If his writings and self-made videos are any evidence, the gunman in Arizona the other day was out of his mind. Try to read aloud his ramblings about the dating of years — he seems not to have understood what "BCE" refers to — or about teaching a child to substitute one letter for another in every word he writes wherein the letter appears, or about controlling your own dreams, or about the government's controlling your dreams. You can't do it. The very syntax of intelligible thought breaks down. If we found out today that he was following orders from a dog whose father's name was Sam, no one would be surprised.
That's madness, all right. But the madness that has impressed me recently isn't of that sort. I tried last night to check on the progress of the negotiations between my Saint Louis Cardinals and the great Albert Pujols, only to find that even on the baseball site, people were talking about the shootings in Arizona, and were saying things that were, in a sense, madder than anything coming from the gunman. Many years ago I spent a summer at a Catholic Worker house in Washington, and met several people whose hold on reality was intermittent and vague. One woman believed that the Russians and Arabs had conspired to kidnap her Siberian husky, to do experiments on it in a basement in the city. Another man believed that space aliens had attempted to contact him by inscribing messages, via lightning, upon a rock on a mountain in West Virginia. Now if such a person should say, "I believe that Glenn Beck paid this gunman off," we would but shake our heads and try to change the subject, maybe asking him to go find the canned peaches in the basement, or something.
Yes, I would find that to be crazy enough, but it is a craziness that is in a way identifiable. What's harder to deal with are the comments made by people who do not think they are Napoleon. Here what's broken down is not intelligibility, but intelligence; and we end up with shallowness and craziness at once. Let me give an example from a day or two before the shootings. A certain professor, who considers himself a conservative, but who is actually something of a proponent of technocracy and Randian rapacity, wrote in what he thought was defense of religious faith. Some people, he said, are strong and morally upright by themselves, and do not need a belief in a Creator and Judge to keep them in line. But others, most others, need that; and therefore we should not discourage religious faith, because the more we can rely upon people to govern themselves, the less we need to turn to law and bureaucracy and so forth.
Now that whole argument is upside down, subjecting religious faith to the needs of the state, just as Hobbes had done; but that's not my point. I am thinking about this great army of faithless and virtuous people. Where are they? Yes, I know that there are faithless and nice people, who might not burn down my house or rape my children, and who might make very fine dinner companions, and who might, to stretch a point, retain something of a Christian moral vision, the tatters of such a vision, after they had turned away from Christ. But can someone write as this writer had done, with the slightest notion of the difficulty of moral virtue? Even the pagan Romans, who had no clear notion of the fallenness of man, called it virtus because it denoted a hard-won manhood. If we made an examination of conscience, beginning with lust, the least of the seven deadly sins, we'd have to give up right there, if we're the typical American, and never get round to gluttony.
But we, who have no clear notion of virtue at all — we who are so shallow that we scramble to figure out some way to condemn the professor recently charged with incestuous acts with his grown daughter — we, of all people, hurl condemnations this way and that, with gleeful abandon. And there's a madness to that, a madness absurd in its claims to sanity. The standard madman charge against religious faith is that it breeds dissension (and note, by the way, that it is "religious faith" that comes under fire, conveniently vaporous, and not Jesus). Well, I imagine Vikings trampling booty-laden back to their ships, with the smoke of a burnt town in the distance, complaining about the table manners of the men of Kent. It breeds dissension? As opposed to what wonderful unity we enjoy?
We are rapidly becoming a people whom, in the main, no respectable peasant of past years would have allowed his children to associate with. The principal virtue that we boast of is that we impose no virtues on ourselves; and the result is that we fail to see the evil where it is. We live in a sty laden with dung, and complain about the bad breath of our political opponents. We divorce almost half the time we bother to marry in the first place, and look with scorn upon people of past ages, who took marriage seriously enough to suppose that it was the foundation of a decent community. We have made a fetish of sex, of youth, of prestigious work, of money, of autonomy, and of politics, and yet we hate the manhood of men and the womanhood of women, we dispense with our children, and we are bound to the silliest and costliest fads of the day.
I am reading about the beloved Saint Seraphim of Sarov, who observed a ten year period of silence, and who retreated to the forest to live a life of prayer and fasting. Out of his mind, the knowing secularist would say. Yet when Saint Seraphim, in his old age, returned to "the world," he became the spiritual director of a convent of nuns he established, gave counsel to hundreds of people who came to him every week, dictated to one of his friends a work of deep and humane instruction in the ascetic life, healed the sick, and radiated a profound joy. Saint Seraphim was sane in the old sense of the word: he was whole and sound. If the political wranglings of our time — and the amoralism that goes along with them — are sane, then give me the madness of Seraphim. I'd be nearer the Lord, I'd be wiser and happier, I'd be of more use to my family and friends, and I'd get more done.