In 1951, William F. Buckley, Jr. published God and Man at Yale, in which he asserted that Yale was preaching secularism and statism at the expense of religious faith and human liberty. Buckley’s book was criticized by many of America’s brightest stars at the time. But by the 1960s many were indeed convinced that man could do without God, and by the 21st century, this consensus had expanded.
Nothing has happened in the first twenty-one years of the 21st century to suggest this flight from religious faith is reversing.
We recently celebrated the Nativity of Jesus Christ, a day on which Christians proclaim that the God of the universe came among us as a baby in an animal feed trough, that shortly thereafter the local king killed many babies in an attempt to eliminate the threat posed by the baby in that manger. This child grew into a man who worked marvels, challenged people, scandalized those in power, and died a horrible death at the hands of the rulers of that world. His disciples insisted he rose from the dead and has blazed the only path to authentic life, a belief that doesn’t align with what the “Yales” down the ages have proclaimed.
By the dawn of the 21st century, the “Yales” had worked out the kinks in governance and life, eliminating the straightjacket of reliance on God. Instead of God, there are social innovations, meditative and psychological self-improvement, bigger and badder physical challenges, stimulation via a host of devices, carbon neutrality, and fewer durable human relationships.
Distorted depictions of God and the Gospels, poor religious formation, and notorious scandals involving religious leaders were, and are still, being fully utilized by the “Yales” to promote an anti-faith agenda.
No sooner had we embarked on this brave new century than we were afflicted with the devastation of September 11, 2001 and its life-changing aftermath, including a multi-decade war in Afghanistan and worldwide terrorism. Somehow, we were taken by surprise by ragtag bands of nihilists and heretics, despite thousands of experts and billions of dollars in funding.
Less than a decade into the new millennium, America and the world experienced a great recession worse than anything we’ve experienced since the Great Depression in the 1930s. Many have never recovered from this recession. All our sophisticated economic and financial controls collapsed like a house of cards, despite billions of dollars and thousands of experts.
Then the coronavirus. Despite the billions of dollars spent on disease-related programs and thousands of experts it turned out that we were utterly unprepared for a pandemic that wasn’t a question of “if” but “when”, and was foreshadowed by numerous epidemics.
Anti-democratic and nationalist movements are assailing secular democracies. China, Russia, Iran, North Korea are committed adversaries, while Turkey, Mexico, most of Central and South America, the Philippines, and even India, are gravitating toward more state control and limiting faith-based human rights. Within the democracies, aggressive socialism and identity politics are sapping confidence in representative government and human liberty.
This Christmas, Pope Francis spoke about a “pandemic of loneliness”, but isn’t this condition about more than the coronavirus? Isn’t loneliness a consequence when one’s aim in life is self-fulfillment, physical health, financial success, pleasurable activities, being carbon neutral? “Our hearts,” said Augustine, ‘shall not rest until they rest in Thee.”
A remedy for such loneliness is solidarity, even in the midst of pandemics. But the solidarity St. John Paul II proclaimed was a fraternal bond with every man and woman, as fellow sons and daughters of God. Without God, including a proper image of God, solidarity narrows to those who share our race or ethnicity, or sexual proclivities, or political beliefs, or religion, or nationality. Those outside these circles are viewed with suspicion, or as adversaries.
“In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.” Christians know that political and economic systems, science, physical health—good things in themselves when properly ordered—cannot fix what’s twisted and lacking in man. “We want God!” young people shouted at John Paul II’s World Youth Days. William F. Buckley, Jr. was right to say that man needed God at Yale; it is just as true and urgent to say that man still needs God in the 21st century.
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