The loss of the sacred and the marring of humanity
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Philip Rieff, the gloomy analyst of late modern culture, once commented that his grandfather at the end of his life had wanted to leave the United States and die in Israel. Rieff’s grandfather was a German Jew who had escaped the Holocaust and was disturbed by what America had become: a graceless, sex-obsessed, coarse culture. In a stark and memorable phrase, Rieff said that his grandfather thought that, in some ways, Hitler had won.
What did he mean? He believed the West after World War II had abandoned any sense of the sacred and had turned the symbols of the sacred into ironic tools for purposes of what Philip Rieff called “de-creation”—a repudiation that the world had any transcendent moral structure by which society is to be ordered.
President Joe Biden offered yet another first-class example of this when he recently declared that trans people are made in the image of God. Yes, of course, trans people are made in the image of God. They are human beings, and as such, they are worthy of love, care, and dignity, the same as disabled people, gay people, ugly people, and every other kind of people. So far, so obvious.
The problem is that President Biden uses the language of the image not as the foundation for his thinking about trans people but rather as a rhetorical flourish to grant the sentimental gospel of American progressive sexual and gender politics a veneer of transcendent and sacred authority. It is a means to seize the moral high ground for definitions of love and dignity that mean exactly what the spirit of the age says they mean: mushy affirmations of whatever piously progressive gibberish the progressive electorate demands. In this case, as is clear from the video and other recent statements, this means explicit sex education from kindergarten onward, the bizarre implausibilities of gender theory taught to kids not old enough to engage in any meaningful abstract thought, and the demolition of women’s private spaces and sports. When that kind of love wins, it is pretty obvious who loses: women and children, with the chaotic world of de-creation let loose upon them with the force of law behind it.
Love and dignity in such a de-created world are evacuated of any meaning. Love becomes enabling somebody in terms of their own desires or feelings. It demands that we recognize individual autonomy in whatever the individual claims—even if that individual is an obviously confused child. Dignity is positively affirming them in whatever confected identity they think they possess. It requires that we enable them to adopt harmful strategies for their bodies and lives. That is an utter perversion of what love and dignity are because it is a repudiation of what God’s image really means.
To be made in the image of God is to be made a creature with an essence, a nature that transcends individual desires, conformity to which is the key to being truly human. It means we are born not as autonomous, self-defined beings but rather as creatures who are first of all dependent—always on God as our creator and when infants and children upon those whose task is to nurture us, care for us, educate us, and, where necessary, protect us from ourselves until we reach the point where we can make wise decisions about our lives and future. That point was previously called adulthood, a concept that one does not hear much about in our world, where too many grown-ups seem to dress, speak, and act like perpetual teenagers well into middle age, if not beyond. But to be made in God’s image means that we should grow up and take responsibility for those dependent upon us, especially children, the weak, the vulnerable, and the elderly.
When the sacred dissolves into the sentimental, the culture is in trouble. And when the political class—left or right—who live downstream from culture use sacred language to justify the politics of sentimentalism, it is truly upon us. President Biden’s pathetic use of the image of God language to justify irresponsible policies toward children and to displace the role of parents is a damning indictment of his administration. Perhaps even more significantly, it is also a sign of the cadaverous stench of de-creation that now marks what is left of our culture.
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