Faith without affiliations

Nathaniel Peters writes on the persistent faith of Americans—just not the sort of faith that we might expect:

Roughly one fifth of Americans, and one third of young Americans, are what the Pew Research Center has dubbed “Nones,” people who claim no religious affiliation…

Some might consider the rise of the Nones to be proof of the “secularization thesis”: that “modernity inevitably produces a decline of religion,” as Peter Berger put it. However, as Berger himself came to see over the course of decades, that thesis is false. Instead of secularism, modernity produces pluralism, “the coexistence in the same society of different worldviews and value systems. . . . The problem with modernity is not that God is dead, as some people hoped and other people feared. [Rather,] there are too many gods, which is a challenge, but a different one.” …

The decline of religious affiliation among those with a weak identification marks not only a decline of cultural Christianity, but a new norm for American society, a norm that is replacing a broadly Christian culture. What is the new norm? Certainly not a militant skepticism or atheism. Fourteen years ago, Christian Smith and Melinda Denton coined the term “moralistic therapeutic deism” for the religious beliefs of the next generation, which sees God as “something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist.” Many now describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” believing in some such supernatural force but seeing no need for the bonds of religious community and authority.

More recently, scholars such as Adrian Vermeule have noted the religious character that contemporary political liberalism has taken on. Its protests and denunciations have sacramental and liturgical elements. It makes the free exercise of the will its highest good and works to tear down any barriers in its way, social or biological. It now has a liturgical calendar, too.

God and an undivided life

Stephen Colbert and Anderson Cooper had a beautiful exchange on God and suffering. Anderson Cooper quotes Stephen Colbert (riffing off J.R.R. Tolkien), asking “What punishments of God are not gifts?” Do you really believe that, Cooper asks? Colbert responds…

Stephen Beale writes on Colbert and others willing to make their Christianity a part of their public life:

The saints, he explained, are God’s X-Men. He schooled Philip Zimbardo when the renowned psychologist suggested God was the source of evil and defended the divinity of Jesus against liberal theologian Bart Ehrman. He even had the gumption to invite noted anti-Catholic comedian Bill Maherback into the Church.

No, he’s not the newest Catholic apologist to hit the evangelization circuit, but one of America’s late-night television stars — Stephen Colbert, who left The Colbert Report on Comedy Central to serve as the new host for The Late Show on CBS last fall, becoming the vanguard of a new generation of entertainers who are putting their faith front and center in their comedy.

In fact, the new late-night comedy lineup on television is dominated by Catholics, including Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O’Brien — though not all are as vocal about their relationship with their faith. More in the Colbert-style is comedian Jim Gaffigan, who integrates his Catholic faith into his stand-up routine and new sitcom on TV Land, The Jim Gaffigan Show.

What these things speak to is the importance of living a whole, integrated, and undivided life. That seems to me to be what Stephen Colbert is doing in his own way—recognizing that America’s freedom of religion is ultimately the freedom to live as a person of faith in public.

‘The desire to collapse in on ourselves’

Scott Beauchamp writes on the causes and consequences of a “world without kith or kin,” a culture where family and friendships, and the sacrifice and cost associated with both, are understood to be the barrier to, rather than the primary means of achieving, a meaningful life:

The Japanese word kodokushi roughly translates to “lonely death.” The term might be a touch poetic for what it actually describes, conjuring as it does the romantic image of an individual stoically riding off alone into oblivion. An existential cowboy leaning in his saddle towards the darkening horizon, embodying all the heroic maverick energy that our contemporary world so highly values. The apotheosis of freedom in current Western society being a complete atomization of self, an undoing of all the bonds which constrain us, kodokushi almost sounds like something to aspire to.

The material reality of the “lonely death” is grim. Disgusting, even. It is an odor the neighbors do not notice until it is already too late. It is the kinetic hum of maggots digesting an undiscovered corpse. It is the slow accumulation of “past due” notices in the mail, piling up until a stranger comes to query the “customer” in person and finds their liquefying remains. It is the cagey instinct of the entrepreneurs who have capitalized on kodokushi as a business opportunity, monetizing their lurid and sad deaths by offering special cleaning services for the tiny apartments of elderly folks who have died alone and unnoticed and are well into decomposition. In a phrase, it is the complete thing-ification of people who have outlasted their use-value. It is the fate of people who, as Simeone Weil quoted from The Iliad in a similar context, have become “dearer to the vultures” than their loved ones or community. Kodokushi is the process of humans being reduced to garbage. And it is not unique to Japan. As the first generation of humans “liberated” from kin-connections ages and dies, kodokushi becomes a global phenomenon.

Scholars who study demographic shifts refer to what happened in relatively wealthy, Western countries after the Industrial Revolution—a decline in both death and birth rates—as the First Demographic Transition. You can basically sum it up as the process of large, extended families, shrinking down to the nuclear unit. What is occurring now—the epidemic of loneliness, the severing of deep familial ties, kodokushi, etc.—is known as the Second Demographic Transition (SDT). …

Either way, and however far back in the dim memory of the human story you might trace the lineage of the drive to sever connection to and responsibility for one another (we can certainly go back at least to Cain), when taken to its logical conclusion the result always seems to be the same: people are transformed into refuse. …

The desire to collapse in on ourselves like dying, solitary stars, might be older than ancient. But more recently we can see it manifest in last centuries various ideological turns against both tradition and, more importantly, the notion of a transcendent reality. …

Any number of contemporary songs or movies come to mind where the family is seen as something to liberate oneself from in order achieve a deeper contentment and truer sense of self. Few examples exist of art which conveys the horror of the isolated individual, imprisoned by solitary desire. French author Michel Houellebecq might be the rare example of an artist who unflinchingly gazes into the abyss of modern self and, with a cold eye, catches sight of all the ways in which constructing a world composed simply of desire sated and desire thwarted contributes to profound human misery.

A question we ignore in our obsession with achieving greater levels of autonomy and self-actualization is something like: What is the liberated individual liberated for?

When we break free from our family and friendships and communities, what other world is it that we’ve broken into? Breaking away from the personal and social and moral and ethical constraints of daily life and into a place of abstracted individuality is pre-civilizational. It’s regressive.

‘Normal human despair’

Marianne Williamson recently observed that Americans are too frequently prescribed antidepressants for what she called “normal human despair”:

“The twenties can be very hard. They’re not a mental illness,” Williamson told BuzzFeed News in an interview Friday. “Divorce can be very difficult, losing a loved one, someone that you know died, someone left in a relationship and you’re heartbroken — that’s very painful, but it’s not a mental illness.”

“You had a professional failure, you lost your job, you went bankrupt,” she continued. “Those things are very difficult, but they’re not a mental illness.”

Williamson, a self-help author, has previously weighed in on the topic of overprescribed antidepressants, tweeting in June 2018 that such medications are being prescribed “many times when people are simply SAD.”

“The answer to depression is more scientific research only if you think of it simply in biomedical terms. The medicalization of depression is a creation of the medical industry,” she tweeted. “For millennia depression was seen as a spiritual disease, and for many of us it still is.”

I think this is true. And I think this also pairs well with Christopher F. Rufo’s City Journal piece on how those who have true addictions, affiliations, and illnesses in San Donato Val di Comino are treated in a humane way:

At six o’clock each morning, the alcoholics, addicts, and mentally ill residents of San Donato Val di Comino, Italy, emerge from their homes and congregate—sometimes together, but mostly alone—in the cafés around the town’s main square. Some of the hardened alcoholics order an espresso with a shot of liquor, then climb into work trucks and head out to farms and construction sites. The mentally ill—who suffer predominantly from depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia—order cups of coffee or sit at the patio tables emptyhanded, an indication that they have run out of cash for the month.

My father was born in this village, where I’ve observed this early-morning ritual during family vacations over the past two decades, but this time it struck me in a new way. For the past 18 months, I’ve reported on homelessness, addiction, and mental illness in American cities and spent many hours with America’s most vulnerable residents, who, on the surface, struggle with the same afflictions as the residents here in San Donato.

In fact, the contrast is profound. In West Coast cities, tens of thousands of addicts and mentally ill people live outdoors in horrific conditions and survive on a combination of panhandling, prostitution, and property crime, which, in turn, creates disorder on urban streets. Not in San Donato, however: here, addicts and the mentally ill are deeply integrated into the community and maintain a dignified standard of living. Their families and relatives look after them and stay involved in their lives. When necessary, the municipal government provides employment sweeping the streets, and local businesses sometimes pay mentally disabled residents to serve as lo spanno, an informal occupation that entails walking through the streets with a loudspeaker announcing products newly available in the town market. The community plays a role in helping the most vulnerable, not through compulsion or formalized social programs but instead through the values of self-help and community responsibility.

In San Donato, a man found sleeping on the streets would suggest a moral scandal. The village would shame the homeless man’s family into taking him in to provide financial, practical, and psychological support. The reason that nobody sleeps on the streets here isn’t medical or technical—it’s cultural. Despite massive economic and social change over the past century, Italians have retained a culture of family and responsibility that strictly limits the expression of pathological behavior and enforces a standard of dignity that encourages addicts and the mentally ill to participate in society despite their condition.

Short biographies at the close of life

Andrew Critch reflects on funerals, and whether our way of burying our dead is as much about honoring their bodies as honoring their memory. Specifically, Andrew suggests buying “biographies instead of expensive burials:”

Cemeteries and funerals are beautiful, because they tell a story of the past that we care about. They’re also somewhat expensive: families routinely spend on the order of $10k on funeral and burial rites for their families. There are people whose entire jobs are the preparation of bodies for funeral rites. Can we tell the story of the past better, but for the same cost?

I believe we can. If your loved one is close to death or has recently died, instead of planning for an expensive burial funeral, you might consider instead planning for the cheapest possible disposal of their earthly remains, and use the excess money to hire a biographer. The biographer can talk to your loved one’s family, and even your loved one directly if they haven’t yet passed, and write down people’s most treasured or meaningful memories about them. Your children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren could have much more than a tombstone to remember them by.

If more people adopted this tradition, cemeteries could become libraries where we keep tomes of stories about our lost loved ones, both bitter and sweet. When we bring flowers to the cemetery, we could leave them next to a book containing their life story. We could re-read their memories, and perhaps even take some time to read through the memories of other people we don’t know, and develop a feeling of what it was like to be them. Probably some people would take an interest in reading the stories even of strangers. Perhaps these “cemetery historians” would even bond when they meet at the cemetery, and recommend their favorite stories to each other. Together, we’d have a culture more capable of preserving and cherishing the memories of the people we’ve lost.

I don’t see this as being in competition with a proper funeral or burial at all, but as a natural part of the planning process that funeral homes or others could adopt as part of their service to respect the bodies of the dead and honor their memory.

An endless thirst for life

Memento mori, as a reason for hope and for right conduct in this life. Lucretius, De Rerum Natura on the event we all face—though not our ultimate destiny:

“Finally, what great and vile desire for life compels us
To quake so much amidst doubts and dangers?
Mortals have an absolute end to our lives:
Death cannot be evaded—we must leave.

Nevertheless, we move again and still persist—
No new pleasure is procured by living;
But while what we desire is absent, that seems to overcome
All other things; but later, when we have gained it, we want something else—

An endless thirst for life grips us as we gasp for it.
It remains unclear what fortune life will offer,
What chance may bring us and what end awaits.
But by extending life we do not subtract a moment
Of time from death nor can we shorten it
So that we may somehow have less time after our ends.

Therefore, you may continue as living as many generations as you want,
But that everlasting death will wait for you still,
And he will be there for no less a long time, the man who
Has found the end of life with today’s light, than the man who died
Many months and many years before.”

To see environments as they really are

Marshall McLuhan, in The Medium is the Massage, on rejecting well-adjustedness, if well-adjustedness basically means an at-home-in-the-worldliness:

The poet, the artist, the sleuth—whoever sharpens our perception tends to be antisocial; rarely “well-adjusted,” he cannot go along with currents and trends. A strange bond often exists among anti-social types in their power to see environments as they really are. This need to interface, to confront environments with a certain antisocial power, is manifest in the famous story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” “Well-adjusted” courtiers, having vested interests, saw the emperor as beautifully appointed. The “anti-social” brat, unaccustomed to the old environment, clearly saw that the Emperor “ain’t got nothing’ on.” The new environment was clearly visible to him.

To see environments as they really are tends to be one of the most important and most difficult things to do—because it’s not always clear how things really were until after they’re past. This is why I agree with something a friend of mine pointed out years ago—that it’s not the future that’s to be feared, but rather it’s the present, because the uncertainties of the present are more challenging than the abstractions of the future.


Issam Ahmed and Ariela Navarro write:

Anna Burger lives by a busy road just a minute’s walk from a metro station in the US capital Washington, but every morning she wakes up to a birdsong symphony.

Butterflies, squirrels and even the occasional deer also come to visit the tree-covered property that she has cultivated with a focus on native species that provide nesting space and nourishment for the local wildlife.

Well-manicured grass lawns have long been associated with the American Dream, but a growing “rewilding” movement now seeks to reclaim yard space for nature.

“We knew that putting chemicals on grass to try to keep it green seemed to be a futile process that wasn’t good for kids playing or for the environment,” Burger told AFP.

She and her husband bought the house in 1990 and “we’ve tried to make it friendly, making sure that we have water sources, making sure that there are food sources so these trees aren’t the most colorful but have great berries.”

The couple’s home is surrounded by several houses whose occupants take a more traditional approach toward their green space, but a stroll through the leafy Takoma Park neighborhood reveals many more where “ungardening” has taken root.

Precise definitions of what this means vary, but the concept of meddling less and celebrating nature more was notably popularized in 1993 book “Noah’s Garden” by Sara Stein, a Bible for the movement.

There are some great photos of what these sorts of home look like, including some certified by the National Wildlife Federation as wildlife habitats. Not for everyone, but not bad, either. Nearly every neighborhood has something like this in it, if you look for it.

Cain was spared by the God of justice

In light of the U.S. Department of Justice’s decision to reinstitute the death penalty for those on federal death row, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput is circulating past remarks of his on capital punishment, calling us to do better:

The evidence against capital punishment demonstrates that innocent people are sometimes convicted and executed; that our legal system discriminates against minorities and the poor; and that defendants in many states get disastrous legal counsel unless they can afford otherwise. All these things seem to be true — but let’s ignore them.

Instead, let’s assume that a defendant is genuinely guilty of a brutal and premeditated murder; that he or she gets excellent legal counsel with correct due process; and that a fair jury convicts our defendant after careful and intelligent deliberation.

Killing the guilty is still the wrong choice for a civilized nation. Why?  Because it accomplishes nothing.  It does not bring back or even honor the dead. It does not ennoble the living. And while it may satisfy society’s anger for awhile, it cannot even release the murder victim’s loved ones from their sorrow, because only forgiveness can do that.

What the death penalty does achieve is closure through bloodletting, and violence against violence — which is not really closure at all, because murder will continue as long as humans sin, and capital punishment can never, by its nature, strike at murder’s root. Only love can do that.

Executions in Texas averaged nearly two a month in 2004.  Ponder that through the eyes of a young person reading the newspaper.  Is this how we define ourselves as a God-fearing people? Is this really a fitting monument to murder victims?  In “sending a signal” to would-be murderers, do we realize that we are also teaching a message of state-endorsed violence to our own children?

The reality of any homicide is heart-breaking beyond words. We cannot presume to understand the deep and bitter personal wounds suffered by those who lose their loved ones through murder. As a people, we must never allow ourselves the luxury of forgetting the injustice done to victims of murder who cannot speak for themselves—or our obligation to bring the guilty to full accounting.

But as Jesus showed again and again by his words and in his actions, the only true road to justice passes through mercy. Justice cannot be served by more violence. In the world of 2005, capital punishment has become just another narcotic we Americans use to ease other, much deeper anxieties about the direction of our culture. Executions may take away some of the symptoms for a time (living, human “symptoms” who have names and their own stories before God), but the underlying illness — today’s contempt for human life — remains and grows worse.

In Genesis 4:10-16, humanity’s first murderer — Cain, the man who brought bloodletting into the world — was spared by the God of justice.  We should remember that.  God’s ways are not our ways; they are wiser and better.  God’s heart, unlike ours, is driven by love, not anger.  A culture ultimately defines its moral character by the value it places on each human life, particularly those lives that seem most burdensome, inconsequential or unworthy. Violent criminals present an especially harsh moral challenge for us, because their own cruelty has forced them to the margins of society. Recognizing a criminal’s humanity is bitterly difficult when our hearts are clouded by pain.

But the same needle that poisons the killer in every [execution] also poisons us as a culture.  Repaying cruelty with cruelty does not equate to justice.

“The Department of Justice is simply enforcing the law, our law, passed by our elected representatives,” Chaput concludes. “Which means that all of us, as citizens, are implicated in the coming executions. We can do better as a nation. For the sake of our own moral integrity, we need to do better.  We need to abolish the death penalty now.

What does it mean to be mature?

Agata Rottkamp asks, “Are you an adult?”:

If numbers and measurements yield no definitive answers, we must ask a more fundamental question—the very one we want to wrestle with in this and the three subsequent issues of Humanum: what does it mean to be an adult? What does it mean to be mature—to be fully alive?

A troubling new trend suggests that instead of being an adult, it is sufficient to “adult” when necessary—that is, to undertake the things that responsible adults do: pay the bills, clean one’s apartment, control one’s temper, etc. Once the often unpleasant tasks have been accomplished, the role of adult can be cast aside, to be reassumed at a later time. By this logic, however, one could go through life without ever reaching adulthood per se, without giving up “childish ways”, as St. Paul suggests we must when we mature (cf. 1 Cor 13:11). Acting responsibly, though important, is not therefore definitive when we are speaking of adulthood.

As so often on the Christian journey, the beginnings of an answer to our question can only be discerned when the gaze shifts from the “I” (what I have to do to become independent) to the “thou” and, eventually, the “Thou.” Adulthood means no longer having the self as one’s sole focus. The ability to put the other first, selflessly, if not without effort, may be a more defining trait of human maturity. “Now [as one matures] the person is able to give himself to the other,” Fr. Jose Granados tells us, “to abandon the sphere of the isolated individual around which the feelings tend to circle…in such a way that the individual is no longer the center of the relationship but lives…out of himself and, only in this way, becomes fully himself.” …

In a clear and definitive tone, the Baltimore Catechism tells us that God made us to know Him, love Him, and serve Him in this world; and to be happy with Him forever in the next. If this is our intended telos, then surely human maturity—that is, adulthood—must take up the tasks of knowing, loving and serving God in a way that corresponds to a given individual’s abilities and situation. And when carried out perfectly, these tasks—this full flowering of humanity—become holiness.

Adulthood and the “full flowering” of one’s masculinity or femininity…