In ancient Greek mythology, the dog Cerberus guarded the entrance to Hades, the misty and gloomy underworld, the abode of the dead, permitting anyone to enter but none to leave. Cerberus is usually depicted as a three-headed dog and some have tried to link this to his seeing the past, present and future. Cerberus’ name comes to us in a Latinized version from the Greek, where he was called “Κέρβερος” (“Kerberos”).
When you and I think of dogs, we think of “man’s best friend.” But in the ancient world, dogs were usually thought of as wild animals that ran in packs and scavenged at the edge of town. They were not as domesticated as today. And Cerberus incorporates not only the fearsome qualities of a wild dog, but was also said to have a mane, not of hair, but of live snakes! He was said to eat only live meat and was the offspring of Echidna, a half-woman, half-snake, and Typhon, a fire-breathing giant. Not the most pleasant of “dogs” to be sure.
There is so much that ails our culture today. But I thought of Cerberus recently in a conversation where we pondered the deepest threats to our well-being as a nation and culture. Many will be quick to point to the destruction of the family, sexual confusion, racism and other things as the most serious threats. But these things feed off of deeper and broader issues. With the devouring and fearsome three-headed dog Cerberus, let’s consider the triple threat facing our culture today, threats that create a significant challenge for the Church in preaching the Gospel: secularism, materialism and individualism.
1. Secularism – The word “secular” comes from the Latin “saecula” which is translated as “world” but can also be understood to refer to the “age” or “times” in which we live. What secularism does is to pay excessive concern to the things of this world and to the times in which we live. It does this in exclusion to values and virtues of heaven and the Kingdom of God. The preoccupation with the things of this world crowds out any concern for the things of heaven. And it is not merely a matter of preoccupation, but, often, of outright hostility to things outside the “saecula” (world or age). Spiritual matters are often dismissed by the worldly as irrelevant, naïve, hostile and divisive.
Secularism is the error wherein I insist that the faith should give way when it opposes some worldly way of thinking, or some worldly priority. The spirit of the world often sees the truths of faith as unreasonable, unrealistic, and demands that they give way, either by compromise or a complete setting aside of faith.
As people of faith, it should be the world and its values that are on trial. But secularism puts the faith on trial and demands it conform to worldly thinking and priorities.
Secularism also increasingly demands that faith be privatized. It is to have no place in the public square of ideas or values. If Karl Marx said it, fine. But if Jesus said it, it has to go. Secularism in its “purest” form demands a faith-free, God-free, world. Jesus promised that the world would hate us as it hated Him. This remains true and secularism describes the rising tendency for the world to get its way. Here is the first head of Cerberus welcoming our culture to the abode of the dead.
2. Materialism – Most people think of materialism as the tendency to acquire and need lots of material things. It includes this, but true materialism is far deeper. In effect, materialism is the error that insists that physical matter is the only thing that is real, or existent. Materialism holds that only those things which can be measured on scale, seen in a microscope, or empirically experienced (through the five senses), are real.
In effect, materialism says that matter is all that “matters.” The spiritual is either nonexistent or irrelevant. This, of course, leads to the tendency to acquire things and neglect the spiritual. If matter is all that really matters, then we will tend to want large amounts of it.
In the end it is a cruel joke however since; “All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.” (Eccles 1:7) And again, “Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. [It] is meaningless….. The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether they eat little or much, but as for the rich, their abundance permits them no sleep.” (Eccles 5:10-12)
Materialism denies a whole world of moral and spiritual realities that are meant to nourish the human person: goodness, beauty, truth, justice, equity, transcendence, truth courage, feelings, attitudes, angels and God. These are ultimately spiritual realities. They may have physical manifestations, to some extent, but they are not physical.
To deny the spiritual is to already be dying for the form of this world is passing away. To deny the spiritual is to have little to live for other than today, for tomorrow is uncertain and one step closer to death. The second head of Cerberus is materialism. He beckons us and draws our culture to live already in Hades, the abode, the culture of death.
3. Individualism – The error of individualism exalts the individual over and above all notions of the common good and our need to responsibly live in communion with God and others. Individualism exalts the view of the individual at the expense of the received wisdom of tradition.
Individualism demands autonomy without proper regard to rights and needs of others. It minimizes duties toward others and maximizes personal prerogatives and privileges. It also tends to deny a balanced notion of dependence on others for human formation and the need to accept correction and instruction.
Individualism also results in a weakening of the Church, schools and other institutions by neglecting our duty to take part in and, support them, crucial as they are to the flourishing of the human family. Just as we could not enter this world without God and our parents, so neither can we live fully in isolation from God and others.
Personal freedom and autonomy have their place and should not be usurped by government or other collectives. But freedom today is often misunderstood as the ability to do whatever I please, instead of the ability, the power, to do what is good. Freedom is not absolute and should not be detached from respect for the rights and good of others.
Individualism also makes us feel immune from the sins of the past and how they affect us now. There is such a thing as collective guilt and the Scriptures mention this over and over. Jesus warns: “Because of this, I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify, and others you will flog in your synagogues and persecute in town after town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all these things will come upon this generation.” (Matt 23:34-36). Texts like these mean that we bear both the blessing of our ancestors and also the effects of their sins, like it or not, and there comes a time when nations and peoples must together repent of and lament the sins of their past. Individualism is the third head of Cerberus. By it he beckons us to Hades, the culture of death, since by it, he breaks down the ties that give life. So pervasive is individualism today that over 40% of people surveyed think marriage is passé. The result is death: contraception, low birthrates, abortion, and the children who are born are increasingly raised in the problematic settings of broken homes, day care and poor discipline.
Recall that Cerberus “welcomes” us to Hades. He lets you enter but won’t let you leave. And what is Hades? It is the abode of the dead. And through these three threats, we increasingly find ourselves in the abode of the dead. Pope St. John Paul II often described, with concern, the Western World as a “Culture of Death.” Essentially what this means is that, in our culture we increasingly sees death as a solution to problems.
There are good things in our culture and some hopeful trends, among the young especially. We have discussed those here, too. But allow today’s blog as a figure of what ails us. When we can name the demons they have less power over us.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter – St. Cyprian Catholic Church, Washington, D.C.
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