We are now near the conclusion of Advent and the Christmas season fast approaches. In the spirit of Advent, I was watching a YouTube video recently about the meaning of the Nativity. Doing so, I was struck by the fact that in a half hour video there were ten commercials, for everything from cheap (yet spectacular) car insurance to pharmaceutical wonder drugs for intestinal bloating. No, I am not setting up here to engage in the usual diatribe against the commercialization of Christmas. I am no Grinch and I have no desire to steal the toys of all the kids down in Whoville. Christmas gift-giving can be magical, especially for kids, and the love and joy that families experience as they exchange presents on Christmas day is an important celebration of how much we care for each other, no matter how trifling the gift.
Rather, my irritation at those commercials isn’t that they represent superficialities—rather, the opposite. The issue is a deeper one than a mere concern for the ephemeral reality of consumerism. In reality, it is a problem I have with the sheer ubiquity of commercials in general as symbolizations of what it is our culture actually believes about what counts as the “really real”. They are the sacramentals of what Berdyaev called “the bourgeois mind” and Augusto del Noce referred to as “the bourgeois cult of material well-being”, which is the dominating ethos of our culture.
From the moment we are born, we are inundated with such images on every platform of our social interaction. They are “reality-making” exercises of an almost cultic dimension. The very essence of “cult” is that it “cultivates” even as it makes sacramentally present to us what we hold most sacred. They represent what enchants us most deeply (the “enchantments of Mammon” as Eugene McCarrer describes them), which is a materialistic worldview dominated by “scientism” and technology as the true religion of our cultural matrix.
What I am talking about is not just the commercialization and commodification of everything, but the entire ordo of our society structured around Mammon. And Mammon means more than just money; it is also the entire nexus of power and influence which is rooted in the generation of money. Our city centers are dominated by towers of glass and steel – the Cathedrals of our age – which define for us via architecture and geography the contours of what really counts as real and important. They are the citadels of our true enchantments and as such constitute the defining core of what St. Augustine called the “City of man” with its collective of concupiscence oriented toward the libido dominandi.
What we see in such a culture is not the overt rejection of God, but his nullification as the central enchantment of reality. It is the elevation of the counterfeit enchantments of the strong gods of our affective desires to a totalizing principle of divine exclusion. It is, as St. Pope John Paul II called it, the eclipse of God as a truly real presence in our social constructions. Millions of people might still practice some form of Christianity, but Christianity is now viewed as an entirely irrelevant matter of private, subjective choice—on par with choosing a cheeseburger over a fish sandwich.
All religions are now considered and treated as equal in the sense that all religions are viewed as equally trivial, having no real purchase on how we construct our social, political, and economic institutions. This time of year, we dutifully set up our nativity sets, right next to the luminous Santa. And when it is all over, we put them back in the garage next to the oily rags and golf clubs. Nor am I judging others here; I too am infected with this bacillus.
I feel it in my bones, which is why it irritates me. I am a leper preaching to other lepers.
What our culture demonstrates is that absent a public affirmation of our fundamental orientation to God we will, by a necessity of the logic of human nature, come to view human beings as merely very smart, relatively hairless apes, who wear clothes, have conservations, and watch “The View”.
Obviously, this is a far less noble view of humanity than that offered by Christianity. And one that leads to a very cynical approach to life in general and of human society in particular. Because, regardless of what the popularizers of the cult of scientism might say in their more poetic moments when speaking about the “beauty” of the cosmos and of science, the fact is this: if I am just an ape with a big brain and an accidental byproduct of the cosmic chemistry of stardust remnants, then I really don’t care, ultimately, about some gaseous and firey star ten billion light years away. Or the “fascinating” mating rituals of fruit bats. Or the “poetry” of soil regeneration through dung beetle digestive cycles.
In other words, when you are told endlessly that there is no meaning to existence beyond the nexus of our material comfort and well-being, then you may well start to think that way. And then everything loses its flavor. Everything starts to taste like rice cakes. Therefore, you cannot have it both ways. You cannot bleach divinity and transcendence out of our social interactions and tell everyone that the whole affair of life is just an aimless and pointless accident—and then turn around and talk to us about the “moral necessity” of this or that urgent social cause. Why should I even care about the future of humanity itself? Why should I care about the ultimate destiny of ambulatory, bipedal, chemistry sets?
Modern secularity, especially now that it has finally eliminated the last vestiges of true Christian influence in our culture, will continue down a path that is rooted in a fundamental and tragic misunderstanding of human nature. This will all continue to move forward under the banner of “science” and “progress” and “being woke” and “on the right side of history” with an increasing percussive force that will blast into dust all who get in its way. But it is hard to understand the conceptual content of what we mean by “progress” when we have been told there is no point to our existence. Progress towards what, exactly? Precisely because no coherent vision of what we mean by “progress” is possible in such a worldview, most likely, “progress” will be dumbed down to mean, simply and frighteningly, an inexorable movement toward eliminating the last restraints on our libidinous desires as choosing individuals, as well as the technological enhancement of the same. The Gulag is not our future. Disney-sex is.
You might say this is all too alarmist, and that there is just too much sanity and common sense and goodness in the average person to let this happen. But that is the thing about the illusions created by sins against truth. Such sins harm our nature, and they also cloud the mind. It robs us of our orientation to God and therefore places our mental focus just enough off center that the arrow will simply fly past the target entirely. In so many areas of life, in other words, we either get it right or it is wrong. We may not know it at the time, like a hiker who gets lost in the woods because of a false first step, but sinful behaviors will eventually lead to sinful attitudes, which thus become our “reality”. Have you ever met people who live lives of utter dysfunction and who are always in some kind of “crisis”, but they don’t seem to have a clue as to why? This is why. Paraphrasing Aquinas, sins against truth make us stupid.
It is precisely because most people are “good” in the conventional sense of wanting good things for themselves and others that they can be led into very destructive ideas and practices if evil is packaged as an attractive counterfeit. Even the sketchy serpent in Genesis had to first convince Eve that eating that dang piece of fruit was a “good thing” that she “ought” to desire despite what mean ol’ God said. God is a buzzkill, and the world gives us liberating shiny things. The hit song by Billy Joel—“Only the Good Die Young”—articulates this nicely: “I would rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints”.
What is good becomes bad, and what is bad becomes good. Sins against truth cause illusions that invert reality through a regime of counterfeits. And Satan is the consummate liar. He knows nobody wants to be Hitler. You have to start small and build up to that through a series of clever commercials during the Super Bowl. That is why the best lies are lies that have an element of truth in them, and the best illusions are those that are not utterly fantastical, just as the best counterfeit $20 bill is one that looks shockingly close to the original. I can fool the clerk at the store with a well-made fake $20, but nobody is going to sell me squat if I hand over monopoly money.
Advent is a time of preparation for the arrival into the world of an altogether different kind of King and a different kind of Kingdom. It is the intrusion into time and history of an idolatry-busting theo-logic of an infinite power born into a condition of social powerlessness. The infant Christ is already marked with the sign of death – a death that will “pierce the heart” of the mother that bore him. It is a death that will mark the end of the regime of death as Christ descends into the silence of the tomb and into the realm of Satan’s sting in order to destroy it from within.
The chains of the principalities and powers that bind us to the ordo of the libido dominandi will be broken. The strong gods of blood, soil, and disordered desire will have their enchantments demystified and exposed for the illusions that they are.
In their place arises a new enchantment, whose song is sung by an infant destined for Cross and Resurrection. The world’s wrath, symbolized by the blood-thirsty Herod, will miss its mark. And the world’s cynicism, symbolized by Pilate’s question “What is truth?”, will be outed as a sham sophistication rooted in a fetid swamp of worldly despair. O death, where is thy sting? A child’s entry into the world in the anonymity of a stable far from the corridors of wealth and power, has toppled its terror and smashed its horror chamber of illusions and lies.
Sadly, our Church today, as has been the case so often before, often seems content to accommodate the false ordo of the strong gods in a vain attempt to find a place within the comfort zone of bourgeois mediocrity. Therefore, let us turn our eyes to the powerlessness of the Christ child and the reversal of power that he represents. And may our prayer, as this Advent soon comes to end, be that of his mother, who affirmed, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”
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