hen politics are heroic, bracing, and brimming with great sorrows and triumphs, the humanist argument against Christianity seems strong: “Your religion sets man panting after ‘spiritual goods’ — he should pant to attain concrete goods for his neighbors. He breaks his heart over the ‘state of his soul’ — he should break a sweat to fulfill the daily demands of justice. The Christian obsession with a future paradise is an ill-planned canal — it saps torrent from the roaring waters of this-world engagement that would otherwise carve out an earthly Paradise.”
The sting of the point is not so great — the number of saints and churchmen who have worked tirelessly to better the conditions of this world, despite their hope for justice in the next, is as sufficient a disproof of the claim as the number of non-religious whose “political participation” peaks at smoking weed and buying the Starbucks Latte that donates a dollar. But when politics is a limp, cast-off crust of a disappointing sandwich, the argument doesn’t just fall — it falls flat, twists itself into a circle, and ends up as an ironic reason for becoming Christian.
The humanist argument relies on the background understanding that somewhere in life’s myriad lies The Most Important Activity; that, somewhere in the flux of possible actions and goals, there is a center that can be adequately called real life — the true drama of human existence. If the life of political activism, revolution, or whatever Christianity “distracts” from could lay no claim to this central importance, the argument would fall, powerless against the nihilism of the age. “So what? You want to help the poor and suffering of the inner city. I want to argue whether Christ has one or two natures. Fred over there wants to play Call of Duty and drink Mountain Dew until he develops aggravated carpal tunnel syndrome and qualifies for disability checks.”
The claim to have found the burning center of reality, the central importance of human life, is crucial in the critique of Christianity — which, obviously, makes its own claim regarding the same. The problem is this: if civic engagement is the highest mankind can achieve; if the ceiling of heroism stops at the level of our public debate; if the drama of life maxes out at political participation — then life is not worth living. I don’t know how else to express this besides to point out the obvious — our political scene is garbage. The revolution isn’t happening. This-world discourse is an embarrassment. The “real life’ that Christianity is supposed to proselytize from has sputtered and stalled into a ditch full of Civil War statues. The great commission to abandon the vagaries of spiritual warfare and take up the temporal fight has devolved into a Twitter war with a President rivaled in spelling skills only by the interlocutors who spar with him. If human life is summarized and crowned in the correct choice between Left and Right, if the really important thing is getting, being and staying “woke” — then life is not worth living.
The first, most attractive fact of Christianity today is a simple one — there is more than this. The news is not The News. The story does not climax in a limp protest against perverse leaders. The meaning of it all is not, at the final account, to identify as the right kind of victim; to support the right kind of health care; to bravely and boldly not be racist. Our current seamy carnival of self-righteous posturing does not add up to the great story of human existence. This is the joy of the prayer that used to be in the Missal:
Remember Christian soul, that thou hast for this day, and every day of thy life,
God to glorify,
Jesus to imitate,
The Blessed Virgin and the Saints to venerate,
The Angels to invoke,
A soul to save,
A body to mortify,
Sins to expiate,
Virtues to acquire,
Hell to avoid,
Heaven to gain,
Eternity to prepare for,
Time to profit by,
Neighbors to edify,
The world to despise,
Devils to combat,
Passions to subdue,
Death perhaps to suffer,
And Judgment to undergo.
A different age would have mocked Christianity for sternly listing out the necessary acts of human existence. Our age should grow envious — the Christian, wrong or right, is engaged in a story in which the possibilities of real existence, importance, and heroism are infinite. The ceilings of his possible love, hate, suffering and joy loom as high as any cathedral’s. It is the daily duty of the Christian to combat Devils. What, the Missal-prayer asks modernity, do you have for this day, and every day of life? What is your story? To trust the wealthy to develop new technology that will make you less lonely, ill, and depressed? To fully identify as a liberal or a conservative? To prove the worth of your existence to your neighbors in a series of tweets? To survive?
The Christian today is like a man digging through a rotting expanse of cheap toys — the castaways of ten billion promotional collaborations between McDonald’s, Disney, and Facebook — only to touch, several miles down, a door. Opening it, he finds (would you believe it!) a home, a giant oak, a thick wedge of pie, sunlight through the windows and cool breeze wrapping his legs. He cries, not simply for the beauty of it, but in relief that the world is not the whole world — there is more. There is a life, a drama, and a story, that pulses underground like a wellspring larger than every earthly ocean.
The Christian today is like a woman at a factory, pushing buttons that affect the movement of several screens. She pushes and pushes until, one day, she hears a muffled sound of industry — of hammers and workmen’s cries. She looks — it’s coming from a trap door under her seat, one she had always known but never paid attention to. She opens it onto a workplace of unbelievable complexity: Wood is shaped by human hands. Metal is forged and flowers are grown by families whose backs do not ache with stillness, but with action. They wave her down. She cries, not just for the goodness of it, but in relief that the tasks of the world are not The Task — there is a project that requires the fullness of her attention, a project that exceeds in quality and scope the combined total of tasks that form the everyday world.
A shallow age brings out a truth true in every age: no worldly story does justice to the significance and magnificence of its central protagonist, the human person. Christianity does. This is the central argument of Walker Percy’s Interview with Himself. As our age grows increasingly violent, petty, pissy and trite, his Interview has blossomed from a humorously inadequate apology into one of the most incisive, undeniable reasons for becoming Catholic that has ever been expressed:
Q: What kind of Catholic are you?
Q: No. I mean are you liberal or conservative?
A: I no longer know what those words mean.
Q: Are you a dogmatic Catholic or an open-minded Catholic?
A: I don’t know what that means, either. Do you mean do I believe the dogma that the Catholic Church proposes for belief?
Q: How is such a belief possible in this day and age?
A: What else is there?
Q: What do you mean, what else is there? There is humanism, atheism, agnosticism, Marxism, behaviorism, materialism, Buddhism, Muhammadanism, Sufism, astrology, occultism, theosophy.
A: That’s what I mean.
Q: To say nothing of Judaism and Protestantism.
A: Well, I would include them along with the Catholic Church in the whole peculiar Jewish-Christian thing.
Q: I don’t understand. Would you exclude, for example, scientific humanism as a rational and honorable alternative?
A: It’s not good enough.
Q: Why not?
A: This life is too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then to be asked what you make of it and have to answer “Scientific humanism.” That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God. In fact I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less. I don’t see why anyone should settle for less than Jacob, who actually grabbed aholt of God and would not let go until God identified himself and blessed him.
Q: Grabbed aholt?
A: A Louisiana expression.