"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Feast of the Counterculture

Those of us over a certain age remember the hippie culture of the late 1960s and early 70s, which quickly came to be called "the counterculture." (I wish I could remember who coined that term.) It was not long before the counterculture proved to be as ephemeral as the mainstream culture against which it was a reaction. By now, most elements of it have themselves been mainstreamed economically and sexually—so much so that the mainstream is now almost impossible for the young to rebel against. We need to consider what's now at stake spiritually because of that.

Today's Feast of Christ the King was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 for a number of reasons, not least of which was the ever-rising rule of totalitarian ideologies in Europe and Russia. Liturgically it forms the perfect segue into Advent, when the theme of Christ's coming dominates the lectionary. Sometimes it's hard to tell whether the Holy Spirit is speaking of the Second or the First Coming in the readings between now and Christmas, which is rather the point, since those comings are interrelated as the two most specific modes of God's presence in the world. They respectively signify humility and triumph, the former being prerequisite for the latter. That is why the Kingdom that will last forever is the kingdom of the One killed on a cross. Given the secular trends in the West today, it's more important than ever to meditate and act on that theme. Accordingly, this feast calls for more focused attention than it normally gets.

Today's homily by the Dominican Philip N. Powell starkly poses the basic issue for each of us: "Who rules in our hearts," Jesus Christ or the Devil? Despite how democracy and materialism lull us, those are the only choices that matter at the end of the day. Choosing is unavoidable and the alternatives, under whatever names, are literal not metaphorical. Fr. Powell preaches:

Who or what sits on the throne of your heart? Who or what rules your mind, your body, your soul? If you are not ruled from your heart by the Word Made Flesh, then you are ruled by some alien power, some foreign god. Let me name some of them: there are spirits who would rule us—spirits of disobedience and arrogance; of narcissism and selfishness; of deceit and false witness; of judgment and self-righteousness; of confusion and syncreticism; of rage and violence. There are disordered passions that would rule us: lust posing as love; greed posing as desire; pride posing as self-esteem; envy posing as competition; gluttony posing as the entitlement; sloth posing as leisure; and anger posing as righteous indignation. There are fallen angels, counterfeit messengers, who would rule us with false information and corrupted wisdom: ancient seers, ascended masters, make-believe prophets, self-anointed messiahs, cults of personality, cults of scientism, cults of success w/no money down, churches of the Barbie Waistline and the Ken Pecs and Abs, and the demonic choirs of celebrities singing their own praises!

Yet because of its default secularism, and its corresponding ideology of what I call "autonomism," the West today makes it almost impossible for most of us to keep focused on what at's stake in every choice we make. That holds even for most "religious" and/or "spiritual" people. There are two aspects to such dissipation.

Even when we know otherwise in theory, we assume in practice that the visible, practical side of life is one sphere, the invisible, spiritual side is another, and the former should occupy most of our attention. After all, unless you're in clerical or religious orders—and sometimes not even then—few people care about your spiritual life but many people care about how you perform and what you pay for. What's important is what's measurable: How competently? How much? (And for the impatient: how long?) That's how materialism and secularism are self-reinforcing. Temporal matters are not unimportant or worthless; far from it. The Incarnation gives them eternal significance for us. But unless we learn the habit of seeing them sub specie aeternitatis, we learn the opposite habit of treating the value of temporalities as intrinsic and self-evident, instead of in how they mediate spiritual realities that are not at all self-evident to most people. That habit in turn makes it impossible to live out what the baptismal vocation entails for most of us: to be in the world without being of it.

The other aspect of our dissipation is the fruit of autonomism. The now-prevalent assumption is that freedom, for which many American soldiers have given their lives, is incompatible with anybody but oneself ruling one's heart. That is why "choice" for women is broadly taken to entail the right to kill their unborn children; that is why we have a harder and harder time seeing what's wrong with any form of consensual sex or even with defining gender for oneself; that is why marriage, the affective foundation of society, is now one of the few legal contracts that can be broken at will by one party without penalty and, often enough, with considerable economic benefit. Choice has almost become more important than whatever is chosen. Yet, and of course, the result is increasing slavery to disordered passions. It's evident everywhere in our culture—especially among young women, who as a class now surpass their male counterparts educationally yet seem to be striving ever more assiduously to become sex objects. The more we arrogate to ourselves the right to define value for ourselves, the more our values get defined for us by the irrational—both the animal, which is sub-rational, and the demonic, which is reasoned but based on an impossible premise. Such is the paradox of autonomism. To the extent we choose to live it, we've already chosen who will rule in our hearts. And it ain't us. That is why moral relativism only allows for freedom in a form not worth having.

The solution, if we would but have it, is to choose to let Christ rule our hearts. Our moral and spiritual freedom is never absolute: like democracy, it is the freedom to choose our masters, not the freedom to choose what the ultimate alternatives shall be. So if we let the message of today's feast sink in, we can develop the humility needed to be soundly countercultural, and thus be assured of eternal triumph.
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