Sin is the most normal thing of all throughout the ages of human experience. It is far more normal than virtue. There are always far more sinners than there are saints…
“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” G.K. Chesterton (What’s Wrong with the World)
One of the many admirable features of the Imaginative Conservative is the degree to which it promotes and exemplifies healthy, rational discussion. This is true not merely of those who write essays for it, but of those who engage the writers with their thought-provoking comments. A great example of the latter was the comment that “TAA” posted to my recent essay, “What is Normal?,” an abridged portion of which I am pleased to reproduce here:
I enjoyed this essay, but it would have benefitted by addressing the obvious question it raises in the mind of the reader (this reader at least): what about those practices given to us by longstanding tradition (i.e. slavery, women as chattel, religious intolerance, etc.), the end of which even current conservatives/traditionalists support? It is not enough to say that traditional normalcy is better than contemporary normalcy. Yet, this article doesn’t appear to go any further than that…. The real question is: how does one separate the good fruit from bad fruit, both of which are produced from the roots of our culture? To resolve such questions we need more than just an appeal to normality…. Christ, rather than appeals to normality, is what we need.
I am so grateful for this critique of the inadequacies of my essay that I am pleased to make it more widely known through this reiteration of it. I am furthermore prompted to address those inadequacies through a fleshing out of my earlier arguments about the meaning of normality. My principal point, which is valid, is that the temporal and therefore temporary normality expressed by the latest fads and fashions needs to be measured against and even judged by the normative normality which has existed throughout the millennia of known human experience. If something is “normal” today but would have been considered grossly and grotesquely abnormal in every preceding generation, such as, for instance, the notion of same-sex “marriage,” we need to see the novelty of the new in the context of the durability and judgment of the old. This clash between fashionable and perennial normality forces us to compare and contrast the relative merits of these contradictory claims to normality. We must either condone the fashionable normality by condemning the “narrow-mindedness” of the whole of humanity up until the present day, or we must trust the collective experience of humanity and question the validity of new and odd forms of “normality.” In short, we must treat the past, and our brothers and sisters in the past, with relative contempt, trusting novelty over tradition, or we must seek to accommodate the beliefs of our historical brothers and sisters, giving the past a voice to which we would be wise to listen. This was my main point, the validity of which I am happy to defend, but my interlocutor is right to point out that it leaves too many things unsaid. There are too many things unquestioned and therefore too many things unanswered.
What about those practices given to us by longstanding tradition (i.e. slavery, women as chattel, religious intolerance, etc.), the end of which even current conservatives/traditionalists support?
This question was not answered adequately in my essay because it was not the principal question I was concerned with addressing. Nonetheless, I did allude to the question, and the problem inherent in asking it, at the very beginning of my essay. Here is my opening paragraph:
It is intriguing that being normal is normally seen as being a good thing. Indeed, it is not only intriguing but odd. After all, some very bad things are very normal. Sin, for instance.
Sin is the most normal thing of all throughout the ages of human experience. It is far more normal than virtue. There are always far more sinners than there are saints. It should have been clear, therefore, that I was not embracing the past as being better than the present; I was merely asking for us to listen to it as being a teacher of the present. One of the things it teaches is the reality and ubiquity of sin. Indeed, one of the examples of the way in which new normality contradicts normative normality is the present fad for refusing to acknowledge the existence of sin. The word itself is banished from polite conversation and will never be uttered by any teacher in our public schools, probably on pain of instant dismissal. Concepts of sin and virtue imply an objective understanding of right and wrong, which is inadmissible to a relativist insistence on the right of the individual to choose his own right and wrong.
Regarding the specific examples of “those practices given us by longstanding tradition,” such as slavery, women as chattel, and religious intolerance, these are normal in the past because they are all manifestations of sin. It should be added, however, that they are all still very much present in today’s culture. We might have abolished the buying and selling of human beings in public slave markets (thanks to the leading role played by Christians in the abolitionist movement) but human trafficking is on the increase and globalist economics has reduced the bulk of humanity to a status of subsistence wage-slavery. Women are still being treated as chattel, especially in the age of pornography, and it is only the Christian understanding of marriage which raises women and men to the level of their inherent dignity as children of God. Whenever and wherever traditional marriage is denigrated so is the dignity of the human person, both male and female. This is not to say that there are not more bad marriages than good marriages, both now as in the past, nor that women might not be treated as mere chattel in abusive marriages, now as in the past. Bad marriages are normal throughout history. To reiterate: there are always more sinners than saints, and that is as true of spouses as of anyone else. And as for religious intolerance, the modern atheists have shown themselves the most guilty of all with regard to this particular vice. Think of the French Revolution and its Reign of Terror, or the communists and the Nazis and their war on Christianity. Think of today’s neo-atheists and the persecution of Christians that they are advocating. All of these crimes of the past, “given us by longstanding tradition,” are very much crimes of the present also.
The ultimate solution to the problem of what constitutes normality is to judge it from the perspective of objective and not merely subjective criteria. I addressed this at the conclusion of my original essay:
As for the roots of normality, in the etymological sense, we find that the word derives from the Latin word norma, which is a carpenter’s square. It is the rule be which we measure things objectively from the right angle. In an absolute and objective sense, therefore, we might say that being normal is to see things from the right angle, in relation to that which is objectively real and true, and to conform our actions to that reality. In this sense, and to return to our initial thoughts on the subject, we can see that being normal is indeed a good thing. Ultimately, being normal is to conform ourselves in faith and reason to the will of God. It is to always follow the Carpenter’s rule!
In short and in sum, being normal in the objective or true sense is radically different from being normal in the relative of fashionable sense. In the original meaning of the word, normality means conforming ourselves to the absolute norm of reality, which is ultimately conformity to the will of God and the God-given laws that he establishes. Those who pursue this objective normality are striving to follow the path of virtue, the way of the saints, which leads ultimately to the very presence of truth itself—or truth himself. These objectively normal people are always in a minority. They are the Moral Minority who conform to a higher normality than that to which the immoral majority subscribe. It is for this reason that I can end by agreeing wholeheartedly with my interlocutor that “Christ, rather than appeals to normality, is what we need.”
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