It’s not just evil that plagues us. It’s also misplaced good things.
So, G.K. Chesterton suggests in a particularly insightful passage in Orthodoxy:
The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.
His insight is especially valuable when we consider the careful architecture of virtues that St. Thomas Aquinas delineates in the Summa Theologica. Part of the distinctive Christian message to our culture is not only that we need faith, or hope for resurrection and eternal happiness, or self-giving love modeled on Christ. The message is that must have all three—and not just this, but also that these three theological virtues exist have a particular arrangement in our souls. This has been a consistent Christian doctrine from the Pauline epistles to the Summa. (Relevant verses from St. Paul are 1 Corinthians 13:13, Colossians 1:4, 1 Thessalonians 1:3, and 1 Thessalonians 5:8).
Consider what faith, hope, and love have become in our culture.
First and most obviously, here we are talking about ‘faith,’ ‘hope,’ and ‘love’ not in the sense of the three theological virtues infused by the Holy Spirit in our souls. We are talking about the extent to which these ‘virtues’ exist on the level of human nature. And that is the first thing our culture has done to ‘love’ and the others: insist that ‘virtues’ such as these can be pursued apart from God—that there is nothing ‘supernatural’ about them.
Perhaps unsurprisingly from a Catholic Christian perspective, our society has lost the notion that faith, hope, and love are connected to each other in any meaningful way. Re-imagined as ‘natural virtues’ they truly have become ‘mad virtues’ that run ‘wild.’
Consider how our culture talks about faith.
Traditionally, faith is understood as a virtue of the intellect, moved by the will, in assenting to certain objective truths—ultimately the personal Truth Himself. But in our culture, ‘faith’ is turned inward. We are often called upon to believe in ourselves. And there’s certainly some value in self-confidence. But how far has this ‘faith’ fallen from what Christians understand faith proper to be: belief in a God who has a plan for us, who has endowed us with a destiny to be fulfilled both here on this earth as well as in heaven.
In a collective context, this becomes the faith in the gray ideals of liberalism: the belief in unlimited boons of an unfettered free market, or in democracy, or the inevitability of human progress.
Such ‘faith’ truly becomes forlorn, even anxious. It always seems to chase after a better future, rather than await its arrival. It bears little fruit in the here and now. It does not seem to work through love but works itself to exhaustion.
‘Love’ itself has been deformed and denuded of its moral beauty by our culture. In its cruder forms, love has become synonymous with lust. In its more elevated forms, ‘love’ as understood in our culture can sometimes lead to the exercise of virtue on a natural level. Certainly there are voices in our culture calling upon us to love our fellow man—through various acts of charity and compassion or simply in respect for others.
But rarely is such love, as commendable as it may be, understood to be connected to objective truths in the way that Christian love is. It is a love disenchanted from the transcendent. A love without true faith or true hope. As the Beetles put it, ‘All you need is love.’
‘Hope’ may be the most misunderstood of the three in our secular culture. In our society, we speak of a better future for us and our descendants. Sometimes this future is undefined. It is a pure aspiration. Other times it is defined quite specifically—perhaps in terms of a specific program of public policies, which sounds quite hopeless when compared with what the Christian hopes for: life after death, resurrection of the body, and everlasting bliss.
Without faith, not hope loses the grandeur of its vision but it also seems to lose its firm footing in eternal truth.
But do not despair, because every time someone in our culture talks about ‘faith,’ ‘hope,’ and ‘love’ it affords us an opportunity for dialogue, to share what true faith, hope, and love mean when they are understood not as natural ‘virtues’ but as supernatural gifts from God. Rather than simply condemn, we can also call our culture to something better.