I would like to lodge something in your imagination—a small touchstone, we might say, by which, if you are so disposed, you may test the ideas and slogans and voguish trends that come your way.

Some such touchstone is necessary, I would think, for anyone who is not content to be a mere fool, and who does not want to be in the tragicomic position of waggling along behind every bandwagon that trundles past. And of course you and I find ourselves at a point in history that has a terribly heavy traffic in bandwagons. More of them are coming at us more rapidly and more noisily than, I should think, at any other time since the expulsion from Eden. You can’t avoid them. They rumble and blare and loom, magnified and amplified by every kilowatt and decibel that the media can muster. A hundred years ago, or a thousand or ten thousand for that matter, mountebanks and wizards and false prophets had to whip up what following they could on the strength of their own voice and their own tricks. Now every jester has an instant, vast, and utterly credulous audience via the talk shows. The audience is credulous, I say, because they have been schooled in the tradition of moral and intellectual democracy, in which every idea is worth exactly as much as every other idea, and in which we are committed to giving equal time, not just on the air or in the columns of newsprint, but also in our minds—equal time, I say, to Isaiah and Beelzebub, for example, or to St. Thomas Aquinas and Mick Jagger, or the Blessed Virgin and Bella Abzug. We see the talk-show hosts, sitting in vapid amiability while their guests blithely dismantle the entirety of history and myth, and we pick up this frame of mind. We take on an earnest, humorless, frame of mind that gravely receives all data as “input,” so that we hear one person telling us about the joys of open marriage, and another about what an emancipation it is to find that one is no longer a man or a woman but a person, and still another going on about what a step forward it will be when we learn to address God as Our Androgyne, which art in Heaven—we hear all this, and our only response is, “What I hear you saying is …” or “I need this input,” or “Heavy,” or some such trenchant comment.

But this will not do. It is not good enough to receive all data as though it is arriving from some cosmic grist mill, all of it to be ground into your loaf. There is wheat and there is chaff. Distinctions have to be made. There is good stuff and bad stuff. And the only way to sort out the good from the bad is to discriminate. There is no question of a moral democracy, any more than there is of a gastronomic democracy. If you eat vegetables, they will do you good; if you eat toadstools, they will kill you. Somebody has to discriminate between the two and tell us which is which. They are not neutral data for our stomachs. Again, there is no moral democracy any more than there is a mathematical democracy. Two plus two equals four, and we may knock our foreheads on the floor and turn purple in the face because this stark datum doesn’t grab us right, or we may shout that our math teacher is an uptight traditionalist and pig—we may adopt this line, I say, but two-plus-two-equals-four remains sublimely unthreatened by our tantrum.

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We need a touchstone. We need to learn to discriminate. Your big job in life is to learn the discipline of discrimination, if you didn’t learn it in school. The moral vision that furnishes this touchstone that I am speaking about is that of ancient orthodoxy, or, put another way, of catholic orthodoxy. Now some of you may start in your seats when you read that phrase: “catholic orthodoxy”? The man has gotten his messages mixed up: He thinks he is at the Shrine of Our Lady of Loretto, or St. Perpetua’s Seminary, or somewhere. This is an evangelical audience.

I am aware of this. That is why I say that the moral vision that obtains here is that of catholic orthodoxy, that is, of the dogmatic tradition taught by the apostles, received by the Church, and agreed upon by all orthodox Christians always and everywhere, whether Anabaptist, Reformation, Latin, or Eastern. The Vincentian Canon is a useful way of phrasing it: quod ubique, quod semper, et quod ab omnibus creditum est: what has always been believed, everywhere, and by everyone. Any serious and thoughtful Christian is a dogmatist, not in the sense of being pig-headed or ostrich-like, but in the sense of having a lively awareness that he stands in a defined tradition of received teaching that has been articulated by the holy prophets and apostles, and handed down through the centuries. It is spelled out in the Bible, and guarded and proclaimed by the Church. The Christian vision is a vision of the eternal, that is, of majestic fixities and mysteries that stand in judgment upon our history and our existence. The Word that was Incarnate in the drama played out on the stage of our history was the Word that articulated order out of chaos in the beginning, and that will utter the final summing up at the end.

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For this reason, the thinking Christian finds himself in a perpetually ambiguous, not to say peculiar, position vis-à-vis his own epoch. He is, let’s face it, what the loose-jointed marionettes of contemporaneity call “uptight.” That is, he is, in fact, stuck with an attitude that will be sniffing into things, and that wants to ask difficult questions—that wants to take a second and a third look at things, to see how they look when you line them up next to the fixed standard. He is not quite at liberty to let it all hang out: Indeed, he suspects that letting it all hang out is what you get in nurseries with babies screaming and vomiting, or in mental hospitals where they have failed to align their actions with accepted patterns, or at drunken orgies where inhibition and reticence are thrown to the winds.

The christian will be forever asking how this idea or that one fits. Fits what? Fits the pattern, says the Christian—the solemn, blissful, austerely and magnificently orchestrated pattern of glory that we call Creation, or the Dance. The Christian will be forever testing things in the light of the bright fixities that Christian vision perceives and celebrates.

This is the reason why Christians are not ordinarily found in the van of contemporaneity. The Palm Sunday mob is the same in every century, forever throwing down their garments and their palms at the feet of the new prophet, hailing and exulting in things simply because they seem new and promising. “Innovative” and “creative” and “unstructured” are their favorite words, but of course by Friday this crowd has gotten bored by the creatively unstructured innovations, so they crucify the prophet and chase after fresh ones. (The point in this metaphor here is simply the flighty frame of mind of the mob, which will give Christians pause when they hear loud slogans abroad: The prophet in question here, of course, was bringing in something true, but they had no way of discriminating between him and Simon Magus, or any other zealot.)

It is particularly difficult now for Christians to keep their wits about them and their sights unblurred. The sheer tumble and force of novelty that comes at us all makes it nearly impossible to keep clear in one’s imagination—or in one’s moral vision, shall we say—the fixities that arch over the broil of our history and our fashions. Let me mention a few of the items in this tumble as examples of what I mean. We might call them cults, since that is what they are, really.

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There is the cult, for example, of the self. You have heard people talking about self-affirmation, and self-discovery, and self-acceptance, and self-identity. The great idea is to discover who you are. Fine. But any Christian will listen to this vocabulary with some wariness, since the vision he is already committed to sees a drastic paradox in this matter of the self. The biblical notion seems to be that we get to point A by heading toward point Z: That is, we move towards authentic self-knowledge by abandoning the quest for self-knowledge. Self-knowledge seems to be more or less irrelevant in this vision. Or at least irrelevant while we are en route to where we are going. Then—ah, then—we get the white stone with our real name engraved on it. This is given to the men and women who overcome, whatever that means. It does not seem to be promised to those who have sought themselves all along the way. I know this sounds like a cavalier oversimplification, and as though I am jettisoning the whole of the behavioral sciences on the strength of one verse of the Apocalypse. That is not quite what I have in mind. The point I am making here is that no Christian can listen with unmixed belief to popular vocabulary about the quest for the self that so ferociously engages our generation.

Again, there is the cult of frankness. “Let’s be honest,” meaning thereby “Let’s tell it like it is. If you think it, say it. Don’t be uptight. Break down the hedges and barriers of convention that obstruct the openness between you and your brother.” Fine. Candor is all to the good. But any Christian will also want to know how we propose to guard the shrine that is the other person. He will want to know, before he opens up the shrine of himself to others, just who has the warrant to come in here. Just as (says the Christian) there are high hedges that stand between you and me physically, so that I have no warrant to possess your body unless I am your spouse, so there are high hedges between you and me psychologically and emotionally and spiritually, and I have to know what the warrant is to enter the shrine of your personality before I barge in. For this reason a Christian will distrust the popular idea, so violently dramatized in the more extreme forms of T-group, that we all have a warrant to know everything about you, just as he distrusts the idea of physical orgies. He does not believe that you can suspend the rules, even for one evening’s experiment, physically or psychologically. And, I should think the same would apply religiously: A Christian will enter only very cautiously into the forms of religious exercise that call for us all to be putting all our cards on the table all the time. Not everybody has the warrant to see your cards, remember.

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This notion, surely, is also at work in the contemporary celebration of “open marriage,” where the idea is that we will all be very grown up and very sensible, and get beyond being uptight about some old-timey notions of fidelity and monogamy and so forth: Good heavens, we’re modern men and women now, and know how to handle a variety of sexual relationships.

No, says the Christian. That ain’t the way it is, baby. That ain’t the way it is. And the same notion would be at work in the current cult of pornography in magazines and cinema: The idea there is, how emancipated! how modern! how un-uptight. But the Christian, curmudgeon that he is, suspects that this whole Dionysian romp is misbegotten—that there are places you can’t enter with impunity. All religions and all tribes and all myths have known that there are taboos—all of them, that is, except Sodom, Rome in its decline, and us.

Or, third, there is the cult of liberation. Here the notion is, declare your autonomy. Proclaim your emancipation. Smash the chains that tradition has shackled you with. Discard the conventions and taboos written in the holy books, and set about redefining and reforging human existence. If you listen to the rhetoric of some of the forms of lib in our own time, you will hear this eager zest to redefine and reforge everything. Don’t give one moment’s courtesy to ten thousand years of myth and history: It’s all a cynical plot. The human race has missed the boat entirely, and we will do it right.

Well, whatever side of the various lib questions you find yourself on, if you are a thinking Christian and an orthodox one, you will enter into the discussion with solid commitment to the validity of history (since the drama of your redemption was played out in history), and with a great skepticism about the chances of the twentieth century coming upon some emancipating truth that escaped, somehow, the attention of the patriarchs, the prophets, the apostles, the fathers, and the rest of the train of sages and witnesses in history. You will need to move carefully and painstakingly through the data, and you will suspect that the distinction assumed in the Bible between man and woman (for example) is perhaps the richest distinction in the whole creation, and that we blur, or deny, that distinction (it is being attempted now) to our own impoverishment. You will bring, in other words, the touchstone of ancient Jewish and Christian vision to bear upon the hasty slogans of your own decade.

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Or again, there is the cult of the unstructured, which I have already mentioned in passing. You have no doubt sat on committees whose job was to plan some event. Sooner or later in the discussion some bright soul pipes up, “I know! Let’s just have it unstructured! That way everybody will be free to …” and so forth. But I daresay you have not sat on a committee where anyone ventured to observe in reply to this suggestion, “Fine, but remember that hell is the ultimately unstructured place.” The City of God is measured out foursquare, with adamantine foundations and jeweled gates, and that is not just an idea from some kooky prophecy chart. It is there, built into the structure of the universe and our existence, and we dismantle things to our peril. Anybody who was not born yesterday knows that it is the structures and the conventions that help us through chaotic and impossible situations, and that gather and bear up our flying emotions. Victory parades, music at marriages or funerals, dances of joy, sonnets of love, liturgical processions: Are these not, every one of them, the structured forms that we bring to raw experience and emotion, and that turn out to be the very thing we needed to enhance and heighten our capacity to experience and articulate the event? If we were all left standing about vaguely in the face of huge experiences, we would soon enough find ourselves reduced to the feeble level (alarmingly common in our own time, alas) of “Oh wow,” or “Outta sight.” That is to real, profound experience what pablum is to pâté: just not as good. Think of the child who has never been taught the simple convention of saying “How do you do.” Every time he has to encounter an adult, he is thrust back on his own unstructured spontaneity, and that is misery for him and everyone else. Or again, think of the feeble and flimsy efforts at bonhomie that go on at get-togethers where nothing is planned. And what would we do with our nuptial joy without the splendid structure of the wedding ceremony, or with our grief without the office for the burial of the dead? Our own era tries, but it is a pitiable spectacle in an arena filled with myriads from every tribe and civilization who knew better—who knew that traditional and ceremonial structures and courtesies and conventions are the very vehicles that bear us along. Our era thinks they are cages imprisoning us. A Christian, of course, will have plowed deep into his imagination the solemn and blissful imagery of the Tabernacle and the Apocalypse, and he will suspect that this is something fairly close to the tap-root of things. In this sense he is a radical—a person who wants to go to the root. He declines to accept the contemporary definition of radical, which means simply violent or sweeping or utopian.

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A fifth cult in our time is the cult of the convenient, made possible for us by our stunning advances in technology and medicine. We now have immense mysteries dissolved for us by a pill or a test-tube, or a quick visit to the doctor. Contraception, for example, or abortion, are available on easy demand. It’s all quite bracing. But any Christian, with his imagination suffused with the ancient biblical awareness of the awesome thing that human life is, will want to know just what it is we are manipulating here. Good heavens—babies made or unmade at the popping of a pill.

I am not urging, by the way, that no Christian will use the pill. I am urging that he will always have a salting of skepticism in his imagination about the brisk modern traffic in these things. If you disagree with the pope, you had better have weightier arguments against him than simply the argument that his point of view is inconvenient. How do you shoot down his argument from natural theology? It will take more than shouting, “I have a right to my own body!” A Christian will want to know.

A sixth cult in our time is, of course, the much-celebrated new morality. Here the idea is that we now have fresh light on things, and that no prophets or priests are going to tell us what varieties of sexual activity, say, are legitimate, much less with whom we may enjoy these diversions. We make our own choices now. But a Christian is stuck with all these intractable taboos again. You can’t do this and you can’t do that, until you are as pinched and unhappy as Mrs. Grundy. What’s the matter with Christians? Can’t they live?

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And I suppose the answer here is, “Nothing more is the matter with them than has been the matter with Jews and Moslems and Hindus and pagans all down through history who have known perfectly well that the sexual phenomenon was a high and sacred thing, to be surrounded with the most fierce strictures.” Queen Victoria did not make up “conventional morality.” Neither did the Puritans. Neither did the Catholic Church. Nor the apostles. Nor the rabbis. A Christian suspects that it is all built into the choreography of the great Dance, and that all these tiresome taboos are actually cues and clues, nudging us on toward our authentic bliss and wholeness. Follow the yellow brick road. That way lies the City.

That’s the end of my argument. I hope, even if you disagree with me passionately, that you will see my main point, which is that the Christian vision arises from sources, and stretches toward vistas, that are infinitely beyond the power of mere contemporaneity to alter. We didn’t set the Dance going, and we can’t reorchestrate it. We might even, if we are courageous and radical enough, discover that the pattern of that Dance, observed and obeyed so gravely and joyously by the great company of sages, patriarchs, prophets, psalmists, apostles, confessors, and witnesses, and all the ranks of angels and archangels and thrones and dominations and powers, right up to the terrible cherubim and seraphim themselves—that this pattern is the very guarantor of our true bliss and liberty.

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