The new millennium began with the devastating and psychologically damaging attacks on 9/11, followed by a decade of lost and confusing wars on terror, amidst the general decline of American cultural life. This has given many cause to revisit our fundamental religious beliefs with a new urgency.
Years ago Robert Fulghum wrote a best seller entitled, Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten. I can top him easily! His book reminded me of the third question in my first-grade religion book, the sorely missed Baltimore Catechism. Succinctly, it asked Why did God make me? This may be an elementary question but it is one pregnant with deep philosophical and theological mysteries that have sparked bitter debates, wars and persecutions for two millennia.
The answer my 6-year-old mind was given was To know, love and serve Him in this life and be happy with Him in the next life. It is a simple yet profound thought that provokes serious soul-searching into the meaning and direction of one’s life. If we really believe it, everything else we do, crave, strive for, lust after or sell our souls for to paraphrase St. Thomas Aquinas on his 14th-century deathbed, is cotton candy.
I wonder how many of the 50 Catholic 6-year olds that learned this basic question with me in 1949 still believe its inherent wisdom. Given the intellectual and moral drift of this past half century, I fear not too many. American cultural life has suffered a regression that has warped our very institutions, such as our Constitution, political process, the sacrament of marriage and even the meaning of the English language.
Thanks to the putative rigidity of some religious strictures and a long-range decline in organized religion and its devotions and practices, the left has made measured progress in the unfinished business of the French Revolution’s subversion and relegation of all religious values to the ashcan of history.
Most Americans are essentially seekers, looking for that spiritual lift that will help them get through the dark nights of doubt, fear and insecurity that plague mostly everyone. Without the support of religion and a moral compass, they are left to flounder aimlessly on a beach of doubt and despair. Unfortunately millions of Americans have chosen the winding, lazy road of shallow thinking and empty spirituality to fill the existential void the decline of religion has created.
In search of an inner holiness they have substituted a New Age spirituality for the black-and-white honesty of the Baltimore Catechism. Their refrain of I’m OK, you’re OK is nothing more than a jargon of psychobabble that provides nothing more than the warm and fuzzy feeling of thinking oneself a good person for helping the poor build a house or two.
Too many pride themselves on these good feelings while ignoring a slough of sordid personal behaviors that would make a Marine blush.
A real commitment to the Catholic faith and a mature belief in the afterlife has seemingly descended into the dark void of society’s self-consciousness. This trend is arguably in league with the world’s pagan forbears, who made gods out of the sun, rivers and anything in nature that they feared or respected. In doing so they have lost sight of their reasons for being born.
We have forgotten the Baltimore Catechism because few teach it any more. The sad fact is that without the longstanding anchor the catechism once provided, it is just too easy for people to float adrift with nothing more than their own petty selves to cling to.
Having lost or discarded the basic metaphysical knowledge in the third question of the catechism, too many Catholics have no clue why their lives don’t seem to make any sense. Unless the Church returns to that vital third question in the Baltimore Catechism, there will be little hope for any real progress in human rights and the end of futile wars.
Octogenarian Harper Lee has unleashed a maelstrom of social unrest and intellectual confusion as contentious as the turmoil in the streets of Ferguson with the 55-year delayed release of her “first” book, Go Set a Watchman.
As a work of literature it stands in start contrast to her “second” book, To Kill a Mockingbird, released in 1962. The one is for serious adults while the second is for children. The first is to the second as Shakespeare is to Mary Poppins.
This should not be surprising to her readers. The narrator of To Kill…is Scout a precocious seven or eight year old. She sees things through the eyes of a child, idolizing her dad who was her knight in shinning armor, perfect in every way. His brave defense of accused rapist, the one-armed Negro Tom Robinson, amidst the abject hatred of his fellow citizens in Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s makes him even more of a hero in her eyes.
To Set…is written in the third person though both Atticus and his brother Dr. Jack Finch serves as the voices of adult reason throughout the last half of the book.
Millions of adolescents and many adults have had the same iconic reverence for Atticus Finch ever since.
That’s why Go Tell… has set off such a furor. It was if in the darkest corners of her soul Ms. Lee and her publisher had conspired to undo 50 years of liberal pride and energy.
Her latest publication depicts Atticus, now disabled and in his early seventies as the avatar of racism and white supremacy. Virtually all the early book reviews mischaracterize him as a racist with an hypocritical heart.
To Set…is arguably the best book I have read in a very long time for its social and historical awareness. It gives clarity and voice to a large portion of this country that has been maligned for over a 100 years.
No Ms. Lee does not defend racial bigotry–a much more accurate and honest term than its bastard cousin, the politically charged racism. It explained how people could hold such prejudicial views in the context of their historical, social and cultural environs.
Their very use of the word racism, which did not exist until 1933, is an affront, analogous to a loaded gun pointed at the heat of a reasonable discussion. It signals that there is not other side of this issue that can even be mentioned in civilized company.
Racism is a potent weapon of self-righteous indignation that the American left has used for generations to silence debate and eliminate any criticism of their twisted social and racial policies.
To Set…is a broadside across their bow of their pride that hopefully will open up a fair and honest discussion of these issues without rancor or violence.
To Set…is a perfect title for what transpires in the book. She selected it from Isaiah 21:6. In whole it reads: Go Set a Watchman and listen to what he saith. As Atticus’ brother Dr. Jack Finch tells his niece Jean Louise (Scout’s adult name) that verse means to listen to your conscience or moral compass.
Scout’s conscience had been formed first by the Socratic education and aura of intellectual freedom that Atticus promoted at home. Her formative years as a young adult in New York City, the den of liberal change and moral reform completed her compass.
By contrast, Atticus’ Watchman comes from a legal background that was wedded to the moral virtues, not so much the American Revolution but the United States Constitution and its Bill of Rights.
During one of their introspective and heated discussions they unveiled the keys to understanding Southern history as we plod into the 21st century in virtual blindness and ignorance of our past history and deep meaning.
Atticus underscores the “recent” the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka Kansas. This seminal decision legally sought to eliminate centuries of segregation in the South, starting with our schools.
This landmark decision was the proper moral but unfortunately it violated the Bill of Rights, which made it a bad precedent and an unwise decision.
The 10th Amendment, which nobody teaches or understands today, except maybe Bob Dole who carried an index card of it in his pocket for years, is also known as the Reserved Powers amendment.
It stated that any power not specifically delegated to the Federal Government was reserved for the states. Education was the most important of these powers and the Federal government had now taken it upon itself to tell all children to think like it does.
While segregation is blatantly immoral, the proper way to have changed it was through the amendment process. But that takes time and big government likes swift action when it comes to absorbing more power and control.
Another point of note is the tremendous pride Southerners have. They witnessed their entire civilization swept from the board of history during four years of bloody war and 12 years of “Deconstruction” that made them second-class citizens in their own states. And worse was that the North forced their social acceptance of their former slaves on them in such a self-righteous way that their only natural reaction was hatred and eventually violence.
Then the Northern Republicans sacrificed three million blacks on the altar of political expediency, leaving the bewildered, uneducated blacks at the less than tender mercies of the Klan and other hostile bigots.
For several generations after that the Northern Republicans waved the bloody shirt of rebellion, blaming the South for the war and all of its collateral damage. Now the heirs of these “radical Republicans” were waving the bloody chains of slavery in their faces.
Their natural reaction then as it had been after the Civil War was to fight back.
Brown was like a second Reconstruction and Atticus was, not the problem, but tried to be part of a solution— the soft landing of his community and maybe even the whole South in gradually accepting the demise of his cultural heritage and the nation changed.
What Atticus resented most was not that the simple black people he had lived with all of his life had suddenly erected barriers of emotional isolation to the white citizens of Maycomb, as his daughter painfully experiences but the modern carpetbaggers from the North–the NAACP and its horde of eager lawyers, who were ready to force immediate and radical change on a people who spent their lives in languor and slow-moving.
To his credit Atticus decried the violently bigotry of the Klan and other racial groups because he understood only too well what had made them that way.
He was never a racist! He was in fact more than a simply hero! He was a peacemaker. But he was also a legal and social realist, who recognized as Abraham Lincoln had in his own time that blacks were not his intellectual, social or even cultural equals.
His daughter was blind to this because as her Uncle Jack tells her, she lacked an understanding heart. She failed to see her dad’s basic humanity> Because of her idealism she could never think of her father as a person of flesh and blood.
She had blindly judged him and her state by a presentism that failed to see mitigating…not exculpatory circumstances that underscored the truth of a time and culture. Her own conscience had been tainted by the self-righteous promotion of the progressive ideas that emanated from the guillotine and mobs of Paris in the late 18th century.
Her conscience had failed her while Atticus’ made him a three-dimensional human being, unlike the cardboard icon in her childhood. Her father was not perfect. He was flawed as some of his principles were. But his adherence to his conscience and his ability to admit that all were equal before the law made him unique for his community and his times.
Thomas Paine, one of the forbears of the French Revolution, marched to the battle cry of To Make the World Anew. What Paine meant was to make human beings anew…that is without flaw, prejudice or humanity. That is the impossible liberal dream that has failed in Russia, China, Cuba and wherever man’s free will has been coerced into submission.
Unfortunately too many of the movers and shakers of our liberal society are blind watchmen such as Jean Louise. Just look at Ferguson and all the other similar communities around the nation.
Harper Lee has written a prescient book that is one for the ages. It speaks to all of us whose consciences have been blinded by bigotry, hatred, ideology and selfishness.