Tearing Down the Temple

Reactions to reading the book of Romans

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Thursday, October 13, 2005

Romans 1:28-34. When choice is unfree (I)

A few years ago, a poet named Robert Bly came into a brief vogue, touting a new or reconstituted vision of male virtue. He proclaimed that a major defect of modern culture was the failure of men to assert manhood and to pass this on to their sons. He decried the “feminization” of men, and he held seminars for men in which they celebrated a kind of modern stoicism mixed with ritual for nourishing the kind of independence, self-sufficiency, and inner calm that his vision of manhood called for. He was an atheist, if memory serves.

Now, I am sure that manhood has taken a severe hit in the course of the past decades of cultural shift that the West has experienced. In particular, the ability, and even the opportunity, of men to lead families has been attacked and undermined. It is part of the “inevitable” change that has come with the abandonment of Christian principles as a foundation for social organization. But there is no more hope for the restoration of right relationships in the family and society through Robert Bly’s program than through any of the thousands of other quick-fix programs proposed in the newspapers, magazines, and grocery-store paperback books that flood our world. There is no salvation there.

The ancient ritual of coming of age amongst the Jews was called bar mitzvah, which means, roughly, “son of the law.” The idea is that children were subject to their parents throughout early childhood, but at the time that they achieve the age of reason, they become subject to the law, responsible to the law. In earlier generations, this no doubt meant subject to the Law. Today, it is merely a ritual, probably regarded with great respect by a small fraction of those in contemporary Jewish society who go through it, but primarily an occasion for a party (I trust that I do not do my Jewish friends an injustice here). In Gentile society, the corresponding universally recognized rite of passage is obtaining the driver’s license. (It is probably worth noting that the rite of Confirmation is a commonly accepted cognate to bar mitzvah in Christian society. Today, Confirmation is so widely debased as a mere ritual that it does not compare well. Hence the example of the driver’s license, which actually requires the attainment of a skill.) Oddly enough, it has a significance that virtually no one recognizes, that the new driver has voluntarily placed himself or herself under the authority of a body of statutes that were not previously applicable, in a way not terribly different from the transformation implicit in bar mitzvah except, of course, for the gravity of the law involved.

The City’s most popular moral codes militate against the sovereignty and responsibility of parents, making a rite of passage unimportant. In the City, children are turned into informers against their classmates and even, in some outrageous cases, against their parents. Since the City thrives on degeneracy, coming of age means adopting one of the approved sets of life norms: the backstabbing ruthlessness of unprincipled ambition provides the dominant career norm, while self-serving complacency and indulgence constitute the life-style norm of choice. What is important to the City is that the subject be responsive to the City’s demands and obedient to its imperatives.

While functioning as the right kind of economic and social quanta, the City’s subjects can seek whatever kind of salvation they want to. There are plenty of gospels around: vegetarianism, weight watchers, social action, crime watch, exercise clubs, culture clubs, civic support clubs, religious clubs, charitable clubs, and even missions. (After all, if you cannot conform to the City’s standards, maybe you will go somewhere else. There is not much of anywhere to go, but out at the edges of civilization, you cannot do much harm.) What is important about any of these forms of salvation is that they will not challenge the authority of the City or its prince.

The rite of passage for the City’s citizens is the right to determine which of the alternative life-styles and rule-sets fits best. You have a right to assert yourself. You have a right to a place of your liking among the City’s strata. You have the right to sexual satisfaction no matter what form that takes (within very broad limits). You have the right to understand your moral universe, and to some extent, even to create it. You have rights. You deserve it.

And in that assertion of choice, the choice is removed, and the City’s subject, a captive to his sin, is taken into his slavery, from which his emergence can only be an Act of God.



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