The Fear of Meaning
“I can understand that you might be against abortion, but where do you get off saying people who are OK with it shouldn’t be allowed to have one?”
This question was posed to me by an angry co-worker at a daily newspaper about 30 years ago. He had cornered me in the men’s room and was voicing the collective consternation of the newsroom over a column I had written for the Sunday edition. It was published under the headline I had attached to it: “Antiseptic Murder Is Still Murder.”
I had written it in response to a column that had appeared the previous week, written by another staffer who had been praised by the executive editor in a letter which had appeared in a locked glass case reserved for important announcements from the management. The manner of its posting was designed to demonstrate the official approval accorded to its content.
The content was this: that abortions used to be dangerous when they were illegal and that they are safe now that they can be performed under hygienic circumstances. The conclusion that followed was that legalized abortion is a good thing, a mark of progress, and that any attempt to make it illegal again would return us to a dark time when abortions could be dangerous. But, of course, the argument misses something rather important: that abortion is about morality, not hygiene. Hence, the headline for my column: “Antiseptic Murder Is Still Murder.”
The section editor who had decided to publish my column received some heat from her colleagues for having done so. She was a staunch pro-abortion feminist, in lockstep with the rest of the newsroom staff and senior editors, but she was an old-fashioned liberal who thought the newspaper had an obligation to allow articulate dissent from its editorial positions. She was, in short, a dinosaur and her kind are now almost extinct. I wrote subsequent columns in a similar vein. None of them ever made it to publication, and I was finally told that my contributions were no longer desired as our wire service subscriptions included the opinion pieces of syndicated conservative columnists, should the editors decide it was appropriate to run them. In other words, go away.
I came to understand that it was not my position on abortion that upset my co-workers, but that I held it as more than an opinion. Times have changed and the hatred by the Left for all who oppose its agenda has become increasingly vicious. But 30 years ago, a conservative in a newsroom was tolerated. He was considered eccentric, like one who insisted on wearing a bow tie, but he added a bit of color to the otherwise monochromatic mindset that prevailed.
The conservative was thought to be a contrarian, rooted in some atavistic beliefs, but he was granted a somewhat grudging right to his opinions. The important thing to note is that they were considered opinions. Now, an opinion may have no more weight than the individual who holds it. It represents a personal judgment, almost a matter of taste. As such, it makes no claim to exclusive truth. When a majority holds the same opinion on a matter, it becomes a consensus and acquires, for the time being, a democratic authority. But all opinions are subject to revision or replacement as they are not rooted in unchanging principle. They are creatures of time destined to be devoured by their creator.
In my published column on abortion, I did two unforgivable things: I used logic and I said that something was true. I submitted that a successful abortion was one that ended the life of the unborn child and, therefore, abortion was the deliberate ending of an innocent human life by violent means. This is called murder. The only reason to oppose abortion is that it is murder and murder is intrinsically evil, i.e. it can never be good under any circumstances.
That legalized abortion allows murder to occur under hygienic circumstances can in no way be considered a good thing that ought to be preserved, I argued. It may be true that were abortion rightly regarded as murder and forbidden by law, some women would seek to kill their babies anyway, perhaps resorting to backroom procedures that pose more danger of infection or injury to themselves, but there can be no justification for facilitating murder on that account. Such was, in essence, the content of my column. It was not commended by the management.
In the days that followed its publication, I received some cold looks and there were some who simply looked away, as though it were best to ignore my presence. I didn’t belong, not because I was pro-life (a term whose use is forbidden by the Associated Press Style Book), but because I went beyond expressing an opinion and insisted on an absolute truth. I was an apostate from the religion of relativism. Anathemas were pronounced against me.
There is a wonderful passage in Flannery O’Connor’s novel “Wise Blood” in which a street preacher who is promoting the religion of relativism in a formal and self-conscious way summarizes with awful clarity the overarching belief of our time. Hazel Motes has founded “The Church Without Christ” and he is trying to attract followers. Standing on the hood of his car as a movie theater is letting out, he harangues the indifferent passers-by with these salient words:
“I preach there are all kinds of truth, your truth and somebody else’s, but behind all of them there’s only one truth, and that is that there’s no truth… no truth behind all truths is what I and this church preach!”
Hazel Motes cannot succeed, for he is preaching to the choir and the choir is fast asleep; so deep in the dream of relativism that they cannot be awakened from it. Today’s televangelists remind people of what they don’t believe but think they should. Hazel Motes was telling people what they do believe but don’t acknowledge.
The greatest fear that most of our contemporaries have is that their thoughts and actions may have consequences. To put it simply, they fear that life may have meaning after all. If there is a knowable truth, then we are obliged to know it. If there is a knowable truth, then we are obliged to live accordingly. If there is no knowable truth, then all we can have are guesses, some more appealing than others, about why we are here and what we should be doing. How much should we stake on a mere guess? And what grounds can there possibly be for forbidding anything, even murder?
We want to know why we are here, or, at least, some of us do. We long for meaning. The objects we perceive through the senses have no meaning in themselves. They are, at best, what St. Augustine calls “useful goods.” They serve something beyond what they are in themselves. Food is a useful good if the body is hungry. It has no intrinsic value. Sex is a useful good if I wish to have a family. It has no intrinsic value. The madness of the modern world lies in its insistence that the merely useful good has an intrinsic value. In the two instances cited above – food and sex – this has led to epidemics of obesity and promiscuity.
Now, despite what it may be politically correct to say, obesity comes mainly from gluttony. Food no longer serves its higher end and the incidental pleasure of eating becomes an end in itself. In the case of sex, promiscuity arises from divorcing intercourse from the procreative function and making the incidental pleasure of sex an end in itself. In both cases, the result is misery. Fat people suffer as do the sex-obsessed, for both have tried to make the useful good that which is good in itself.
There is only one thing that is good in itself: God. All useful goods are only used properly when they lead us to God. When they take us away from God, they become sins. If God is denied as the ultimate good, then we are left with useful goods that serve no purpose beyond the immediate and transitory pleasure they provide. We become like pigs at the trough, grunting and squealing but incapable of articulating any purpose for life higher than personal gratification. This is the general condition of society at the moment, and there is no indication that a further descent into the bestial will be averted.
If personal gratification is the highest good to which all else is to be subordinated, then other people have value only in relation to that gratification, including unborn babies, or even born babies, for that matter. This is why we had a Princeton ethics professor, Peter Singer, advocating euthanasia for mentally and physically disabled children who have slipped through the pre-natal screening that ideally should have ended their lives while they were still in the womb. But abortion, as horrifying as it is, represents an effect of an even more horrifying cause.
We are now witnessing what appears to be the final triumph of relativism. This ironically takes the form of declaring that relativism is the only absolute value: “…no truth behind all truths…” The current media preoccupation with transgenderism has to do, not with a concern for men who want to be women or vice versa, but with erasing the notion that absolutes exist in any form, even in the most basic biological division of the sexes. It is a rejection of the creation and the Creator; a dethroning of God and the elevation of … what?
There is nothing one can put in the place of God, for what other person or power can bring forth and sustain the creation, assigning it order and meaning? When absolute truth is denied and relativism triumphs, chaos becomes the fruit of victory. Chaos is darkness. It is the war of all against all. It is hell.
We are heading for hell on Earth. And who will prevail in this hell? Whose domain will it be? The formlessness of relativism can only lead to chaos, but chaos cannot endure. It is a prelude to tyranny. The restoration of order without principle, without God, will be the result of raw power, of the human will of the most ruthless individuals. From where will such people draw their strength? From goodness? Or from evil?
There are demonic forces that influence human events. To say as much is considered madness these days, but how else can we account for the astounding change we have witnessed in the West? All that was abhorred and condemned a generation ago is now accepted and praised. It is traditional morality that is now abhorred and condemned. The world has been stood on its head, almost overnight. Can human agency have accomplished this concerted task on its own? Is there not a coordinating power beyond anything of which any individual man or group is capable? It would seem so. And for those who have not lost the teaching of the Faith, it is certain.
The great appeal of draining ultimate meaning from human actions is that it leaves us free to do whatever we like without consequences, or so it seems. But if this supposed freedom is based on a lie, that is, on unreality, it will collapse and the consequences of all we have done will fall upon us, crushing us under their terrible weight.
It is sometimes difficult to understand the rationale behind relativism. The media are its mouthpiece, but media pundits often speak out of both sides of their mouth at once. When a champion of relativism is caught in a sex scandal, we are told it’s “just sex” and that “everybody lies about sex.” No big deal. But when someone who has in any way stood for absolute truth is even accused of indecorous words or behavior, there is a call for that person’s head on a platter. Moral outrage is selective, i.e. relative. What we must bear in mind is that almost all we are told by the media is either a lie or a misrepresentation of truth. We should, in consequence, ignore it.
We have reached a point of the near total corruption of all of our institutions. This includes Church as well as government and media. There will be little help for our salvation coming from the usual quarters. Quite the reverse. But we know the truth. It is simple and unchanging. We know that we are made in the image of God, and that image is eternal. We know that we have the freedom to conform ourselves to that image or to sink into our animal nature. We know that if we love God and love our neighbor, we will be one with Christ. What more do we need to know?
But knowledge must be joined to will. And the will of the world is like a powerful tide pulling us out to sea, into the formless void that would undo the creation. Never before has the world been so arrayed against goodness, against God. If we are to resist the pull of the world, we must become ever more mindful that we are spiritual beings. Everything around us conspires to push us down, into fallen nature, and to convince us that we are little more than apes with a large brain. But if we keep the beauty of Christ in front of us, in our mind’s eye, as our ideal, we can know our own dignity and destiny. Our will cannot be enslaved to base thoughts and desires, to the bestial level of the age, without our consent. And as powerful as are the demonic forces ranged against us, they are as nothing compared to the power of grace that is always flowing toward us, ready to buoy us upward.