The viscerality deficit
The uphillness of the struggle, for those who would restore a modicum of good old Western Civ anywhere, can be almost discouraging at times. I think decades ago we were already trying to roll our chariot up an inclined plane. By now the angle of ascent is formidable, and the need for genuine prayer has correspondingly compounded.
One thinks of e.g. catechism classes. The purpose of these, in my understanding, is to teach kids (of all ages) not previously much instructed, in the rudiments of the Catholic faith. I’ve known several smart and (often) well-intentioned young women — budding school-marms, if I may flatter them — who have reported to me on their classroom experiences.
Their kids are also reasonably smart and well-intentioned, if caught young enough. They have proved surprisingly eager to learn. The method of teaching sounded to me more old-fashioned rote, than what is specified in the public school system; and it works rather better than whatever the public school teachers are attempting, under whatever latest wave of “reforms.”
So far as the purpose of education is to instruct, the old ways are best. One feeds to the young blossoming rational minds by teaching “this is this and that is that”; the more pellucidly the better. It doesn’t have to be painful, unless one or another of the parties to the transaction insists on introducing pain. It can, with some sense, easily be made joyous and entertaining.
My point is here that the young learner knows where he stands. Either he is mastering the material, or he is not. What he may happen to think of the material is of no consequence. For the purpose of being instructed, his task is to play the game.
“Critical thinking” in the young should never be encouraged. Indeed, I have never seen it develop unless it was actively suppressed. To teach the kids to question everything they are taught is to sabotage their faculties, to idiotize them — and the savage, arrogant, drooling stupidity of the typical Ontario high school graduate today (or post-doctoral, when it comes to that) attests to the catastrophic error behind all modern educational thought.
I should like to put that more warmly. The corpse of John Dewey should be dug up, and then drawn and quartered.
But back to the catechism class. With those older, passing into adolescence, when the human capacity for rote learning begins to fade, and the small child’s seemingly miraculous ability to acquire languages and motor skills has been lost forever, so that all such tasks become a grind, the techniques of instruction must adapt. “Class discussion” becomes increasingly important, and the Socratic method begins to cut in.
One of my ardent catechism teachers seemed, at least by her own account, quite talented in handling this device, by which the kids figure out the answers for themselves. The teacher’s rôle now becomes keeping them on topic, steering them forward along a prescribed path; abetting curiosity where it can be useful, and crushing it where it cannot.
As she said, “Catholic teaching is by its nature quite appealing to teenage kids, from the moment the penny drops for them, and they realize that it all makes sense.” One principle leads naturally to another, the last helping to display the reasoning in the next. According to my informant, all she has to do is to continuously enforce, or merely remind of, the very first rational principle. That would be the principle of non-contradiction.
The premiss on which the whole argument began is, of course, not rationally demonstrable. It is a revelation. “For God so loved the world, as to give his only-begotten Son: that whosoever believeth in him may not perish, but have everlasting life.” Note that the Bible comes into this somewhere after the beginning: for this premiss was grasped before any Gospel was written. In the Catholic catechism, we are teaching not, in itself, the faith in Christ Jesus, but the ramifications of that faith. The faith itself is more primal.
Upon that revealed truth, unfolded in Christ’s own teaching, and all He came to fulfil, and all He assigned to the rock of Peter, the catechism is erected. It is a rule-book, in a sense. It is systematic and ordered, but it is not the thing itself. “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” The catechism itself takes note of this, in the letter. The rules of this rule-book are far from unimportant; they are vital to the foundation of wisdom. But the end of life is not to follow rules.
In this intensely secular age, I might as well draw an analogy to secular teaching. Physics is a bunch of vital rules, taught as laws and their application. But the pursuit of physics is not confined to rules. It seeks beyond them. It does not try to contradict the rules, but to develop them, where they follow. The student is not taught to have a critical mind towards, say, the existence of gravity. So long as he does not float up in the air, he takes that much for granted. The “laws” of physics are not altered, but refined, by each new discovery; apparent exceptions to them are patiently explained. They pertain to our universe. But that universe itself is under no obligation to obey the rules set by physicists. The teacher-pupil relationship goes entirely the other way.
Returning now to the life and soul of a human being — something in itself larger than the universe, for it is cannot be confined to the Creation we can sense — the question of how to live and what to do is guided forward. We need a rational understanding of the rules, but beyond this we need to take them, as it were, beyond the rational understanding, and into an intuitive or as I will today call it, a visceral understanding of what they are. It is not good enough to be able to recite chapter and verse. One must live the very spirit of the thing.
An example would be the sanctity of human life. Once it is grasped that it is wrong to kill people, as a way to solve your problems, and that a human is human from the moment he is conceived, opposition to abortion naturally follows. That is why it is incumbent on every faithful Catholic to oppose abortion, as he would otherwise oppose murder. This can’t be optional. It is incumbent, too, on every other one of us: on every Christian, and as it happens, on every decent human being regardless of religious affiliation. For in every other religious tradition of which I am aware, the sanctity of life is in some way affirmed. Even the Dalai Lama will tell you that abortion is evil, and against divine law.
Similarly, once some notion of the connexion between sex and babies has been grasped, it is no longer possible to dismiss moral guidance. Nothing so elemental to the condition of human life than our means of reproduction could be otherwise than shouting with moral significance; and far from being a side issue, sexuality is at the heart of all human relations.
The contemporary teaching that it is merely a source of pleasure — so incredibly crass — has consequences that are unambiguously evil. Consequences that can be spelt out rationally, step by frigging step. Which were in fact spelt out, very rationally, in Humanae Vitae, by the late Pope Paul. (I know this because as a clever young atheist, I read it through repeatedly, with the intention of mocking it; and could find in it not one connective that was logically unsound, and became thereby convinced, even as an aspiring young Helot, that contraception could not possibly be correct.) A rule remains a rule, and continues to be a rule, until someone can show an internal contradiction.
And in the depths, likewise, the principle of marriage must still be affirmed, no matter how many of the mad may oppose it. One woman and one man must be courageously vindicated. Deep, and deeper than that.
While it has entirely escaped media attention, the most massive public demonstrations on this continent are pretty much invariably the various annual marches against abortion — in which I have observed that females outnumber males, and the young outnumber the old, often by quite large margins. For the mainstream media, ten sign-waving feminist old crows can be important breaking news. But ten thousand marching young women, proclaiming Christian truth to their indifferent surroundings, does not quite rise to sending a junior reporter. This is how things are, and it is that craven media that impinges on public consciousness hour by hour, and day by day, de-moralizing and corrupting.
From my own experience on the pro-life “front line,” for instance walking along with fifteen thousand or more mostly young people in Ottawa a couple of years ago — and past e.g. the CBC television stand, whose cameras were trained on a small handful of old-crow feminist counter-demonstrators for the footage they would actually be using — I should like to make an observation.
First, a joyous observation, of how invigorating it was, to be in the company of so many ebullient and purposeful young. These were, in the main, the products of the catechism classes I was mentioning above: bright and cheerful young faces in contrast with the grim and cheerless I pass on the sidewalks every day. The same comment for events such as the Papal Youth Days, when quite literally millions of the children of good Catholic homes, or converts, are assembled. I wish to say about them nothing snide, but rather how much I love them.
At the Rose Dinner, in Ottawa, in the evening after the spring pro-life march, I had the opportunity to speak with quite a few of my much younger companions in arms. And again: they were impressive, case by case, as I was coming to see them not as a mass, but as many fine and particular faces, each already with a complex life story, and not one an interchangeable happy-clap zombie, of the sort the media stereotype portrays — though not entirely from malice. (In my experience, the overwhelming majority of journalists belong to a self-consciously brahmin, “progressive” social class, which eschews contact with those it considers “lower,” i.e. the worker bees and water-carriers of the “flyover country,” whose views could hardly matter to them.)
They were young, very young to my now ageing eyes, but in their ebullience we are all made timeless. Not only did I converse, I overheard them chatting about what “young people” chat about, as everyone chats: from out of the fodder of their daily lives. And in this mush, I heard so many of the clichés of the media also being mindlessly repeated, and saw the flip gestures that go with them. They, too, had inherited the wind from a godless society, and blew the wind on without even thinking. They had thought through their principles, and were basically obedient, as most young people are — whether it is to authority or to fashion. Still, do they have the deeper instinct, and the fortitude with the instinct, sometimes not to obey? To stand alone, under real and excruciating peer pressure, without external support, against the overpowering Zeitgeist?
And it was more in overhearing little unthinking remarks that I inwardly wept for them.
To be sure, they had the rules down. I did not meet one who could not articulately expound why he (or more usually she) was “protesting” against abortion. Yet that very word “protesting” gave part of the game away.
Nor really do I think that there was one whose firm belief was not rooted in the connexion between sex and babies. Nor, possibly, even one who did not therefore follow the connexions on through a range of other Christian teachings. They’d been taught, well enough.
Yet still there was something that seemed missing from them; something that curiously had not yet gone entirely missing, even from the hippies who were my own contemporaries in youth — self-conscious “fashion hippies” who had inherited many more of the “social conventions” and “unquestioned beliefs” of their “square” post-war parents than they could ever realize.
“Rules” were being “questioned,” way back then. And yet, viscerally, they were still being followed. The profound idea of “one man, one woman” was often outwardly rejected, even volubly rejected, but it was still viscerally there. It would take another generation of media indoctrination, lewd commercial advertising, and the ministrations of Nanny State, to root the very instincts of Western Civilization out of their souls and bowels. All that my own generation had lost, in the first instance, was the power of resistance, founded ultimately on those old unquestioned rules that told one through one’s conscience when one was doing wrong.
But more than this: told one through the same conscience when one was doing right. And sometimes, filled the soul with some distant echo of a pleasure, that was our Lord’s pleasure in the creation of His world.
Conscience still exists, however poorly formed, or twisted. The propensity to guilt will always be there, so long as we are human. As well, the propensity to moral satisfaction, however twisted that becomes. But what one ought to feel sorry for, or badly about, or thoroughly ashamed by, can be quite substantially altered by the intervention of ceaseless propaganda, and ruthless fashion, and the inversion of a system of reward and punishment through the social engineering of the State.
Let me end this note, on sex. By which I mean what the heartless might call animal copulation. I am thinking now of overheard remarks, which touched directly on this subject. The rules guiding sexual activity were perfectly, or nearly perfectly understood. Yet in chance remarks, young men and women alike revealed that they had also bought into the pleasure principle. The killer, for me, was a young lady who spoke of “flirting” in terms of wearing a sexy little black dress. It was not flirting with a man, but flirting with men in general. And the terms of flirtation were purely sexual.
I must be clear on this, for what I am saying can be so easily misconstrued today. I’m not complaining about the dress. In fact I thought there was humour in it: a mischievous spirit going quite deliciously “over the top,” and very clear on the fact that she was a woman. (Fashion standards change.) What struck me was rather the way she used the word “flirting,” and everything implied by it. It wasn’t just youthful mischief, that is alive. It passed so casually over the boundary into “mischief with intent.” Sex, for this girl, was essentially unerotic. It was instead pneumatic.
Now, the “hippie chicks” of my own youth usually dressed more covered than their own mothers. I remember, and could prove from photographs, wild costumes that ran right up their necks, and flounced in almost Victorian skirting, right down to their ankles. (And the excruciating beauty of their bare feet.) And I can remember flirtation in the turn of an eye, a subtly directed smile, or a hand gently tapping my forearm, to get my full conversational attention. They were still girls, in some meaningful way, lost today not only on the soi-disant “liberated,” but on everybody. They had not reduced themselves to gym equipment.
As I say, I was hippie generation myself. Already in rebellion against the hippies, perhaps, but still of their world and frequent company; and therefore am qualified to speak for myself, as a representative boy of that age; for I knew many others like me. And I can remember my own, very highly charged, late adolescent male sexuality. I can remember: “I will sweep her up in my arms, and carry her off to be the mother of my children.” This was profoundly sexual, profoundly erotic. And note, at the heart of this passion, the instinctive connexion of sex to babies; instinctive and essentially pre-rational. It was visceral; it was not “just an idea” or a rule, which I could formulate as well as the next guy, and toss around whether I believed it or not. It was the very spirit that the letter killeth.
And this, it seems to me, is the challenge that comes to us today. How do we restore not only the moral principle as a matter of taught fact, but the soul of that principle? How, if you will, can we teach them to read the Song of Songs, without snickering?