“Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, all things are vanity! (Eccles. 12:8)” The Book of Ecclesiastes’ grim realism expresses the melancholy we would feel if we were left with the empty clichés of post-Christian liberalism. To illustrate my point, imagine Franzia as the only wine option. I’m sure a resounding ‘No!’ or ‘Is that it?’ would be the typical reaction. Now translate that reaction to the moral realm and you will see what I am getting at. We all know our culture is full of cheap clichés. Take a trip to the local shopping center and I’m sure you’ll come across some. Although there are numerous clichés pervading our culture, I’m going to focus on three: live, laugh and love. I choose these three not only because they haunted my college years, but primarily, because I think they find their fulfillment in the Gospel.
I found the cliché to be very prevalent in college. Almost every apartment I visited was decorated with a cliché of some sort. But what stood out the most was that many people had apartment décor featuring the cliché, "live, laugh and love." Given the frequency I found such décor, you would think these people were members of a cult with a relatively simple creed. However, I realized they all shopped at Target. But Target would not be selling such décor if it did not appeal to a prevalent cultural ethos. So what is this ethos and where does it come from?
I believe this ethos is an offshoot of a truncated form of Christianity that finds approval in our tolerant society precisely because it is harmless and marketable. It is the result of the sentimentality of Romanticism draining the Christian vocabulary of its harsh, unsettling content. After the havoc of the European wars of religion in the 16th century, philosophers and statesmen were keen on stifling the violent, public display of passion they saw emanating from an apparent irrational form of Christianity. The Protestant Reformation, a religious dispute, seemed to have evoked the passions that pitted Europe in anarchy. In order to prevent this from happening again, the State, the vanguard of rationality, took control as the neutral adjudicator, replacing the obscurantism of religion as the tribunal for peaceably resolving public disputes. With the State as sovereign, religion became one more component of a civil bureaucracy. This new role required it to be tailored into a rational humanism tamed of its irrational supernaturalism. The ‘enlightened’ understanding was that if religion did not conform to the demands of rationality, it would at least have to be kept as a private matter capable of tolerating the other forms of life the state was willing to sanction. In the process, the unsettling Biblical passages that were thought to provoke intolerance, bigotry and excessive zeal were ignored or explained away as the irrationality of an unenlightened, intolerable people. Attention was narrowed to the harmless passages that found agreement with modern moral sensibilities. However, the problem lay in finding a rational ground for these moral beliefs. Many philosophers tried to find rational grounds, but they were not apparent to everyone. Sentimentalism seemed to have one of the best explanatory powers. So, while the overall content of Christian morality was upheld in western culture it was not because of its truth-value, but merely because a majority of people generally felt that it was right. In turn, the Christian vocabulary devolved into sentimental clichés promoting nebulous good feelings and good will, making it hard to distinguish it from a vague humanism. Religious faith became an abstraction that the individual could concretize in his/her own way so long as he/she strived to be tolerant and open-minded. But does the value system represented in the cheap, optimistic cliché really touch the heart of man and evoke in him a response he is willing to base his life on? More to it, is it capable of producing a Mother Teresa or a martyr?
No, it cannot. It cannot precisely because it does not manifest Beauty itself: Christ Incarnate. I am not referring to the tame and domesticated Christ of our culture, but the Christ of the Gospels. The Gospels taken in their entirety present Christ as an unsettling figure who calls people to radical transformation. The few that respond to him do not do so in ease, but they recognize the gravity of his invitation. If any of his disciples had responded with ease, they would have demonstrated that they had no idea who they were dealing with. If you accept Christ with natural ease, you must not get him. The teaching and action of Christ, his very person, is frightening because he makes claims on people’s lives. His beauty is unsettling, but it calls us forth to a higher existence.
A Christianity without fear and trembling in the presence of Christ is blind to who he really is. Rather than calling each person to transformation in Christ, it merely consoles him or her with empty abstractions. This is the Christianity I believe Marx was right in calling the opium of the masses. Its task is merely to comfort the individual in a false optimism while masking the grimness of reality. Its superficiality lays in both its inability to address the tragedy of man and its limitation of redemption to good feelings. If this was all Christianity was, we should look elsewhere.
But hold on. Once the words live, laugh and love are liberated from the marketable clichés they show their true power. The proper context for understanding these words is the beatitudes fully embodied in the life and death of Christ. Christ crucified is love unto death. He is life lived fully in line with God’s will. He evokes the joyful laughter of the Resurrection. Hence, in Him the cliché is transformed into the leaven that makes saints who transform the world. Without this transformation the cliché is worthless and futile.
Laughing for the sake of laughing, living for the sake of living, and loving for the sake of loving will quickly peter out once reality catches up. The wisdom of the Book of Ecclesiastes expresses this. But doing all these things for the sake of Someone who is worthy of our ultimate concern bestows value on them. The fashionable cliché is not capable of this. Christ is.
Robert Mixa is a Research Assistant at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.