I first heard the name, Christopher Lasch, a dozen years ago when a fellow student gave me a copy of his book, The Culture of Narcissism. Reading it, I was struck by the clarity and honesty of his thought and began to wonder: “Who is this man?”
In the years since, I have tracked down and read many of his books and articles. My first impression, that there was something extraordinary about him, deepened as I read more of his writings. I knew very little about him, beyond the fact that he taught history at the University of Rochester and wrote things that I considered powerful and, indeed, deeply religious (in a different sort of way). At one stage, I subscribed to the New Oxford Review mainly on the basis that he was one of its contributing editors. Slowly, piece-meal, from various sources, I learned a little about the man behind the books and articles and my admiration continued to grow.
Christopher Lasch came out of a Marxist background, though some of what he valued most in life – a monogamous marriage, four children, sex only within marriage, a pro-life stance, and a commitment to speak the truth even when it doesn’t fit liberal theory – did not make him a darling in liberal circles, even as these circles could not help but respect his social criticism. The conservatives didn’t know quite what to make of him, though they liked his personal values and his courage in challenging some of the sacred cows within liberal ideology. But every time conservatives were about ready to embrace him, he would declare something to the effect that neo-conservativism is more interested in capitalism than in traditional values and that it fears hedonism and moral disorder mostly because these undermine productivity. Then the conservatives would complain that he was an agnostic and a wolf (liberal) in sheep’s clothing.
He was a complex man because the truth is complex and he refused to lie. No ideology was ever able to seduce him. For this reason he never fully at ease with the church, even when, at considerable cost to himself, he often defended what it stands for. Thus, for example, he would defend the social teachings of popes before anti-Catholic intellectuals and he was dropped from the pages of the prestigious The New York Review of Books partly because of his stance against abortion. He was a Christian the way Simone Weil was – in heart, in sympathy, and in courage. Like her, he never found a home within a denomination mostly because he was afraid of breaking the first commandment. He worshipped God by smashing golden calves – and he didn’t discriminate as to whether these were liberal or conservative, ecclesial or secular. He, non-Roman Catholic and publicly thought of as an agnostic, was the first to point out that, today, it is politically incorrect to make jokes or cutting remarks about anyone, except catholics.
He was a critic in the true and best sense of that word. Critic comes from the Greek, kritus, meaning a judge. A judge’s role is to make sure that the trial is fair and that all the evidence is heard. Hence, a good judge must have equal sympathy for both sides, wide loyalties, and the courage to make his or her decision solely on the basis of the evidence and not because of any predisposition or prior feelings. And a good judge must risk being unpopular. Christopher Lasch was such a critic. If I were on trial, or if the church were on trial, he would be the judge I would want. He stood out among intellectuals for his fairness, honesty, and his willingness to say what needed to be said even at the risk of offending the politically correct.
He stood out for other reasons too. Dale Vree, the editor of The New Oxford Review, says this in his obituary of him: He was a certified “elite intellectual”. But that is hardly a rare breed. More importantly, he was a great intellectual who was also a great man, and that is a rare breed. … He was also a kind man. He was good to his friends, and, though the target of countless vitriolic attacks, gentle with his enemies. He travelled in circles where arrogance and haughtiness are of epidemic proportions, but refused to succumb to those diseases. He was brilliant, but felt no need to advertise that fact. When he came to dinner, he was happy to enter the world of our younger children. He had a rich sense of play and a keen sense of humour. He was not wrapped up in himself. And he loved his wife and children profoundly. It is haunting that a man who knew so much of what love is about left us on St. Valentine’s Day.
Christopher Lasch died on in February 14, 1994, at age 61, of cancer. The church lost a great friend, the world a valuable critic. His passing should be noted. A truly honest, God-fearing man, has died. We are a little more orphaned.