-air phone conversation he said that abortion was a noble act. So great was my visceral reaction that I could not restrain my contempt for him and his ideas. Despite my rage, Jim continued to call and challenge me.
In doing so he made me a much better talk show host. I eventually put away my anger and tried to understand him and his atheism. I realized that he was my neighbor and he needed something more than my righteous indignation.
One time in an e-mail he casually mentioned how he had been doing the dishes and the housework for his mother who was been seriously ill. I told him in a near apologetic tone that what he was doing was the work of sainthood. I was taken aback when he thanked me for seeing some good in him. I told Jim I would pray for him. He continued to call and write me. Jim was a seeker who wanted to know and understand the reality of life but had been looking in all the wrong places.
While he still occasionally writes long missives to my blog, the pretentious, Gospel Truth, I often wonder if he ever filled the void or spiritual vacuum in his life that the absence of God leaves. I continue to pray that he find that inner peace or what Bishop Fulton J. Sheen called peace of soul. It is something we all strive for whether we know it or not. The same is true for all the militant atheists in this country. Like my friend Jim they also need our kind thoughts and prayers.
I wanted to be English major in college until an adjunct History professor at Holy Cross enthralled me with his military exploits as a Marine tank commander in the Pacific Theater during World War II and Korea. His personal experiences within the broad context of Asian History, presented such a broad spectrum of heroes, philosophy, and human conflict that I spent the next nine years studying the discipline, collecting a pair of graduate degrees along the way.
Historical facts came easy in grad school. It was the different interpretations that made history difficult. Most historians were so awash in a sea of relativity that it made the past nearly unintelligible. Some stressed history as a study of heroic figures. Others saw it as materialistic determinism.
My personal definition focused on history as the story of man’s human nature in time. While its pages portrayed people in different milieus, there always was one essential constant. Man’s human nature never changed. It was likened to the philosopher Heraclitus’ flowing river, which was always changing while remaining the same river. Each historical era does things a bit differently but its people still maintain their inborn attraction to evil.
This explains why that in thousands of years of recorded history, only 22 years have been free of war, according to the late Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. Violence is and always will be an essential part of human nature. While no one is born rotten to the core, as the Calvinists would have us believe, man has never been the “angel” the French Philosophes, purported him to be.
The French reign of terror with its menacing guillotine disproves that idea during the last decade of the 18th century abrogated that idea. Men are more like what late historian Michael Shara called “killer angels,” capable of great love and charity but with a stark propensity for war and destruction.
Since the French Revolution, philosophers have attacked the Church’s teaching on man’s human nature with regard to sin. Its philosophical heirs, Marx, Darwin, and Freud denied the entire concept of original sin. A behavioral license to act without consequence has become their universal standard by which belief, morality and personal conduct is to be judged. It is this inherent philosophical conflict of the “City of God” versus the “City of Man” that is at the epicenter of the “culture war.”
Pope Benedict’s statement on Limbo and the “hope for unbaptized babies” has clouded the debate even further. It prompted the late University of Notre Dame Theology professor, Fr. Richard McBrien to opine, “if there is no limbo…it has to follow that “everyone is born in the state of grace.”
This reasoning leads to only one logical conclusion that baptism does not wash away the “stain,” of original sin and Christ’s death and Resurrection were unnecessary. Father McBrien’s interpretation marches in lockstep with the progressive fallout from the French Revolution, which has assumed an Immaculate Conception, which they ironically deny for the Blessed Mother, for every other human being who ever lived.
Progressives explain away the lingering question of evil with the same twisted logic of comedian Flip Wilson’s female character “Geraldine,” whose illicit behavior always prompted the response, “the devil made me do it!” This thinking is akin that of an ex-professional basketball player when arrested for drug possession said: “drugs ruined my life,” making made him the unwitting victim of his own sins.
What the left fails to understand is that we are all tarnished angels who have an inner yearning to revolt against the moral integrity of our being. Catholic convert G. K. Chesterton once opined that original sin was the one Catholic doctrine that never needed any proof. All one had to do “was read a newspaper…”or he might have added… a history book.
For most Americans, Christmas is the best of seasons.
Over the centuries, the celebration of Christmas has evolved to meet the changing fashions of the American people. For most of us Christmas is a joyous time of peace, hope, love and family life.
Over the last generation Christmas seems has suffered an identity crisis.
Its celebration has declined into something more akin to a secular feast where the Prince of Peace has been replaced with a mosaic of secular hymns, colorful wrapping paper with reindeer and snowmen and tall pine trees, festooned with twinkling lights, tinsel and dangling figures of Elvis, Tinkerbell and Snoopy.
Most American Catholics have bifurcated their celebration of Christmas.
Many send religious cards and stamps to their religious friends, but just holiday greetings to those who might be offended by any mention of Christ.
They will go to a Mass, followed by a festive dinner with all the trimmings and the exchange of gifts and good cheer but never give another thought to what Christmas really means.
The Christmas season has also been dragged into the heated arena of political correctness.
Christ’s seasonal recognition is an affront to some people who have hidden behind the false rubric of separation of church and state.
To them the mere mention of Christ’s name or the appearance of His crèche on government property constitutes an establishment of religion.
In a similar fashion, Americans have been subtly conditioned to say Happy Holidays, instead of the traditional Merry Christmas.
I would not be surprised to read some day that some Christ rejecters have petitioned the courts to disallow the religious Christmas stamps I buy each year as a violation of the First Amendment.
I seriously doubt that any of these people have stopped to consider what the real meaning of Christmas is.
I recently picked up a reprint of the late Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s 1955 classic, The True Meaning of Christmas.
In just a few illustrated pages Bishop Sheen captured just what so many of us have been missing from our Christmas attitude these past few generations.
Sheen points out that God did not come to teach us how to be nice people but to lead us to a spiritual perfection that could only happen when we had given our Fiat to the crucifixion of a life of sin.
Just like plants or animals are raised to a higher state when they are consumed, God sent his only Son down to earth to raise man to a participation in a much higher life— and the Word was man flesh and dwells among us (John 1:14).
It was also in God’s plan that Jesus’ Incarnation would atone for sin and allow the Holy Spirit to lead man to a higher life.
As 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 reminds us did you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?
On another level, Christmas is not just another historical event, like the Battle of Waterloo or the Great Depression.
To the contrary, Christmas signaled the coming of the Lord of History that was announced hundreds of years before.
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)
Christ’s nativity intimately bound the Old and New Testaments together, presaging the new unity of God’s intimate relationship with mankind.
God’s involvement with the world was also a universal invitation for all people and for all time.
While our secular celebrations are not offensive to God, they distract us from Christmas’ true meaning.
Catholics should return to the original message and use it to overcome secular society’s desperate attempt to supplant the salvific meaning of Jesus’ birthday.
Editor’s note: A recent column in the New York Times by Russ Douthat goes a long way in underscoring my points about the lost meaning of Christmas.
Last Sunday he opined that there’s no better time to be a Christian than the first 25 days of December. But this is also the season when American Christians can feel most embattled.
Their piety is overshadowed by materialist ticky-tack. Their great feast is compromised by Christmukkwanzaa multiculturalism.
And the once-a-year churchgoers crowding the pews beside them are a reminder of how many Americans regard religion as just another form of midwinter entertainment, wedged in between “The Nutcracker” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
For New Years: Go See a Play! My play!
First Run Theatre is producing my A Moment of Grace on the stage at DeSmet High School in Creve Coeur in mid January of 2011. (14th, 15th, 16th (M), 21st, 22nd and 23rd (M). It is paired with a shorter play, Don’t Stop Believing by Courtney Kennedy. Anna Blair is directing both plays! Tickets are $10 for adults and $8 for seniors.