I am growing weary of the continual complaints from traditionalist Christians about current trends in Western culture. Not that matters aren’t growing darker. Believe me, in more than twenty years as a committed activist on behalf of the sanctity and equality of human life, I have witnessed the downward slide.
But hasn’t the time come for us to suck it up? Consider the much worse cultural milieu in which the early Church existed. The Roman Empire’s values were entirely antithetical to Christian ethics and belief. The official state religion was polytheistic. Meat served at feasts was dedicated to idols. As to the sanctity of human life: Slaves were tortured and crucified at the will of owners. Under the law of paterfamilias, unwanted children could be exposed or sold into slavery. Gladiators at public “games” butchered each other to satisfy the bloodlust of the crowd.
But did the early Christians whine about it? Nothey witnessed against it by the way they lived. Indeed, St. Paul instructedin words increasingly relevant to our agethat Christians should not judge those outside the Church while continuing to interact with general society even though most live by fundamentally different moral values. Otherwise, he wrote, believers “would need to go out of the world.”
We must live “in, but not of, the world” a fact recognized not just by St. Paul but also by Stoic philosophers like Epictetus, who wrote, “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.” A continual focus on “culture war” striving can, contrary to Paul and Epictetus, lead us to lash out, which is to go in the wrong direction.
The talk show host and comedian, Dennis Miller, has helped me see this. Like others in conservative talk radio, Miller is sharply pessimisticperhaps overly soabout our current condition. “America has fundamentally shifted,” he says repeatedly, “It has tipped.” A majority of Americans embrace fiscally and socially destructive attitudes, he believes. As a consequence, we have entered a time of chronic political and cultural decline, a phenomenon he labels, “America 180.”
But he differs from other cultural critics by offering an effective antidote to bitterness. Rather than permit ourselves to be defined by difficult timeswhat he calls “living from the outside-in”he continually urges listeners to instead, “live from the inside-out.”
What does he mean? Don’t sweat the general culture’s disapproval. Don’t look “outside” ourselves for personal validation. In short, don’t allow our personal joie de vivre to depend on the outcome of elections, court rulings, media fairness, or what others think, believe, or do.
This takes discipline. So, focus on those “internal” things that give your life meaning; faith, personal philosophy, family and friends. Take the time to recreate, travel, learn, and relax with hobbies. Do these things and we will be at the cause of our lives, rather than the effect of the cultural environmentto the point that the dysfunctional world we inhabit will lose its ability to disrupt the things we care most about.
Please don’t misunderstand: This isn’t surrender. Nor is it political or cultural disengagement. We owe Caesar what is his. In our free society, that means participating in the public square, making our views known, votingand too often of late, gritting our teeth and bearing it when things slide in the wrong direction.
I have been trying to follow Miller’s prescription for being “in but not of the world.” The hard part, I find, is to apply his maxims consistently. But when I do, it seems to work. My advocacy has, I think and hope, been tending less toward polemical judgmentalism and toward a more dispassionate approach that holds a mirror up to society instead of railing against it. I am happier, too, less obsessed about “my issues” than previously. I am delving more deeply into my faith, appreciating time with my wife, and playing more golf.
I am sharing Miller’s coping template here because I think he has a unique ability to reach those tempted by the times to yield to the sin of despair. As Marshall McLuhan said, in our age the medium is the message: How one communicates is often as important to what is communicated. Even at sixty his voice remains as contemporary, funny, and culturally aware as when he broke into the public’s awareness in the mid-1980s on Saturday Night Live. This allows many who might be unaware of the wisdom of the sages to actually hear an age-old message with proven power to pacify our troubled hearts.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism.