Saturday, August 30, 2008

More on The Dark Knight as Post-Christian Myth

In this post I asserted that The Dark Knight is a post-Christian myth. I've also been defending the moral vision of The Dark Knight in response to comments made to this post.

In the end, however, I agree that the moral vision of The Dark Knight is problematic; I just don't think it is problematic in the way that Amos indicates in his comments. Neither the "good guys" nor their actions need be pure for their cause to be just, nor does their victory need to be permanent, for us to agree that their victory is a victory of good over evil. Mundane works are always a mixture of good and evil, of reality and illusion; thus we need the virtue of prudence to help us advance the good even in a world thoroughly tainted by evil.

But I do think there is a problem with the moral vision of The Dark Knight, and it follows from the film's nature as a post-Christian myth. What makes something "post-Christian?" When Christian sensibility lingers on in a context in which its foundation has disappeared or has been undermined, we are in the realm of the post-Christian. Without its foundation, Christian sensibility is at least incoherent and probably absurd; the dramatic arc of the post-Christian myth is the life of that sensibility in light of its ultimate incoherence.

I've been stressing in the earlier posts that Batman's victory flows from the virtue of humility. Humility is not a pagan (non-Christian) virtue; neither Plato nor Aristotle recognize it as one. Humility is the virtue that relativizes the secular scale of values in light of the divinely revealed scale of values. It became a virtue at the time of the Incarnation. In the light of the Divine Pearl of Great Price (Matt.13:46), revealed by Christ, all worldly pearls lose their value. Thus worldly honor, reputation, and glory mean nothing to the Christian, who only cares for the honor, reputation, and glory that is in the sight of God. 

It's not just that humility doesn't seem to be a virtue in a non-Christian world; it really isn't a virtue. It is self-evident that the better should not sacrifice itself for the worse. Christianity does not contradict this truth (or any other truth, for that matter.) Christ sacrificed Himself on the Cross for sinful men, but His Sacrifice is meaningful only in light of the Resurrection. The better sacrifices itself for the worse on the Cross because the better will nonetheless triumph in the end, in contradiction to all worldly understanding. In light of the Resurrection, the Incarnation is what Kierkegaard called the Absolute Paradox, a paradox being what is only apparently absurd. Without the Resurrection, the Incarnation is actually absurd. It is in the light of Faith that the Incarnation escapes absurdity.

The Christian can follow Christ in His humility because, united with Christ, he knows that he will obtain the Pearl of Great Price. The Christian seems a fool and a "loser" in the eyes of the world, but that is because purely secular eyes cannot see beyond the horizon of the world to the glory beyond it:

Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied.
Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.
Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man! Rejoice on that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven... (Luke 6: 20-22).

There is a mistaken understanding of Christianity that holds that Christianity holds suffering, per se, to be good. No, suffering is in itself bad; it is only suffering undergone in union with Christ that is good, for then is it suffering transformed into a redemptive act that has as its end ultimate perfection. Absent Christ, suffering can have at most instrumental value (e.g. in teaching virtues like courage and endurance.)

The pagan world does not have the virtue of humility. The sacrifice of the better for the worse cannot be relativized and is therefore always wrong. This made a problem for Plato in his Republic, for the best part of the city is the warrior class. Yet the warrior class is called on to sacrifice itself in war for the rest of the city, for that which is not as good as itself. Therefore Plato must resort to the "Noble Lie" as a means of convincing the warrior class to perform its duty. 

Socrates may be held out as a case of the better sacrificing itself for the worse, but the Apology teaches us better. Socrates did not hold death to be an evil; in fact, since Plato/Socrates see the body as an impediment to the philosophical life, which Socrates presumes will continue after death, death is actually something for which the philosopher longs; philosophy is nothing but a preparation for death. Furthermore, Socrates tells the jury at his trial that he will be victorious in the end; his death will redound to his own glory and to the infamy of the citizens of Athens. So Socrates not only expects death to be a boon to him, but that he will triumph in unambiguously secular terms as well.

The pagan analog to humility is the virtue of magnanimity. This is the best the better can do for the worse. In magnanimity, the "great man" condescends from his position of wealth and virtue to gratuitously assist the less fortunate; what he gets out of it is fame and honor. In no sense would the magnanimous man ever go to the absurd lengths of the Christian, selling all he owns and giving it to the poor. (And, again, notice the tag Christ puts on this command: Sell all you have, give it to the poor, and then come follow me. (Matt. 19:21) It is the relationship to Christ that makes the selling of all goods a morally sensible act.)

So what do we make of Batman in The Dark Knight? Batman is better than the citizens of Gotham; we may say he is the best part of Gotham. Like the warriors in Plato's Republic, Batman is called on to sacrifice himself for that which is worse than himself. Plato's warriors only do it because they are under the sway of the Noble Lie. But Batman is under no illusions; he himself is the author of the Noble Lie that will sustain Gotham. This is absurd and morally incoherent, for Batman is not Jesus Christ, nor does he act in union with Christ. Batman, in the pagan universe in which he exists, is duty bound to not sacrifice himself for Gotham, for with his destruction the best part of Gotham would be destroyed as well. Humility is not a virtue for Batman; it only lives on as an apparent virtue in the post-Christian sensibility of Gotham.

It is appropriate, then, that Batman is The Dark Knight, for his existence is absurd. As a film, The Dark Knight carries dramatic impact to the extent that the audience itself retains a post-Christian sensibility; that is, as long as it still retains some feeling of humility as a virtue. As lingering Christian sensibility recedes, films like The Dark Knight will become laughable, humility having lost all sense of virtue.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Mickey Mouse and Evolution

We all know that Darwinists have managed to make criticism of evolution in public schools a crime. Darwinian evolution, it turns out, is so strong as a scientific theory that it must rely on the courts rather than evidence to get people to believe it.

But those rascally intelligent design advocates are far, far more clever than Darwinists can imagine. They find all kinds of ways to sneak intelligent design into the science classroom. Take this article from last Sunday's Boston Globe for example. Teacher David Campbell seems to be your typical Darwinian advocate. It is obvious, however, that he is a stealth intelligent design advocate; perhaps even a creationist.

Campbell uses the example of Mickey Mouse to help his students understand evolution:

Campbell smiled. "Mickey evolved," he said. "And Mickey gets cuter because Walt Disney makes more money that way. That is 'selection.' "

What more proof do we need that Campbell is actually a creationist, probably the head of a conspiracy to impose a fundamentalist Christian theocracy? Mickey Mouse is a pure example of intelligent design. The pen that drew him didn't move by itself; it moved in accord with a design of Mickey created by Walt Disney. Furthermore, any change Mickey underwent isn't any sort of random selection; it is change in light of the higher purpose for which Mickey exists: Making Walt Disney money. Aristotle himself could not have come up with a more teleological example.

Campbell goes on to give the substance of what Darwinists actually believe, but he provides no reason to believe it:

Later, he would get to the touchier part, about how the minute changes in organisms that drive biological change arise spontaneously, without direction. And how a struggle for existence among naturally varying individuals has helped to generate every species, living and extinct, on the planet.

So the substance of Darwinism is but a "touchy" afterthought to the only evidence he cites - an example of intelligent design. Perhaps Darwinism is so "touchy" because even high school sophomores might wonder why an allegedly purely naturalistic theory of origins must resort to examples of intelligent design to support it. The legal cases were supposed to have permanently closed off just this sort of unauthorized criticism; obviously they are not airtight enough if Campbell is still able to sneak intelligent design into the classroom.

But that's not the worst of it. Campbell goes on to bring the miraculous into the science classroom:
He looked around the room. "Bryce, what is it called when natural laws are suspended - what do you call it when water changes into wine?"

"Miracle?" Bryce supplied.

Campbell nodded. The ball hit the floor again.

So the example of "change" given by Campbell is Mickey Mouse, an example of creation and change effected by an intelligent designer for a purpose. Then Darwinism is explained as minute changes arising spontaneously, without direction. No example from the real world of this is given to counter the intelligent design example of Mickey Mouse. Clearly Campbell is subtly indicating to the sophomores that intelligent design and not Darwinism is reflective of how the world really works. And if a "miracle" is a suspension of natural law, like the drawing of Mickey Mouse is a suspension of the natural laws of pen and paper, then miracles are clearly a perfectly reasonable part of the world.

This has got to stop. Call the lawyers!

(By the way, water changing into wine is not an example of the suspension of natural law. As St. Augustine pointed out long ago, water changes into wine naturally all the time in the grape.)

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Dark Knight as Mundane Christ

I've been having a conversation about the Dark Knight with several commenters in response to this post. I think a longer post is called for at this point to advance the discussion.

Being exists in two different ways:

1) As absolutely good.
2) As relatively good.

Mode 1 is primary, and mode 2 is relative to the absolute goodness of mode 1. Notice that "evil" appears nowhere in the description of being. Evil is an absence of goodness, or in other words, an absence of being. To describe something as evil is to say that it is not as good as it might be. It follows that there is no such thing as "absolute evil" as there is "absolute good." Absolute evil is pure non-being; it is nothing at all. The only kind of evil is relative evil, and that evil is relative to absolute goodness rather than absolute evil. Relative good and relative evil really describe the same mode of being; the only difference is the degree to which being has fallen into non-being.

A battle of "good vs. evil" is therefore a contest of one of the following two types:

1. Absolute good vs. relative good.
2 Relative good vs. relative good.

Only in the case of a type 1 battle is the victory of good over evil assured. And only in a type 1 battle will the victory be one of pure goodness; i.e. the victory will be a victory of pure being over non-being. The primary example of a type 1 victory is, of course, the victory of Christ in His Death and Resurrection.

In a type 2 battle, the victory of good over evil is not assured; and even if the relatively better does win, the victory will be tainted by aspects of non-being, for only in absolute goodness is action free from non-being. Because a type 2 battle is always a mix of good and evil on both sides, there is always a temptation to despair that goodness can genuinely be advanced in such a battle. For we can always find in any type 2 victory elements of non-being (evil.)

To take an example, World War II is sometimes called "the Good War." If this is taken to mean that the better side won, then there is no problem with the term. If it is taken to mean that the better side won in an absolutely good manner, then the term is misleading; for no merely human enterprise can ever be free from evil, especially war. And the Allied victory in WW II had its morally problematic elements - the incineration of hundreds of thousands of German civilians in strategic bombing being one of them. Nonetheless, the Allied victory was both necessary and just in its final outcome, despite the morally problematic means it took to get there. The (relatively) good guys won.

There is a cast of mind that cannot except that the relatively good is just that - relatively good. When it discovers the evil hidden in any relative good, it despairs of the relative good altogether. It demands all or nothing. Thus, when some people discover the horrors of the firebombing of Hamburg or Dresden, their understanding of the war collapses into moral relativism; we are no better than the Nazis and the Allied victory was not a victory of good over evil.

In my original post on the Dark Knight, I said that the Joker is a "secret idealist." By that I meant that the Joker cannot accept the goodness of the relatively good. It's all or nothing for him. The Joker is the kind of person for whom the strategic bombing campaign obscures all moral differences between the opposing sides in WWII. This is a manifestation of the sin of pride.

Batman, on the other hand, understands that the relatively good is worth fighting for even if it is mixed with evil; that his campaign against evil is worth it, even if his own efforts are necessarily tainted by evil; and that the salvation of Gotham is worth it even if that salvation is effected by illusions. So, yes, we may point out the morally problematic nature of Batman's means to victory: He induces Commissioner Gordon to support a Platonic "noble lie." Is it a mark against his character?

That is hard to say. Batman is a "post-Christian" myth. That is to say, it exists in a universe in which the salvific and revelatory Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of Christ has not taken place; at least, no one seems to know about it. The Incarnation changed the meaning of the virtue of prudence by giving man an example of absolute goodness and also the sanctifying grace to perform it. Christ sets the standard by which man is judged in a Christian universe; absolute goodness is now the standard even if man can only approach it.

In a non-Christian universe, prudence does not have this relationship to absolute goodness. Prudence is the struggle to advance the good in a world where everything is tainted by evil. This is why the pagan Plato can advocate the use of the "Noble Lie", something no Christian needs to do, since the Christian is in possession of the Noble Truth of Christ. The standard of prudence in the pagan world is not absolute goodness; it is the effective advancement of the good in a world where good must compromise with evil.

So in the post-Christian world of Batman, the question about his character must be understood in terms of the meaning of prudence in that world. That Batman resorts to evil means is true; that such an act reveals a character flaw, I am not so sure. He did the best he could in the unredeemed world in which he lives.

The title of this post is the "Dark Knight as Mundane Christ". Like Christ, Batman sacrifices himself for the salvation of the world (Gotham). But Batman is merely a mortal man. He is not absolute goodness, nor does he have power over life and death. So his salvific act will necessarily include elements of evil (non-being), which Paul and Amos have been pointing out.
His victory is not absolute or permanent, but temporary and shaky. It is based on illusions the Gothamites have about themselves, Harvey Dent and Batman.
But it nonetheless remains true that Batman's victory is a victory of the relatively good over the relatively evil, and it fundamentally flows from a virtue he possesses and the Joker does not have, and cannot have: Humility. And goodness finally remains more powerful than evil, but not because the victory of Batman was inevitable. In any contest of the relatively evil vs. the relatively good, the relatively evil has the possibility of victory (as the Nazis came close to winning WWII.) But because it is based on being, the relatively good has more resources at its disposal, if it can only find the means to use them. In the case of Batman, he finds a way to use the good virtue of humility to defeat the Joker, a move the Joker cannot match because humility is unavailable to him.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

McCain as Batman

Speaking of Batman, here is the best take on the upcoming election I have read so far.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Dark Knight

Over at National Review Online, Jason Lee Steorts has an article on the significance of the Joker in the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight.

The Dark Knight is a good movie, considerably more intelligent than one expects from the film industry these days. And Heath Ledger's performance is all they said it is. In fact, it is so good that Ledger has replaced Bruce Dern as Longhair in The Cowboys as my favorite movie villain. And that's saying something; Dern held the title for 36 years.

I don't think Steorts quite understands the Joker. This is what he says about him:
But that's not right, because the Joker doesn't do just anything. What he does is destroy. He is not chance, for chance might treat you well. He is, rather, a vandal. Why he wants to vandalize is not clear. Beyond question is that he thinks there is no such thing as right or wrong.
The Joker isn't a vandal, because a vandal is a barbarian who just wants to have a good time sacking a city. The Joker, in fact, doesn't actually do a lot of destroying. What he really wants to do is corrupt, or, more precisely, expose the corruption that is a hidden reality in all of us. We might call him a connoisseur of Original Sin. 

Like all villains of his type, the Joker claims to be a "realist" but he is really a secret idealist. For the idealist, only the perfect is worthy of respect or even deserves existence. Since nothing is perfect on Earth, especially men, the idealist thinks it an abomination that the world exists at all. He can't understand how someone like Batman would spend his life defending men even in their state of corruption. He thinks it must be that Batman doesn't really understand the depth of corruption in men. So the Joker makes it his task to expose the corruption in men, and makes it his special task to corrupt even the few men who seem to be purely good. And he the Joker is pretty good at being bad.

But Batman, like Christ, has no illusions about the nature of men. The difference between the Joker and Batman is that Batman thinks men are worth saving even though they are corrupt. A better name for the film might be the Dark Christ because Batman, like Christ, sacrifices himself for men who are not as good as him. 

The film does an excellent job of showing the two sides of the dual nature of man. Yes, even the best men have some store of evil in their hearts; but the converse is also true, that even evil men have some store of goodness in their hearts. The Joker sets up several "no-win" situations intended to expose the selfish nature of men, but he is (occasionally) thwarted by the surprise appearance of virtue in places one would least expect it. Good is as real as evil; in fact, it is more real. 

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Books as Companions

In The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom mentions the notion of "books as companions:"
When I first noticed the decline in reading during the late sixties, I began asking my large introductory classes, and any other group of younger students to which I spoke, what books really count for them. Most are silent, puzzled by the question. The notion of books as companions is foreign to them. Justice Black with his tattered copy of the Constitution in his pocket at all times is not an example that would mean much to them. There is no printed word to which they look for counsel, inspiration, or joy.
What books really count for you, dear reader? Are there any books that you count as genuine companions, books that color the way you see the world and are always ready to hand as sure, steady guides? I'd be interested to know, if anyone happening to read this post would like to respond.

In my case, on reflection, there are four books to which I regularly return and that are instrumental in forming my vision of the world. They are, in no particular order:

1. Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton.
2. Concluding Unscientific Postscript by Soren Kierkegaard.
3. Collected Dialogs by Plato.

and, of course,

4. The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom.

What makes a book worthy of being a companion? I don't think it is anything you necessarily decide. You just find yourself, over the years, when confused or depressed, gravitating to the same few books over and over again. But what is it about those particular books that draws you to them? One feature seems to be a depth that is nearly inexhaustible. These are books you can open anywhere, read a few lines, probably lines you have read many times before, and yet find a new meaning to them that you had not noticed before. They are books that seem to be almost alive, growing with you as you mature. This post was inspired, for example, by flipping open The Closing of the American Mind in an idle moment and reading the beginning of the Chapter "Books."

They are also books loaded with offhand remarks of great insight. At the beginning of the chapter "Relationships", Bloom says the following:
Students these days are, in general, nice. I choose the word carefully. They are not particularly moral or noble. Such niceness is a facet of democratic character when times are good.
These sentences sum up the character of my generation and after, the very tail-end of the baby boom and the beginning of "Generation X", and beyond. Prosperity hides a multitude of sins. The demanding religion of our grandparents just doesn't seem to make much sense to us. Life is good, safe and relatively undemanding. Christianity is about salvation, but salvation from what? We see no need to be saved from a life of 40 hour work weeks, $75,000 a year salaries, four weeks vacation a year, and all the comforts a modern technological society can provide. The lesson I got from twelve years of Catholic education (mostly in the 1970's) was that being a Catholic meant being a "good guy", what Bloom calls "nice." Well, after high school, I took stock of myself and concluded that I was a pretty nice guy. So what did I need a weekly religious service for?

But there is a deep anxiety hidden in "nice", an anxiety I experienced but did not really understand until I read Bloom and Kierkegaard. It is hinted at in Bloom's comment that the current generation is neither moral nor noble. "Nice" is comfortable but it is flat, uninspiring, and ultimately boring. It is the "aesthetic life" as described by Kierkegaard. A truly human life, a life worthy of a man, must involve noble actions and moral depth. Thus, unlike prior generations, which needed to discover the reality of salvation, we need to discover the reality of sin. Only a life lived in the possibility of sin can one find depth beyond "nice."

The Closing of the American Mind is filled with little asides that can set one thinking for hours, and that can, by themselves, change your life. Our bookstores are filled with "self-help" books that are useless; the true self-help books are written by Bloom, Kierkegaard, Chesterton, Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas.

One of the great benefits of books-as-companions is that they give you a perspective outside the parameters of contemporary culture. This is one of the meanings of freedom as understood by classical education, and that it took as its goal. Chesterton's Orthodoxy contains an entire, perhaps somewhat eccentric, worldview, but a worldview that seems increasingly sane the more one immerses oneself in it, and in comparison with which the ordinary secular worldview seems crazy. My unfavorable reaction to the Harry Potter books is largely based on my reading of Chesterton, especially the Chapter "The Ethics of Elfland" in Orthodoxy. When I need a dose of sanity, I always return to Orthodoxy.

Kierkegaard and Plato taught me how to think. I had read some philosophy, and taken a few courses in college, but it didn't mean anything to me until I read Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard taught me the meaning of subjectivity, and with it the world of philosophy and Plato opened up.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Hope vs. hope

This post has spoilers for the film The Shawshank Redemption.

I've been reading He Leadeth Me by Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J. This is the true story of an American Jesuit priest who spent more than twenty years in the Soviet Gulag. Fr. Ciszek's story has led me to meditate on the the difference between Hope (the theological virtue) and hope (the worldly confidence that things will turn out well.)

I think the difference between Hope and hope can be brought out if we compare Fr. Ciszek's story to the story of another prisoner, Andy Dufresne of the file The Shawshank Redemption. Both Dufresne and Fr. Ciszek spent many years in imprisonment under inhuman conditions; both performed good works for their fellow prisoners; and both eventually found liberation from prison and a life of peace and happiness. Andy Dufresne is an icon of worldly hope; Fr. Ciszek is an icon of the theological virtue of Hope.

The most significant difference between Andy Dufresne and Fr. Ciszek is, of course, that Dufresne is entirely fictional, the creation of author Stephen King, and Fr. Ciszek was a real person, born and raised in the United States. I don't mean to imply that this means that worldly hope is a fantasy and only theological Hope is real. Not at all. Worldly hope is a real phenomenon. But the fact that The Shawshank Redemption is fiction can lead to some illusions about the nature of secular hope. American films are famous, perhaps notorious, for requiring happy endings. Watching an American film, you know things will turn out well for the hero. This is no less true for The Shawshank Redemption. We see Andy Dufresne falsely accused of murder and thrown into prison. We see him exploited by the prison warden and abused by the guards. But we know that, in the end, things will turn out well for him, especially since the film is narrated by the reassuring, grandfatherly voice of Morgan Freeman. Freeman's narration gives the viewer the illusion of a "divine perspective" that provides a foundation of hope for Andy Dufresne. The suspense in the film is not whether Dufresne will be saved from his prison existence, but just how that salvation will be effected.

It is the nature of worldly hope, however, that is has no assurance that things will turn out well. Worldly hope is based on reason, specifically a calculation made by the hopeful of the probability that things will turn out well. A prisoner may have an appeal on file or know that a private detective is researching evidence that will exonerate him, for example. Or, like Andy Dufresne, he may have a plan for escape. But there is no guarantee that the appeal will be granted, the evidence found, or the escape end in success.

We discover in retrospect that Dufresne had a plan of escape that he implemented over many years. It was this plan and his chance of escape that formed the basis of hope that sustained him over his years in prison. The narrative perspective of the film, however, gives Dufresne's escape an air of inevitability that it could never really have. In fact, the escape involves considerable good fortune. It required the long, painstaking digging of a tunnel from a particular cell over the course of years, an effort that would have come to nought if his cell assignment were changed at any time over those years. It required the hiding of the tunnel entrance behind a poster, its existence somehow never discovered during the periodic cell inspections (although the warden quickly finds the tunnel shortly after Dufresne escapes.) Lastly, and most obviously, a thunderstorm fortuitously happens the night of the escape, conveniently covering the sounds of Dufresne hammering his way into a sewage pipe. It is the nature of secular hope that it cannot effect itself by itself and that it is subject to the whims of the "God of Good Fortune."

Is the secular hope of a film like The Shawshank Redemption merely what remains of a genuinely theological Hope in a post-Christian world? Pre-Christian cultures didn't speak of hope the way we do now. They saw life as dominated by fate. Aristotle taught that happiness is a life of human flourishing lived according to virtue. But virtue itself is not enough to assure happiness; in addition to virtue, good fortune is needed. A man born in miserable circumstances with no chance to improve his lot is fated to unhappiness. Life sucks (for some). Deal with it.

Christianity introduced the radical notion that true happiness, because it is based entirely on a personal relationship with God as known in Jesus Christ, is not dependent on material circumstances and is therefore equally available to all. Happiness flows from the grace of God, the possession of the "pearl of great price" for which man gives everything else, and in light of which all other concerns come to nothing. That includes material concerns. The man with theological Hope has confidence that "things will turn out well," but this is because, for him, the experience of the love of God makes him almost indifferent to material concerns. Things will turn out well because he already possesses the only thing that matters; things have already turned out well and can't change, however material circumstances might.

This is an easy thing to say, of course, for someone in comfortable circumstances like me. For me, "Hope" in such depth isn't much more than a nice idea. Even before he went to Russia, Fr. Ciszek was a man of much deeper faith than I am; yet in his suffering in Russia, Fr. Ciszek discovered that his Hope was tainted by a fair degree of purely worldly hope. He expected God to save him from the suffering he endured; in other words, the "pearl of great price" wasn't really enough. In addition to God, Fr. Ciszek needed more food and better conditions, and he expected God to provide it. 

There is a wonderful passage in He Leadeth Me when, after four years  and endless interrogation in Lubianka Prison, Fr. Ciszek finally abandons himself completely to God. His Russian interrogators had threatened to have him shot, and, almost without thinking, he had signed papers confessing to various "crimes." Now the Russians wished to turn him into a spy in the Vatican. With the grace of God, Fr. Ciszek refused, and had a deep experience of freedom, for he was genuinely indifferent to his fate. No matter what the Soviets did, whether they sent him to the Gulag, had him shot, or released him, God was with him and nothing else mattered. This is the "freedom of the children of God."

Now an atheist would say that Fr. Ciszek had merely talked himself into things for the sake of getting through his difficulties. His hope was not "realistic." There is really no way to prove the atheist wrong in any objective sense. Only God and Fr. Ciszek, in his heart, really know what happened. But consider that any hope, if it is to go beyond the fragile and temporary confidence that is the summit of worldly hope, must be "unrealistic" in this sense, for it must be "unreasonable" in worldly terms. Hope that is based on calculations of probabilities and material outcomes will always be suspect and fragile; only a Hope that is based on something eternal and unchanging has any chance of gaining depth, of transcending the "fates" that ruled the pagan world. The man in possession of the eternal and unchanging Love will naturally appear unreasonable, even crazy, to the rest of us, for his "calculations" operate on a level we can't even imagine. But it is a level that cannot help but call our own cynical judgments into question, as Fr. Ciszek's witness in the Gulag brought Christ even to those reduced to the bare minimum of human existence.

The truly crazy man appears unreasonable to us, but he is also unable to cope with reality as well as we sane people can. That is the real test between the sane and demented; we put the mentally disturbed in asylums because they are manifestly unable to deal with reality. (Is that what an "asylum" is, a "haven from reality?") Yet a man like Fr. Ciszek managed to handle the reality of the Gulag better than everyone else, as was universally acknowledged. The typical zek (prisoner of the Gulag) was surly, defensive, and did his job as poorly as he could get away with. Fr. Ciszek was kind, charitable, and did his job as well as he could, since he saw it as a participation in the work of God. If the test of the sane person is his ability to deal with reality, then Fr. Ciszek was among the sanest of men, and that sanity, in the end, testifies to the reality of the God Who sustained his Hope in a far more powerful way than any worldly calculations.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Meaning of Contemporary Atheism, Continued

This is a continuation of this post.

I would like to explain by example what I mean by atheism offering cultural achievements to rival those of Christianity. I am speaking of the space program and the hippie movement of the 1960's and 1970's.

First, the hippie movement. The so-called "counterculture" was not explicitly atheistic, but it was generally antagonistic to organized religion, and definitely had a "this-world" orientation. The hippies thought they could bring peace and love to the world, now, and with no necessary help from divine intervention. As the saying goes, they attempted to "immanentize the eschaton." They did not trash religious symbols, but offered their own symbols instead, like the peace sign:

As a secular movement, the hippie movement was very successful at drawing people away from religion. The Catholic religious orders emptied out almost overnight in the early seventies. This is how easy it is for atheism to be successful; if it can offer a reasonable cultural alternative to religion, people will leave religion and its onerous demands in a heartbeat. The problem for the hippie movement was its essential shallowness; the culture it offered could not stand up to the problems of life once they came (e.g. when young ladies in the communes began having babies. Babies are not interested in peace and good feelings, but food, sleep and a clean diaper. And they want them now.) The peace sign is now a bit of nostalgia. But at least it was an attempt to go beyond mocking organized religion and offered an alternative.

The space program of the 60's and 70's offered a kind of "secular moment." Space exploration was about a lot more than solving some engineering problems; it was vocally promoted as the foundation of a secular spirituality. Any kid of that era remembers the excitement surrounding the Apollo Program. We all had our LM's and Lunar Rovers. As a kid in the Middle Ages might have dreamed of going on Crusade to the Holy Land, we dreamed of the secular crusade of the space program. The "space age" produced its version of high art, like Stanley Kubrick's 2001, A Space Odyssey. 2001 wasn't just a space movie; it was a meditation on the sublime meaning of space exploration itself.

The leading apostle of the space spirituality movement was Carl Sagan. He is known as a popularizer of science, but there isn't actually very much science in his popular books. What he was selling was not science, but the spirituality of science. Take a look at the cover of Demon-Haunted World, for example, with its image of the lonely candle in the dark. Sagan uses the image of the candle to create a mythology of science, with science as a kind of pagan hero struggling to survive through the course of history. But the spirituality of space was already losing momentum at the height of the Apollo Program. There is a telling scene in the film Apollo 13 where the astronaut's families listen to interviews of the Odyssey crewmen as they drift to the moon. The interviews were initially intended to be broadcast live on the major networks, but the networks bailed out in the end and broadcast their standard programming (typical dismal TV fare), because the public no longer tuned in to Apollo broadcasts. Even as soon as 1973, space exploration was losing its ability to inspire. President Bush a few years ago tried to reincarnate the ethos of the Apollo Program by announcing a Mission to Mars, but everybody yawned.

Carl Sagan, in the Demon-Haunted World, lamented the state of science education in this country but, even more, the lack of inspiration people, especially the young, felt from science. He wished to re-energize the spirituality of science. In effect, he was doing his best to prevent the culture from turning into a culture of Nietzschean "Last Men", people who have given up the attempt to do anything grand and are content to entertain themselves with small pleasures while they wait to die. He implicitly recognized that, if atheism is ever to displace religion, it will only do so if it can inspire people as religion once did.

The Meaning of Contemporary Atheism

Let me make the point I made in Nietzsche, Atheism and the Eucharist in another way.

Let us grant the atheist all his premisses. There is no supernatural, divine being as proposed by Christianity or the other great religions. Jesus of Nazareth performed no genuine miracles and did not rise from the dead. Furthermore, religion is a pernicious blight on the world. It is responsible, if not for everything bad in the world, at least most of it. We would all be better off if it simply went away.

Let us grant all that. Yet the facts of religion remain, and in particular I am thinking about the facts of Christianity. Whether it is true or false, the Bible is a fact. The two-thousand year old Catholic Church is a fact. Chartres Cathedral is a fact. Furthermore, the culture inspired by religion is a fact. The Christian-inspired West explored the world, invented modern science, and created Handel's Messiah, Shakespeare's MacBeth, Dante's Divine Comedy, Rembrandt's The Prodigal Son and the Calling of St. Matthew, and the Sistine Chapel.

My point is not that, because Christianity created Chartres Cathedral, the Sistine Chapel, and inspired Handel, Bach, Rembrandt, Dante and Dostoyevsky, that it must be true. It is that these things happened whether Christianity is true or not. There are two possibilities:

1. The Bible and the culture it formed were inspired by God.

2. The Bible and the culture it formed were creative products of the human imagination.

The believing Catholic says the former; an atheist, of whatever stripe, says the latter. But in saying the latter, the atheist doesn't always understand the full implications of his own position. The Catholic attributes the profound achievements of Western culture to natural human creative powers taken to new heights by divine inspiration; the atheist must say that human creative power reached those heights all on its own. In eliminating God, the atheist necessarily elevates the purely human. 

And now we come to Nietzsche. If indeed Chartres Cathedral, Dante and Rembrandt are but purely natural products of human imagination, there is nothing stopping us from achieving similar creative heights, albeit without any reference to the divine.  The real test for atheism is cultural, and whether it can match the "divinely-inspired" cultural achievements of Christendom with its own cultural achievements that make no reference to God. We know the atheist can mock the cultural achievements of Christendom, e.g. by displaying Crucifixes in urine or smearing paintings of the Virgin Mary with excrement. Nietzsche would be disgusted by such sophomoric atheism. Mockery is the refuge of the immature and the uncreative; an atheist who is satisfied with atheism doesn't need to mock because he is secure in his own cultural achievements. The end result of such mockery is nihilism and, finally, the "Last Man", the denizen of the culture that has given up the attempt to do anything significant and satisfies itself with watching TV from cradle to grave. Sort of like our own.

Desecrating the Eucharist only testifies to the emptiness of contemporary atheism. It is an act that testifies to its own insignificance, for it has power only to the extent that the Eucharist itself is significant. Instead of mocking the Eucharist, the atheist should be creating his own rival, secular liturgies that match the Catholic Mass in sublimity and solemnity. When the atheist sees Catholics reduced to mocking secular liturgies, he will know that he has won.