A rather succinct and accurate summary of our current malaise is that we live in the age of “the imperial, autonomous self.” In effect, many if not most people claim an authority, a right, to craft their own reality and live according to their own notions of it. Not so long ago, it was generally accepted that reality was something outside ourselves, something that we had to go out to meet, study, and obey. There was a certain “is-ness” to things. Conformity with the basic and revealed nature of things produced thriving and the kind of happiness that comes from being in harmony with what fundamentally is.
Recently however, there has been the ascendency of the notion that reality is what I say it is. The “soft garments” version of this is, “That may be true for you, but I see it differently. You live your truth and I will live mine.”
A Supreme Court decision of the early 1990s gave voice to this notion in its ruling defending a woman’s “right” to abort her baby:
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life (Planned Parenthood of SE Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 851 (1992)).
Such vapid language from the highest court in the land undermines the very concept of law. If someone can just define abortion as good, or define even the very nature of the universe, why can’t someone commit mass murder and call it good? This is the exultation of the imperial, autonomous self with almost no qualification! No family, community, nation, or culture can exist as a collection of imperial, autonomous individuals; it would be moral and political anarchy! Something outside ourselves (e.g., reality, the real (not imagined) universe, divine law, natural law, agreed-upon legal norms) must unite us.
The imperial, autonomous self cannot stay soft when, as the court suggests, the heart of liberty is neither the truth nor law (divine, natural, or civil). As we have seen in recent years, the imperial, autonomous becomes the imperious, combative self; the battle is not won by those with the most reasonable stance but by the most powerful, richest, loudest, fiercest, most exotic; or by those with most access to the media and popular culture.
The soft version of the imperial, autonomous self marches under the banners of tolerance, kindness, and open-mindedness. The fiercer version that has emerged more recently substitutes tyranny for tolerance. Few of these tyrants will admit their tyranny; they prefer to call it tolerance, but they have substituted a new meaning for the word.
Tolerance used to be understood as “a measured willingness to live with differences.” Today it has come to mean “agreement” and even “approval.” Of course, if I agree with you and approve of what you do, I do not need to practice tolerance. Thus, the redefinition of tolerance vacates the original meaning of the word entirely. Interestingly this new definition still permits calling others intolerant using the original meaning! It illustrates the “brilliance” of the cultural left in refashioning our very vocabulary and harnessing the power of words. I have written more on this matter here: Misunderstood Tolerance.
We ought not to be mistaken; the “tolerance” of the cultural elites is in fact tyranny. This is evident time and time again when anyone dares to stray from the acceptance and approval that are demanded by this new meaning. If one transgresses by not approving whatever previously sinful behavior currently demands approval, the repercussions include denouncement and demonization. The person or group is labeled unkind, hateful, intolerant, bigoted, phobic, discriminatory, and/or guilty of aggression (or the newly coined “microaggression”) and is accused of making people “feel unsafe.”
Having successfully demonized people or groups, the next move is to silence and suppress any expression of alternate views. Speakers delivering oppositional lectures on campuses are not merely protested, they are interrupted, shouted down, and even subjected physical disruption. All of this is deemed acceptable because the protesters are silencing the views of “bad” and “intolerant” people. In this way, the cultural left—which once held free speech as among the highest freedoms—is increasingly silencing oppositional speech.
The next stage is not merely to denounce opponents, but to legally punish them and criminalize their non-cooperation in the latest cause-du-jour. They are threatened legally, hauled into court, decertified, fined, and/or shut down for failing to approve of whatever the theoretically tolerant people say they should.
A recent Supreme Court case granted some relief to a Colorado baker who was subjected to this. This does not mean that such actions are going to stop. The cultural elites and self-appointed enlightened ones will just keep at it until they reach their objectives. Wearisome, lengthy, and expensive lawsuits, along with increasingly severe legislation, will likely continue until complete compliance has been achieved.
Thus, we see how the imperial, autonomous self gradually becomes the imperious, authoritarian self. Tolerance becomes tyranny. Our current Pope warns of ideological colonization. Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI warned of the “tyranny of relativism” and subjectivism. When we shift the locus of truth from the object (reality) to the subject (the individual), “truth” becomes about power and who has more of it.
George Weigel, in his thoughtful book The Fragility of Order , summarizes our times as follows:
The drastic attenuation of … three great ideas:
- that there are deep truths built into the world, into human beings and into human relationships;
- that these truths can be known by reason;
- and that knowledge of these truths is essential to living virtuously, which means living happily (p. 124).
With these three great ideas weakened, we are left with a very small world; we are turned inward and have become self-referential. These are the ultimate parameters of the imperial, autonomous self: it is a small world, closed on itself, with a population of one. It is centered on me and whatever I think. Forget about anyone else. Forget about heritage. Forget the collected wisdom of millennia. Because little can be agreed upon (even the patently obvious sex of male and female bodies), we are left with a fierce power struggle between competing visions of “reality.”
If Western culture was the fair flower of the Judeo-Christian vision, the post-modern world is an ugly dandelion with deep tap roots. It is a dandelion that has gone to seed, and its white, cotton-like seeds are blowing in the breeze and taking root everywhere.
What are we to do? First, we must see the revolution for what it is. There is a hopelessly fatal shifting of the locus of truth away from what is revealed by God in biblical revelation (Divine Truth) and in the Book of Creation as grasped by reason (Natural Law). This is our Judeo-Christian heritage; it was what grounded us and united us. Having removed and denied the efficacy of this, our modern world has become unmoored and unraveled, mired in hopeless power struggles.
Only a return to our roots can save us. Therefore, St. Paul’s mandate to Timothy must also become ours:
Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and encourage with every form of patient instruction. For the time will come when men will not tolerate sound doctrine, but with itching ears they will gather around themselves teachers to suit their own desires. So they will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Tim 4:2-5).
This is true not only for bishops and priests, but for parents, Catholics in general, and all believing citizens of this land. America remains a great country, and our religious sensibilities are not completely lost. There is time, but the door is closing, and our cultural opponents are more fierce and bold than ever before. This is a good fight, and if you find a good fight you should get in it.