Confronting the twentieth century, Catholicism stood fast. This was its mission: church as bulwark against the disorders afflicting the age. The excitement of Vatican II (I was a teenager when the council convened) derived from the sense that the church possessed a hitherto unsuspected capacity to adapt its witness. Rather than merely standing in lonely opposition, the church intended to engage—and then redeem—modernity.
Catholics in the twenty-first century find it increasingly difficult—perhaps impossible—to sustain any such expectations. The problem is not simply that the institutional church today stands dishonored and discredited, but that it has misconstrued the problem. The ramparts it persists in defending—a moral order based on received, permanent truth—have long since been scaled, breached, and bypassed, and have fallen into ruin.
What went wrong? The great American historian Henry Adams—dead nearly a hundred years—offers a more cogent answer to that question than any we are likely to hear from Rome. Recalling his return to New York City after a lengthy stay in Europe in The Education of Henry Adams, the historian rendered this verdict: “The two-thousand-years failure of Christianity roared upward from Broadway,” a panoply of false gods clattering in its wake. That failure had created a vacuum. The heresies that were filling that vacuum filled Adams with foreboding.
Worse, he could see no reason to consider Christianity’s demise as anything other than definitive and irreversible. Yet a century later we remain largely oblivious to its implications. We still don’t understand what hit us.
Not himself conventionally religious (watching his sister suffer an excruciatingly painful death, he had concluded that God might be “a Substance, but He could not be a Person”) Adams was referring to Christianity not as a belief system but as an organizing principle. Christianity as project—reference point, narrative, and source of authority—imparted to history a semblance of cohesion and purposefulness. So, at least for centuries, Europeans and Americans had believed or at least pretended to believe.
For Adams, writing in the first decade of the twentieth century, even the pretense had become unsustainable. While attending the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and then the Exposition Universelle seven years later in Paris—subjecting each to intense inspection—he found himself face-to-face with ominous new forces to which he took an instant dislike and from which he expected more ill to come than good. Subsequent events amply vindicated his low expectations.
The preeminent symbol of the age (then in the final throes of disintegration, as he saw it) had been Mary, the Mother of God. The preeminent symbol of the age then dawning was the dynamo. If the Virgin embodied a conception of truth as fixed and singular, the dynamo implied the inverse: constant change and multiplicity. In place of coherence and unity, fragmentation and anarchy beckoned. “Power seemed to have outgrown its servitude,” Adams wrote.
The cylinder had exploded, and thrown great masses of stone and steam against the sky.... Prosperity never before imagined, power never yet wielded by man, speed never reached by anything but a meteor, had made the world irritable, nervous, querulous, unreasonable, and afraid.
The machines providing the source of this never-before-seen power, prosperity, and speed (along with electrical generators, Adams cited locomotives and automobiles, “a nightmare at a hundred kilometers an hour”) were displacing God, replacing him with objects more worthy of worship. Standing in a gallery at the Paris exhibition,
he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive...than this huge wheel.... Before the end one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force.
Detached and sardonic, Adams was ideally suited to assess the implications of this emerging dystopia. He had no stake in the outcome. He merely observed, his interest reflecting his perpetual if futile quest for education.
For just that reason, Adams was quick to discern who profited from this transfer of divine attributes. The principal beneficiaries were the “Trusts and Corporations” with which his friend President Theodore Roosevelt was even then engaged in epic battle. “They were revolutionary,” Adams wrote of these engines of enterprise, “troubling all the old conventions and values, as the screws of ocean steamers must trouble a school of herring. They tore society to pieces and trampled it underfoot,” engineering a transformation of human existence rivaling that which Jesus had wrought through his death and resurrection. The great mechanisms of wealth creation were unscrupulous, obnoxious, and irreligious; but as TR and all his successors would learn, they were also wily, resourceful, and persistent. Trustbusting was a fruitless exercise.
When Adams composed these observations, of course, America itself embodied that ongoing transformation. In the United States, novelty and impermanence reigned. There factories and fortunes were bigger, machines faster, buildings taller. Yet Americans were oblivious to all that the onslaught portended. According to Adams, “They were wandering in a wilderness much more sandy than the Hebrews had ever trodden about Sinai; they had neither serpents nor golden calves to worship.” Rejecting the commonplace charge of a country seduced and corrupted by Mammon, Adams leveled an even more severe indictment.
Worship of money was an old-world trait; a healthy appetite akin to worship of the gods, or to worship of power in any concrete shape; but the American wasted money more recklessly than anyone ever did before; he spent more to less purpose than any extravagant court aristocracy; he had no sense of relative values, and knew not what to do with his money when he got it, except use it to make more, or throw it away.
At best, money helped prop up the pretense that in America Christianity was alive and kicking. Were not pious plutocrats like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller even then engaged in their mammoth philanthropies, endowing churches and concert halls, universities and libraries, hospitals and art museums? Meanwhile, at Sunday services from one week to the next droves of ordinary citizens dutifully dropped their nickels into the collection basket. By such measures, fin-de-siècle Christianity seemed to be thriving.
Adams intuited that this was mostly hokum, a tacit collaboration of the powerful and the largely powerless distracting attention from the havoc then bearing down on the world. Christianity as a personal ethic or as a medium through which to seek individual salvation might survive, but Christianity as a formula for ordering human affairs had breathed its last.
Adams lived long enough to glimpse what was in store as a consequence. By the time of his death in March 1918, Christendom (as it had once been known) was tearing itself apart in a war that produced unspeakable carnage. At the various places that made the twentieth century such a horror—Katyn, Auschwitz, Dresden, Hiroshima, and so on—worse was to come. The dynamo had been merely a portent. With World War II, the furies that Adams had presciently detected slipped their leash.
Scripture no longer provided an adequate explanation of these events—even to consider situating the Holocaust in what Christians called salvation history seemed obscene. Unwilling to own up to their own complicity in all that had gone awry—unwilling, that is, to acknowledge the implications of opting for dynamo over Virgin—nominally Christian Americans sought refuge in ideology. Framing the twentieth century as a contest between fascism, communism, and a third camp variously described as liberal, democratic, or simply free restored clear-cut boundaries between good and evil. That the Free World, alone among the three competitors, refrained from open hostility toward religion further clarified the apparent issue. The tattered remnants of Christendom found sanctuary under the protection of the Free World’s acknowledged leader, the United States. Here, it seemed, was moral order restored.
Defining the issue in ideological terms allowed Cold War–era American statesmen to play dirty without compromising the righteousness of their cause. Of greater significance, however, was the way that ideology dulled sensibilities and narrowed choice, making it unnecessary (perhaps even unpatriotic) to assess critically the moral implications of the dynamo’s offspring. Americans saw—or had been persuaded to see—flying machines, radio, motion pictures, television, nuclear power, guided missiles, computers, and all sorts of other gadgets and gewgaws as conducive to the exercise of authentic freedom.
In his all-but-forgotten “Kitchen Debate” with Nikita Khrushchev in 1959, Richard Nixon made the point with clumsy effectiveness: real freedom implied access to whatever was the latest in the material world. “American houses last for more than twenty years,” Nixon told the Soviet leader, but “after twenty years, many Americans want a new house or a new kitchen…. The American system is designed to take advantage of new inventions and new techniques.”
As long as the Cold War persisted, thinking critically about the freedom provided by this American system remained difficult. Giving credence to warnings that Adams had issued decades before was nearly impossible.
In 1989, the ideological twentieth century came to an abrupt and happy conclusion. Freedom had seemingly prevailed. The United States, freedom’s chief exemplar, reigned supreme. Yet if Americans felt any sense of vindication, it proved surprisingly short-lived. Although much had seemed to hinge on the outcome of the Cold War, that outcome settled remarkably little.
The “end of history”—the triumph of liberal democratic capitalism—did not restore moral consensus. Adams for one would not have been surprised. The forces actually driving history—their power measured now not in kilowatts or megatons but in gigabytes—were no closer to being harnessed than when he had taken their measure a hundred years earlier. Carnegie Steel and Standard Oil might not rule the roost, but Microsoft, Apple, and Google appeared in their place. In their pursuit of profit, corporate leviathans continued to call the tune.
As successor to the Machine Age, the so-called Information Age promises to empower humanity as never before and therefore to complete our liberation. Taking the form of a wireless handheld device, the dynamo of our time has truly become, as Adams wrote, “a symbol of infinity.” Rather than spewing masses of stone and steam, it offers instant access to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
The Information Age does something else as well, however: it displays in stark terms our propensity to bow down before freedom’s reputed source. Anyone who today works with or near young people cannot fail to see this: for members of the present generation, the smartphone has become an amulet. It is a sacred object to be held and caressed and constantly attended to. Previous generations fell in love with their cars or became addicted to TV, but this one elevates devotion to material objects to an altogether different level. In the guise of exercising freedom, its members engage in a form of idolatry. Small wonder that aficionados of Apple’s iPhone call it the Jesus Phone.
So the frantic pursuit of self-liberation that Adams identified and warned against enters yet another cycle, with little sign of anything having been learned from past failures. If the God of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament exists, then it must be that he wills this. Yet his purposes remain inscrutable.
Ever the cool observer, Adams might have posited two possible explanations. Either humankind’s quest for freedom in the here and now, achieved through human effort and ingenuity, represents the ultimate heresy and offense against God—in which case we invite his continuing punishment. Or belief in God’s existence represents the ultimate illusion—in which case the chaos humanity has inflicted on itself as it careens from one dynamo to the next may be merely a foretaste of what is to come.