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What I Believe

April 3, 2018 | (1,185 words)

The gentleman who is trying to drive traffic to this web site has asked me to provide a series of descriptive words that define it. He has also asked a series of basic questions with the same idea in mind. My descriptive words and attempts at answers will help direct his efforts in the all-important task of search engine optimization.

How would I describe the overall content of the site? Who are the users (readers) I am are trying to reach? How would I describe each individual blog post (essay)?

My subject matter is the same as everyone else’s I suppose: current events, and the cultural anthropology that lies behind those events and drives the debate. The readers I would like to reach are, well, everybody: the well-meaning believer and the equally well-meaning non-believer, the sincere liberal and the earnest conservative, the honor-bound traditionalist and the socially-conscious progressive.

Dividing ourselves into these either/or categories is instinctive, but also limiting. Even when such partisan thought is put forth by the best and brightest of our vetted spokespeople, who regularly comment on the issues of the day in publications and platforms of note. It strikes me that all such commentary misses some basic point, precisely because it is argued from one side of the ideological divide or the other. This leaves a hole in the middle of the otherwise cogent things our well-known, left-or-right establishment commentators have to say.

… dividing ourselves into categories is instinctive, but also limiting.

Trying to address this “hole,” this “something missing” is obviously a huge challenge, and is probably beyond my reach. But as an example of what I am going for, let’s consider the first target audience mentioned above: believers.

It seems to me the basic point believers miss when decanting at length on our lingering social ills is none other than Christianity itself. This is inadvertent, to be sure. But it’s the unavoidable by-product of the way American Christians (the majority contingent) have aligned their faith with politics, and routinely pigeon-hole their beliefs into a particular ideological/political bent.

Liberal Christians think their progressivism is a beautiful sign of their faith. Traditional Christians think their conservative political views also communicate their faith quite well. Unfortunately this is nothing less than a complete bowdlerization of what Christianity, and certainly its initial fifteen-hundred-year iteration as the only game in town (a.k.a. Catholicism), is supposed to be.

Of course faith should inform our politics, should elevate politics, and should guide politics to a concern for the common good by promoting widespread human flourishing. Instead, the American tradition of democratic pluralism has led to faith being utterly subsumed by politics. This leaves believers to pick fights with each other, while non-believers dismiss the entire faith-based religious enterprise as outdated and devoid of answers.

It is our unquestioned embrace of oppositional, either/or thinking that blinds us all, even high-minded believers, to the simple fact that faith is not ideological or political in the least. There is no left or right in “love thy neighbor as thyself,” or in “love thine enemy,” and especially not in “you shall not have false gods before me.”

… not taking Christianity seriously leads believers to pick fights with each other.

Centuries of Catholic social teaching has elaborated on these basic principles in workmanlike detail, and those same principles have been embodied in the lives of countless salt-of-the-earth martyrs and saints. These principles also still hold up remarkably well in their original, lean-and-mean presentation.

Come to think of it, this is my beef with the passionate commentary promulgated by the other groups called out above. None of them takes Christianity seriously.

Since the dawn of modernity, we have been arguing for social progress on the basis of our own rationality, our own ability to solve complex problems, without reference to or regard for our fallen human nature, which inclines us toward greed, sloth, and lust, among other not-particularly-attractive behaviors.

Elaborate systems of incentives based on the hallowed secular concept of enlightened self-interest cannot transform that nature, or make it more manageable. Try as we might.

Since I started in the ranks of conservative believers upon returning to the faith some twenty-four years ago, I tend to focus an inordinate amount of my attention on how this group is mistakenly convinced their political/economic views are the epitome of Christian principles. Their heart-felt playbook reads something like this:

Free markets, as any capitalist can tell you, involve making choices and living with the consequences. And the Church has always taught us the same is true in the moral life. The free market is not to blame if some are left behind while others prosper. We must help ameliorate, to the extent possible, the poverty of people in material matters. But in the end, we reap as we have sown.

… we don’t get to choose our level of cognitive ability.

This pragmatic analysis is accurate, as far as it goes. But it leaves out much that needs to be taken into consideration. People don’t choose the level of cognitive ability they come into this world with. Native intelligence is a major determinant as to how much opportunity one will ultimately be able to pursue in our every-man-for-himself economic free-for-all.

Most don’t really have much choice in the matter of their employment, and they certainly don’t have much say in how they will be compensated. Not everyone is a go-getter entrepreneur. The vast majority are merely willing contributors. Unfortunately their efforts are viewed as an “expense” that must be minimized, rather than a “resource.” This flaw has been baked into our economic soufflé.

So at best the fine upstanding conservative believers are only half-right. Their enthusiastic adoption or unexamined acceptance of the economic status-quo undermines the basic tenets of the faith in regards economic justice. This casts them as part of the problem, preventing the restoration of the culture they claim to be so intent on bringing about.

Yes, in the aggregate, we have come a long way in the last five hundred years, materially speaking. But as our tattered history clearly demonstrates, prosperity alone does not sooth our savage tendencies, especially when that prosperity tends to consolidate in the hands of a small, select group of the population.

In fairness, though, conservatives have a lot of company when it comes to not seeing the forest for the trees. No amount of articulate cheerleading on the part of progressives, behind graphs and other elaborate data indicating how great things are in both the economic and social realms, relative to our dark Christian past, can camouflage the coarseness and crassness of daily life, now fueled by the modern invention of disposable income.

The sophisticated political/social theorists who champion our democratic pluralist age, and insist the only alternative is tyranny, cannot quite get at the feeling many ordinary citizens have in their gut that something just isn’t right, despite what we are constantly told is our magnificent standard of living, and our historically unprecedented freedoms.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
April 3, 2018

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