Saturday, July 23, 2005

MH - The Peter Pan-ing of Culture

My new issue of First Things arrived in the mail today. I usually like to scan through the magazine first before diving into the articles, but this issue's first piece (after the letters to the editor) was "Against Eternal Youth" by the always-interesting Frederica Mathewes-Green, and the minute I read the first paragraph I was hooked; I had to read it all the way through before doing anything else.

The story won't be up online until next month, and I don't ordinarily like to quote from things before they're available, but I urge you not to wait until then; go out and buy this issue. Better yet, subscribe. But I will give you a taste of this penetrating article, in which Mathewes-Green writes on why Americans today seem to have "forgotten how to act like grownups":
Maybe "forgotten" isn't the right word, for the Baby Boomers fought adulthood every step of the way. About the time we should have been taking on grownup responsibilities we made a fetish of resisting the Establishment. We turned blue jeans and t-shirts into the generational uniform. We stopped remembering the names of world political leaders and started remembering the names of movie stars' ex-boyfriends. We stopped participating in fraternal service organizations and started playing video games. We Boomers identified so strongly with being "the younger generation" that now, paunchy and gray, we're bewildered. We have no idea how to be the older generation. We'll just have to go on being a cranky, creaky appendix to the younger one."

Most remarkable about this article perhaps is the theory, which all of you may already have heard of but which was new to me, that the Greatest Generation had something of a Calvinist attitude toward life. Having lived through the Great War (in their parents' lifetime), followed by the Great Depression, and now World War II, they came to believe that "childhood was all gaiety, while adulthood was burdened with misery and toil." This led them to strive to protect their children from the hardships which they had encountered. The rest, as we all know, is history.

I find this all very interesting, just so rich in possibilities. What strikes me most is the idea that these people saw life as something to be endured, rather than lived; that their fondest wish was not to prepare their children for life, but to protect them from it. As we entered into the Cold War and the increasing threat of nuclear conflict, they even debated whether or not it was moral to bring children into such a world. That's not to say that their lives were devoid of hope, but that hope expressed itself in a strange way; they lived that hope through their children, and to the extent that they saw a reason for optimism in their lives, it rested in the hope that their children would not undergo the trials which had come to them. That attitude resulted in the abdication of parents' obligation to prepare their children on how to live an adult life in an adult world, and it was a new cultural wrinkle.

This seems to me a very pessimistic way to view life. For one thing, it disregards the power that suffering has to enhance the spiritual life. If suffering is merely something to be survived, rather than to be lived and shared with Christ on the Cross, then of course it's difficult to find any meaning to it. If life is viewed as a succession of miseries to be avoided, then one ceases to interact with the world in which he or she lives, in the way we were meant to live. It seems a dour way of looking at things - we can't change the world, we don't have much control over our lives. No wonder the cult of technology and progress grew, for it gave man the illusion of control in a time when he desperately craved some kind of certainty. It was a false certainty, of course, but when one has little else to believe it, what straws are above being grasped at?

Perhaps this helps us to understand the collapse of the Catholic Church (or at least her extreme difficulties) in the post-Vatican II period. Some place this blame squarely at the feet of the Council. But others, while acknowledging the incredible damage done "in the spirit of Vatican II," contend that there had to be something already rotten in the state of Denmark for the collapse to have come so quickly. Mathewes-Green gives us something to chew on here, for if she's correct, we were already seeing the increasing loss of faith described so well in Matthew Arnold's 1867 Dover Beach:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

That loss of faith became more pronounced in the hedonistic nihilism of the post-World War I era, the Jazz Age, the reckless investing that culminated in the Depression. Follow that with the devistation of a war that features an attempt to exterminate an entire race and culminates in the first use of nuclear weapons, and suddenly we have a generation which has seen nothing but human misery for as long as it can remember and is left only to wonder "why". This is the mindset of the Greatest Generation that Mathewes-Green describes, and it is this mindset with which we must deal when looking at Vatican II.

I'm not suggesting that the Greatest Generation and their progeny were without religious faith, though certainly that was the case for some of them. Neither do I claim that those who did profess belief were hypocrites. But I have to look back to the words of Our Lord when He speaks of the shallow faith of some:
The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy. But he has no root and lasts only for a time. When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, he immediately falls away. The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word, but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word and it bears no fruit. (Matthew 13:20-22)

Perhaps we were ripe for what the 60s and 70s brought. If so, then we shouldn't have been surprised. If so, then Vatican II, well-meaning though it might have been, might have been doomed to failure; for it was speaking a language that its listeners couldn't be expected to understand. It may have been a magnificant palace of theological riches, built on a foundation of sand. If this sounds harsh, it's meant to; as a convert, I never lived in the pre-councilar Church, but I've learned enough about it to see the damage that "false spirit" has done. And I also know that it couldn't possibly have had that rapid an effect if everything in the spiritual house of Catholicism had been in order to begin with.

John Paul II, who perhaps understood it better than anyone, knew the promise and potential Vatican II held, but knew also that it had to be taught to the faithful, and not simply presented to them. Benedict XVI, who was also there, now builds on the work of his predecessor; though he may lack the mystical properties of John Paul, I have great faith that he, perhaps better than John Paul, can deconstruct its teachings, separating true from the false interpretations, and lead his flock to a greater understanding of how it can shape our spirituality.

Mathewes-Green has much more to say in her article about the generations that refuse to grow up, but I'll leave the rest of that for you to discover. For now, I think we're invited to consider more deeply the faith of our fathers (and mothers), and the impact it had on us; and also ask ourselves how our decendants will consider our faith, and the way it impacted their lives. Did we prepare them for life and its responsibilities, or try to protect them from it?

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