Today I would like to share with you two pieces for reflection.
First, after posting on Monday about a mother’s struggle with the challenges of social media to family life, I came across an article on Tuesday in The New Atlantis (here) by Professor Peter Lawler on the tensions between Christian orthodoxy and American social doctrine. As I read these lines here, I found myself thinking about that Mom:
The Canadian philosopher George Grant, influenced by Heidegger, claimed that the United States has wholly given itself over to technology, defining human purpose as nothing more than the acquisition of power. All genuinely political life — and all philosophy, theology, and other forms of contemplation — have disappeared from America. For these not-entirely-friendly foreign critics, the United States is the country mostly wholly in the thrall of the technological “how” at the expense of any reflection on the “why” of humanly worthy purposes.
If, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn claimed, it is characteristic of the modern West to have “ceased to see the purpose” that should be the foundation of human life, it is perhaps in America that the lonely and demoralizing consequences of modern emptiness are most advanced. Beneath our therapeutic happy-talk and technologically optimistic pragmatism, a critic like Solzhenitsyn can hear the howl of existentialism. Americans have “nothing” — nothing but inarticulate anxiety with which to resist the “something” — the measurable effects — of technological progress.
Fortunately, we have technological remedies for our anxiety. There are, of course, those of the pharmacological variety. But there are also the diversions of the screen — from the smartphone to the laptop, from social media to video games to Internet porn. The complacently honest libertarian Tyler Cowen points to the dark side of our hyper-meritocratic future, where those individuals not clever and competent enough to succeed will lead marginally productive lives, contented by screen-based entertainment and other cheap high-tech diversions made by those at the top. But neither class, in this vision of the future, will include many who will be distinguished by the heart-enlarging traditional virtues of generosity or charity.
The genuinely countercultural philosopher-comedian Louis C.K. denies his daughters smartphones so that they might not find an easy way out of the anxious sadness that overwhelms us all from time to time for no good reason. We are more and more satisfied with the predictable, minimalist emotion that comes from being diverted from both one’s own solitary emptiness — one’s misery without God or without the communal and intimate attachments of a rich relational life — and from the empathy that comes from closeness to others.
Second, let me share this Lent-appropriate challenging quote from Pope Benedict XVI’s 2012 Lenten address. It came to mind after a colleague of mine very recently corrected me on a poor decision I had made, and I found myself so appreciative for his forthrightness. It reminded me of St. Gregory Nazianzen’s comment on his friendship with St. Basil, “We followed the guidance of God’s law and spurred each other on to virtue.” B16:
Here I would like to mention an aspect of the Christian life which I believe has been quite forgotten: fraternal correction in view of eternal salvation. Today, in general, we are very sensitive to the idea of charity and caring about the physical and material well-being of others, but almost completely silent about our spiritual responsibility towards our brothers and sisters. This was not the case in the early Church or in those communities that are truly mature in faith, those which are concerned not only for the physical health of their brothers and sisters, but also for their spiritual health and ultimate destiny. The Scriptures tell us: “Rebuke the wise and he will love you for it. Be open with the wise, he grows wiser still, teach the upright, he will gain yet more” (Prov 9:8ff). Christ himself commands us to admonish a brother who is committing a sin (cf. Mt 18:15). The verb used to express fraternal correction – elenchein – is the same used to indicate the prophetic mission of Christians to speak out against a generation indulging in evil (cf. Eph 5:11). The Church’s tradition has included “admonishing sinners” among the spiritual works of mercy. It is important to recover this dimension of Christian charity. We must not remain silent before evil. I am thinking of all those Christians who, out of human regard or purely personal convenience, adapt to the prevailing mentality, rather than warning their brothers and sisters against ways of thinking and acting that are contrary to the truth and that do not follow the path of goodness. Christian admonishment, for its part, is never motivated by a spirit of accusation or recrimination. It is always moved by love and mercy, and springs from genuine concern for the good of the other. As the Apostle Paul says: “If one of you is caught doing something wrong, those of you who are spiritual should set that person right in a spirit of gentleness; and watch yourselves that you are not put to the test in the same way” (Gal 6:1). In a world pervaded by individualism, it is essential to rediscover the importance of fraternal correction, so that together we may journey towards holiness. Scripture tells us that even “the upright falls seven times” (Prov 24:16); all of us are weak and imperfect (cf. 1 Jn 1:8). It is a great service, then, to help others and allow them to help us, so that we can be open to the whole truth about ourselves, improve our lives and walk more uprightly in the Lord’s ways. There will always be a need for a gaze which loves and admonishes, which knows and understands, which discerns and forgives (cf. Lk 22:61), as God has done and continues to do with each of us.