Flesh Is Best
INHABITING THE REAL WORLD
“Man’s spirit will be flesh-bound, when found at best.” — Gerard Manley Hopkins
Bear with me as I tease out a thesis.
A few years back, I was sitting next to my buddy in his Toyota Tundra, chatting about the pastoral care of young people. We both led small groups composed of young married couples from our parish. My buddy lamented that many of the men — married, most with young children — spent hours a day playing video games. Video games, for crying out loud! I admit, I’m biased. I’ve never had a gaming system. I played a few computer games growing up — Sim Ant, Lemmings, some game out of a Chex cereal box — but video games were never my thing.
In college, I couldn’t understand how dudes could spend untold hours a day gaming. In fact, when I was a resident assistant in the dorms, one of the dudes on my floor got kicked out of school because of failing grades. He didn’t tell his parents. Instead, he continued to live in the dorms for several months though he was no longer enrolled. Doing what? Fear not. He was not selling drugs or corrupting coeds. He was playing video games. For hours and hours and hours on end.
Exasperated, I told my buddy in his Tundra, “I’d rather my sons” — I had three little ones at the time, but that number has since more than doubled — “were out causing trouble, getting drunk, trying to get laid, than sitting at home in the basement, addicted to video games.” Call it my Catholic sacramental view of the world. I figured that if my kids were at least participating in the physical world — getting scraped and bruised and bloody — then they were in the game. If they had a zest and desire for the real world, for physicality, for flesh, for joy and pleasure and the stuff of life, then they were well on their way to being converted to Christ.
I figured, rightly or wrongly, that sinning in the flesh was better than a gnostic escape from it. Because if you don’t understand the flesh and don’t live in it, don’t experience its joys and sorrows, then it’s awfully hard to get Christ. See, Christ is no gnostic escape. He’s not angelic spirit. He’s flesh and blood. He’s forgiveness of sins, yes, but to prove it, take up your pallet and walk, put lame feet on the ground and walk. He’s spit in the mud and put the paste in your eyes. He’s nails through the flesh. He’s put your finger in the hole in His side and believe. He’s unless you eat, chew, gnaw His flesh, and drink, slurp, gulp His blood, you have no life in you.
So, that was my thesis: Boys, get out there and get dirty. Go get a girlfriend rather than a porn addiction. Race a car down First Avenue instead of boring yourselves to death with another round of Grand Theft Auto. You get the picture.
Of course, pure theory is vastly simpler than real-life practice. My kids are still young, not yet teenagers. They don’t play video games. But neither are they out driving drunk and trying to score, or whatever they call it these days. Ask me in a couple of years if I’m still willing to apply my theory to my boys.
Recently, I’ve been reminded of my theory because of a set of teens my wife and I have gotten to know over the past several years. Most come from broken homes and broken families. They’ve been kicked out of their mothers’ homes, or they don’t have a home to get kicked out of. They are poorly formed, smoke pot, can’t keep a job, and will be lucky to graduate high school. And now, as they are turning 16, 17, and 18, they are having babies.
It’s the continuation of a cycle. They themselves are the product of unmarried teen parents, or shack-ups, as they were once called. Babies themselves, they are now mothers and fathers. They don’t know anything about raising a baby, starting a family, or building a civilization of love.
I wonder if they are closer to God than most of our cultural elites. Let me explain.
Birth rates in the “developed world” are rapidly declining. Take, for example, South Korea. According to an article by Scott Yenor in First Things (“Anti-Natal Engineering,” May 2023), South Korean women gave birth to an average of about six children in the 1960s. In 2017 their birth rate was 1.05. And today? The average South Korean woman is currently expected to have 0.79 children in her lifetime. (How someone can have 0.79 children is beyond the intellectual power of the current writer to explain.)
South Korea’s lack of fecundity mirrors that of other East Asian countries such as Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Of course, Russia has failed to have a replacement birth rate for some time now (replacement is 2.1 children per woman). And I know of no country in the West that has a replacement rate (unless, as some do, you consider Israel a Western country; Israel’s birth rate is 2.9). North America is at 1.6; the European Union, 1.5; and even Latin America and the Caribbean are only 1.9. But the Middle East and North Africa? They’re at 2.7. And Sub-Saharan Africa? They’re at 4.7. These numbers suggest that French novelist Michel Houellebecq’s Submission (2015), a fictional account of a Muslim takeover of France, not by military might but by democratic elections, is not so farfetched.
There’s a troubling correlation between economic growth and so-called societal progress, with its corresponding declining birth rates. High-income countries have a birth rate of 1.5, while low-income countries are at 4.7.
What do all these numbers portend?
Those of us in wealthier nations have lost the will to live. We’ve abandoned the sacraments and sacramentality. We are a bunch of Gnostics, seeking escape. We have forgotten that the whole point of life is to live. That creation is, in the words of Genesis, very good. That having sex and drinking vodka and riding a horse are good. That we are not meant for escape, but for life. That the very best things in life are also the hardest and the most physical. Like digging a hole. Like building a tree house. Like getting and staying married. Like having a child.
In their own broken and, yes, warped way, the teenagers my wife and I know get this. They are living this. Coming from broken homes, they seek wholeness. They seek a family that is fully theirs. They seek to be what their fathers were not, to be present in their kids’ lives (whether they have the capacity to do this is another question). So they recklessly and foolishly have a kid at 16 or 17, sometimes accidentally, by forgetting the condom at home and making a baby in the back seat of a car, but sometimes intentionally, understanding that love is fecund and wants to grow.
And what is a baby? Fleshy, snotty, poopy, screaming, and crying, babies necessarily pull people into their orbit. They require their parents to inhabit the real world, to occupy time and space and physicality. Babies destroy gnostic escape; they are the anti-video game.
Why would teenagers ever want to have one? Because they are foolish enough (not wise in the wisdom of this world) to know that children (procreation) are (together with unity of the parents) the very point and purpose of romantic love.
But the cultural elites? The civilized? The worldly wise? They get a dog, or six. They hold off getting married until they are over 30, and then hold off having a kid (if they ever do) until their mid-30s, at which time they are on the steep decline of fecundity and must therefore spend thousands of dollars on fertility treatments or to hire a surrogate. Sure, the cultural elites are successful. Sure, they have impressive investment portfolios. Sure, their life isn’t chaotic and wild and disorderly. But are they happy? Do they enjoy life?
Again, don’t get me wrong. The nutty teens we know aren’t exactly models of mental health or human achievement. They don’t dream of being CEOs or hedge-fund managers or starting a tech company. (Yes, they do wish to be rich and famous on TikTok and YouTube and such, but don’t we all?) Their dreams are more modest: to have a child and to love him as they were not loved. To have some sort of job. Maybe even to buy a house one day, or at the very least have a room of their own. I wonder if, in their simple fleshiness, their earth-boundness, these teens are better off than the elites. Are they, in some deeper, more vital way, saner than those who seem intent on hastening our civilization’s suicide?
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