Last week, there was an item in the news about a middle-aged man who was deeply worried by a disturbing change in his elderly mother’s behavior. The elderly mother had become belligerent, suspicious of everyone, and very secretive. The perplexed man attributed the change in his mother’s behavior to her recent obsession with social media. He was quoted as saying that he thought his mother had been “radicalized” by social media disinformation campaigns and internet conspiracy theories.
At first, I laughed about the prospect of an anti-social granny on the loose, spreading conspiracy theories about the link between the coronavirus and lizard people masquerading as government officials. Then, I grew alarmed. The exponential growth of utter nonsense on the internet and social media platforms is the result of a single phenomenon: fearful people who are willing to believe nothing except their own fearful opinions. I can’t think of anything more alarming and more frightening than being imprisoned within the limits of one’s own fears. This state of existence is made no less terrifying by the fact that it is freely chosen.
One of the central beliefs of Catholicism is the necessity of conversion as a lifelong practice. Human nature is finite but longs for the infinite. As there is no possibility for a complete experience of the infinite in this life (the universe, in all its vastness, is simply too small to allow the infinite to fit), there must be a finite means to approach the infinite. One of the finite actions that opens a person to experience the infinite is repentance. Along with experiences such as love, trust, and forgiveness, repentance moves one ever closer to God.
A pre-requisite for repentance is the willingness to move beyond oneself. The paranoid self-indulgence of conspiracy theories, extremist politics and religion, radical individualism, and the like prevent the possibility of repentance; in doing so, these practices prevent the possibility of encountering God, even to a finite degree.
The current sad state of human society is nothing new. More than two millennia ago, Qoheleth remarked that this is the perennial state of human existence. (Eccl. 1:9) As we are so very prone to be weighed down by our limitations, God provides divinely inspired help for our progress in faith and virtue. In today’s second reading, St. Paul says, “think about these sacred truths. Persevere in doing what you have learned and received.” (Phil. 4:8-9)
Today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is worth reading several times in its entirety. Paul refers to values espoused by classical Greek culture – truth, purity, and beauty. He sees these civic values as activities that can focus one’s attention on God. Having recommended that his readers pursue constructive and responsible behavior, he gives the assurance that “God’s own peace will be with you.” (Phil. 4:9)
One would think that God’s peace would be both a welcome alternative to fear and a healing solace for one’s limitations. Paul says that this is possible, but only for those who move beyond themselves to practice habitually constructive actions such as justice and graciousness.
Baptism set each of us on the path to righteousness. At Eucharist, our weekly affirmation of our Baptismal vocation, we make the public claim that we will faithfully pursue purity, truthfulness, and responsibility. These are the antidote for social ills; they provide healing for what troubles the soul. Paul says, “think about these sacred truths. Persevere in doing what you have learned and received.” (Phil. 4:8-9) Following Paul’s guidance requires, among other things, that we repent of our fears and learn to trust in the power of God’s peace.