The Flight From Reality

We are anchored to earth, yet we must aim for heaven, orchestrating our lives in a kind of rhythmic movement between these two orders of being.

A couple of disparate stories caught my eye the other day, each convergent upon a single theme, which is that of escape, of taking flight from one thing in order to find fulfillment in another. However, the outcomes were not at all the same, which is itself a story.  

In the first instance, a deeply confused sixteen-year-old from Florida by the name of Josie, feeling unwelcome (by her account) in a state run by transphobic Republicans, flees to Rhode Island, where Pride flags are flown and gender fluidity is the norm. There, safely ensconced a thousand miles from home, the no-longer-frightened teenager tells the sympathetic host of NPR’s All Things Considered that the retaliatory reach of Gov. DeSantis cannot now prevent her from receiving the therapy she requires in order, by her reckoning, “to help my body align with my gender identity.”

In other words, for people not at home in the body God gave them, Florida is not a safe place to be; it forces them, in the words of NPR, “to rethink where they want to call home.”

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The other story, which I came across in doing research for a television interview with the archbishop of Oklahoma City, Paul Coakley, is about the late John Senior, legendary founder of the Integrated Humanities Program (IHP) at the University of Kansas, which changed young Coakley’s life when he enrolled there back in the 1970s, as it would countless others who fell under its spell.      

“Let them be born in wonder,” declared the brochure setting out the program, in which a lean-looking Don Quixote figure is shown on a horse with his lance pointed at the stars. We were made to see the stars, insisted Senior, and to that end he had early on harnessed all the energies of his young soul, directing them in search of what is truly real. Beginning at age thirteen, in fact, when, fleeing the boredom of Long Island, New York, he hopped on a bus to North Dakota where, finding himself among cowboys drinking coffee on an open range, he actually began to see the stars. He never stopped looking at them, never stopped sharing his discoveries with others.   

“There is something destructive—destructive of the human itself—in cutting us off from the earth from whence we come and the stars, the angels, and God himself to whom we go,” he would later write in The Restoration of Christian Culture, striking the perfect point of balance between body and soul, earth and heaven. We are anchored to the one, yet we must aim for the other, orchestrating our lives in a kind of rhythmic movement between these two orders of being.  

But it can only happen if we honor the truth of what is, the truth of who we are, not what we fantasize about in our heads, then imposing it upon reality as though it somehow were real. “For the wise men of old,” C.S. Lewis explains in The Abolition of Man, “the problem of life was to conform the self to objective reality, and the solution was wisdom, self-discipline, virtue. For the modern, the cardinal problem is how to conform reality to the wishes of man, and the solution is a technique.” 

Like young Josie, I’m afraid, whose sudden flight from Florida was nothing less than a flight from reality, sadly abetted by a woke culture that has lost its mind. Refuse to acknowledge the order of reality and everything falls apart. Poor Josie may not know that for a long time, of course; perhaps never. Yet, in the absence of that saving truth, there can be no freedom, no fulfillment. There can only be the tyranny of a technique that treats sexual identity as a thing as mutable as the interchangeable parts of a machine. 

How much better to respect reality than to rail against it, especially when we did not make it ourselves but rather received it from moment to moment from the hand of a God who surely knows His business, which consists of bringing into existence creatures made in His own image and likeness, fashioned from the very beginning as either male or female.  How much better to respect reality than to rail against it, especially when we did not make it ourselves but rather received it from moment to moment from the hand of a God who surely knows His business.Tweet This

If reason, as Luigi Giussani reminds us at the beginning of The Religious Sense, “is like an eye staring at reality, greedily taking it in,” then what we need above all to acquire is an avidity for being, for reality, the truth of which is instantly evident to the senses. What else do our senses reveal but that there is an extra-mental world out there, a sheer plethora of things existing independently, and quite happily, of our knowing them?  

So, let us begin with things, not thoughts about things; and certainly not fantasies foisted upon things. Begin, in other words, with the realism of St. Thomas, whose thought always began with the truth that things are and that he knew them to be because he could at once see and sense that they are. To be a realist, in other words, is not to forget that one is first and foremost a creature, an embodied being living in a world that one did not make.  

As the great Etienne Gilson—for whom, like Aquinas, the most obvious datum of human sensation is that things are, that they exist—wrote: 

[T]wo and only two options are open to the philosopher—he takes being as he finds it, and this means that he takes himself as he is, the discoverer of an order that antedates himself, or he isolates thought, consciousness, ego, spirit—however it is called—from the man who is.  

And that way lies madness, flight from which must be the first article of sanity, as Archbishop Coakley would point out in the interview referenced earlier. Having just issued a Pastoral Letter on the subject (released on Good Shepherd Sunday, April 30, 2023), he was anxious to outline the Church’s position on gender dysphoria and how to minister to those who suffer from it. But he did so not at the expense of telling the truth, beginning with the truth about who we are: 

As Catholics we recognize through faith and reason that God created everything good. This is particularly true of the human person, who is “very good” (Genesis 1:31) and exists as a unity of body and soul (cf. Thessalonians 5:23).  

There is the warhead that every bishop in the world needs to launch straightaway, that the human person is precisely a composite of two realities, body and soul, neither of which may suffer separation without doing violence to the person. We are not, after all, dualists, who, to quote Archbishop Coakley, imagine the human person as “the immaterial inhabitant of a physical host,” for whom the body in its very materiality may thus “be manipulated in service to the immaterial soul/mind/spirit.” 

To countenance such separation, he argues, “inevitably diminishes our humanity. We don’t have bodies; we are bodies enlivened by souls.” And while we must never forsake compassion for those who suffer such separation in their own bodies, the solution is not to sunder a connection which is necessary and intrinsic to the maintenance of human integrity.   

We must avoid the extremes: to ignore the pain of the person and dogmatically assert that biological sex is the end of the conversation or to jettison the truth of the body in the false hope of relieving pain. A Catholic response must both affirm God-given sex and recognize the struggle of the person in front of us.

Refusing to uncouple sex from gender, which is what the culture does in its mad rush to dismantle the order of nature, is not to end the conversation but to begin it. And while love of the truth requires that we reject the solution offered by victims of gender dysphoria—chemical castration, for instance—it does not follow that we must reject them. To love is to foster and promote the good of the beloved, which at the very least demands that we tell them the truth. 

What else have we got to offer the world if not the truth of Christ, who is Himself Truth? He is the therapy we all need, the only therapy that will make us whole.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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