Making Choices (Paperback)
Our Immoral World: Are We More Barbaric Than Our Ancestors?
The times are never so bad that a good man cannot live in them.
—St. Thomas More
The naive optimism of the sixties is dying because our civilization is dying. And our civilization is dying because its fundamental foundation and building block, the family, is dying.
Parents know today that it’s a moral jungle out there. They fear for their children’s safety, their survival, and their very souls. Body, soul, and spirit are all threatened; health, happiness, and holiness are very difficult to maintain.
The Times Are Bad
A survey of high school principals in 1958 asked this question: What are the main problems among your students? The answer was:
- 1. not doing homework
- 2. not respecting property—e.g., throwing books
- 3. leaving lights on and doors and windows open
- 4. throwing spitballs in class
- 5. running through the halls
The same survey question was asked a mere thirty years (one generation) later. The answers were startlingly different. Here are the main problems of high school students in 1988:
- 1. abortion
- 2. AIDS
- 3. rape
- 4. drugs
- 5. fear of violent death, murder, guns and knives in school
Parents are no better off than kids. The family is falling like Humpty Dumpty, and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men haven’t been able to put it back together again. And the family is the only place most people can learn life’s single most important lesson, unselfish love.
Half of all American marriages end in divorce. Most kids have one parent or none at home, not two. Many marriages, even when they hold together, are full of tension, bitterness, resentment, and depression. Ann Landers asked married readers to respond to the question: If you had to do it over again, would you marry your spouse? She was astonished at the volume of the reply, and even more at the fact that over 75 percent of them said no. If half of all marriages end in divorce and three quarters of those that don’t are unhappy, that means only one marriage in eight is a good one. Hey, kids, seven chances out of eight you’re going to learn you can’t find trust, love, security, or happiness anywhere, not even in your own home. What kind of a society can be built out of those building blocks?
Fidelity in marriage and chastity outside it are no longer the norm, but the exception. The majority of today’s unmarried teenagers have lost their virginity; in fact, many teenagers no longer understand what that word even means, literally. Sex is now so common that the thrill is gone, so (according to another survey) the biggest thrill in life for most women in America, especially teenagers, is not sex but shopping!
Greed for things tops even lust for sex. Our whole economic system is based on greed. This is so taken for granted that we hardly ever think of it. More people—young, middle-aged, and old alike—worry more about money than anything else, even death. Political candidates, at every level of government, emphasize their economic policies as the number-one reason for voting for them. It’s the only subject no candidate can ever possibly ignore and still hope to be elected.
If you count all the times Jesus referred to greed for money, you will find that he talked about it more than anything else except the kingdom of God. And the thing he kept saying over and over was very simple: Greed destroys your soul.
Wise old Plato didn’t think money was very important. When he wrote the world’s first and most famous political utopia, the Republic, he spent only two pages talking about economics, but over forty pages talking about music and theology.
About ten years ago our babysitter asked me to speak for three minutes into her tape recorder about my heroes for her English project. I said some obvious things about Jesus, Socrates, and my father, and she was effusively grateful. It turned out I was the only person among the twenty she had interviewed who admitted having any heroes at all! Our world is a world without heroes. We’ve seen Watergate, Jim and Tammy Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and Gary Hart. Even our few real heroes of the recent past—John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King—turn out to have been adulterers, cheating on their wives and lying about it. Who can expect anyone to take morality seriously any more?
The answer to that question is: God. God expects you to be moral. His standards haven’t changed, even if ours have. He’s not like us; he doesn’t follow the fashion page. He doesn’t read the Times; he reads the eternities. In fact, he writes them.
At the end of the nineteenth century, there was great expectation that the century to come, the twentieth, would be the best in history. The world looked forward to the abolition of war, poverty, and ignorance. Many Christians felt the same way (though they should have known better if they had read their Bibles); one liberal theological journal was founded with the title The Christian Century. Well, has it been “the Christian century”?
A more realistic picture would seem to be the one given by one of the child visionaries at Medjugorge, who said that the devil had asked God for one century for his own, and God gave him the twentieth.
This was supposed to be the century of humanism, of respect and compassion for human life. Instead, it has been the century of genocide. Of all the atrocities of this century, that is the one that has directly affected most lives, by snuffing out the lives of over a hundred million innocent people—more than the entire population of the human race before relatively recent history—in the name of some political or racial ideology. Millions of Armenians, Jews, Chinese, Russians, and Cambodians were the victims of systematic policies of mass murder in our century. So much blood calls out to God from the ground into which it has been spilled—it is literally mind-boggling.
This was supposed to be the century to end war. Instead, it saw a new invention: the World War. The first two were the most devastating wars in history. And the next two? Someone has said, I don’t know what weapons they’ll use in World War Three, but I know what weapons they’ll use in World War Four: sticks and stones.
This was supposed to be the century to abolish poverty and starvation. Instead, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened, and starvation has increased. Modern technology, communications, and transportation did not improve the human situation. Why? Because these things carried not only healing but also hurting, for they carried, as they must, the whole human heart with all its innate diseases (the source of what Christians call original sin).
This was supposed to be the century to abolish ignorance through mass education. Instead, it has been the century of propaganda, mass movements, conformism, slavery to fashion, and the standardization of thinking.
This was supposed to be the Century of Man. Instead, it threatens to become the century of “the abolition of man” (to quote C. S. Lewis’ prophetic title). If “God is dead,” how can the image of God survive?
When you leave a room, the mirror stops reflecting your image. When God is banished from our world, the image of God, the human soul, is banished with him.
We are living in the last days, in the split second between the departure of the person from the room and the disappearance of his image in the mirror, between the death of God and the death of his image. This time cannot last for long, just as the mirror cannot continue to reflect the image of the absent person for more than a split second.
A Good Man Can Live in Them
The reader by now has almost certainly gotten exactly the opposite impression from the one I want to convey. Does this book so far sound like doomsday pessimism and despair? If so, please re-read the quotation at the beginning of this chapter: “The times are never so bad that a good man cannot live in them.” That is my point—not simply that the times are bad, but that they are not so bad; not so bad that they make it impossible to be good. Bad times are no excuse for bad choices and bad lives.
Moral rules and ideals are not designed for good times but for bad times. In very good times and a very good society, we don’t need moral rules as much. They are like the laws of the state: you need them most not when people are good but when people are bad, to protect people against badness. Morality is the fence God put up near life’s cliffs, not in safe, level places. When the road goes through flat country, it needs no roadside barriers, but it needs them when it goes down mountains and into canyons.
I wonder sometimes whether God might not deliberately let the times get so bad just so that a good man can live in them. Good people, good ethics, and good moral characters are not only for bad times, they are also from bad times, they are produced by bad times, as diamonds are produced by centuries and tons of pressure, and steel is produced by high heat. I think God in his wisdom deliberately allows bad times, troubles, trials, and temptations precisely to hammer out saints on the anvil of suffering in the furnace of wickedness. He both provides good men for bad times and bad times for good men. The bad times are a “vale of soul-making,” and the good souls that are made in that dark valley heal the world and bring light into the valley. The world is a giant saint-making machine, and saints are the ones who in turn change the world.
The process works both ways, for if it worked only one way, if the saints succeeded in making the world good and that’s all, then life would be so joyful and goodness would be so obviously rewarded that being a saint would be so easy that it would be hard.
Think for a moment about how hard it would be to become a saint if it were easy. If there were no wall to push up against, how could you develop your muscles? If there were no sparring partner to fight against, how could you develop yourself as a fighter? If there were no suffering in the world, how could you develop compassion? If there were no difficulties, how could you develop courage? If there were no temptation (e.g., to lie) how could virtue (e.g., telling the truth) be precious? If sanctity didn’t cost anything, how could it be worth anything? Only in a bad world can we become good. Bad times are for good people.
But the other half of the process is just as true: good people are for bad times. For the essence of goodness is unselfish love, self-forgetful charity. That means that sanctity is not for the sake of the saint but for the sake of the sinner, just as the health of the doctor is for the sake of the patient. The real moral reason for my being moral is not for me but for others. Good parents are good parents, for instance, only if their first concern is their children’s goodness, not their own. Parents become good by being primarily concerned for their children’s goodness. Good friends seek the good of each other before their own good; that’s the only way they can attain their own true good. Good lovers forget themselves and even their own joy, in loving and thinking only of the beloved; and only thus can true joy come to them. The only deep and lasting pleasures in this life (and in the next!) are always self-forgetful.
So bad times are for good people and good people are for bad times. Crises are for goodness and goodness is for crises. All the saints lived in the middle of crises—if not global crises, at least personal crises. Augustine lived through both kinds and wrote his two great masterpieces to show how a good man was to live in bad times. His Confessions, in its own words, was written to show us “out of what depths You [God] rescue a man.” The City of God was written to show us that even when the whole world comes tumbling down around us, even when Rome and civilization falls and tomorrow morning is the Dark Ages—even then we are to look up and work and hope and be joyful, because we are citizens not of the dying world but of the living City of God, “the city that has foundations, whose builder and maker is God,” the city to which God incarnate has promised, “The gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” While we live in the dying City of the World, we must live by the principles of the imperishable City of God. We need Heaven-sent ethics for a Hell-bent world.
Times of crisis like ours are not evening times, times for going to bed, but morning times, times to rise up and grab our weapons. The battle cry has sounded. The fateful day of decision has dawned. The joy of good battle should be upon us.
Making Choices (Paperback)
Practical Wisdom for Everyday Moral Decisions
Making Choices (Paperback)
Practical Wisdom for Everyday Moral Decisions
Back to Making Choices (Paperback)
About Making Choices (Paperback)
We are faced with countless choices every day, but many of us find decision making difficult—and living with our choices even harder. With penetrating wisdom, good humor, and common sense, Peter Kreeft tackles tough questions such as:
- Why do good decisions sometimes hurt?
- How can we really know what’s right and wrong?
- How can we make good choices regarding sex, money, marriage and family, and work?
Making Choices is a powerful resource for anyone who desires clarity when facing decisions, confidence when making them, and happiness when living with the consequences.