Our readings this morning call us into deep waters asking us to reach down to the beginnings of time and to reach out to the full horizon of our lifeworld today. So far out to sea, we struggle to get our own bearings, for we do not want the interference of the stars! We want to navigate by our own maps and on our own terms! Impossible! Yet, our restless minds and our more restless egos drive us on.
But let us go back to our beginnings. My retired neighbor from across the road dropped in to chat one day. He had served with distinction in the U.S. Department of State and before that Army Intelligence. Specializing in Soviet relations during the Cold War, he was a man of fearsome practicality. And today, he got right down to business: "I respect you as an educated man," he said, "but I just cannot accept that everything in the world has gone to pot because two people ate a piece of fruit!" I replied, "Sergei, there were once two people who had everything in the world. But they wanted more, more than everything in the world. I have discovered that I have this more disease." After a moment or two passed, he said, "Yes. So do I." The Church teaches that we all have it, this mania of always wanting more. Certainly, it has gravely damaged our marriages, our families, our culture, even our planet. And it has robbed us of our peace.
The Mass readings this morning ask us to reflect on a closely related subject: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. "Exactly what is this tree? We infer from the Eden story that the Garden must have been filled with much more than every animal and plant living peaceably together; it must also have been filled with every kind of knowledge, for humans uniquely are thinking and contemplating creatures. There must also have been groves of Mathematics, Physics, Literature, Geology, Biology, Philosophy, certainly Horticulture! What exactly was this Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? Well, we can be sure that it was not simply knowing good and evil, for that is simply to take direction, to know boundaries, which Adam and Eve had already received. No. This tree concerns the deeper knowledge surrounding good and evil, its basis, its rationales, and, most important, the authority to decide what will be deemed good and what will be deemed evil. This is why the Tempter promises Eve that this tree will enable her to be like God.
It is uncanny how the Eden story so precisely anticipates our culture today. A few years ago, I was listening to NPR in the car — an interview with an editor of Scientific American, once a respected magazine. The interviewer simply used the word morals in passing, and this unsettled the Scientific American editor. "Morals," she pronounced in a sneering tone, "is the artifact of a superstitious past which, thank goodness, has been consigned to the dust bin of history." Surely, I thought, the outcome of this opinion has already changed our way of life.
On the subject of always more — who could doubt that a runaway consumerism and materialism dominates our culture and has reduced our world to a bloated-yet-empty badlands? Bloated-yet-empty. This is an irony worthy of the Evil One who contrived it, where more is always less — as Adam and Eve discovered, giving away everything in order to back nothing .... and less than nothing. The driving wheel of always more puts us in the same danger, the danger of trading away what is sacred and receiving in return thin tissues of nothing .... or worse, a flimsy evil, which mocks us as we become grotesques of our own uncontroled desires. We are familiar with these grotesques: the glutton who becomes obese or alcoholic, the miser who is cut off from the bonds of love and charity with his fellows, the angry man who tyrannizes the world around him, the envious woman who lets the good fortune of others prey on her mind, the lecher who trades away his marriage and family for pornography. These are all tragically familiar. But to reject morality as a quaint custom from a superstitious age-now-past, this brings us to a new level of the grotesque, a grotesque that could mean the deformation of one's identity and a loss of one's sanity. There is no constancy, no stability, and no peace when the authority for right and wrong has moved from the light of Heaven into the earthbound shadows of private yearning and a soul at war with itself. For in our weakest, even sickest, moment there would be no one and nothing to turn to. And we must never forget that the psychiatrist's first question is always "Mad or bad?" as in morally vicious.
I had a convservation with a Professor of Psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School some years ago. He told me, "Most of what comes through my door is your concern, not my concern [i.e., a priest's concern]. These are people who are mentally tortured because of the bad decisions they have made. Ironically, people like you seize on the few things that are my domain which is true mental illness and then blame moral failings on some imagined mental illness." I hope I don't do that. Nonetheless, I never forgot his words: most of what comes through my door is moral viciousness, which is hardened vice.
Where does one go after seizing all moral authority? There can be only one destination: the question, "Who am I?" or even "What am I?" And that question leads famously into an infinitely receding horizon. Saint Gregory of Nyssa pointed out that humans are the visible image of the invisible God. And because God is inscrutable, unknowable, and ineffable, so are we. Without a close tie of faith to God, Who alone knows the way and alone has stable being, we lose all our reference points and become utterly lost. And we remember what is etched above the gates of Hell: "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here." Embarking then on a journey with no compass points and no destination, we are left with one alternative: to wrestle within ourselves. The ancients called this ψυχομαχια (psychomachia), or the soul at war with itself (as our portrait of St. George and the dragon above depicts). Christians understand this in terms of spiritual warfare as evil appetites do battle with virtue. Rash statements are heard. Desperate remedies proposed. Inevitably, loved ones try to intervene. "You've changed!" they say only to face the trump card, "This was my real self along. You have your truth. I have my truth!" But the pain behind these brave words are as evident as the deformities that begin to appear both inside and outside of the one who struggles. They begin to seek fellowship with others who also wrestle, and a culture of anger, of perceived persecution, and of isolation begins to take root.
Meantime, the United States is tailor-made for this crisis of uncertainty and search for identity. Many years ago, I hosted a young woman from Belgium who studied at our local public university. She was an intelligent and extraordinarily sensitive girl, so at the conclusion of her year away from home, I wanted her insights. I asked her what she liked best and least about America. She told me that she loved America's great size and beauty and freshness. And then she said, with a little cajoling on my side, for she didn't want to offend anybody. "I do like the land of the free, but there is too much .... liberty." She was referring to our highly eroticized culture, and our rampantly immoral entertainments. And for one moment I saw our country through the tender, pure soul of a visiting girl. Yes, we are a country of individuals who want to be free to do anything. The Supreme Court had recently ruled that child pornography was legal so long as the images were modified so as not to depict actual persons. I looked in her eyes and asked myself, what could possibly be next in the land of free? I replied, "Yes. Our Founding Fathers knew that understanding that without God, and His Book of Life, the great American experiment of democracy would fail. As Benjamin Franklin wrote, "only a morally virtuous people are capable of freedom." And at the the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, he elaborated on the word virtue:
I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs
I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot
fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without
his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings, that "except the Lord build
the House, they labor in vain that build it." I firmly believe this; and I also believe
that without His concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better,
than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our partial local interests; our
projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach .... to future ages.
I therefore beg leave to move that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven,
and its blessings on our deliberations be held in this Assembly every morning before we
proceed to business, and that one or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate
in that service.
God governs. Only a short time ago, I would not have been able to argue in favor of God's moral governance. Because that premise was so widely accepted by all Americans as being unquestionably true, who would want to a reflection on that?! What has happened, therefore, to turn the commonplace into the remarkable in two, short generations? I believe that the great game-changer is the Worldwide Web. The Web has provided everyone, myself included, with an amazingly powerful engine to reach people all over the world with one's private truth and morality. In 30 seconds one can have a Facebook page, and within an hour that page can be pasted heavily with all sorts of statements, pictures, even videos, propounding one's personal truth. But social networking is only a small part of this basic change. The big change is pornography, which can capture a soul in an instant and then hold it in prison for a lifetime.
Not so long ago, the only way to obtain pornography was to travel to a distant city, to know which back alley led to the illegal store that sold it, to pay a lot of money to a smut peddler, and most important, to look another man in the eye revealing who and what you are. Today, 70% of the all data on the Internet are hardcore pornography. 67% of American men between the ages of 30 and 50, and 80% of younger men, view it monthly. 65% of all American women do the same. And among the fastest rising groups of porn users are senior citizens.
When we talk about "my truth, and your truth," we must own that sexual lifestyle plays a decisive role. Let us be honest about the so-called truths that dominate our media and which have torn this country apart: pervasive, casual sex among all age groups, races, and socio-economic classes; mainstreaming adultery; abortion to discard the resulting unwanted babies; homosexuality; transgenderism. We do ourselves no good service by denying the obvious: much of what drives our truth is sex drive.
Sadly, people who are honestly confused about their sexuality are not able to sort it out in the dignity of quiet and sensitive reflection. For they quickly become even stampeded by those who would exploit them sexually or enlist their name in a special-interest group's roster. And I have noticed that people who simply question their sexuality have quickly been added to the expanding alphabet of LGBTQ.
I will leave you with a brief anecdote.
Charles Darwin was too busy with his grandchildren and his studies to bother with interviews.
(Darwin scholars have found many crayon marks on his scientific papers!)
Interviews with the press were handled by "Darwin's bulldog," his associate, Thomas Huxley.
During his many interviews, Huxley was asked a shrewd question that, oddly, no one else had noticed.
"Why," it was asked, "did the dry technical journal featuring Darwin's 'Origin of Species' sell out
when no previous run of that journal had ever come close to selling out."
After all, it was reasoned, a good deal of time passed before people became generally aware of what
Darwin was proposing and what the implications might be.
The wily Huxley, an inveterate student of human foibles, sat back in his chair and replied,
"Don’t you know?
Well the word went round," Huxley said, "that Darwin’s theories had gotten rid of God!"
And if there is no God to answer the question, "And why can't I?"
then a very great development has taken place.
To put it the other way round, if you want life style permissions to do whatever you want whenever you want,
then you must first get rid of God.
And that is exactly what is now taking place in our country today.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.