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Fighting the Noonday Devil — AND OTHER ESSAYS PERSONAL AND THEOLOGICAL
By R. R. Reno
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Copyright © 2011 R. R. Reno
All right reserved.
Chapter One Fighting the Noonday Devil
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For most of the modern era, Christian apologists have emphasized the role of pride as the cardinal sin and primary barrier to faith. Milton's poetic vision is exemplary. At the outset of Paradise Lost, Milton describes the scene of fallen angels. Satan, their leader, rallies his troops with a speech justifying their rebellion. Bidding farewell to the "happy Fields" now lost, Satan hails the "infernal world," promising his followers that they, with him, might make "Heav'n of Hell." What seems a disaster can be made a victory. Satan's reasoning is simple. "Here at least," he says, "we shall be free." "Here," he continues, "we may reign secure." The gain, then, is autonomy and self-possession. Thus, in famous words, Milton has Satan pronounce the purest formula of pride: "Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heav'n."
To a great extent, the standard story of modernity emphasizes exactly the self-confidence and self-assertion that Milton describes in Paradise Lost. We all know the way the story is told. The emerging powers of modern science gave the seventeenth and eighteenth century a keen sense of the real powers of the human intellect. Rebelling against servile obedience to dogmatic and clerical authority, progressive forces in Enlightenment culture championed free and open inquiry. The same sentiment, this standard story continues, characterizes modern moral and political thought. Against traditional moral ideals and social forms, modern thinkers have sought, and continue to seek, a pattern of life derived from and properly expressive of our humanity. Thus, Ralph Waldo Emerson shouts the battle cry of modernity: "Trust thyself." Against subservience to standards imposed by society, Emerson writes, "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind." So central and important is this self-affirmation that Emerson famously reports, "If I am the Devil's child, I will then live from the Devil." Better to reign in the hell of self-affirmation than to subordinate the self to alien ideals and remote principles, no matter how heavenly.
This voice of rebellion against God's sovereignty endures. Yet, in the twilight of modernity, do most of the people who buy books that trash the Christian tradition do so because they have vibrant Emersonian souls? Do the naysayers and critics of Christianity today attract audiences of willful and self-assertive individualists who are eager to find leverage to free themselves from the constraining powers of dogma and priestcraft? Does secularism today stem from a deep self-trust and demonic pride?
I am increasingly convinced that the answer to these questions is no. Pride may go before the fall. However, after the fall, other spiritual temptations and difficulties predominate. In our times, whether we call the prevailing outlook late modern or postmodern, the vigor and ambition of the ideal of self-reliance have lost their luster. When the United States Army can adopt a fine Emersonian sentiment — "Be all you can be" — as a recruiting slogan, then surely what was once a fresh challenge has become a familiar, worn-out cliché. For this and other reasons we need to turn our attention away from pride and look elsewhere for the deeper sources of contemporary resistance to the Christian message.
Looking elsewhere does not mean looking away from the Christian tradition. Christians have not always thought pride the deepest threat to faith. For the ancient spiritual writers of the monastic movement, spiritual apathy was far more dangerous. Recalling the sixth verse of Psalm 91, the desert fathers wished to guard against "the sickness that lays waste at mid-day." Evagrius of Pontus, a fourth-century monk, is one of the earliest sources of information about the desert monastic movement, and he reports that gluttony, avarice, anger, and other vices threaten monastic life. Yet, of all these afflictions, he reports, "the demon of acedia — also called the noonday demon — is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all."
"Acedia" is a word of Greek origin that means, literally, "without care." In the Latin it is often translated as tristitia or otiositas, sadness or idleness. In English, this vice shows up in the standard lists of the seven deadly sins under the heading of sloth. But citing synonyms and translations only signals the crudest definitions. For the monastic tradition, acedia or sloth is a complex spiritual state that defies simple definition. It describes a lassitude and despair that overwhelm spiritual striving. Sloth is not mere idleness or laziness; it involves a torpor animi, a dullness of the soul that can stem from restless, distracted activity just as easily as from indolence and apathy. Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of a sterilitas animae, a sterility, dryness, and barrenness of his soul that makes the sweet honey of psalm singing seem tasteless and turns late-night vigils into empty trials. Medieval English writers often speak of acedia as wanhope, a waning of confidence in the efficacy and importance of prayer. In his depiction of the fourth ledge on the Mountain of Purgatory in the Divine Comedy, Dante describes those afflicted by acedia as suffering from lento amore, a slow love that cannot motivate and uplift, leaving the soul stagnant, unable to move under the heavy burden of sin.
Across these different accounts, a common picture emerges. The noonday devil tempts us into a state of spiritual despair and sadness that drains us of our Christian hope. It makes the life of prayer and charity seem pointless and futile. In the heat of midday, as the monk tires and begins to feel that the commitment to desert solitude was a terrible miscalculation, the demon of acedia whispers despairing and debilitating thoughts. "Did God intend for human beings to reach for the heavens?" "Does God really need our prayers?" "Aren't solitude and chastity unnatural and life denying?" According to another ancient writer in the Evagrian tradition, the noonday demon "stirs the monk also to long for different places in which he can find easily what is necessary for his life and can carry on a much less toilsome and more expedient profession. It is not on account of locality, the demon suggests, that one pleases God. He can be worshipped anywhere.... Thus the demon employs all his wiles so that the monk may leave his cell and flee from the race-course."
Are these temptations that afflict the monk as strange or alien as the unfamiliar Greek word acedia? I think not. Let me update the whispering voice of sloth: "All things are sanctified by the Lord, and one could just as well worship on the golf course as in a sanctuary made by human hands." Or: "God is love, and love affirms; therefore, God accepts me just as I am. I need not exercise myself to change." Or: "We should not want to put God in a box, so the Christian tradition must be seen as a resource for our spiritual journeys, not as a mandatory itinerary. I can pick and choose according to my own spiritual needs." Or: "Ardent conviction and intensely held beliefs are the source of violence. I'll be a better, more tolerant person if I relax a bit and take an approach to faith that is a bit more critical, a bit more lighthearted."
In our day, these temptations seem far more common and dangerous than Emerson's now conventional "trust thyself." After all, how many people, believers or unbelievers, wish to reign anywhere, either in heaven, or in hell, or even in their own souls? Few, I imagine. Most of us just want to be left alone so that we can get on with our lives. Most of us want to be safe. We want to find a cocoon, a spiritually, psychologically, economically, and physically gated community in which to live without danger and disturbance. The carefree life, a life a-cedia, is our cultural ideal. Pride may be the root of all evil, but in our day, the trunk, branches, and leaves of evil are characterized by a belief that moral responsibility, spiritual effort, and religious discipline are empty burdens, ineffective and archaic demands that cannot lead us forward. In our hearts we fear that faith commits us to inaccessible ideals that, even if we believe in them, reach beyond our capacity. We often want to believe, but just as often we shrink from sharp-edged dogmatic convictions that we all too easily imagine cutting and slashing and damaging our fragile egos.
Acedia, then, is a real threat, a deadly sin doing its deadly work in the present age. Its presence can be seen rather clearly in two important features of contemporary intellectual and moral culture. Consider, first, the intellectual spirit of dispassion and coolness that grows out of the ideal of "critical distance." This ideal often contributes to the torpor animi that afflicts any who have entered into the habituating practices of our universities. For many of our professors, the drama of education should break the magic spell of immediacy. Just as the commonsense observation that the sun revolves around the earth is quite false and needs to be corrected, so, we are told, we should step back from the moral and social opinions we were taught as children. Nothing given should be simply accepted. We must question our inherited assumptions and see them as being, at best, merely true-for-us rather than being simply true.
To spur us toward a self-doubting stance, contemporary education often turns into a form of cultural shock therapy. Anticipating this pedagogical method, the early modern essayist Montaigne expressed his exasperation with a widespread human tendency. "It is a common vice," he writes, "not of the vulgar only but of almost all men, to fix their aim and limit by the ways to which they were born." To combat our credulity, he described his desire to "pile up here some ancient fashions that I have in my memory, some like ours, others different, to the end that we may strengthen and enlighten our judgment by reflection on the continual variation of human things." Montaigne was confident that by "piling up" these examples, he could encourage us to stop thinking parochially and recognize that men and women have lived many different ways according to many different ideals and customs. Unsettled by the diversity, we will be levered away from an atavistic loyalty to our particular way of viewing the world.
But the ancient fashions Montaigne catalogues are not simply diverse. He chooses very carefully, and in a way that anticipates postmodern approaches to history and culture, his examples tend toward the prurient and base. Montaigne quotes ancient descriptions of how people wiped themselves after bowel movements, as well as peculiar postcoital practices. The shock, then, is redoubled, for not only do we see the diversity of cultures, but Montaigne's choice of examples encourages us to worry that those beliefs and practices we were raised to think so decisive for human decency and moral rectitude will come to seem as silly and pointless as the ancient Roman expectation that men should pluck all the hairs off their chest, legs, and arms.
What Montaigne sought to achieve has become the very ideal of what we now call critical thinking. He wants us to soften our loyalty to the immediate and seemingly self-evident truths of our inherited way of life, separating ourselves inwardly from our cultural context. To think responsibly about culture, morality, and religion, in other words, involves removing oneself from the immediacy of conviction, establishing critical distance — a telling metaphor. Just think about modern biblical criticism. In most cases, the basic strategy of instruction is to force pious students to step back from the immediacy of the canonical form of the text and see how what seems to be a doctrinally consistent and spiritually unified whole is, in fact, text made up of heterogeneous sources and layers of editorial revision.
Or, more simply, consider the term "Hebrew Bible," which is now replacing "Old Testament." This terminological shift has many sources, including an anxiety about Christian super-sessionism. However, among them is a pedagogical goal. We are told not to engage these ancient writings as elements of a unified witness to the crucified and risen Lord. We are warned against reading the servant songs in Isaiah as pointing toward Christ. Instead, we are told to keep the prophetic power of the text at an arm's length and allow the text to speak to us as a witness to a now dead thing called "Ancient Israelite Religion." This pedagogical strategy distances us and our reading of the Bible from the ferment and fervor of living religious passions — passions that might overwhelm the cool judgment of the historical scholar, passions that we fear will lead to intolerance and religious violence.
I do not wish to issue a blanket condemnation of the pedagogy of critical distance. How can we undertake historical, social, and cultural inquiry without, in some way, breaking the magic charm of immediacy, without stepping back, at least for a moment, from our inherited context and preconceptions? Furthermore, in the Socratic tradition that has exercised such a deep and fruitful influence over the development of Western culture, the leverage of objection and counterargument forces a moment of reflective hesitation that can heighten rather than diminish our ardor for the truth. Reasons against evoke stronger and more profound reasons for. My point, then, is not to criticize the critics. Rather, I want to draw attention to the spiritual consequences of critical distance, consequences that now prevail in spite of the best intentions of scholars and professors.
To learn that Muslims have many wives, that Hindus have many gods, and that Eskimos have many words for snow yields no insight other than the recognition of diversity. The effect is not to shift our loyalty from appearance to reality, as Plato portrayed the effect of the dialectic of Socrates. Nor does cultural study follow the pattern of modern science, where, for example, we move from the illusion of a moving sun that rises at dawn to the accurate knowledge that the earth rotates on its axis. Quite the contrary. The modern critical project has undermined our confidence that any moral or cultural system should properly command our full and uncritical loyalty. As John Henry Newman observed, critical thinking has "a tendency to blunt the practical energy of the mind." It loosens the bonds of commitment and distances us from the immediacy of truths we once thought unquestionable. Critical distance may free us from prejudice, but it also tends to undermine the hope that any enduring truths might be found. It engenders a humility that sustains tolerance, but it can so relax the ardor of the intellect that our civility lacks conviction, and our tolerance becomes indistinguishable from a defeated sense that there are no trustworthy standards by which to judge belief and behavior.
The ways in which these features of modern intellectual life lead to acedia are, I think, obvious. The very sentiments that the classical Christian authors feared are precisely the virtues modern educators seek to instill in their students. The lento amore, the slow love that Dante thinks must be purged from our souls, finds approval as the dispassionate heart that establishes critical distance and waits for compelling evidence. The sterilitas animae that so worries Bernard of Clairvaux describes quite well the ideal of a critical thinker who has purified himself of the corrupting parochialism that limits his larger, more universal vision. When someone prefaces a comment with the confession that he is speaking, after all, from a "white male, upper-middle class perspective," it reveals either a competition for the upper hand ("I am more critical than you are"), or a despair of ever saying anything either broadly consequential or compellingly true.
Critical distance is not the only feature of our postmodern context. We can never achieve an entirely carefree approach to life. Yet, the very nobility of our modern moral commitments can create a distance as debilitating as critique. Since no actual society or movement lives up to our ideals, we easily end up unengaged in fact and in action — pushing ourselves away from evil rather than seeking the good. Controlled by what the old writers called fastidium, a fastidious conscience, we might boil with outrage on the surface of our souls, while at a deeper level we go slack. Thus, many so-called seekers do not seek at all; they wait for something worthy of their allegiance and the waiting becomes habitual and comfortable. Our society has far more of these "waiters" than "seekers."
Excerpted from Fighting the Noonday Devil — AND OTHER ESSAYS PERSONAL AND THEOLOGICAL by R. R. Reno Copyright © 2011 by R. R. Reno. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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