Christianity and the Cure for Our Cultural Hangover
The invited guests were extremely wealthy men whose common purpose in life was to indulge every desire. They demanded the best food, alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, guns, cars, and anything else that could enhance their unending pursuit of happiness.
The uninvited guests were Father Brown, G.K. Chesterton’s sleuthing Catholic priest, and his friends Lady Felicia and Mrs. McCarthy. “The Lair of the Libertines” is part of the BBC adaptation of Chesterton’s stories.
The Hostess’s Paradox
At dinner, their hostess explains that her job is to see that every desire, no matter how base, is fulfilled for her guests, bringing them great happiness. Father Brown, as a good priest, points out that she’s jumped into a paradox. “Happiness is an unexpected gift,” he explains. “It is evasive. If we pursue it, we will never achieve it.”
“Utter nonsense!” comments one guest as he takes another bite of rich food.
“No!” insists another. “Father has a point. I’ve spent years overindulging and for what? I’m not even sure what it is to be happy.”
I thought of that scene listening to another good priest, my pastor, Fr. James Schumacher. “In our own time, we have witnessed our world’s orgy,” he said on Pentecost Sunday,
And now comes the time for the hangover, and the inevitable overreaction to the orgy. … The aftermath of the great international orgy is not a pretty sight. It turns out that an obsessive pursuit of pleasure destroys pleasure. … Having explored the furthest limits of perverse pleasure and found it ultimately dreary, our American ‘World’ will, I think, be in danger of a pessimistic overreaction, especially among the more intellectually and culturally serious types. Pessimism is already becoming fashionable.
That is, people will ask, “For what?” and have no answer.
The Hangover of Pessimism
Fr. Schumacher cited a recent study indicating that many millennials have given up on sex. “Millennials are turned off sex, study suggests, with one in eight still virgins at 26,” proclaims the headline at The Daily Telegraph. Pessimism about the future leads to longer work hours, risk aversion and self-protection. Combine all that with the availability of pornography and sex becomes superfluous. “This,” Fr. Schumacher commented, “is to be expected.”
Other examples abound.
“U.S. birth rates declined last year for women in their teens, 20s and — surprisingly — their 30s, leading to the fewest babies in 30 years,” reported NBC news earlier this month. It’s part of an alarming long-term downward trend in fertility in the U.S and Europe.
And the number’s going down not just because less sex results in fewer babies. How often have we heard, “I would never bring a child into this world with all its troubles”? Pessimism triumphs over the natural human desire for offspring. Pessimism puts self-protection and my needs ahead of everything.
How much of the legalization of marijuana is driven by the need to anesthetize pessimism even — or perhaps especially — in beautiful and prosperous states such as Colorado, Washington and Oregon? Beauty and prosperity, it turns out, can’t cure the hangover.
Are college students hiding out in safe places and protesting perceived threats because they are optimistic about their lives and futures or because of unbearable pain and emptiness?
Bernie Sanders, who has huge appeal among the young, represents a strain of populism that believes, as Barton Swaim noted, “America was never ‘great’ and rarely even good.”
And while accusations of sexual improprieties from decades ago may be just and right, they’re also clear examples of “the morning after the night before.”
The Joy of the Christian Faith
None of this is really new, noted Fr. Schumacher. Christianity grew up in a culture that was similarly hung over. The wild indulgences during the days of Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar, and Nero resulted in the pervasive sadness of the aftermath. The resulting growth of Gnosticism and Manichaeism illustrates a burned out culture overreacting by rejecting the physical world and even legitimate pleasures.
Father Brown’s creator, G.K. Chesterton observed,
Pessimism is not in being tired of evil but in being tired of good. Despair does not lie in being weary of suffering, but in being weary of joy. It is when for some reason or other good things in a society no longer work that the society begins to decline; when its food does not feed, when its cures do not cure, when its blessings refuse to bless.
Such is the world in which Christianity grew up. And such is the world in which we live. As St. Paul told the Philippians (2:14), Christians are to be “children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.”
That is, the Christian faith is the cure for your hangover and for the world’s.