“Men have always one of two things: either a complete and conscious philosophy or the unconscious acceptance of the broken bits of some incomplete and shattered and often discredited philosophy.” - G.K. Chesterton
I think we are living through a kind of darkness in the West right now, specifically America. By this I mean there does not seem to be a great vision for where we are going as a people. From my point of view, there isn’t enough discussion of ideas which speak to the majority of decent citizens. Instead we have lots of partisan noise which is directed toward smaller, often extreme groups. This chaos and tribalism is a defining mark of age where fragmentation has become normalized.
There has always been some degree of disruption in society, particularly in politics; however, it isn’t always this extreme. It has been about fifty years since we have seen sustained, widespread shifts like this in our culture. There are many “causes” behind these changes, some good and some not. What I want to point to is the importance of good intellectual activity as we journey through this age.
Several months ago I wrote about loving our neighbor. It is an essential duty of Christians and no matter what is occurring in society, we can always fulfill this command by willing the good of others. But it is also necessary to give a vision for life through rational thinking, allowing wisdom to form us as individuals and communities. An analogy between “the Sun” and “the Son” is relevant here. The Sun gives off both heat and light; in a similar way the Son, Christ, gives off warmth (love) and light (truth). We need both and if we don't have them together, we are impoverished.
Many commentators describe our age as “post-truth” because it is hard to get people to agree on objective reality. This sad phenomenon has been a long time coming as we have embraced philosophies which see truth as relative to each individual or as whatever is useful in terms of power. Unfortunately, these views are inadequate and create more problems. Also, characteristic of our day is the disregard for tradition, overvaluing the newest trends.
In order to avoid these inadequate views and trends, we need complete thinking. This means searching for and embracing truth, no matter where we find it. As St. Paul wrote, “Test everything, retain what is good” (1 Thes. 5:21). This is how we live in the light. For Christians, both faith and reason illuminate reality. God wants us to better understand ourselves and our place in the universe. Without this clarity humans often repeat the cycles of destruction which are prevalent throughout history.
One practical step is to find more thinkers and commentators whose main agenda is pursuing the truth; individuals who place reality before their affiliations. It isn’t easy to find these people, but they do exist. A few of my favorites are John McWhorter, Tara Isabella Burton, and Patrick Deneen. I like these three and many others who see the link between faith, culture, and politics. These types of intellectuals don’t all have uniform ideas and opinions, but they do all value thorough, coherent thinking.
We need individuals who see through the superficial narratives that much of our media churns out. Our culture will improve with leaders who possess wisdom; the ability to see things in their proper order and in relation to human flourishing. This practice helps people know when they aren’t getting the full truth and/or when they are overanalyzing an event. It sees the cycles and patterns which repeat in history, as well as looks beneath the surface of conflict to find deeper understanding and insight.
One last topic worth mentioning in this post is the natural law. This is the view that we human beings can participate in God’s eternal plan by living in accord with our rational nature. However, this view isn’t only for people of biblical faith; it is also for anyone who acknowledges humans' ability to discern truth through reason. This theory is relevant when discussing law, rights, freedom, justice, etc. Catholicism has embraced this view because it is consistent with our revelation and it gives us a consistent standard by which to act in the world. For a more detailed explanation see here and here.
Let's continue to seek a clearer, more complete vision of life by embracing the light of Truth. We know that God is the source of this light and He will guide us through any darkness. This path of wisdom will help us resist the crazy noise of our age and live in a more coherent way. It will better help us fulfill the sacred command to practice more complete love.