Sunday, December 15, 2019

A Loss Of Some Magnitude: A Sunday Rumination

     As I prepared myself for Mass this morning – and remember, it’s Gaudete Sunday, so be sure to get in some rejoicing – I was struck by a thought that seemed to come completely out of left field. It was about the inseparability of gain from loss: the impossibility of making progress in any dimension without simultaneously and unavoidably losing ground in some other. And as it is Sunday, a day on which my attention is turned to matters of faith and the spirit, that got me thinking about some of the gains and losses we have experienced, over the century behind us, that pertain to those things.

     One thing we have lost – or have sacrificed voluntarily – is the use of our religious affiliation as an organizing principle.

     That phrase might look a bit odd to a Twenty-First Century American Christian. Yet a few moments’ thought will unpack it easily.

     One’s religious affiliation was at one time a major determinant – for some, the sole determinant of importance – of one’s major life choices and activities. Think about the decisions Americans once made based on the dictates and constraints of their chosen faith and denomination:

  • Where to live;
  • Whom to marry;
  • Where to school the kids;
  • Where to attend services (of course);
  • How to spend a large fraction of one’s “free time.”

     Some of those choices have been ripped out of our hands by economic forces. For example, rare is the family in our time that can afford a genuine religious education for its children, no matter how much they might want it. Property taxes have greatly diminished the ability and the willingness of typical parents to pay for a religious education. Other choices have been greatly affected by material matters regardless of whether we’re aware of it. For example, one’s choice of residential neighborhood is likely to be constrained by where one can work – a choice that grows steadily more confining as the specialization of all occupations accelerates.

     Whereas one’s faith was once a major principle of organization, by which one’s major life choices were guided if not determined, for the great majority of contemporary American believers it has taken a distant back seat to other considerations.

     This is not uniformly true, of course. Some sects still treat their faith as the consideration that eclipses all others. For example, the typical Hasidic Jewish family will almost certainly be found in a neighborhood that’s populated all but exclusively by other Hasidic Jewish families. Mormons also tend to dominate the neighborhoods in which they live, though not to the degree of the Hasidim. And Jewish parents still urge their children to marry within their faith, though they no longer chant the Kaddish if Junior should marry a gentile.

     Alongside those things, Americans’ faith was once an important determinant of their use of the leisure time. Adults would involve themselves in charities organized by the church or synagogue. Children would participate in games and sports affiliated with their church or synagogue. There was a greater emphasis on outreach as well, a practice that today seems confined to the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Much of this vanished with the old public service pitches about how “the family that prays together stays together” and how we should “go to the church of your choice.”

     Some would say we’re better off today – that contemporary life is freer and richer for the reduction of churchly importance in our lives. But it occurs to me that many of the social malaises we know today were all but entirely absent among those who put faith and involvement in it at the center of their lives.

     Before the rising cost of living forced American wives out of their homes and into wage employment, the Missus had more hours per week and more energy for neighborhood involvement. In a faith-centered community, such involvements were likely to draw in the other family members. That strengthened the attachment of the various family members both to the faith and to the family. Divorces were rare. Children tended to marry from within the neighborhood, and therefore within the faith. The whole edifice was strengthened.

     Yes, there were drawbacks. It could seem confining. A genuinely unhappy couple could find the stresses to be unbearable. And the kids would complain, as kids always have and always will, about Mom and Dad imposing on “their time.” Nothing worth having comes without cost.

     But what do we lament today? Marriages that fly apart at a touch. Large scale anomie among the young and pervasive loneliness among adults. Neighborhoods in which the neighbors are strangers to one another. A general rootlessness in which the only things that seem to endure are taxes and zoning inspectors. And piles and piles of gadgets that absorb an unholy fraction of our time and attention...whether we will it or not.

When I wrote the following in Which Art In Hope:
     “Excuse me, Miss,” Stromberg’s voice boomed out. Teresza jerked her head around to find the sociologist and most of the class staring straight at her. “Yes, you who’re holding Mr. Morelon’s hand in a grip of steel.” A titter ran through the hall. Teresza flushed. “Do you have an opinion on the subject?”
     “Uh, no, Professor.” Teresza rose and gathered her thoughts as best she could. “I was just surprised to hear that they had all that junk.”
     Stromberg smiled broadly. “Everyone is, Miss...?”
     The sociologist frowned. “Teresza Chistyakowski? Aren’t you a junior?”
     How on Hope did he know? “Yes, sir.”
     “Then you must have taken this course two years ago.”
     Teresza nodded. “Yes, sir, with Professor Friedland.”
     Stromberg started to say something else, but apparently changed tracks before it could come out. “Well, you may take my word for it, Miss. In 2061, thirty-four percent of the economy of the richest sector, which was called the United States, was devoted to entertainment and diversions. As a category, that outstripped the second largest sector, medical services, by more than two to one. If our histories are accurate, its products were consumed with an unbelievable avidity, and its customers were perpetually hungry for more.”

     ...I was principally concerned with family shrinkage and the prevalent obsession with material goods of a transiently entertaining variety. I hadn’t yet started to think about the importance of faith in holding the family together. But the connection is strong.

     There is no Last Graf. It’s wrong to encourage people to adopt a faith for “practical reasons” or to advance “community integrity.” Nor is there any prospect of strengthening religious involvements among people who lack the desire. But the loss of religious affiliation as an organizing principle counterbalances our material gains rather dramatically. Sometimes the loss seems the larger of the two.

     May God bless and keep you all.

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