Especially important is the warning to avoid conversations with the demon… So don’t listen to him. Remember that – do not listen.
-William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist
There a is quotation attributed to Eliezer Yudkowski, a researcher in the field of artificial intelligence, that periodically makes the social media rounds in memetic form (generally without attribution): “You are personally responsible for becoming more ethical than the society you grew up in.”
I must confess that I typically rolled my eyes and dismissed the line as the quintessence of trite boilerplate when my Facebook friends shared it (please don’t tell them). However, I was recently reminded of this boilerplate when reading The Habit of Being, the collected letters of the American author Flannery O’Connor. In one letter, discussing her novel The Violent Bear It Away, she says something that struck me as similar: “And now more than ever it seems that the kingdom of heaven has to be taken by violence, or not at all. You have to push as hard as the age that pushes against you.”
Well, then. Maybe Yudkowski was on to something.
As Daniel Stewart says about O’Connor’s stories,
violence is the Christian life. Death in baptism all the way to death in our union with Christ. And the fact that many of O’Connor’s stories are saturated with this kind of violence is absolutely in line with Scripture. Christ’s death was “once for all” (1 Peter 3:18) but we must “die daily” as St. Paul put it (1 Corinthians 15:31). Through this violence, we experience peace and a fullness of life that is otherwise unimaginable.
Stewart’s scriptural citations remind us that O’Connor is not saying anything particularly new. Quite frankly, the language of “dying daily to ourselves” is familiar to the point of being clichéd. One thinks of being told to “just offer it up” by rote if something bad happens, most especially relatively minor inconveniences. It’s a phrase that almost seems like an inside joke for Catholics. This type of violence that one does to oneself, or at least accepts, is very much part of stereotypical Catholic discourse, even if we don’t think about it too profoundly. Similarly, the phrase “take up your cross” has been stripped of many of its connotations of suffering and humiliation; we think of it as something that we “just have to accept.”
Having said all this, the violence of the Christian life that I think is most relevant to O’Connor and Yudkowski is not just dying to ourselves, although that is important. It is in the slaying of the desolations that remove us from God. It is in the destruction of the sins by which we are tempted. C.S. Lewis describes this best in The Great Divorce, in which he tells the story of a ghost haunted by the lizard of lust, which whispers in the ghost’s ear.
‘Would you like me to make him quiet?” said the flaming Spirit—an angel, as I now understood.
“Of course I would,” said the Ghost.
“Then I will kill him,” said the Angel, taking a step forward.
“Oh-ah-look out! You’re burning me. Keep away,” said the Ghost, retreating.
“Don’t you want him killed?”
“You didn’t say anything about killing him at first. I hardly meant to bother you with anything so drastic as that.”
“It’s the only way,” said the Angel, whose burning hands were now very close to the lizard. “Shall I kill it?”
The conversation goes on, with the Angel asking again and again, “May I kill it?” There can be no playing with one’s sins and temptations, no treating sin as an occasional indulgence. To fight sin, there must be final and absolute victory in mind, to be achieved as immediately as reasonably possible. Acts of contrition typically include a promise to amend one’s life, but there are variations promising to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin. Not just the evil act is to be avoided, but also situations that are likely to tempt the penitent. As Bishop Robert Barron says, “Some forms of evil are so profound that they have to be hacked to pieces,” and there can be no “half-measures.” The Romans defeated Carthage twice, but Carthage regained its strength quickly, and so when the Romans won the Third Punic War and destroyed the city, legend has it that they sowed the land with salt so that nothing could grow again to rival Rome. Such is the battle against sin.
These are not concepts that only came into being with the advent of Lewis or O’Connor; Jesus says to cut off your hand if it causes you to sin. Indeed, the things O’Connor, Lewis, Bishop Barron, and Yudkowski say are but footnotes to that exhortation. While the violence of the ethical life as they describe it is not personal violence against others, it does demand dramatic sacrifice and uncompromising dedication to achieving total holiness.
Violence against Tempters
Sometimes it is not just our hand that causes us to sin; sometimes something in the world is a near occasion of sin that must be conquered, and in these cases, if you intend to fulfill your personal responsibility to become more ethical than the society in which you grew up, fulfilling that responsibility will not just involve being more tolerant than the people around you, or donating more money than they do, or being more politically active than they are, but overthrowing the tempters. It is not just the case that society is neutral and passive and not as good as it could be, but actively offering temptations of one sort or another. Society will not simply lack ethical progress, whatever that means, but will demand your allegiance in unethical matters.
One example is pornography. It is ubiquitous. The man who habitually watches pornography, but wants to stop, cannot toy with viewing it as an occasional indulgence. The problem is that there are pressures everywhere telling him that it is normal. There are advertisements everywhere from the newspapers to boards by the side of the road are designed to provoke lust, and not only for objects. “Serious” and “mature” entertainment for “adults,” whether at the cineplex or on TV (and not just on HBO anymore) depict sexual activity more and more frankly. News websites try to get more clicks by publishing titillating articles about the latest celebrity nudity, with a video or photograph. Everywhere, the message is that the objectification of people is normal, it is fun, it is normal, it is harmless, it is normal, everyone’s O.K. with it. And if he objects to it, he is a moralising prude. Do these rise to the level of hard-core pornography? No, but they are certainly appealing to the same impulses, and can easily serve as triggers. So if he wants to avoid being tempted, where does he go? What does he cut out of his life?
Another example is the current state of much public discourse in the English-language webverse, which is riddled with pride, anger, and uncharity. It can seem that every other post on social media demonizes a politician. In some Catholic spheres online, it often feels that every other remark accuses another Catholic of heresy or sin or being a Pharisee or a cafeteria Catholic or being a secret Protestant or just plain being unlike Jesus. We delight in the embarrassment of our opponents. And in the real world, it is so easy to speak disparagingly of the idiots in my life. These personal attacks are so casual and normal, and there seems to be no end to their escalation. Even if we understand that these insults are over the top, continued exposure to a discourse that can only trade in them still has a negative effect on those who hear it, and it is easy for these listeners to fall into the trap of lobbing insults when they speak. Everywhere we are encouraged to disdain our opponents with as much scorn and snark as is possible, and when we do it “perfectly” (to use Buzzfeed’s word), we get laughs, congratulations, likes, and shares (what else could a person want?). As James Tillman says,
Sarcasm, for the most part, is like cocaine: snorting it through your nose might make you feel good about yourself, but it hurts your ability to understand and engage with reality… To be sarcastic is to present a kind of deliberate misunderstanding of a position that, somehow, is supposed to make you superior to it. Thus its popularity among those who must present themselves as superior to that which they do not comprehend: Voltaire, teenagers, and the insecure.
Perpetual sarcasm and condescension become ingrained habits, and it takes hard work to stop seeing everything as a set-up for a clever put-down of a rival. Where does one go for charitable discourse, to cut out the uncharitable anger and pride which seems universal, and for relief from the need to humiliate our opponents as wittily as possible?
The Demands of Lent
Lent demands that we root out temptations and sins, that we repent and are faithful to the Gospel. We go into the desert with Christ, sacrificing – even if only temporarily – the goods of the world so that we might focus on the most important good: God. We live more poorly than the world so that we may fight against its pomp and empty promises. In sacrificing the small goods, not only do can we focus on the ultimate good, we can also better identify evils. And when we go into the desert without even things which are good, we certainly cannot bring along that which hurts us.
Socially, pornography and arrogant insults are common currency. The society and age in which we have grown up push them upon us. In order to push back against them, maybe for some of us it’s necessary to cut the internet or TV cable for a little while, at least until we’ve built up good habits again. Maybe social media is a luxury some of us can do without. Maybe it’s necessary to choose to sacrifice a little privacy and pride to let a trusted friend help with a pornography habit. Maybe we can get outside our bubble and spend more time empathizing with the idiots with whom we disagree. Maybe we don’t have to show off our urbane wit and sophisticated sarcasm all the time. Maybe the trite boilerplate of a meme shared on Facebook is actually on to something important. These suggestions are not all meant to be prescribed universally, but they might be good courses of action for some people. Most comforts are not as important as virtues, and so we may need to exercise some violence, as it were, towards them for the sake of those virtues.
Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam.