the changing of large social phenomena

Mary Eberstadt, author of “Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution”, interviewed in The City:

“whenever you start saying something is inevitable, some series of facts are going to come along and clobber you. If you think about all the predictions of inevitability: Marxism, communism, claiming that they have inevitable victory on its side. That didn’t work. Think of things in your own lifetime that seemed inevitable.

When I was a kid it seemed inevitable that almost all adults would smoke and smoke a lot. That changed. That changed drastically. What I’m saying is that, when you have large social phenomena you can’t ever take for granted the idea that they are there to stay, for better or for worse. And my point about the sexual revolution is that it hasn’t been looked at that way yet, but the empirical record is such that it is high time that it get looked at that way – that is, get looked at as something that does not necessarily govern the world of 100 years from now the way it governs our world.”

The spiritual origin of worldly action

Rodney Stark, in his book Cities of God:

the Christianization of the [Roman] empire was not the result of ‘reactions to public calamity,’ but to religious influences per se. That is, religion did not merely offer psychological antidotes for the misery of life; it actually made life less miserable!

…The truly revolutionary aspect of Christianity lay in moral imperatives such as ‘Love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive,’ and ‘When you did it to the least of my brethren, you did it unto me.’ These were not just slogans. Members did nurse the sick, even during epidemics; they did support orphans, widows, the elderly, and the poor; they did concern themselves with the lot of slaves. In short, Christians created ‘a miniature welfare state in an empire which for the most part lacked social services.’

It was these responses to the long-standing misery of life in antiquity, not the onset of worse conditions, that were the ‘material’ changes that inspired Christian growth. But these material benefits were entirely spiritual in origin.

A great nation of righteous laws

Christopher Wright, in the New Bible Commentary, on the 19th chapter of Leviticus:

The chapter is remarkable for its breadth and depth of moral insight. It touches on the thoughts of the heart and the actions of the body, private and public behavior, and almost every major area of social life in a community. The application of some of its legislation would transform the lives of millions in today’s world. And the deeper one reflects on it, the more it seems that many Christians come nowhere near the standards it presented centuries before Christ (let alone Christ’s own development of it in the Sermon on the Mount).

Far too often in the Christian community, the Old Testament law in general, and Leviticus in particular, is dismissed much too quickly as irrelevant (that OT law doesn’t apply to us anymore, right?), impenetrable (how do you make sense of the maze of priestly codes and types of offerings?), and simply, sometimes humorously, random (regulations regarding mildew? commandments regarding the mixing of fabrics?).

Perhaps the best argument against this assumption is simply to get people to read the 19th chapter of Leviticus, which is rich, relevant and wise. Are all the laws found there immediately clear in their purpose and relevance to us today? Of course not. But this chapter is also remarkably clear, and should function as a sign to us that this book is not just some dusty collection of confusing and confused prohibitions. Rather it rewards study, and upon such, (like the rest of the book) shows itself to have both an inner logic, and a theological and social richness that is extraordinary.

That may seem like an overstatement. Yes, big chunks of Leviticus are slow reading and often dry. But if we push through, this ancient culture and more importantly it’s astonishing God, is still there to be found. He is still speaking.

Jesus’ testimony about the law should have pointed us in this direction. Indeed, as Wright notes, Leviticus 19 stands as a clear source behind the Sermon on the Mount. But Moses’ words as well should give pause to any of us who want too quickly to dismiss the law on our way to other things. Moses’ words on the law in Deuteronomy 4:6 – 8 point to it’s wisdom and utter uniqueness:

Observe them [the decrees and laws] carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?

We’re not Puritans anymore

David Brooks, writing about Penn State in the NYT

In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside. These vocabularies made people aware of how their weaknesses manifested themselves and how to exercise discipline over them. These systems gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst our frailties.

But we’re not Puritans anymore. We live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness. So when something atrocious happens, people look for some artificial, outside force that must have caused it — like the culture of college football, or some other favorite bogey. People look for laws that can be changed so it never happens again.

Commentators ruthlessly vilify all involved from the island of their own innocence. Everyone gets to proudly ask: “How could they have let this happen?”

Led into temptation by their very goodness

Ross Douthat, writing about Penn State in the NYT:

Bad and mediocre people are tempted to sin by their own habitual weaknesses. The earlier lies or thefts or adulteries make the next one that much easier to contemplate. Having already cut so many corners, the thinking goes, what’s one more here or there? Why even aspire to virtues that you probably won’t achieve, when it’s easier to remain the sinner that you already know yourself to be?

But good people, heroic people, are led into temptation by their very goodness — by the illusion, common to those who have done important deeds, that they have higher responsibilities than the ordinary run of humankind. It’s precisely in the service to these supposed higher responsibilities that they often let more basic ones slip away.

In accord with his use of the poker

When Thomas Aquinas went to study at the University of Naples, he joined the Dominican Order. At the time, the Dominicans were a new order in the church dedicated to study, teaching and preaching. The mission of the Dominicans fit Aquinas’ scholastic abilities and his personal sense of vocation; he wrote, “It is a greater thing to give light than to simply have light, to pass on to others what you have contemplated than just to contemplate.

His family, however, did not welcome the news of this new direction in life. They considered the Dominicans “an upstart group”, writes Gerald McDermott, and they tried to disuade him from joining. 

McDermott writes:

According to one story passed on by G. K. Chesterton, the brothers [of Aquinas] kidnapped Thomas and locked him in a tower. They tried every argument they could think of to get him to leave the Dominicans, but nothing worked. So at last they decided to blacken his reputation, which would cause the new order of teachers to refuse him. They paid a fetching prostitute to come to the room where Thomas was held.

Thomas immediately grabbed a burning brand from the fire and pointed it at the woman, who shrieked in terror and ran from the room. Thomas slammed the door shut and seared into the back of the door the sign of the cross.

Flannery O’Connor loved Aquinas, and I think loved this story about him. She recounts it in a letter to the unbelieving “A”, writing that though “It would be fashionable today to be in sympathy with the woman”, “I am in sympathy with St. Thomas.”

In a later letter, O’Connor writes more about the incident. She notes that St. John of the Cross:

would have been able to sit down with the prostitute and said, ‘Daughter, let us consider this,’ but St. Thomas doubtless knew his own nature and knew that he had to get rid of her with a poker or she would over come him. I am not only for St. Thomas here but am in accord with his use of the poker.

Thomas, of course, having had to “fight to protect his chastity and reputation” (McDermott), went on to write some of the greatest works in the history of Christianity.

The diminishing possibility of neutrality

From That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis:

Have you ever noticed, said Dimble, that the universe and every little bit of the universe, is always hardening and narrowing and coming to a point?…

I mean this…If you dip into any college, or school, or parish, or family – anything you like – at a given point in its history, you always find that there was a time before that point when there was more elbow room and contrasts weren’t quite so sharp; and that there’s going to be a time after that point when there is even less room for indecision and choices are even more momentous. Good is always getting better and bad is always getting worse: the possibilities of even apparent neutrality are always diminishing. the whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder.