Out of the Wreckage

The Sixties wanted Paradise Now: a paradise that ignores the distant and difficult in favor of the immediate and effortless. We wouldn’t transcend life’s conflicts and difficulties by striving after a higher unity, we’d abolish them by denying them recognition. Each would do his thing and follow his bliss, and all would be well. As the slogan on the poster put it, “What if they gave a war, and nobody came?”

Ignoring conflicts meant abolishing limitations and standards, so free-floating instantly-fulfilled desire became the definition of paradise. After all, what was there to say a desire was wrong, or that something else would be better? Sex, drugs, and rock and roll became a sort of religion. We’d break on through to the other side by overwhelming the senses and blanking out reason. The story can be read in the psychedelic album covers of the period.

The dream of this-worldly paradise based on sensory overload and instant wish fulfillment went nowhere. If we want to do our own thing we must know what that thing is, so we must know who we are. Man is created, rational, and social, and making instant fulfillment his goal in life denies his nature. It’s a recipe for chaos and misery rather than paradise. It may be fun for a while, but there’s always a morning after.

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Man won’t live with chaos and misery, he must depend on his fellows, and he has come to believe in technology, a form of reason from which the transcendent has been purged. For those reasons “doing your own thing” became collective and technological. It fitted itself to an industrial system of production, consumption, and diversion geared toward maximizing the satisfaction of manageable preferences. That system has become itself a sort of religion: righteousness now means Obamacare, and Nirvana has become a matter of owning the latest Apple product.

So the Sixties led to what it thought it hated most, a consumerist, conformist, careerist, and bureaucratic lifestyle, guided by the heirs of Madison Avenue and deprived of spontaneity and close human connections. The revolution had gone nowhere. Instead of the dry martinis and marital cheating of the 1950s, we had free-floating relationships and designer beers. Instead of the creativity once promised, we had commercial pop culture that only becomes cruder and more crudely commercialized. And instead of musical rebellion, the cover of Rolling Stone now features admiring images of the President.

There was a similar reversal of expectations within the Church. The moment the world turned decisively away from what transcends it was the moment Catholics decided to open the windows, leave the ghetto, and help achieve the aspirations of the day. We too would break on through to the other side by abandoning traditional limitations and disciplines, and achieve unity with God and man by lending a sympathetic ear to every demand. That would somehow bring on a new Pentecost.

The result was a denatured Church, and Catholics whose way of life is indistinguishable from that of their secular counterparts. Some people still insist on calling that progress, but it’s obvious that something has gone wrong. People talk of “changing the culture,” and that’s evidently needed. What that means first and foremost, though, is changing our own culture: the system of goals, habits, standards, and understandings by which we live as Catholics.

The most basic political and social problems must be dealt with through what precedes politics and society, so we must work from the inside out, starting with knowledge of ultimate things. On that view, the logical sequence for Catholics is first doctrine, then faith, then purity of heart, and then reform of conduct, starting with what is most immediately at hand.

It’s solid advice, because it means we start with what’s real rather than what we happen to believe, want, and do. The world of the Sixties was based on rejection of transcendent realities and their relevance to life here and now. What counted was what could be seen and manipulated, and the goal was to remake the world on the model of television. It would become a kaleidoscope of images, sensations, and connections chosen and reshuffled at will. To get beyond that sterile outlook we must reject the fantasized Paradise Now to which it aspires, and put what is central back where it belongs: first God, and then man and the world as God made them.

There are writers who can give much better advice than I on the heart of that process, the growth of a sense of God’s nature and reality, and personal transformation in view of those things. There are, however, ancillary issues that deserve comment. As I noted in the last article in this series, the upheaval of the Sixties was not a random outburst of willfulness but the outcome of a long development toward what might be called an industrial form of life. Instead of living by patterns reflecting nature and custom, and oriented toward goals higher than desire, we’d have a single overall system rationally designed to maximize equal preference satisfaction. Instead of kings and popes we’d have expert committees and regulated global markets, and instead of family life we’d have careers, contraceptives, and social services.

That development reflects developments in the accepted understanding of reason—that is, of what at bottom makes sense. Modernity tells us that what we can know is what we can see, measure, and predict. We don’t have that kind of knowledge regarding God and natural law, so God and natural law—the nature of things, insofar as it is a guide to what we should do—stopped counting as realities that should be taken into account. What counted as knowable was what we want and the most effective means of getting it. The result was that reason became identified with technology, and the managed, bureaucratized, and commercialized society now perfecting itself around us became the sole form of social life considered rational.

That way of life divorces us from realities transcending sensation and desire. If you mention them you’re saying something incomprehensible, irrelevant, and very likely disruptive. We Catholics absorb what’s around us, so that situation is a stumbling block, and to get by it we need to inculcate in ourselves a broader conception of knowledge and reason that has room not only for the measurable and desired but for the good, beautiful, and true. That means a reform of Catholic education, public discussion, and intellectual life generally. As Confucius says, we must correct what we believe about the world and reform our way of thinking accordingly, and then we will be in a position to deal with the world as we should. The Sixties began among intellectuals and in the schools, and to overcome them we must return to those settings and transform them.


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