The world is simply horrible—isn’t it? Our politics seems poisoned: half the country hates Trump, while the other half hates those who hate Trump. The Church—well, again we’re mired in scandal as the metrics of sacramental participation plummet, indicating continued decline, and polls surveying adherence to basic teaching indicate infidelity. And the culture? The sexual revolution grinds on, morphing into the pelvic totalitarianism of the pink police state as the ideology of alphabet-soup-identity politics crushes dissent while devouring its revolutionary young. And so believing what, say, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton believed about marriage as late as 2012 will now get you ostracized, fined, and fired, and our ecclesial and political leaders show themselves ever more feckless.
At least it seems so. The scandals are real, our politics are not healthy, and the sexual revolution is a juggernaut. And yet by other metrics, we’re living in the best times ever. We in the West maintain ever higher standards of living, while world poverty rates plummet. Cancer rates are declining. Unemployment in the U.S. is as low as it’s ever been. We’re effectively at the crest of the postwar wave of prosperity and innovation, and it’s making our material lives easier and longer.
Historically, until that postwar boom in the West, life was as Thomas Hobbes described: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Even during the highest of high points in Western civilization, death, disease, and disaster stalked our race. Records for the city of Florence indicate a 61% infant mortality rate at the height of the Italian Renaissance; the average Florentine mother buried more than half of the children she bore. And of course the same situation obtains earlier in Western civilization. One of the most moving epitaphs ever recorded tells of the short and hard life of Veturia, a Roman officer’s wife:
Here do I lie at rest, a married woman, Veturia by name and descent, the wife of Fortunatus, the daughter of Veturius. I lived for thrice nine years, poor me, and I was married for twice eight. I slept with one man, I was married to one man. After having borne six children, one of whom survives me, I died.
Titus Julius Fortunatus, centurion of the Second Legion Adiutrix Pia Fidelis, set this up for his wife: she was incomparable and notably respectful to him. (Aquincum, Pannonia Inferior, A.D. 2d–3d cent.)
Married at nine years of age, buried five children, dead at twenty-seven. Such stories were common in the premodern world, lacking vaccinations, antibiotics, a steady food supply, and (in many places) decent sanitation. We’ve come a long way, materially.
Spiritually, however, it’s a different story. It’s as if the human race can’t win for losing: the material improvements we’ve enjoyed since the postwar boom have been accompanied by interior alienation, social, psychological, spiritual. Mediating institutions such as civic clubs and the no-longer Boy Scouts are collapsing along with the family as we withdraw into “bowling alone,” retreating as individuals leading quiet, solitary lives of desperation and despair, seeking solace in porn and pills.
I blame technology, as we all should. I’ve become convinced that letting kids have smartphones or iPads (or their equivalent) is parental malpractice, given not only the obvious problems of bullying and sexting but the fact that routine engagement with pixelated irreality changes brains and epistemology and those changes make for diminished academic performance. Depression in teens skyrocketed 33% from 2010 to 2015, with teen suicides increasing a similar 31% during that period, and studies suggest the introduction of the smartphone is to blame.
Indeed, just as pornographers keep their daughters out of it and drug dealers keep their children clean, many in Silicon Valley are becoming troubled by what technology does to kids. “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children,” said Athena Chavarria, a former employee of Facebook now working for the philanthropic Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, in a New York Times article from the fall.
Those of us who teach at the university level are seeing this, as the student cohort that first got iPhones as kids upon the device’s invention are now in the middle of college. My professor friends around the country observe that these students are different. They have more anxiety, less focus, poorer academic performance, and more challenges relating to each other, especially members of the opposite sex.
So our technology delivers to us content that’s either ephemeral (cat memes) or morose (politics, church, culture), and isolates us from each other, and God. With contemporary technology and social media, we’re now capable of turning in on ourselves (incurvatus in se) in ways St. Augustine never dreamed.
It would be easy to say: kill your technology. And perhaps that’s a real first step. But even something like going to a dumbphone and eliminating internet at home would only be a first step. The real problem is we’re mired in the world below—something that afflicted humanity before tech offered us the addiction of constant dopamine hits—when we should focus our attention on the world above. That’s the only way to peace and joy, for there, above, is God found.
The world is a mess, then, and I find many of us drowning in it. We know the world is a mess not only from experience, however, but also from Scripture. The Gospel of John informs us that the “world” is something hostile to God, Jesus, and the Church—“If the world hates you,” says Jesus in John 15:18, “know that it has hated me before it hated you”—and it is something in need of conquering: “In the world you will have trouble,” says Jesus in John 16:33, “but take courage, for I have overcome the world.”
Indeed, John’s Gospel points the way for us today when we’re tempted to despond. It assumes two levels to reality, the earthly, fleshly level, and the heavenly, spiritual level. And in the story of John’s Gospel many characters remain in error, confusion, anger, and despair because they focus on the earthly, their eyes fixed below the horizon.
After Jesus drives everyone out of the temple and turns over the tables (John 2:13ff), his opponents ask him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus responds, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” His opponents are confused; looking down, they say, “It has taken us forty-six years to rebuild this temple, and you will raise it up in three days?” St. John then tells us Jesus was speaking allegorically: “But he was speaking of the temple of his body.” Jesus’ opponents were thinking only of the earthly temple crowning Jerusalem, failing to look up through the sign and see the allegorical meaning of the temple in Jesus’ body, the new temple in which God himself dwells.
Nicodemus’ exchange with Jesus (John 3) is a second example. Jesus says one must be born again to enter the kingdom of God, and Nicodemus, looking down, asks a grotesque question about how it’s possible for a grown man to enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born once more. Jesus tells Nicodemus to look up: one must be born not only of earthly water but also of heavenly spirit to enter the kingdom of God.
A third example is the Bread of Life discourse in John 6. Jesus proclaims he’s the bread of life and that his hearers must eat his flesh and drink his blood. Seeking only to get their earthly, mortal bellies filled again, they look down, hearing cannibalism, and miss out on the spiritual food of the Eucharist that “endures to eternal life” (John 6:27).
A fourth example: In John 8:21 Jesus predicts his death, obliquely: “I go away, and you will seek me and die in your sin; where I am going, you cannot come.” But the Jews respond, “Will he kill himself, since he says, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’?” (v. 22). Jesus replies, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world” (v. 23). Jesus, from above, was speaking of his sacrificial death, but those hearing him, trapped in the realm below, mistake him to be speaking of simple suicide.
St. John’s greatest theological disciple, St. Augustine, saw this captivity to the earthly realm as “a wretched slavery of the spirit, taking signs for things, and being unable to lift the eye of the mind above what is corporeal and created, that it may drink in the eternal light” (De doctrina Christiana, III.5.9). St. Augustine inherited St. John’s two-level schema (it’s foundationally Christian, not something peculiar to Johannine theology) and, using Platonism as a resource, sketched an entire vision of the Christian cosmos which permeates all his works and becomes normative for western Christianity going forward.
I have found that when I am tempted to despond and despair at the state of the country, world, and Church, a most effective tonic is reading St. Augustine’s Confessions, for it presents the eternal reality of heaven, our destiny, not just clearly but palpably, and it does so in great effect in the form of an extended prayer, from beginning to end. St. Augustine does not address us, but rather God, and we are invited to listen in, and go deeper in an encounter with God as we encounter St. Augustine’s story. The Confessions’ great theme is rest: that true and eternal rest we hope to achieve in heaven, rest from anxiety, toil, and fear, perfect rest coram Deo, in the presence of God.
And so St. Augustine opens his great work with the famous claim, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O God, and our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they find their rest in Thee.” And then we listen in as he recounts his life of lust, ambition, and curiositas (fascination with the ephemera of worldly spectacle, like gladiatorial games, a bad form of curiosity seeking relief in amusement) to the God who has been reaching it to him from eternity, reaching out from within him from his conception. God pulls St. Augustine deeper to God and to himself, for God is interior intimo meo, closer to St. Augustine than St. Augustine is to himself. And so in finding God, St. Augustine finds his true self.
But that is not the end, to find one’s true self on earth. Rather, God pulls St. Augustine up; even while on earth, he participates in God’s eternity through sacraments and prayerful contemplation. And ultimately the very end of the Confessions describes the end of St. Augustine and indeed the end of every Christian, eternal heavenly rest in God forever:
O Lord God, grant Your peace unto us, for You have supplied us with all things — the peace of rest, the peace of the Sabbath, which has no evening…in unbroken rest You made them that the voice of Your Book may speak beforehand unto us, that we also after our works (therefore very good, because You have given them unto us) may repose in You also in the Sabbath of eternal life…
But You, being the Good, needing no good, art ever at rest, because You Yourself art Your rest…Let it be asked of You, sought in You, knocked for at You; so, even so shall it be received, so shall it be found, so shall it be opened.
That, Christian, is your destiny; that is reality.
We have just come through Christmas and now are in the extended time of Epiphany. In the former, God came to earth in Jesus. In the latter, God is revealed in Jesus to the world. Eternity has entered the world, to conquer the world, and in the meantime, to take us ever more out of the world into the domain of heaven. And yet the Scriptural texts the liturgical calendar prescribes as readings for Christmas and Epiphany remind us the world is opposed to Christ and to us. Right after Christmas, we get the martyrdoms of St. Stephen, the Holy Innocents, and St. Thomas Becket, as well as the example of St. John, a martyr of will (boiled and exiled) though not of deed. For Epiphany, we hear of the Magi fleeing Herod, who means them harm, and the next day we hear of John the Baptist’s execution.
From the beginning of the Christian story, then, the world has been ugly, hostile to God come to earth in Jesus and those who follow and worship him. So too for us today, for the world is not yet redeemed, and human progress often sets itself up as a temptation to love this world alone and as a servant of that false secular messianism the Catechism identifies and decries (§§ 675–677). But our horizon of hope is the end of time in God, our rest forever. Reflection on that—through meditative and contemplative prayer, through praise, through sacramental participation, through liturgical worship—will give us the peace, joy, and hope we need in these trying times. And so we ought to escape the city of man and dwell even now in the City of God.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!