"Ye shall be as gods," said the serpent.
Whitaker Chambers called it the second oldest religion in the world. It has always proved popular. In his time, it took the form of communism. But the tempter is not so stupid as to appear in the same guise always; even human beings eventually get the idea that certain "moral mushrooms" will kill them, and they may even remember it for a few generations. In the meantime, the tempter must peddle something else, must appear as someone else. No trouble there. Mushrooms and mountebanks are always ready to hand.
I am thinking about the characteristic sins of our age. These have to do first or most obviously with the body, but they seep their poison into social relations, economics, medicine, education, law, art, and politics, corrupting them all. If holiness is like a royal dye that ennobles all it touches, sin is like acid. And to accept a principle of sin is to introduce the sin in a concentrated and absolute form. Then it is mortal and not venial, meaning this: it won't just make you sick. It kills you. Nothing merely human can then withstand it. Only the might of God can turn the acid to salt, and repair or recreate the things it has destroyed.
Perhaps we can see the principle more clearly if we turn to a different time and place and a different flavor of acid. Think of chattel slavery in the United States. Men like Thomas Jefferson inherited the sin and its effects, but they did not accept the principle of the sin. This they rejected — by no means as courageously and resolutely as they should have, but Jefferson was not alone when he said, "I tremble to think that God is just." He knew that it was wicked and that it cried to God for vengeance.
Jefferson was not alone when he said, "I tremble to think that God is just."
Washington, also sore of conscience, did better. He trained up his slaves in remunerable trades — so that when he emancipated them upon his death, they could earn a living on their own. Apologists for the south often say that their opponents in the north were largely play-acting about their indignation, and I think that there is some truth in that, given how coldly the northerners received blacks after the Civil War.
But to accept the evil on principle, to call slavery a good thing, indeed not atavistic but downright progressive, was another matter. And though that was not the sole cause of the Civil War, and perhaps not even the most important cause, I believe that Lincoln was correct when he said that the nation could not remain forever half slave and half free. It was like saying that you cannot have half a principle. You must choose.
Here it is in our time. You can have the world of the sexual revolution, with its birth control, slowly suicidal birth rates, fornication with a shrug, abortion as the fail-safe, pseudogamous relations: both heterosexual and homosexual, a crude and coarse anti-culture, obscenities as common as verbal tics, suspicion and recrimination between the sexes, gender dysphoria injected sub-cranially into the minds of lonely and impressionable children, divorce a common and unremarkable thing, and moral chaos and dysfunction among the poor and the working class.
That world is founded upon the false principle that what you do with your body, sexually, is your business, so long as (for now) you don't do it with children. But you cannot have that principle and have a world of strong marriages, healthy and happy children, a wholesome popular culture, a thriving working class, robust parishes and churches, and relations between the sexes that are marked by forbearance, gratitude, mirth, and peace, which is the tranquility of order, as Augustine says. We can no more create the moral laws of the world than we can create the universe.
…as Augustine says. We can no more create the moral laws of the world than we can create the universe.
For a time, in some places and in some respects, the full implications of the evil principle may be delayed — as in a sparsely populated and homogeneous land, where the inertia of old habits still make it so that neighbors depend upon one another and there still are survivals of a common life. I have seen the phenomenon in rural Canada. But the poison still does its work. Wait another twenty years, and then shed a tear for a culture, dead and buried.
"No man can serve two masters," says the Lord. We cannot love both God and mammon. The principle is of general application. We cannot love both God and Belial. We cannot love both God and Moloch. We cannot love God while we want power over all the kingdoms of the world. We dare not say to God, "Thus far and no farther," giving Him authority over some portion of life, let us say an hour or so on Sunday, while doing as we please for the rest of the week. Nor does it matter how near we draw the boundaries. We dare not say, "Thus far and no farther," reserving for ourselves an hour or so on Monday, when we get to commit our favorite sins, while granting or pretending to grant to God all the rest.
But, of course, this is what man does all the time. God is the eternal, and man is the temporizer. It's one thing to fall into a sin you acknowledge as such. It's another to refuse to acknowledge the sin — which is to try to circumscribe God. Milton's Eve, once she has eaten of the forbidden fruit, entertains the silly hope that perhaps God was too far away to notice what she did. "Heaven is far," she says.
That is as stupid as to say, "God will overlook this area of sin," as if He were an overworked Mister Zeus, too busy bothering about war and money to care about sex. It is as proud as it is stupid. It is as if we could make ourselves, providing ourselves with our own moral constitutions, saying, "We declare that aconite will no longer do us any harm." It is to engage in sheer fantasy.
"Be perfect," says Jesus, "even as your heavenly father is perfect." Now, He knows that man is weak in will, addled in the mind, easily distracted, prone to thinking well of himself as soon as he fulfills his favorite portions of the law. He said that Peter would deny Him. He said that the sheep would scatter. He did not trust the people who praised Him, because He knew the heart of man and did not need any instructors in that regard. Jesus is ready to forgive us the worst sins. "You will be with me in Paradise," He says to the repentant thief.
We will fall and fall again. But to accept a principle of sin is not to fall along the way. It is to leap from a precipice.
We will fall and fall again. But to accept a principle of sin is not to fall along the way. It is to leap from a precipice. We cannot have it. The Pharisee in the parable wanted to give everything to God except his heart. It cannot be. It is a self-contradiction. The publican said, "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner." He went from the temple justified, while the other did not. God can make such a man perfect. But God cannot Himself work a self-contradiction. He cannot welcome us into perfection while we retain our allegiance to some principle of sin. That would be like welcoming mammon, Belial, and Moloch into Heaven. God will not be fooled or blackmailed.
Of course, we must live in the world, and we cannot demand perfection here. But it is one thing to make allowances for human weakness and confusion and another, as I have said, to accept an evil principle. It's true enough that our worship of God will often be feeble and frail. But we must not raise up statues to mammon, Belial, and Moloch.
In our time, and not least for the welfare of children and the poor, the evil principle of the sexual revolution must be rejected, root and branch. People will fall. They always have. But not one minute of time, not one millimeter of space, may be devoted to the false god, as if we could declare it off limits from God. Ultimately, it is all or nothing.
Anthony Esolen. "All or Nothing." Crisis (November 16, 2021).
Reprinted with permission from Crisis Magazine.
Image: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden by Johann Wenzel Peter
Anthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian Life, Ironies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2021 Crisis
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