Baptizing the Modern World

Baptizing the Modern World January 28, 2016
Thomas Cole's The Arcadian or Pastoral State
Thomas Cole’s The Arcadian or Pastoral State (1834)

[Editor’s Note: While not explicitly Theology of the Body-focused, this essay on our response to the modern dilemma is not only a beautiful analysis of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, but really gets at the vision Saint Pope John Paul II had for the Church. The author begins with a diagnosis but does not end there, making these words extremely valuable to take into our hearts as we interact with others each day.]

“Every creed promises a paradise which will be absolutely uninhabitable… Nanny told me of a heaven that was full of angels playing harps; the Communists tell me of an earth full of leisure and contented factory hands. I don’t see getting past the gate of either…Hell is all right. The human mind is inspired enough when it comes to inventing horrors; it is when it tries to invent a heaven that it shows itself cloddish. But Limbo is the place. In Limbo one has natural happiness without the beatific vision; no harps; no communal order; but wine and conversation and imperfect, various humanity. Limbo for the unbaptized, for the pious heathen, the sincere sceptic. Am I baptized into this modern world?”  ~ Evelyn Waugh, Put Out More Flags

The modern world is unable to invent an inhabitable heaven. Communism has fallen. But today other ideologies abound and each serve destructive ends: mechanizing man, dehumanizing, and isolating him. Current strains of thought place man in an unreality where he is lied to about his nature. He is told that he is fundamentally alone and solely responsible for carrying out the urgent and impossible project of ‘self-actualization.’ Many ideologues have claimed that men can achieve this arduous task through a certain program of government, morality, or technological advancement. Men are promised ‘progress’ and they are continually disappointed.

When the spirit is broken and men are deceived into believing that they are alone in the world, the next great lie (disguised as a message of hope) is welcome: In this modern world, man is finally master of his own destiny. By his own efforts here below, he can find happiness apart from heaven. He must turn his back on the traditions and beliefs of the past, leaving behind even his family and with it his faith. But he unknowingly trades one religion for another. For its sake he must offer a sacrifice and, as Romano Guardini laments, “lose his story.” In a sense, he must be reborn and undergo a pseudo-sacrament of initiation: a brutal baptism. The modern world baptizes by drowning. Asphyxiation, acedia, drowning in despair. Man, wrecked by the empty promises of the many waves of modernity, gives the rest of his labored breath to searching for ways to drown himself yet again, seeking to momentarily drown out the sorrow. Like the dipsomaniac Sebastian Flyte, he develops an insatiable appetite as a distraction: he wants to want.

We must make it known, however, that the root of the modern problem is not so much a sin of excess, lust, or debauchery, but a case of “thwarted passion,” as Waugh’s heroine Cordelia would say. The crime is one of waste, of vanquished hope. A place without hope is a living hell. And that is where we live today. How are we to save ourselves? Asking such a question only plunges us deeper. The reason man has so often failed to inhabit heaven is because he tries to arrive there by his own powers as the agent of his own salvation. If we think this way—and we often do—we are only falling captive to the same hubris.

Many modern movements, whether ‘Christian’ or Communist, well-meaning or not, have only “left behind a sorry legacy of ruined land and ruined souls.” We are those left behind to endure the cruelest month, the post-modern age, with nowhere to make our homes but in a Wasteland, as T.S. Eliot tells us. This is how our beloved Catholic artists seem to paint the modern world: Eliot writes The Wasteland. Waugh leaves us in Limbo. So, now I will rephrase the question, although I have just pointed out its danger: How are we to be saved? Some may believe it best to retreat into—or perhaps “revisit”—the glorious past. How romantic to hole ourselves up in the countryside like in Waugh’s Brideshead mansion, keeping safe within our chapel’s walls the last tabernacle in the county. Today, many propose Lady Marchmain’s pious and protective so-called “Benedictine” attitude; for, surely, this is just how the Church has prevailed in the past through hard times. But if this inaction is the action we choose, we cannot imagine ourselves to be truly safe from the ills that plague the outside world. If we resign, we will soon find ourselves growing weak; for we have already been overtaken by a rapidly-spreading despair, succumbing to the very same sickness that has infected so much of the modern world. Despair is what quarantines and closes doors. When we close ourselves off, even for protection, we risk losing the freshness of good air from the outside and we do not let any light escape from within to guide those who remain in the dark.

In truth, this is not in keeping with the apostolic mission of the Church. Pope Benedict XVI instead asks us to consider: “In such a perplexing situation, should not Christianity try very seriously to rediscover its voice, so as to “introduce” the new millennium to its message and to make it comprehensible as a general guide for the future?” Before we can make this new millennium comprehensible and offer ourselves as a guide, we must first seek an understanding of the philosophical and cultural currents of this particular time and, most importantly, the people who live within its reality. This requires fervent study and also that we make introductions. We must live out the spirit of initiation, of true baptism. If the modern world inducts its members by drowning them in the waters of despair, we must rescue—“cast out into the deep and prepare for a catch!” And we must not be afraid or startled when we pull someone into shore.

Our vocation is to step over the boundaries drawn within ourselves and our present culture, so says St. John Paul the Great. Our task today is getting in the door, or what JPII so eloquently terms “crossing the threshold of hope.” This, in fact, is what Evelyn Waugh and other great artists and contemporary thinkers in the Catholic canon condition their readers to do—they place their audience directly into dialogue with a sympathetic and typically modern character, making them perfect examples of the New Evangelization. Waugh does this exceptionally well in Brideshead Revisited. From Book One, he places his reader alive in the modern world, “Et In Arcadia Ego,” alongside protagonists Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte. Throughout the book, he weaves together a narrative of relationship and redemption enveloped in an ethos of hope. But it is important to note how this is accomplished. In Book Two, Brideshead—that symbol of the old world—must be ‘Deserted’ before it can be ‘Revisited’ in Book Three. Sebastian must go into the desert and Charles to war. We do not know what happens to either of them thereafter, but that is exactly the point. We hope that they are holier and we have faith that they truly are, because the characters have developed so that they now have hope for themselves. Hope is what saves us: Spe salvi facti sumus. It is a daunting task to reach others in this individualistic and autonomous age, but that is precisely what we are called to do; to instill a mindset of hope once we are in the door. This task is so important that we can never tire of knocking. We have to adopt a “stubborn holiness.”

Stubbornness comes with more ease than holiness. I, for one, am tempted to “force the door.” I have always been ambitious and was, at one time, fiercely political. In this vein, I was ideologically inclined. But that was before I learned the dangers of ideologies and their blameworthiness for perpetuating the plight of modern men. I was attracted to politicians and ideologues and their ability to impact the bigger picture. I know now that it is not ideas, but human persons that, in reality, are the bigger picture. Any ideology that sets itself above the logos of the Incarnation will not provide an adequate view of men. Only “Christ…fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes). So, politics must return to its proper place where it derives its importance only from humble service toward human persons and their true end.

Our mission as Christians is to direct mankind to Christ. In so doing, we will at last show humanity to themselves. This mission is indeed a personal one and so our actions in society must be directed toward reforming modernity to the ‘personalistic norm,’ wherein it is finally recognized that “the person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love,” as John Paul II sought to remind us. In short, we must in the spirit of charity become friends, perhaps by way of “wine and conversation” as Evelyn Waugh’s characters prefer. Until we are all seated at the table, “they have no wine” (John 2:3). But if we partake together, slowly the heathen may become pious. the skeptic finally sincere, and all members of the body will leave the meal refreshed. Together, person-to-person, we will truly baptize this modern world and pour water over the wasteland.








Matalyn (Mattie) Vander Bleek is a Senior at Hillsdale College studying Political Philosophy with a minor in History.

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