by Michael D. O’Brien
Advent has begun and Christmas is approaching as I write this. The malls are packed with shoppers. They are, like me, trying to beat the Christmas rush or tap into the pre-Christmas sales, or maybe just get into the spirit of things early. You may have noticed that life in these times is somewhat tense, and who can be blamed for rushing the season of peace just a little. There’s a holiday feeling in the air: the potted pines and the shop windows are all decked out; the robot Santas and the synthetic jingle on the loudspeakers are jolly in about equal portions. As is usual at this time of year, people are more patient with one another, will allow complete strangers to enter elevators before them, will overlook the irritating behavior of the occasional aggressive bargain-hunter, and will smile more easily at mothers with small noisy children. It is the season of tolerance.
Perhaps, then, it would not hurt to be reminded that the Incarnation was, in fact, an act of colossal intolerance on the part of God, by which I mean to say that it was an act of immeasurable love. He loved us so much that he would not let us die in our sins. He was intolerant of our slavery and was born among us for the express purpose of doing something rather definite about it.
I realize that to use the word intolerance is risky, for it cannot help but conjure up visions of religious and racial hatreds or the specter of grim moralizers judging their neighbors (and who has not felt the sting of those tongues?). Moreover, it may well be asked if such a tainted word can be properly used to describe a characteristic of God. He is, after all, rich in mercy and slow to anger. But it must be remembered that both the Old and New Testaments speak of times when the justice of God must act—for He will not permit evil to devour everything.
The early Christians knew first-hand that sin meant death to the inner and the exterior life of man. Most of them were converts from paganism, for their world was almost entirely pagan. They had known the effects of falsehood at work in their own minds, hearts, and flesh. They knew that they had been rescued by God’s intolerance of their bondage—a liberation paid for by his submission to a torturous and humiliating death. They exulted in the glorious, shattering good news that Christ was real. He was not a mere theological abstraction or just another deity in an idol-saturated world. He was the one, true, God and He was life!
That awareness has waned in our era, partly because most people no longer feel endangered by the world of evil, by the possibility of personal slavery to invisible forces or servility to their own fallen natures. Nor do they consider for a moment that a pagan state might one day reinstitute an exterior form of slavery (although it would call it by a more attractive name).
A society sliding back into paganism may try to reassure itself that it is in no worse condition than a society crawling out of paganism. Like two travelers going in opposite directions on a road, for a brief moment they share in passing a common point. But the end of the road for each is very different. The convert from paganism has known darkness and turned towards the light. Our society has known the light and is turning back towards darkness. This is the crucial difference. It is into the heart of this difference that we must speak if we wish to re-evangelize the world.
Travelers from the realm of darkness tell us emphatically (with a startling conviction at times) that the land towards which the lapsed or lapsing Christian is naïvely traveling is a place of degradation and death. They have been there. They know. When they tell us that few leave that land, that none find real happiness there, and that it is a world of shifting illusory images, they can sound, yes, intolerant. But this intolerance is the knowledge of the physician who has seen an epidemic ravage a people. He is prejudiced against deadly viruses. This is the intolerance of a mother who fiercely protects her little ones from predators. She suffers from a bias against rattle-snakes and wolves. This apparent narrowness is the wisdom of those who have known many roads and have found only one sure route out of the regions of desolation. What such pilgrims have to tell us can sound hard. But their testimony is true. The Christian’s task is to rediscover a firm commitment to this truth and to show how it combines with an effective love of our neighbor.
It goes without saying (although in these confused times it may need repeating) that the urgent need for truth does not mandate us to go rushing about tearing into our neighbor or our enemy, delivering harsh lectures to this or that erring soul. In the true Christian meaning of the word tolerance we are to love the personhood of each and every individual human being. This does not mean, however, that we should remain paralyzed and silent regarding acts and ideas that are killing us (and are killing their perpetrators as well). That is not Christian charity. We have a right and a duty to speak the truth with simplicity, clearly and fearlessly, without rancor or personal condemnation, wherever untruth invades the life of our family. Moreover, we have a right and a duty to work hard to defeat any social or political force that would impose untruth upon our nations.
It is difficult for many people to see the present condition of the Western world for what it is. If we are constantly rewarded for compromising with its agendas, or for simply not resisting, and if the love of truth is weak or asleep in us, then we can easily lose our ability to recognize those moments of testing when we must choose truth or untruth. If we do not recognize them, then we invariably choose the line of least resistance. But how do we awake? How do we all awake, for practically everyone has been anaesthetized to some degree.
The remedy, of course, is exactly what it has always been: open the gates of our hearts to Jesus Christ, live the Gospels without compromise, love the Church which is the Mystical Body of Christ, live the fullness of our Catholic faith, and pray for the flowering of Love and the renewal of Truth within our communities, churches, families, and oneself.
What stands in the way? What blocks the gates of the heart? If I had to choose an image to sum up our times, I would not choose from among the usual ones, such as The Nuclear Age, The Technological Society, The Age of Anxiety, The Computer Generation, The Space Era or The Affluent Society. I would call it the Age of Noise. In the entire history of mankind there has never been such a continuous bombardment of the human brain. The ever-present background throb of machinery, the roar of traffic, the high-pitched buzz of fluorescent lights, “musak” in elevators and supermarkets, herds of joggers wearing walkmans, a gaggle of talk-shows. A world drowning in chatter! Words, words, words! A thousand voices competing for our attention every day: the communications media, junk mail, candidates for political office, telephone solicitations, the fascinating maze of the internet, the thrill of instant “communication” through email, with its hastily composed, hastily read throwaway messages galore, and so forth . . . the long sustained roar (and sometimes screech) of our times. The tensions generated in us by this unnatural way of life push us to seek more and more consolations, which the society also provides through endless entertainments and illusory escapes that leave us emptier than ever.
Yes, we Christians, no less than non-believers, suffer from this. Exterior noise and interior noise. The clamor of our anxieties, our desires for a reasonably successful life, our fear of struggle, our confusion, our skirmishes with the seven deadly sins and a host of lesser evils. The inner debates which we conduct against real or imagined enemies; and the sweet, rotten allure of the soap-operas of the fallen imagination. And of course there is the voice of the accuser, whispering in our ears about our sins and faults. We turn quickly away from that voice, unable to endure more feelings of guilt in an already guilt-ridden society—a society which tells us (again through the media) that Christians are abusers, backward, judgmental, patriarchal, anti-democratic, overpopulating, and a menace to the ecology.
Burdened with such an array of exterior and interior pressures, we can find it extremely difficult to face the objective guilt of our fallen natures and open ourselves to the saving power of Jesus Christ. Yet the mere thought of resisting the power of an entire culture with our own strength is utterly exhausting. Overwhelmed, we can be deluded into choosing a less demanding, seemingly more “compassionate,” more “tolerant” form of faith than the preceding 19 centuries of Christianity. We may tell ourselves that this is progress. We may reassure ourselves by pointing out that large numbers of people agree with us. We may even cite questionable theologians to justify our compromises with the spirit of this brave new world, and its offshoot the brave new pseudo-Christianity. Thus, thinking ourselves the most free people on the planet, we become collaborators with a death-bringing social revolution.
This particular social revolution promotes a tragically stunted definition of the meaning of the human person, and it has done so with all the powers of the modern state and the genius of modern communications systems. It has created a new consciousness in people, a disturbing characteristic of which is the willingness to make peace with evil, though many an evil is now called good and good called evil. Like a well-fed slave, contemporary man has accepted a severely reduced definition of the value of his own life. He has accepted a comfortable bondage as his lot. He assumes that this is normal. But when the deep internal grief that is generated by believing such a lie begins to make itself known, then he is faced with a choice. He will either listen to what the grief is telling him and learn from it, or he will increase the noise, the speed, and the volume of consumption in order to drown it out. If we disciples of Christ are present to him at his moment of choice, and if he chooses to listen to the soul-language of his own heart, we must be ready to speak to him about the true value of his life. We must not nod and smile “tolerantly” if he mouths the tired old lies he has been taught by this society. Our intolerance of the lie may be a matter of life and death.
But what form should this intolerance take? What is its face, its words? Where will we find within our own hearts the firmness of love that is necessary to stand with a person in crisis? The answer is simple. We find it to the degree that we are living in Christ and Christ living in us.
Is there time or space or silence enough in our lives for Him to dwell within us? Silence is the natural habitat of truth. Prayer is the dwelling place of right seeing. This is why we must reduce the noise in our lives, and open the ears of the heart to real listening. We need to pray about, and think clearly about, the pace at which we live, the desperate gallop that is hurtling us all toward some undefined end. We parents especially need moments of complete stillness. We must take great care to make these moments for ourselves and for each other, and for our children. We cannot assume that our good intentions will save them from the spirit of this age. Nor can we presume immunity to the massive apostasy which is taking place in many particular churches of the West.
Never in human history has there been such a wholesale loss of faith, nor one which has come about with such startling speed. Much of its momentum is due to the unprecedented power of television, film, video, and internet—of the image—to recreate our understanding of the very shape of reality, redefining everything from morality to the nature of man himself. Thus, large numbers of Christians simply do not realize that they are apostasizing, and still larger numbers do not understand that they are being prepared mentally to follow them. This is the power of impressions; it is also “peer pressure” on a colossal scale.
How very difficult it is to resist an entire culture, and especially for children to do so, because it is a right and good thing for children to grow into awareness of being members of a broader community. They need genuine culture in order to grow properly. It is one of their primary means of learning what it is to be a fully human person in a community of fellow human beings. That is why the solution will never be simply a matter of negatively criticizing the false culture surrounding us. The absolutely essential task of parents is to give their children a true culture, a sure foundation on which to stand.
Pope John Paul II has repeatedly warned us that we are immersed in a “culture of death.” At the same time he has called us to build a “civilization of love,” to work for a new springtime of hope for mankind. He knows that the restoration of our world is possible—indeed that we are all called by Christ and the Church with utmost urgency to assist in this great mission. He has taught us, as well, that the restoration will not come about until we—the light of the world, the salt of the earth—learn to discern between true culture and false culture, and to develop a little healthy “intolerance” of the deceptions that have blinded the people of our times.
How do we learn this? Where do we go to find the material of a life-giving culture? The first step is to see the situation for what it is. Then we must ask God our Father, as little children ask a loving father for bread. Our Lady will intercede for all the necessary graces. The Holy Spirit will give us the answers. More and more answers will come, if we listen well and follow his promptings.