Marking out the abyss

When a person suffers from a general malaise, or even a specific discomfort, ignorance of its source can add great anxiety to his difficulties. Is it something I ate? Did someone pass along a germ? Is this only the first symptom of a greater suffering to come? Diagnosis — even when pointing to a serious problem — can at least relieve the initial anxiety, even if it sets before the patient a rigorous plan of action to deal with the root cause.

I have found the same to be true with social ills, especially when we’re surrounded by a host of perplexing behaviors which seem incomprehensible to more rational minds. We see the disintegration of traditional morals, the growing hysteria in public fora, and legislation which is not only toxic to our Spiritual health, but often contradictory from one law to the next. Thus, when I encountered the work of a sociologist who offered a credible diagnosis, I found comfort in his assessment, even while understanding the seriousness of our predicament.

Pitirim Sorokin was born in Russia in 1889, and was sentenced to death after the Bolshevist revolution. After receiving a pardon from Lenin, he emigrated to the U.S., where he became a distinguished academic, serving for years as head of Harvard’s sociology department. Through the prism of his academic discipline, he discerned a cyclical view of history that reflects a pendulum-like effect. While man is Spiritual and material, we oscillate between emphasizing one at the expense of the other, and he posited that presently we suffer from an overly material view of the world. While one might think that this leads to a more precise appreciation of science, he calls this part of the cycle the Sensate stage, during which culture prioritizes creature comforts at the expense of concrete reality and Spiritual growth.

This explains our obsession with wealth, health, bodily comfort, sensual pleasure, power, and fame. Ethics in this phase, he insists, will be primarily utilitarian; religions must evolve to embrace a growing hedonism; and arts and entertainment will be consumed with decadence and sensationalism. (Nota bene: he died in 1968, so these predictions were offered well before the sexual revolution!).

It is interesting that he found similar epochs that were overcome in the past, and he explained that the corrective is found in a recovery of our ability to reintegrate our material and Spiritual halves in a healthy way. This is something the Church knows well. The only true antidote to power is humility, and the counterweight to hedonism is sexuality rightly ordered. We are not mere animals moving to satisfy one need after another, but rational creatures called to dignity and holiness. 

As for our diagnosis, the prognosis at this point is grave, and the outcome uncertain. His previous examples (the early Greek age, the late Roman empire) give one pause, and his analysis shows that our present decline began several centuries ago. What is heartening, in my view, is that there is no cause for hand-wringing or over-reaction. I find comfort in his logic, which gives something on which to stand as we respond in faith. This is bigger than one generation’s errors, it will require a long time to correct, and should inspire us to learn more about the truth of the human person. 

As the Church confidently teaches, the corrective is in our very psyche, and now is not the time to buckle to prevailing lies. We must hold fast to eternal truths, to the promises of God, and the transformative power of grace. For in the end, Christ didn’t come to save societies, but souls — the people all around us. Salvation is entirely possible in any age, for nothing can stop us from loving our neighbors, and drawing them one-by-one from the yawning abyss. Take courage, for the secret lies simply in being aware of the precarious landscape, and henceforth the Church will provide amply for its navigation.

Anchor columnist Mrs. Kineke is the author of “The Authentic Catholic Woman.” She blogs at feminine-genius.typepad.com.


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