Last week, Pope Benedict XVI died at the age of 95, nearly a decade after stepping down as head of the Catholic Church. His life was marked by adherence to a belief in an eternal truth above all. As he stated in a 2008 meeting with Catholic educators at the Catholic University of America, "Truth means more than knowledge: knowing the truth leads us to discover the good. … (W)e observe, with distress, the notion of freedom being distorted. Freedom is not an opting out. It is an opting in – a participation in Being itself. Hence authentic freedom can never be attained by turning away from God."
There is a truth; that truth must be pursued; the only substitute for truth is falsehood. Human beings have sussed out eternal truths over the course of millennia, and to discard those truths in favor of subjectivism is crippling. Those eternal truths are rooted in the belief that God made us in His image, that He granted us roles and responsibilities, and that true freedom lies in making choices within the boundaries of those roles and responsibilities.
What happens when we discard those truths?
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First, we lose belief in something Higher; then we lose belief in ourselves.
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We are seeing the consequences of this two-step process before us in real time.
In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt spelled out what happens when we turn our gaze inward rather than outward. Generation Z, he said, has been sucked into a vortex of narcissism and jealousy and isolation. According to Haidt, there has "never been a generation this depressed, anxious and fragile." For girls, particularly, replacement of roles with constant self-assessment has been a pathway to hell: "You post your perfect life, and then you flip through the photos of other girls who have a more perfect life, and you feel depressed." The new cultural ideology "valorizes victimhood. … You're not going to take chances, you're going to ask for accommodations, you're going to play it safe, you're not going to swing for the fences, you're not going to start your own company."
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Civilizationally, the loss of inherited wisdom and traditional values has resulted in new, ersatz gods to worship. The most obvious god is the pantheistic god of nature, revenging itself on us for our capitalist excesses. Why else would "60 Minutes" feature widely discredited false green Paul R. Ehrlich, author of "The Population Bomb"? Ehrlich famously stated in 1968 that billions would die of starvation in the 1970s and 1980s; now, half a century later, he explains, "Humanity is not sustainable. To maintain our lifestyle (yours and mine, basically) for the entire planet, you'd need five more Earths. Not clear where they're gonna come from."
Never mind that Ehrlich is wrong. The real question is why he is still respected. The answer, of course, is that every religion requires its prophets, and the neopaganism of environmental catastrophism is no exception.
As the West loses its links with traditional wisdom, it breaks loose of its philosophical moorings. The consequences will be dire unless those moorings are reinforced. And they can only be reinforced by those who have the courage to defend eternal truths – not merely hide behind the tolerance of pluralism, a repository for the cowardice of conservatives who correctly stand with free speech but incorrectly think that stance sufficient to win the day.
In the end, either the truth will win out, or it will be destroyed. As Pope Benedict XVI told the bishops of the United States in 2012, "The Church in the United States is called, in season and out of season, to proclaim a Gospel which not only proposes unchanging moral truths but proposes them precisely as the key to human happiness and social prospering." Defenders of traditional values of all stripes are called to the same quest.