Diagnosing the Modern Mindset
Timothy Danahan gets to grips with how things get pondered and discussed today
"Lord, what fools these mortals be!" According to Robin Goodfellow – Shakespeare’s fairy narrator – human behavior appears foolish from the outside looking in. The lovers of A Midsummer Night’s Dream chase after one another, each driven by their own desire, trying to have it align with another’s. As Shakespeare says elsewhere, "Love is blind." Love of this sort seems self-absorbed, random and uncertain. And unlike our plays, our lives often don’t end "happily ever after." But on the other hand, who of us can’t relate to this desire? We too are thirsty for connection, affirmation, and purpose.
It’s hard to step back and get a clear picture of life, especially today with the rapid changes in our secular culture. But let’s try! We can ask three questions that will help us diagnose modern man: what motivates man, what is our goal, and how can we get there?
What motivates man?
Many Christians today, myself included, feel like the world has taken a bad turn. Not only are teenagers leaving the Church, but even whole families, who don’t find satisfactory answers in religion for the changes and challenges they face. What has happened to us? There are two answers: something old and something new.
The old disease that we humans have always laboured under is original sin. Thomas Aquinas tells us that this is a "quality" in our soul, having lost our gift of grace, which makes us both selfish and sensual.
Without the presence of God in our soul that we were made to have, we are left deeply insecure, so that all of our desire is to first help ourselves, not our neighbour. We have also fallen away from spiritual things and have become addicted to the sensual, or worldly – to sex, music, travel, money, eating and drinking, sports, parties, politics, humour, emotional sympathy. All of these are good, but our addiction to them isn’t.
There is also something new today, a "twist" to our age-old malady. In previous generations, we didn’t have great control over the natural world, so we turned to God for help. Now, we have more control. What scientists call "Murphy’s Law" doesn’t apply only to physics or engineering, but also to society: "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong." Why have abortions increased? With more advanced and safe medical technology, now we can. Why is marriage being re-defined by the state? Because with in vitro fertilization, we can make families in labs. Now we can. We humans will go to any length to make life just how we want it to be, and lately, we’ve gotten very good at this. But the results are disturbing.
Not only do we begin to trespass against the basic laws of ethics (not to mention Church teaching), but our need for God becomes much less obvious. Instead, we become obsessed with living "natural life" as happy as we can. Once again, we’re making a nice, happy, selfish and sensual life for ourselves. Our desire keeps us running in circles, like Shakespeare’s lovers, lost in the forest and in a midsummer dream.
What is our goal?
What is the goal of life for the average modern person? Whatever they wish. Each person decides for themselves. We have become so fascinated by what we can do, that we have forgotten where we’re going, or what anything is for. I’ve asked many non-religious people this question, and the answer is almost always "enjoyment." That doesn’t mean the majority of people are atheists, or that they’re incredibly selfish and cruel. It’s just that God seems vague compared to this life, so they want to figure out these rules and get the most out of it. More specifically, what they want is "connection." Whether in romance, or a job, or a group of friends, everyone wants to feel like they’re part of something. But that desire is often selfish underneath, because once the group challenges you or calls you to change your mind, you can leave. We are undergoing in our age an enormous crisis of commitment. This is seen in church attendance, job insecurity, divorce rates, etc. All commitment lasts as long as a person feels it’s still "compatible" with their own life. Against this mentality, G.K. Chesterton once wrote, "I have known many happy marriages, but never a compatible one. The whole aim of marriage is to fight through and survive the instant when incompatibility becomes unquestionable. For a man and a woman, as such, are incompatible."
It is the glory of being human to learn sacrifice, to adapt to life’s difficulties with love and humility – not to come up with endless ways of avoiding them, which only makes the problem worse. Fairy tales have always taught us a certain truth, that life has a set of rules we didn’t set up, and we will only be happy to follow them (another big point of Chesterton’s). If we spend our time trying to change the rules, we miss out on the happiness God wrote into the rules of life, the hard-won joys of struggling together for the truth. Instead, we are left to enjoy our own brief thrills, all the while deadening our spirits to the very thing we were made for – joy in God.
Without God, progress is really re-arranging the furniture. We try to stay "right here" and make life better, but we end up making a mess of it. Humans were made to journey, and if we don’t know our way forward, we grow confused. This is painfully obvious today, as our society has grown increasingly "bipolar." Without God, we are torn in two directions: universities praise diversity, but students still form cliques; politicians promise a bright future, but all our news programs are distressing; people are obsessed with scientific explanations of everything, and equally obsessed with sentimental love in every pop song; sexual abuse with a minor is the most shameful of all crimes, but everyone has a right to complete sexual liberation once they reach the age of consent; we relocate all over the world, preferring to live anywhere but home, yet we still agonize over our local sports team; we own many things, and still feel like we don’t have enough; we believe in discipline at school or at work, but we all have a right to "let ourselves go" on the weekend; we tolerate everything, except people that don’t agree with us. The reason why we are torn is that we are creatures of earth, made to share life with God. Though we abandoned God, our hearts are still pointed in his direction, but we try to keep them on earth. We are torn in two, not moving forward, but in circles.
How can we get there?
If we cannot satisfy our desire by our own means, what is left to help us? "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever" (Heb 13:8). There is only one thing to help us, and his name is Jesus. God could have sent us an instruction manual called "How to believe in God and Convince Others." He didn’t. We are perplexed by the complex world, and we look for an easy answer. God’s answer isn’t easy, but it is simple. Jesus Christ is the answer to every human question. But every human must spend his life finding out just how Jesus answers his questions, his needs, his desires. God’s answer isn’t easy, but it’s true. And its strength is its simplicity: believe, pray, worship, love, obey, seek the Lord.
God’s answer isn’t easy, but it is simple. Jesus Christ is the answer to every human question. But every human must spend his life finding out just how Jesus answers his questions, his needs, his desires.
The litmus test of every society (and of every person) is silence. It is in silence that we can "be with" ourselves and with God. And if we cannot do this, there is something wrong with us. The more we fill our schedules with tasks, fill our cities with music, fill our heads with headlines, then the more we betray our unhappiness. "Be still and know that I am God" (Ps 46:10). Those who cannot be still, then, cannot know God. Why can’t we be still, especially in this day and age? What then is our diagnosis of modern man, of how he thinks, of what he desires, of what he believes in?
First, man has always been insecure. What kind of insecurity? Of a perfect love, of that one thing that can satisfy and that can last! Those who have not known this (and this is only knowable by God’s grace, his free gift of revealing his love to us), have not known what is mostly deeply human about them. Second, modern man has grown better at deceiving himself, that he is finally becoming more secure on his own efforts. We humans are capable of faith, hope, and love in the God who created us. Instead, we have faith in our own abilities, hope in the future we can create, and love of humanity. Yet, again, we are bipolar in even these: we repeatedly lose faith in our attempts and reset to try something else, our hope ends up in clinical depression and growing disorder at large, and love is temporary and fragile. Many have not known a Love greater than their own, and our love is only as strong as we are – which is not very. The more capable we have become, the more lost we have become.
The bright side
Yet the good news is that we don’t have very far to run away. Man may be more lost in our age, but God is never far – He who sustains all things at all times, who knows the secrets of every heart, and who will have the last, fair word at the judgement of each soul. In an age of false "naturalism," where no one has time for God, our most effective approach is just the opposite – make time for God.
Mere Christian living has become counter-cultural in our culture. And in an age of such insecurity, we must be ever more secure in God. In an age of deception, we must admit our faults openly and ask for help when needed. A little dose of Christian confidence can go a long way! Smiling at people, being selfless, being unashamed of where we stand – these work better than trying to explain ourselves to everyone, always playing defence, instead of pressing forward serenely.
The thing to be done is to get busy living Christian life! Not one of us can claim we love God enough, or we love our neighbour perfectly. We must keep going. We must of course stay aware of the cultural conversation (some must even take a real part), but we must not let it dictate every bit of our
conversation. We must let God do that. We must pray. We must build each other up. The world may see us as holding an unbelievably high standard – to which we say, "Yes, it is a high standard. As high as God. But it is believable. Because God helps us live in the way he has invited us to!"
Secular people can be extremely aggressive. In my experience, however, many of them are very positive, and even polite. They seem as normal as anyone else. And this sincerity is an even a greater danger, that we humans can enjoy a "natural" lifestyle which doesn’t need God’s help. These people aren’t "out there in the world." They are our neighbours. They are our families, our co-workers, and our classmates. As Christians in the world, if we open ourselves to God, we create an opening in the world. All of us are more sensitive to the people in our daily lives than we would let on. If we open ourselves to God, it will affect the world around us. Though we may see very little of it, in his own time, He will awaken many hearts to his love, calling them to true life! Christians desire the salvation of every person, and God knows that desire, and He’s working on it. Our role is stay the course. "Delight in the Lord, and He will grant you the desires of your heart" (Ps 37:4).