Recently, I was giving a talk to a group of young adults preparing for marriage and was trying to challenge them with the Christian teaching on love and sexuality. They were objecting constantly. When I’d finished speaking, a young man stood up and said: “Father, I agree with your principles, in the ideal. But you are totally unrealistic. Do you know what is going on out here? Nobody is living that stuff anymore. You’d have to be one person in a thousand to live what you’re suggesting. Everyone is living differently now.” I looked at him, sitting beside a young woman whom he obviously loved deeply and hoped to marry, and decided to appeal to his idealism. I asked him: “When you marry that lady beside you, what kind of marriage do you want, one like everyone else’s, or one in a thousand?” “One in a thousand,” he answered without hesitation. “Then,” I suggested, “you’d best do what only one in a thousand does. If you do what everyone else does, you will have a marriage like everyone else. If you do what only one in a thousand does, you can have a one-in-a-thousand marriage.” That’s not complex theology, it’s simple mathematics, but it needs to be said. More and more, as I lecture and write, I am being challenged by people, young and old, who are protesting against idealism. This protest takes many forms. Most commonly, it sounds something like this:
“Whether certain principles and values are true or false is not so relevant. What is relevant is that virtually everyone has decided to ignore them and live in a different way. Nobody is living like that anymore…everyone is living in this way now!” Implicit in this is that if everyone is living in a certain way, then this way must be right. Values by common denominator. Principles by Gallup poll.
Occasionally, this critique takes a more cynical bent: “Idealism is naive, for kids. The mature, the realistic, do not live with their heads in the clouds. Hence, adjust, update, recognize what is there and accept it; live like everyone else is living.” What an incredible and tragic loss of idealism! Such a philosophy voices despair because the deepest demand of love, Christianity, and of life itself is precisely the challenge to specialness, to what is most ideal. Love, Christianity and life demand that we take the road less taken, that we be in restless cogitation for a higher eros, that we be one in a thousand.
Our culture, on the other hand, is rejecting this and is swallowing us whole. The current culture is reversing Robert Frost’s famous adage and telling us “to take the road more taken.” Prophecy is seen as unrealistic, idealism as immature. We are growing ever more dumb. Hence, our task today is to be leaven, to be idealistic and in that way to be prophetic. Our culture’s demand that everyone be like everyone else is not so much malicious as it is despairing. The death of idealism is a child of despair, always. People are content to settle for an attainable second best only when, for whatever reasons (hurt, bad self-image, lack of hope) they have given up on ever attaining what is ultimately best. Today we need prophets. We need people who, when speaking of love, economics, values, sexuality and aesthetics, are compassionate enough to be empathetic to our real struggles.
In being prophetic in this way, we can show the world that we truly love it because, ultimately, nobody wants a homogenized culture, nobody wants the lowest common denominator within relationships, love and sexuality, nobody wants to despair that we can feed the hungry and create a more just world, and nobody wants a world which despairingly says: “The best, what’s truly special, cannot be reached, so simply settle for what is happening. Do what everyone else is doing, that’s good enough!” It’s not good enough. What’s truer and deeper inside of us knows that there is more and wants more. The purpose of this column is to appeal for a prophetic idealism.
Philosophies, theologies and spiritualities which proclaim “do what everyone else is doing and that is good enough: break the fifth commandment which says: “Thou shalt not kill!” John Paul II, in an address in West Germany in 1980, called on Christians to be prophets in this sense. Our culture, he stated, tends to declare “human weakness a fundamental principle, and so make it a human right. Christ, on the other hand, taught that a person has above all a right to his or her own greatness.”
Thirteen-year-old Anne Frank concurred: “That is the difficulty in these times: Ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to meet the horrible truth and be shattered. It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I will be able to carry them out.” (July 15, 1944, third-last entry into her diary.)
May we have the courage to uphold our ideals, even when we cannot fully live them.