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

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Where's the joy?

Almost every American past puberty knows the old Wendy's hamburger slogan: "Where's the beef?" Used as a metaphor, it summarizes part of why I majored in philosophy and came to be still more interested in theology. The other half is summed up by "Where's the joy?" I started asking myself that question about life as a teenager after I had read as much Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton as I could. It's the question more people need to be asking themselves. We all want both, but fewer can articulate the longings expressed by the former than those expressed by the latter.

What I mean is illustrated by a contrasting pair of items from the blogosphere. Such items at least have the advantage of being easy to retrieve.

Consider theologian Rusty Reno's First Things "On the Square" piece Homosexuality and the Moral Failure of Higher Education.  Discussing why the affirmation of homosexuality has become a key benchmark of the rigorous orthodoxy enforced on secular campuses, he concludes:
Thus the need to use a kind of intellectual Agent Orange to destroy even the slightest judgments of immorality, because they reinforce what the voice of conscience keeps telling us, and what we would like to avoid hearing. Those who say that homosexual acts are immoral are oppressors, because their words—however dispassionate, however well-reasoned, however subtly expressed, however concerned for others—agitate consciences and block the free flow of desire.

Indeed, even those who are diffident are under suspicion, because that voice of conscience needs complete support to be suppressed. In the cause of sexual liberation nothing is acceptable short of full affirmation, or at least a scrupulous silence that expresses no reservations.

Sexual liberation is a Gucci freedom. Upper middle class Americans possess the resources to get a great deal of what they want, and part of what they want is sexual liberation. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the modern institution most closely associated with elite culture—higher education—should devote a great deal of energy to removing those who believe in moral limitations.
The well-known phenomenon Reno describes instances a larger phenomenon that philosopher J. Budziszewski calls "the revenge of conscience." Read both pieces in full. Now I am not primarily concerned to argue that peoples' consciences ought to tell them that sodomy, whether practiced by gays or straights, is immoral. I'm not even primarily concerned with the question how to tell the difference between the moral and the immoral. What I'm struck by today is the deep-seated joylessness of the new secular orthodoxy in general, and by that of complete sexual autonomy in particular. I've known plenty of people who live by that ideology. Such autonomy, when lived as though it can really be had, leads to many things—most of them bad. Yet even those who defend it passionately do not argue that it leads, in the long run, to what Lewis called "joy." Even old queens living together in a distant parody of marriage wouldn't tell you it does—at least not the ones I've known. Yet that joy, deep down, is what we all want—even though the self-styled best and brightest are ideologically committed to viewing it as "nothing but" one of the brain's evolutionary adaptations. Nothing-buttery is not tasty.

Now consider, by contrast, this story from Rod Dreher about how God gave him the woman he fell in love with and married. It's almost four years old now, and I wish I had seen it sooner. When I finished it today, I was in tears. What an affirmation of prayer in true faith, and the joy that it leads to!  The story of the Drehers' meeting, love, and marriage is an instance of how God wants things to be, at least for those called to Christian marriage. Whatever is natural, as opposed to what is anti-natural, can be a fit occasion for joy.

But the thing about joy is that you can't get it by striving for it directly. Doing that, in fact, loses it. You get it unbidden, and it leaves one with Sehnsucht, a poignant longing for the Reality toward which even the greatest of earthly beauty and joy only points. It is a law of spiritual nature that one only gains what joy is about by leaving joy aside to do what one must, while offering the resulting abnegation to God and remembering the joy. That's what Jesus did. That's what the ideologues of radical autonomism, sexual or otherwise, cannot do. If they remember joy at all, they think it can be had, or at least preserved, by doing what feels best. Sometimes, that is true—when what feels best coincides, like a husband and wife making love, with what we ought by nature to be doing. But only then. If we seek joy on our terms, we end up with ennui: the intimation of the nihil of evil, not of that Reality which is the source and goal of all.
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