The Spirit of Rebellion

One of my larger worries, considering that daily question of whether to be a Catholic, is whether it means giving up the spirit of rebellion. This, after all, is the common perception of things, that the sinner is the rebel and the Saint obedient, that those who “do what they want” deserve to swagger in the feeling of self-assertion — while those who are subservient to a transcendent God have no cause for such cool.

But what is rebellion? Surely it is an assertion of self against another — but no, this would make every battle a rebellion, and every bout of Mario Party besides. It is an assertion of self against a larger force, a government or a trend or a religion, one that seeks to assimilate you into itself — but no, the family is a larger force that seeks to incorporate you into its love, as is a friendship, a fraternity, and a membership. It would be a fool who leaves his family or breaks ties with his friends and calls it a joyful rebellion, a fool who looks at a man spurning the love of his parents and admiringly applies to him an air of rugged nobility, badassery and renegade cool. Surely then, rebellion — if it can be described as a triumphant, beautiful thing — is an assertion of self in the face of a larger force that seeks to assimilate you into itself without regard for your freedom.

This definition fits snugly with the facts. It fits our positive feeling towards the rebel, that in his assertion of self against the looming thundercloud he posits precisely this fact — that he is free to do otherwise. Is this not the joy of the thing, the really inspiring, movie-making stuff, that no matter how large the enemy, how influential the politician, how immeasurably powerful and seducing the outside force, the smallness of man’s freedom is something larger than all the kingdoms of the earth? I may do otherwise — and this is irreducibly true. I may do otherwise, and this fact is small, but hard as a diamond. I may do otherwise, and my rebellion is to assert this incredible human power over and against every “do this” and “do that” that seeks to overwhelm me, that seeks to put the principle of my action outside of myself, so that I am swayed and moved against my freedom — by government, fashion, military compulsion, or any of the rest.

Now at a first glance, it would seem that the assertion of freedom against the demands of an Almighty God fits neatly into our category of rebellion. The Lord sayeth “Thou shall not commit adultery.” We assert the fact that we are free to do otherwise — by doing otherwise — and we walk from our supposed “sin” with the unique joy of rebellion. Jesus sayeth “woe to you rich.” We assert the fact that we are free to do otherwise — we amass wealth, we “make it big” — and walk  away in the spirit of rebellion, having asserted ourselves against the assimilating power of an Almighty God.

But this rebellion is an illusion. Rebellion is the resistance of a force that seeks to assimilate you without regards to your freedom — but God regards our freedom with more care, precision and love than any parent or government could. He gives us freedom. He puts before us life and death — it is a special kind of idiocy to feel like a badass for choosing death. He gives us the freedom to choose between good and evil — is it rebellion to choose evil?

If it is, it is the rebellion of a child who, invited to lunch, refuses to eat. He may wrap the thing in robes of resistance and revolution, but the fact of the matter is that his mother offered him a free choice, a choice that included the possibility of his own refusal. Choosing not to eat is not an act of rebellion, but a servile acceptance of his mother’s conditions — to eat or not to eat. It matters little whether the mother made the lunch appealing, whether she exhorted her child to eat in the strongest terms, whether she warned her child of the misery and pangs of hunger — that the mother desires her child to choose rightly in no way changes the fact that the child is free to do otherwise. So too with a God who exhorts us to do good and avoid evil.

The joy that comes with an assertion of our freedom is a unique pleasure of good people, for it is not God, nor goodness, but the force of evil that seeks to assimilate us without regard to our freedom. To consistently give way to our base desires and passions is to become a slave to them, for the more often we allow ourselves to be swept away, to be tempted into doing what we ought not do, the more difficult it becomes to assert the fact that we could do otherwise. A man who welcomes every temptation towards anger and hatred does not assert himself — he acquiesces, letting anger and hatred rule over him, to the point at which he finds it impossible to do otherwise, impossible to respond to criticism with patience, to the disagreeable with love, to injustice with dignity and peace — so fixed is he in anger. A man who gives way to the force of sexual temptation does not become free, but loses his ability to say no. All sin is flirtation with addiction — but what is the experience of addiction but one of “being ruled over” by an evil, assimilating force, one that daily negates our ability to do otherwise? We give in to hatred, we bow to lust, we acquiesce to greed, to the point that we can barely sniff a temptation to these sins without running to them — and yet we call our giving in a rebellion, as if somewhere in all this weakening of our ability to do otherwise, we have proudly asserted out ability to do otherwise.

So. It is no triumphant rebellion to choose the evil that you are allowed to choose, even less so when evil negates precisely that triumph of spirit that allows you to rebel in the first place — your ability to do otherwise. Why then, does the halo of rebellion glow around the sinful, the greedy, mercilessly successful CEO, the apathetic and slothful teenager, the sexually-daring celebrity, etc.?

The joy that comes with pretending that our rejection of a God who freely offers himself to us is rebellious — this joy is an anesthetic. It is the bitter smile of the child who, having refused his mother’s invitation to lunch, comforts his growling-stomach in some lonely corner of the corner of the house by imagining himself bold, assertive, even noble in some brooding way. If we can live an illusion of rebellion, we can avoid coming to terms with the fact that we are willing slaves. If we can pretend that choosing an option we are allowed to choose somehow manifests itself as bravely resisting an authoritarian demand, we can bear the fact that in choosing to sin, we have become living contradictions, containing within ourselves what we ought not have done, an awkward, aching distance between who-we-are and who-we-ought-to-be, and a decreased capacity for free, self-determined action.

This is extremely, predictably obvious with regards to the Sexual Revolution. The Sexual Revolution must be referred to as a revolution — or else it will be revealed as a surrender. The illusion of a rebellion is a necessary anesthetic for the pain of being a slave to immediate desires, the pain of our prostration towards pornography, one-night-stands, broken families, prolonged adolescence and all the rest. Only by an illusion of the good, an illusion of that rebellious joy by which we assert our ability to do otherwise, do we find comfort from the fact that we have traded our ability to do otherwise. Only by an airy spirit of rebellion — of Revolution! — does our abject servitude become bearable.

No, if there is triumphant, joyful rebellion in this world, it is the Catholic Faith, insofar as it is an exhortation to do good, to freely choose that which most enables our ability to freely choose. Sin barks about a spirit of rebellion that the faithful quietly foster. This is the existential truth I find difficult to convey to the hardcore, that real rebellion is a quiet thing, because it is the assertion and the protection of something incredibly small, incredibly precious, and infinitely more powerful than all the princes of this age — human freedom.

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  • Debbie Gaudino

    Great article! Sin is always a recipe for slavery – no matter how it is packaged. The greatest saints were the truest “:rebels” against the domination of sin in the world. I am reminded by your article of Pope Benedict referng to relativism as a “dictatorship” – it is rebellion against that insidious form of slavery that we need to take up!

  • Jakeithus

    The most immediately thought provoking item from the piece is the branding of the “Sexual Revolution” being essential to allow ourselves to live with the results. The “Sexual Surrender” is a much more accurate title, but it doesn’t give off the same daring, forward thinking vibe, that the proponents of the “revolution” want to show off.

  • Nathaniel

    What rot. According to this piece, someone who “gives into sexual temptation” is unable to ever not surrender to their sexual desires.

    By that logic, someone who looks at porn once will never not be able to look at porn again. Someone who has non-marital sex will never be able to refuse an offer for a sexual encounter, anytime, anyplace.

    Does this position even need a serious refutation?

    • Michael

      Brother, just like any addiction it does not take with only one look, it is more subtle than that and takes time. Sure, the chemicals released in the brain are the same in looking at porn and things like heroine, but thats just silly old science. Not even the most addictive drugs are capable of one time use addictions.

      • Nathaniel

        Oh, for Pete’s sake. SEX ISN’T AN ADDICTION. You’ll find no such listing in the DSM. Having sex five times a week doesn’t indicate a lack of self control anymore than having sex two times a week does. And it is the height of absurdity to pretend that having sex five times a week while unmarried indicates lack of control while married sex five times a week doesn’t show lack of control.

        What bollocks. What really clinches it is the bland superior tone of confidence such stupidity is said in.

        • Montague

          What looking at current culture shows is that there really is an addiction to sex prevalent.

          Sex itself is not an addiction, obviously, but it obviously *can* be, and *is* an addiction, therefore we should look at why this is and how to solve the issue.

          Furthermore, one cannot (reasonably) deny the experiences of those who *do* find sexual misbehavior addicting; and when that addiction takes hold, it is very hard to remove it. I myself find that, even though I do not seek out porn, even what can suggest the sexually inappropriate immediately does, and it is only constant vigilance and the Grace of God that can prevent me from sinning (or sinning consciously) by objectification et all.

          [Marc, I think, would be the first to say that humans are creatures that beat habits and (by grace) sinful natures; but that does not deny the addiction, but merely affirms free will.]

          (It does not assist you and your argument that you uncharitably extend Marc’s words to a straw-man, miss much of the point of the piece, and assume (from the outset) that his premises are wrong, then (rather that actually debate the premise) simply claim the “conclusion” is nonsense. A more conciliatory tone would lend some credence to your position, but I am afraid that your current tone merely seems to be what you refer too when you say:

          “What bollocks. What really clinches it is the bland superior tone of confidence such stupidity is said in.”

          Though I do not even see how Marc is bland; the usual criticism one sees is that he is overly ornate and airy. But, if this is not apparent yet, I am rather too perplexed by your tone to tell much about your reasoning on that matter.)

          ((The DSM would have terms for various sexual manias (since that is more like what Marc refers too), unless the rumors about it are rather…hyperbolic. But I hear that it is no slim tome, so I have not doubt you will find at least a few, if that’s what you’re looking for. Additionally, it rather misses the point, as the church is unlikely to use the same terms as a rather recently compiled psychiatric manual.))

          • Montague

            Oh my, I really must apologize for penning such a bothersome reply. It seems rather too long to be comfortably read, at least, if one is in an uncharitable state. It really is in such shambles – I did not bother much to edit it, so it is very much my fault. I apologize, again, if running off with my thoughts like that are counterproductive towards calm and civil disputation.

          • Nathaniel

            If my post is harsh in tone, its because I find the writer of this blog’s general style to be a weaponized version of the humblebrag, and the actual content to be obtuse intellectual masturbation. Normally this leaves me a in position of not caring enough to post or even pay much attention to him, but at times like these when outright falsehoods creep into his mumbo jumbo, it makes me irritated. Irritated enough to actually post.

            And however much you claim my position to be a strawman, its still a lie in service to a bigger lie. Sex can be compulsive? Sure. But you know what can also be compulsive? Exercise. That’s right, that thing every doctor says Americans need to do more of. Last I checked, the Catholic Church doesn’t define exercise as a sin. Yet it still can be compulsive. Kinda blows his whole model of human behavior out of the water.

            Additionally, you are defending a point he didn’t actually make. He didn’t say, “Sex can be compulsive.” He wrote that all sin is compulsive, and to sin is to behave compulsively. End of story. No gray. Sin is compulsive, not-sin is freedom.

            Which leads into his bigger lie. He is simply attempting a vaguer, fancier version of the line that I’ve heard on the Catholic part of Patheos before. Usually expressed in the single line of “What most people call freedom is really just license,” rather than an entire blog post, but that’s Marc’s style for you.

            What both he and his less obtuse cousins are attempting to do is define freedom as doing what the Church tells you to do. Freedom is no longer about choice, its about doing what’s good for you. Naturally, what’s good for you is defined by what the Church says is good for you. So call your local priest now, on this toll free number!

          • Montague

            Actually, Chesterton (rather well known Catholic) pointed out a hundred years ago that obsession with health (i.e. exercise mania) can be unhealthy; the Catholic church does not focus only on sexual sin. If it weren’t so popularized, they’d talk less about it, since there are other, more grave sins of which (and Marc *has* made this point before, I assure you) sexual sins are only a symptom. They are very clearly discussed in Catholic circles.

            [If you think the Catholic church defines sex as sinful, then you simply do not know their position on sex. I am hoping that that's not what you meant to indicate.]

            Although I think I can make out the vague impressions of what your complaint is, I really cannot understand your argument and position if you do not make clear what your premises are. So far as I can tell, you seem to be holding the position that goes (and forgive me if I misunderstood you):

            “The Catholic Church has no basis for its moral reasoning, but merely claims some advantageous rule as a moral law, then proceeds to use it to control the weak-minded. Marc is a bad writer, for he simply employs this baseless tautology for the furtherance of his pyramid-scheme overminds.”

            I am rather confused, for this seems to be a self-referential argument. I see no reason given to support the key premise, that is, that the Catholic Church is wrong; even calling it “what the Catholic Church says” implies that we have already rejected their claims that they are drawing their conclusions from some source external to their own imaginations, such as natural law, divine revelation, or experience.

            If you indeed mean your statements to be straw-man arguments (“And however much you claim my position to be a strawman, its still a lie in service to a bigger lie” unfortunately gives that impression) I can only beg you not to take such an approach, as it fails to give (to me, at least) a proper sense of satire, hinting at actual reasoning; rather, it simply leaves me bewildered as to what your actual arguments are. Surely you don’t mean to say that you are convinced merely on the basis of a straw-man? If so, why should I?

            [The reason I defend a point which he does not specifically address is that I have paid some little attention to both previous posts by Marc, and to Christian literature in general, and therefore I believe myself competent to guess at the bent of Marc's argument, and to assume that his usage of terms are congruent with his previous uses.]

            Additionally, I would much appreciate it if you would use less (as they say) dirty and obtuse language; for a phrase such as: “…weaponized version of the humblebrag, and the actual content to be obtuse intellectual masturbation.” Is for me a far less intelligible vocabulary than the language it criticizes. Whatever you think of his reasoning, Marc at least attempts in instances to explain his odd metaphors; whereas here I have, simply put, no idea what you mean.

            Again, many apologies for this comment being at length and rather dull reading; it’s not my gift to be snappy, or clear.

          • Nathaniel

            His obtuseness comes not from his words, but how he expresses his thoughts. One can be obtuse while never using words with more than two syllables.

            And my general point is that his entire thesis, and the model he’s based it off, are nonsense. Nonsense in service of a attempted redefinition of a word that’s gobsmacking in its dishonesty.

            Compulsions are compulsions. They have no connection to the Catholic notion of sin, however much the author may attempt to claim so.

            OCD sufferers are perhaps the population most prone to compulsions, whether it be washing hands a dozen times whenever they feel unclean or having to hop on one foot for five minutes every hour.

            Now, which do you think is a more accurate view of the situation?

            1. The OCD person experiences compulsions because they are trapped in sin. They need to start believing in Catholic Church doctrine and get to a priest to confess.

            2. The OCD person experiences compulsions because parts of their brain aren’t working correctly. They need a trained psychiatrist to find the right pills to reverse that.

            And lest you accuse me of strawmanning again, lets quote from the piece above, shall we?

            “This is extremely, predictably obvious with regards to the Sexual Revolution. The Sexual Revolution must
            be referred to as a revolution — or else it will be revealed as a surrender. The illusion of a rebellion is a necessary anesthetic for the pain of being a slave to immediate desires, the pain of our prostration towards pornography, one-night-stands, broken families, prolonged adolescence and all the rest. Only by an illusion of the good, an illusion of that rebellious joy by which we assert our ability to do otherwise, do we find comfort from the fact that we have traded our ability to do otherwise. Only by an airy spirit of rebellion — of Revolution! — does our abject servitude become bearable.”

            Got that? If you don’t agree with Catholic doctrine on sex, you are a slave to your desires. You are compelled by your sexual appetites, unable to control yourself, doomed to misery and suffering because you see nothing wrong with premarital sex or put a condom on your penis before coitus.

            Lets take a closer look at key phrases here that he uses to describe people who disagree with the Catholic Church:


            “pain of being a slave”

            “illusion of good”

            “abject servitude.”

            All that above? That’s what I mean by weaponized humblebragging and intellectual masturbation. He asserts that disagreeing with him about sex leads to slavery and pain, therefore it must be so! Anyone with experience that says differently is lying, or delusional, or a delusional liar. It is words and arguments designed not to convince or expand the mind, but to self congratulate and smile winsomely at the self, with a head shake for the moment he contemplates the utter pitiable nature of his opponents.

            And that head shake? That’s where the humble brag comes in. For if those who disagree are wretched slaves, then conversely the one making the argument is free, superior and righteous compared to those sinners in the outer darkness. And all it requires is holding certain positions on sex. No other action required.

            But we’ve been corresponding as though there isn’t another person in this cyber room. Allow me to fix that.

            So here’s my direct response to you, Marc:

            Go to hell. Your sneering insults to all those who don’t think non-marital sex is a terrible evil, and masturbation a sin worthy of eternal punishment is duly noted. As is the contempt so foundational to your argument you are incapable of seeing it.

            So here’s my suggestion to you: Find someone like me who disagrees with you on this issue. Try out this argument. Make sure to keep the same language, telling them that they are a wretched slave to their genitals and sexual desires. That they will only experience freedom once they start agreeing with you, and go down to the local parish to confess their sins.

            See how that goes down.