The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
15.1 (Winter 2015)
Faith & Cultural Meltdown
The Church Purulent: How a Friend That Won’t Fight Becomes a Foe’s Accomplice
John R. Harris
Last fall intensified the twenty-first century’s strategic assault upon the sane person’s peace of mind from several directions. Though my personal struggles have been minor compared to what many have endured, my household has not drifted through the shooting range unscathed. Without lavishing self-indulgent detail upon my situation, I may disclose that much of late 2014 was dedicated to making a fortress out of my humble domicile. As our southern border dissolved and our leadership fanned the flames of race hatred in places like Ferguson, Missouri, circumstances forced me to recognize that I was at risk in my own house. My aging neighborhood, with a grade school just down the street, was a secure and peaceful place less than ten years ago. Little-league baseball teams and toddlers’ soccer clubs used to practice on those playgrounds after hours and over weekends. Then the city fenced in the schoolyard as rumors circulated that child predators had moved into our area. No lesson hits home, however, quite as bluntly as a battering ram that quite literally leaves entries ajar. Walking through my front door on a sunny Monday afternoon to find the back door wide open and certain rooms notably emptier than I had left them was a sobering experience.
I have taken steps to ensure that last year’s felonious and costly vandalizing of my property will not be repeated. Ironically, on the day after my new system was up and running, a major German news site ran the headline, “Obama Offers Hope to Illegals.” (American news outlets chose to ignore the event, fearing public outrage against the progressive movement’s most visible standard-bearer.) For the rest of us, whose 911 calls require about an hour to be serviced, hope of basic safety seems increasingly to nestle where Mao located supreme authority: in the barrel of a gun. Apparently, that’s where the President’s adopted constituency also places its hope of prosperity.
I truly feel that I sit insecurely on the fringe of a riot zone, if not a civil war. After so many nights of restless sleep and days of growing conviction that our “leaders” pose a greater threat to us than Osama Bin Laden ever did, I do not find myself in a particularly meditative state—certainly not with regard to spiritual issues. And yet, a life without reflection upon higher things is the life of an animal, and something like hell to any thoughtful human being. One must make the effort to recoil from immediate menace, if only to understand precisely what feeds the flames outside one’s window. We all die of one cause or another, sooner or later. The difference in lives lies not in their length, but in their depth.
So I shall try to divert myself from preoccupation with physical unease long enough to ponder here a much more profound, consequential, and impersonal unease. It concerns our children, and it concerns their minds and souls.
During the semester covering this past fall, I executed a design that I had nursed along for years: I built a composition class around readings and writing prompts that involve the transformation of our world by advanced technology. One of my questions to the class was whether or not our high-tech future is likely to change human nature. I offered readings from commentators such as Nicholas Carr and Sven Birkerts, both of whom express alarm that our abandonment of page-and-print reading may alter how we think and, perhaps, our mere ability to think. The inimitable Ray Kurzweil was also allowed to speak his piece. In his unique and unfathomable optimism, Kurzweil has frequently greeted with open arms the prospect of human fusion with robots and computers. He sees opportunities for our children not only to possess the superpowers of a comic-book hero, but also to claim virtual immortality of the body (which will liberate them, of course, from the “burden” of having further children).
My intent, again, was to challenge the students with the consideration that such basic changes to our modus operandi might be so profound as to render us somehow less human. Obviously, the definition of human nature one adopts will determine how significant one finds the alteration to be. I did not expect a great deal of variance in the individual definitions proposed, nor a great deal of logical or rhetorical mischief in how those definitions were presented. Therein lay my error. The essay’s topic, in fact, could have been—and maybe should have been—the essential nature of the human animal. We could probably even have passed the entire semester excavating the layers of that issue, if I may judge by the degree of Hobbesian cynicism and utter incoherence that issued from these neurotically texting cherubs.
Human nature: what shall we say of it? What may we not say of it, first of all? Obviously (one would think), if the nature of a human is that of any other higher primate or higher mammal, then there’s no such thing as strictly human nature, and our task of definition is done before it starts. Human nature would consist entirely and only of basic biological drives and genetic predispositions: the drive to have sex, the need to eat and sleep, the aggressive posture assumed before intruders or rivals, the instinct of self-preservation, and so forth. About half of my students offered some version of this notion. In other words, they declined to distinguish the essential characteristics of our species from those of an ape. Two or three respondents (out of a total of forty-six in both sections of the class) cleverly added that the human ape has a unique propensity for artifice—for creating gadgetry out of sticks and stones. The question of technology’s altering our nature is thus easily answered in the negative, since our nature is precisely to create unnatural uses for things and adapt ourselves unnaturally to those uses. Well done, Washo!
About half of the remaining half became hopelessly mired in the distinction between nature and culture. Representatives of this quadrant argued that our nature changes from time to time and place to place, and that the nature of a given individual may even change during his or her lifetime. It was once human nature to write letters. Then humans began talking to each other over the telephone. Now they text and tweet. Since human nature is delightfully malleable in this way, the only humans likely to feel that their essential nature has been violated by technology are the older specimens who haven’t kept up with their nature’s upgrades.
Responses of the second sort especially disheartened me, in that we had just finished an essay topic considering the threat that advanced technology poses to culture. For students to identify basic nature with the conditioning of education and social order was bad enough; for them to equate cultural conditioning with learning how to tweet was almost infuriating. If texting at the dinner table is an affront to conventional manners, as we had all agreed (and they more vigorously than I, for the examples came from their own recent experience), then how could that same objectionable behavior qualify as a habit passed down from one generation to the next? How could something be natural which lacks sufficient roots even to be cultural?
The remnant of definitions flung at human nature energetically criss-crossed terminological boundaries without showing any awareness of having moved a muscle. Human nature is different for each of us. It is our set of basic inclinations—as in preferring coffee to tea, Rock to Rap, earrings to nose-rings, or Dave Chappelle to Daniel Tosh. It’s our nature, dude! It’s who we are. It’s how nature made us.
At this point, one begins to wonder if the association of humans with higher primates may be a bit of a slur to the mountain gorilla.
The single objection that I most strenuously raised to all of these definitions was morality. None of them offers any rationale for self-sacrificial behavior that leaves it admirable rather than duped and foolish. To be sure, genetic conditioning might account for a mother’s feeding her baby instead of herself in times of scarcity or for a father’s flinging himself between the baby and a predator. The species must survive, so perhaps evolution has programmed us to die that our seed may germinate and grow. But this is precisely to remove self-sacrifice from the act of self-jeopardizing. It thrusts the selfish motive into everything that can be reached, while still leaving much unaccounted for. What about the complete stranger, for instance, who leaps into a river to save a child—or a conscientious officer of the law, even, who swims the same waters to save a drowning criminal? We continue to admire such actions, do we not? Is our admiration for them indeed not greater than ever—is it not greater the less we discern of self-interest in them? Why is that, if we are hard-wired to preserve ourselves? Even though most of us would not be that altruistic swimmer, do we not all wish that we had the courage to be?
Or take a range of cases rendered yet more absurd by my students’ neo-Darwinist approach: concern for endangered species. Why be concerned? If a certain species of plant or animal obstructs our survival or our comfort, then we should exterminate it. That’s what we were made to do, by nature. If we like to eat it or otherwise exploit it, then we may perhaps have an interest in preserving it—but only in preserving it as a resource, managed on vast farms and plantations the way we manage auto parts on an assembly line. Why the concern for the “rights” of such species to live wild and free? The only right we are capable of recognizing must be our own to dominate and utilize.
This most sensitive of generations, then, that is supposed to save the blue planet in a rejuvenation of collective conscience—to reduce global warming and rescue the rainforest—can’t so much as adumbrate a coherent basis for a stranger’s stopping to help a weeping child on a street corner. Its members will write, and say with a straight face, that we are apes in clothes, driven by DNA and hormones, held in check by cultural brainwashing and the patriarchy’s armed police. Here I was, asking them to assess the magnitude of the risk our common humanity runs at the hands of robots and computer chips… and their spiritual estimate of “us”—of me, of you, of themselves—is identical to what they would offer for a Rhesus monkey in a lab.
I don’t blame this moral idiocy on the young people in question. How could I? They are no less human than I, and our common humanity forces me to conclude that they would indeed behave much better than their miserable theorizing could ever explain. Why, then, have they been left to figure out the basis of this humanity on their own? Part of our culture—an essential part, when it was a vibrant and humane culture—was always, before the late Sixties, to sell young minds on a view of nature that justified mankind’s higher, nobler inclinations. Various tribes of feminist and Marxist feather would quickly italicize the word “sell”. “Exactly!” they would cry with a triumphant pounce. “The patriarchal ‘moral grounding’ administered in schools of the Old Guard was indeed a bourgeois con job designed to leave innocents blindly accepting their gender roles, their racial castes, and their conscription to colonial projects like the conquest of Vietnam.”
Yes, but… but o, thou first generation of moral idiots, whence the outrage at the subordination of women, at the degradation of certain races, at resistance to wars without objectives? None of the many protests and uprisings that have roiled Western society over the past half-century would have any moral justification whatever if men were mere apes—if we were all just competitors for the position on top of the dunghill. The true heirs of manipulative bourgeois hypocrisy are, in fact, none other than today’s gender-warriors and other victimologists; for it is they who continue to blast gullible ears with shamelessly illogical but effectively incendiary rhetoric in pursuit of arbitrary power. Different packaging, same sleazy warranty.
The tradition of recognizing inalienable rights based upon our reality as moral—i.e., spiritual—beings was, rather, the source of all real indignation over the denial of basic freedoms to individuals. We do not enjoy any special rights because we may have high levels of estrogen in our system or high levels of melanin in our epidermis. On the contrary, to reduce us to our biological components is to insult the essence of our humanity: our free will, that is, and the universal moral light that guides it to choose unconditioned good over conditional profit. The “education mafia” which now rules elementary classrooms as well as the upper echelons of academe is most certainly responsible in a direct fashion for dulling our children’s awareness of humanity and spirituality. It is a vile accomplishment executed with a loathsome zeal.
Yet plenty of blame, to my mind, remains for the ecclesiastical community, as well. I teach in an area well within the so-called Bible Belt, and most of my students retain close ties to their local origins. (In fact, my department generally imports new hires from the Northeast or the West Coast, whose railing outside of class against their charges’ backwardness carries a conviction equal to their railing in class against Western colonialism. The pot is calling the kettle black, as my Appalachian better half would say: these progressive colonists who deplore colonialism can’t understand why their yokel subjects resist such a plainly superior empire. Displays like this have often made me want to write a book entitled The Ivory Sepulcher.) Churches proliferate all around the town, and most of our non-resident (i.e., living-at-home) students have grown up in one of them. To see a crucifix dangling from the neck either of a coed or a burley ballplayer is not unusual. On-campus religious organizations are numerous and thriving. In composition class, some students will even refer to Scripture, despite their apparently having been lectured against doing so during freshman orientation.
Yet the two students who insisted in my “human nature” exercise upon granting the human being an essential moral component were… Pakistani Muslims. And both female, at that (the gender, that is, popularly pictured in our culture as receiving no meaningful instruction in matters of faith).
What exactly does mainstream Christianity imagine itself to be doing these days? What is Catholicism doing, as Pope Francis throws a warm embrace around the Gay Movement and American Catholics are exhorted to ignore their nation’s borders? What are Southern Baptists and other “low church” Protestant denominations doing, as they continue to make a science textbook of Genesis and tacitly forbid their members to take a degree in biology or geology? What are Episcopalians and other “high church” denominations doing, as they systematically eliminate all self-discipline from the list of Christian duties in pursuit of a warm-fuzzy “social justice” and “non-judgmental, accepting love”? Why can none of them produce a student for me who understands the necessarily metaphysical origins of humane imperatives? Why is the Christian faith, in all of its organizational manifestations, so preoccupied with politics and empirical theory and social image that it has no time left over to explain that we are not mere animals, and that our obligations cannot be calculated by determining worldly profit or convenience or popularity?
As I sit immured in technology that will alert me to broken windows and solaced by technology that will repel deadly force from my family, I have to wonder: where is the Church’s voice? Why is it preaching that everything belongs to everyone while trying to sweat more donations from its faithful congregants? Why is it, while torturing the word “love” like a martyr, encouraging resentment among humble folk who never used to view themselves as victims of a conspiracy? Why is it denouncing measures of legal enforcement necessary to preserve civil peace while greedily cultivating membership for purely political ends? Where is the condemnation of brutal assault and outright brigandage? Where is the defense of little children from the sexual appetites of their unruly elders? Where is the exhortation, not to give more pelf so that others may feed richly and unwrap electronic playthings, but to chase after less pelf so that the believer’s person may be less bloated and his tastes less spoiled.
With secular leaders like our present motley crew, I repeat, we hardly need a Ten Most Wanted list; but with a Christian church like today’s version, what need have we of utopian architects and community organizers?
Dr. John Harris, founder and president of The Center, is a senior lecturer in English at the University of Texas at Tyler.