It seems fair to suggest that the “neighbor” carries a great deal of weight in the Bible. In the book of the covenant, the Israelites are commanded not to covet their neighbor’s possessions or wife.
Over one thousand years later, our Lord is asked which of the commandments are greatest. He answers, “You shall love the Lord your God… and your neighbor as yourself.” In this context, being asked “Who is my neighbor?” he responds by telling the parable of The Good Samaritan.
The idea of the neighbor would seem important for more reasons than I have the ability to comprehend, but one thing that leaps out to me is that the neighbor is an actual “concrete reality”, not an abstraction like “the world”.
My family has been watching Mad Men lately, so I watched a couple of episodes over the weekend and it’s easy to see why the series is so compelling. By looking at the inner life of an advertising agency in the early 1960’s, it provides a perspective on issues and ideas that dominate the contemporary mind and politics.
We are living through a transition perhaps unlike anything since the western Roman Empire dissolved into the Germanic Kingdoms during the long fifth and sixth centuries (or at least since the Reformation of western Christianity in the 16th and 17th centuries). In a single blog post, one can only speak somewhat glibly about a matter of such global import, but let me state some of the more obvious points. World Wars One and Two, especially WWI, ended the European Enlightenment experiment, which was itself a turn from and largely a renunciation of the European Christian heritage.
Vincent van Gogh, 1890. Kröller-Müller Museum. The Good Samaritan (after Delacroix). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The effects in America were delayed, but the United States of 2012 are not the United States of 1963 (the year I was born), much less the United States of 1912.
When we think of World War II, we speak of things like “the greatest generation,” the great courage of the boys who conquered the Nazi war machine, and “Our Finest Hour.”
As is so often the case, however, while we won the war, I believe we have lost the peace. The ideas that gave rise to Mussolini in Italy, Hitler in Germany, and Stalin in Russia were complex and local. That is why Italy gave birth to fascists, Germany to National Socialists, and Russia to International Socialists.
But it is not hard to see the common root of all three philosophies: the will to power unleashed by a relativism rooted in opposition to religion and the constraints of the Western (Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian) perception of truth. More briefly: power, relativism, and secularism.
These ideas now dominate American thought and politics, though the will to power bears many disguises.
For teenagers and pre-adolescents it is called “love” and sung about with ever-increasing cynicism. For most people it is called “rights” of one sort or another. In every case, love and rights have been made social and political commodities used to barter in the marketplace of power. They are the coin of the realm, as it were.
The trouble is this: as “coin” they are paper money or, worse, electronic digits. They are so abstract that you can make them mean anything you want. Love is a euphemism for desire. Rights are a euphemism for power.
The neighbor, on the other hand, is a real person, located in a particular place, with particular needs, offering particular temptations. In the so-called Christian “worldview”, the neighbor is penultimate, our duty to love him second only to our duty to love God.
“The world” is just another abstraction. Only God is able to love the world. Do not believe for a moment that you “are the world.” You are not. You are a neighbor. You are one person able to love other people as you come in contact with them through words, mind, and body.
The more we try to change the world, the more harm we do. When we gain the wisdom to defend and run our corners of the world (meaning our kitchens, dining rooms, bedrooms, living rooms, and yards), then we might be able to bring that wisdom to our communities.
The Good Samaritan by Aimé Morot (1880) shows the Good Samaritan taking the injured man to the inn. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When other people try to meddle as we seek to fulfill our duties to our household and community, we ought to tell them to go away. Part of governing is protecting. The world is full of meddlers known as experts.
The rise of the expert is part of the movement of thought I mentioned above, toward the will to power, relativism, and secularism. The habit of mind that sustains and is motivated by this contra-trinity of ideas is abstractionism.
Because the public sphere is dominated by people who deny any place to religion in the discussion of public matters, anything that once was included in and expressed by the religious life has been absorbed by the expert, who is a secularized priest.
At this point I am going to make an assertion that will trouble people. It troubles me too. I am going to argue that in a very deep sense we lost World War II. Not to the Axis military powers by any means, don’t get me wrong. Hitler, probably with a sense of Wagnerian fulfillment, committed suicide. Japan surrendered, broken and humiliated. Italy gave up.
But when our boys came home, they came home to, and brought with them, an America that was deeply altered. How could it not have been? We had just endured four years of the most horrifying war in the history of the human race, in terms of sheer unleashed destructive power. The boys who returned did not come home whole and the nation they returned to was not a whole nation.
The wild optimism of the 50’s disguised a terror that embodied itself in bomb shelters and air raid drills, and in what President Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex,” which he warned us against with genuine fear.
Americans have always been a nomadic people, at least northerners. But after World War II the best words to describe America might well be “anxiety-driven nomads”. We were unmoored and didn’t have any idea where the port should be. Our minds were unhinged. Everybody either “loaded up the truck and… moved to Beverly” or wished they could.
Out in California (and Seattle, and Denver, and, eventually Phoenix, Albuquerque, etc.) we would build a new world on new principles of love and freedom.
Then came the sixties.
Even as a child I was amused by the arrogance of the 60’s generation (probably because I they were a few years older than I), but as the years have passed and I’ve listened with my mind to the lyrics of the era, I chuckle ironically. In 1963 or so, what the world needed “now, is love sweet love.” And for the first time in world history, a group of east coast boarding school young people who read beatnick poetry had discovered this secret and were ready to reveal it to the world.
I cannot imagine what it must have been like for parents of the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s to try to raise children. Increasingly centralized control over the economy and the minds of children through schools and media created an anxiety the world probably had never seen before. If it had happened suddenly, it probably would have created a panic. Instead it created an intense vulnerability for parents who wanted their children not to have to
The Good Samaritan by Rembrandt (1630) shows the Good Samaritan making arrangements with the innkeeper. A later (1633) print by Rembrandt has a reversed and somewhat expanded version of the scene. Roland E. Fleischer and Susan C. Scott, Rembrandt, Rubens, and the Art of their Time: Recent perspectives, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997, ISBN 0915773104, pp. 68-69. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
live through a depression and a global war.
No children had ever had so much power, in the form of money. It would be silly to suggest that they created their own music forms, but the people who ran the recording industries knew how to take advantage of their new power and to direct it to their desired ends. For a couple years, a battle took place over who would dominate pop music: the Pat Boone’s with their “wholesome” (though, I would argue, syrupy) music or the more radical Little Richards. Elvis settled that question by forging a quasi-compromise, singing wholesome songs and unleashing the sexual charisma in a bewildering succession.
By the 60’s, marketers and the music industry had created the “teenager” (a term coined by the recently departed Dick Clarke) and the teenager felt his power. The generation gap was invented as a permanent condition so everybody could try to adjust himself to it. Parents were pushed further out of their children’s lives (a process begun much earlier by the legally coercive common school movement of the early 20th century).
Many vulnerable parents were relieved. They didn’t know how to raise children anyway, having spent most of their own childhoods separated from their parents. So they turned to the experts and made Benjamin Spock a prophet for an age (and spawned an industry of “how to raise your child on the new principles of social management and modern irreligious child psychology). They turned their vulnerability into a virtue by concluding that they were better able to raise children because they had the latest teachings on parenting.
The children took the same approach to love. Only, instead of reading books, they listened to music. The Beatles began with cute, innocent songs, like “I want to hold your hand” (yeah, right). And while I remain an admirer of the extraordinary creativity and musical talent on display in the music of the Beatles and Paul McCartney’s solo work, I cannot deny that their vision of love left much to be desired.
It wasn’t long before rock and roll and pop music were working a revolution of their own – one long ago predicted by Nietzsche. The generation of the 60’s was drunk on revolution and high on saving the world. They were convinced that their generation had found the path to truth, which was merely a path laid out for them by John Dewey in their schools. It was a path to “your own truth”, to finding yourself through experimentation, through mindlessly rejecting the traditions of your parents and ancestors, and through rising above the limitations of your place to find yourself in a new universal place that is nowhere.
Perhaps that is the essence of John Lennon’s wistful ending to his strangely judgmentally sympathetic song: “Isn’t he a bit like me and you?”
Believing they were rejecting, but in fact merely absorbing more deeply, what their parents had handed on to them, the children of the 60’s made relativism their defining value. They were thoroughly debunked. They were ready to be conditioned.
America was “preserved,” – or at least found some ballast for a few decades, and only partially – by her “rednecks”, people not smart enough or schooled enough or high enough to realize that all they had to do to save the world was give more power to the government in DC. But an instinct to preserve disconnected from the wisdom that knows what and how to preserve is as vulnerable as the California teenager.
No society can survive relativism. Over the next couple decades we might experience the reaping of the whirlwind.
Perhaps we will see the face of our Lord soon. Perhaps He has ordained a time of great testing for us. Perhaps He is done with us (ie. American Christianity). Perhaps He will surprise us by granting repentance and renewal. There is no way to know what the future holds, because He is merciful. But if it were not for His mercy, it would be easy enough to predict: chaos, violence, breakdown, and tyranny. Same as always.
If He grants repentance, though, it won’t be abstract repentance and emotional remorse. It will be a return to love of neighbor as the valid expression of our love for God.
Really, this is my point: as a people and a nation, we have adopted a philosophy of life that is about love in the abstract, love as a word to stand in for my own passions and desires, love that is about the lover and not the beloved.
Loving our neighbors is not liking or feeling good about them. It is actively willing, not power for ourselves, but their blessedness. And our first neighbor is the one we covenant with to be faithful, “till death do us part.”
That is why the marriage is the bedrock of civilization and the family is the fundamental unit of freedom. It arises from a covenant that is a promise to “love your neighbor as yourself” and nothing else can lead to a flourishing society.
There are, contra the relativists who enabled Hitler and Mussolini to take over Germany and Italy and who are always the avante garde of tyranny, I say, there are permanent principles rooted in unchanging human nature. The command to love the neighbor is a command to be blessed and fruitful and happy. It is, in God, our only social hope. It is a law of nature.
If students read Latin texts in school instead of the swill we use to impose our relativistic morality on them, they would know that.