Darryl wrote: â€œI like Calebâ€™s point about love as a social ethic. It sounds far more Christian to me than talk of power, might, the state, legislation, and kingship. But if I didnâ€™t know Caleb better, Iâ€™d also think it borders on Hallmarkian abstraction. That is, it sounds like â€œlove will find a way.â€ I understand that Caleb, with his powers of legal reasoning and attachment to the Kansas prairie is much more situated than that. But I would like to hear him bring his idealism down to reality. Without a specific code, how is such a vague appeal to Christian love any hedge against the liberalism he decries?â€
This deserves a full-throated response, as I believe it is the key to these discussions. Yes, our work must be to recover a muscular Augustinian understanding of love as a social ethic from the degradations of Hallmarkian abstraction. So yes, it must be brought down to reality. I appreciate Darryl holding my feet to this fire. This ethic means that to suffer oneâ€™s place and oneâ€™s people in the particularity of its and their needs is the only true basis for finding love, friendship, and an authentic, meaningful life. This is nothing less than the key to the pursuit of Christian holiness, which is the whole of the Christian adventure: to live in love with the frailty and limits of oneâ€™s existence, suffering the places, customs, rites, joys, and sorrows of the people who are in close relation to you by family, friendship, and community–all in service of the truth, goodness, and beauty that is best experienced directly.
It means sticking where you are. It means not separating yourself from others with a three-car garage in a sidewalk-less suburb. It means having babies and teaching them to love their place. It means mothers who actually mother instead of a two income family. It means fathers who actually father instead of abdicating everything to cable-TV and the so-called “experts”. It means working towards an economy that integrates rather than disintegrates. It means staying with your church even when it infuriates you. Leaving a church should be nearly as drastic a decision as leaving a spouse. It means making the old things new continually. It means daily making Odysseus’s choice to give up “immortality” of self to return home. Make no mistake: I am not talking about “being good.” Sometimes this love is filled with sin, despair, failure. It ought to be filled with sin–and forgiveness. Sometimes I think the first sign of health might just be if we could rouse ourselves such a human task as an honest sin now and then–followed by confession and repentance of course. This love, in fact, gives the sinner something to push against. And real sin is the first step towards real redemption. I wrote about this once:
***Most commentators [make] the mistake of wondering whether [we are seeing] the disappearance of the virtue. Rather, we ought to wonder whether we are losing something just as important to a healthy society: the existence of â€œvirtuous vice.â€ The practitioners of virtuous vice are more forgivable because their sins are human sins, pursued with human passions. They approach life with the attitude of â€œreal vice or no vice at all.â€ As such, their vices remain on a human scale. Retaining a high level of skill and daring, these sinners celebrate their humanity by consciously risking annihilation. The virtuous vices are virtuous because they carry within them the seed of redemption: a recognition of the truth that human beings are not merely materialistic beings, not just a collection of elements, but spiritual beings capable of a meaningful annihilation. In George Santayanaâ€™s memorable phrase, those who practice virtuous vice are â€œmoral, though fugitive.â€ As G.K. Chesterton put it, â€œthey accept the essential idea of man; they merely seek it wrongly.â€***
More recently, someone sent me this bit from Walker Percy: “Christians talk about the horror of sin, but they have overlooked something. They keep talking as if everyone were a great sinner, when the truth is that nowadays one is hardly up to it. There is very little sin in the depths of the malaise. The highest moment of a malaisian’s life can be the moment when he manages to sin like a proper human (Look at us, Binx–my vagabond friends as good as cried out to me–we’re sinning! We’re succeeding! We’re human after all!)” To love like this is to be human, to fail, to struggle in the mud sometimes. It means changing the way we see things and understand the world. This way of seeing–“from the heart”–bonds us to an unenforceable code. Do we need a code to tell us that we ought to have feelings of affection for our kids?
This was the answer I gave to this question a few years ago, I think it hold up fairly well:
***I think for starters, we need to clear our lives of all the mass culture weeds that choke out authentic growth. Not just the Hollywood weed, but the Wal*Mart weed as well. Read the classics and the Church Fathers instead of junk fiction and self-help crap. And then go about the hard work of learning the discipline of place. Get married. Have kids, lots of them. Don’t turn them over to others to raise. When I finished law school I had offers to work at several large east coast law firms for twice the money I could make at home. But home was more important, so we stayed. Shortly after law school, my wife Ann and I, with our four boys, moved to 18 acres outside of town. We try to grow some of our own food, Ann homeschools the boys, we have a commitment to this place and these people that trumps most of the other things we could spend our life pursuing. It isn’t perfect or anywhere near that, but it is, we hope, a decent resistance. Recently I made a move from working at the largest law firm in the state, a job to which I commuted for years, to setting up a solo country practice. There is risk in all of this, I supposeâ€”commitment by its nature portends disaster. Inevitably either we fail the place or person or idea we are committed to or it will fail us. That’s real life though. And in that crucible I think the terrible beauty and transcendent hope of the uncertain journey of faith in Jesus becomes real, and our souls become attuned to that reality.***
I am partial to this sonnet by poet David Wright, especially the last two lines:
“Elegy for Father Jape, Along Old Route 24”
In particular soil, dark Kansas soil,
a man and his wife will husband Japeâ€™s corpse,
layer it low among husks and cobs. Oils
from his reddened face will, in their due course,
become a part of the fall mud. His head
amidst a field of rotted pumpkin shells
will find its home at last. The happy dead
he always preferred to the happy hells
of the living and the glib. â€œTe Deum
Laudamusâ€ the crows will sing as they pluck
out his hair and leave his eyes. Like Adam,
he gets to see the fall and all its muck.
To save the world, he learns, at last, he must
conserve one fertile place, become its dust.