We Abandoned Tradition, and We're Now Vulnerable to Propagandists Left and Right, Political and Corporate

We should think of our problem in terms of a story: We've lost the plot.It explains our confusion. That we have no more ends, no more real conflicts, no villains, no heroes, no denouements, as you do in every good story. This is what explains our collective sense of endless irresolvable social angst. That we've no stories anymore, just an innumerable mass of singular energies, identities, selfies, narcissisms. We're no longer cut like sculpture according to any idea, no longer pressed like a pearl or cured in a crucible. We are no longer formed by anything unchosen. Rather, what we've become is mere expression, mere purchasing power, merely me, merely you. Which is, of course, inevitably pathetic and ineluctably violent. The final banality of liberalism, it's Nietzsche's monochromatic last man.A protagonist, you see, requires conflict. That is, some barrier, some nemesis, some impossible journey or quest if she or he is to grow, if the story is to move, with some resolution discovered or some tragedy remembered. Certainly, we have entertainments and distractions, a few remaining profitable tropes, stories involving sentimentality and sex, rugged individualism and power, cabal, controversy and fantasy. But no real stories. Mere storylike threads, what sells today are entertaining bromides repeated in movies and the news and through these strange new social puppets called "influencers." All of it without plot, it belongs to the reduction of our humanity.But what of our alleged new moral sense, our new activism? Yes, present today are phenomena we still call "movements," gatherings of activists and the creators of hashtags. But they are not like the movements of the past. Today our protests, marches, boycotts and viral rage are but the boutique experiences of various reduced identities. Collected assertions of like wills, social movements today rarely serve the common good but instead are merely the mobbish analogues of party politics or consumer desires, mere skirmishes in a pathetic, decadent, limp civil war.Which, I take it, is the effect of liberalism. To strip the human person of every prop of tradition, of the strictures of every institution, of family, of church, of village and neighborhood; to "liberate" the person as such, leaving him or her to navigate life only by his her own chosen lights, is to reduce the individual to what's become the ideal person in our society: the online consumer who needn't even leave the house and the lonely voyeur who needn't ever look up from the screen.And the effect is twofold. First, as I've intimated, bereft of tradition, we're now more vulnerable to propagandists left and right, political and corporate. Having become individuals who all look alike, think alike, like and retweet alike, in reality we've become merely big data, pliable masses mined and influenced, told what to buy when, and whom to hate and whom to love.But second, scripted as we've become, we now wish to remold the remnants of our traditions after our own influenced wills. Our task has become to reshape things like the family, marriage and education, invoking, as we do, the social power of the victim, weaponized cultural ressentiment. Reformations, which in some instances have been quite welcome, have proven in others fraught or impossible, often destroying the very thing one seeks to reform.Take Christianity, for instance, which has in various denominations undergone such attempted reformations. Today one thinks of the Methodists; yesterday, the Episcopalians. What ought one do with one's body, one's sexuality, one's gender? Such debates (or better, rhetorics), peculiar to the privileged, have attempted to invoke experience, traditions and scripture. Most, unsurprisingly and conveniently, have discerned some new more socially acceptable morality, while a few others have not. But, of course, both claim the Spirit of God.But on all counts Christianity isn't a progressive religion; it just isn't. Perhaps our predicament is that we ever thought it was. In reality it's a Middle Eastern religion founded in late antiquity upon the memory of a rustic, and by modern standards, backwards Jew. At its best, Christianity forged its saints within a crucible of socially burdensome sin and costly grace, in conflict, suffering, forgiveness and conversion, and not by the removal such things. This, for me, is the deeper problem of progressive Christianity: that it removes the difficult plot wherein a more permanent love is found, what Paul called a "new creation" in a dialectic of law and grace. It rewrites the brutal story of redemption, that it's a refashioned religion, an entirely different asceticism, not Christianity at all.But, of course, what's happening to Christianity is only one example of the effect of liberalism. Sociologically, that it's undergoing the same as the institutions of education and family and the practice of politics, that it's suffering what society at large is suffering — and that's the loss of the idea of the common good amidst the noise of billion tweets, should not surprise anyone. Rather what matters for Christians, as for any who still want something called society, is whether we can remember any of the original stories which once kept us together and whether we want to be burdened by them anymore. Because it seems many no longer do.Joshua J. Whitfield is pastoral administrator for St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and a frequent contributor to The Dallas Morning News.   Continue reading...

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