When the Stars Vanish

Patheos.com | Published on September 17, 2013

By Peter Wehner

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recent interview in Relevant magazine caught my attention. In it, the journalist Peter Hitchens made this observation:

This is a period of great material wealth and the worships of economic growth and the century of the self, in which religious belief is going to be in trouble. The best metaphor for the state of mind in which we find ourselves is this is the first generation of the human race which doesn’t generally see the stars at night. It has blotted them out with street maps and car headlights and everything else. You simply can’t see the stars in most places where human beings are concentrated, and, in the same way, the triumph of consumerism and growth and the temporary joys of pleasure as a substitute for happiness blotted out the metaphorical stars of religious faith. It’s very hard to expect people who can’t see the stars to examine the significance of the stars or see their beauty.

This is an insightful and eloquently stated point. In acknowledging that, I need to insert a couple of qualifications, the first of which is that I believe wealth is better than poverty for all the obvious reasons – from mitigating human suffering to creating the conditions to foster human flourishing. (Among many other good things, wealth allows people to participate in uplifting cultural experiences, provides assistance to the needs of their children, supports worthy charities and funds college educations.) And my own situation qualifies me as wealthy, at least relative to most of the rest of the world and to those who have lived throughout history. Let’s just say no one will confuse my lifestyle with that of St. Francis of Assisi. (There is no record of him owning the 13th century equivalent of a plasma TV, at least after his pilgrimage to Rome in his early 20s.)

Still, one can appreciate the truth of what Hitchens is getting at. It’s no secret that often the danger posed to Christians over the millennia is less persecution than worldliness; that it is wealth and power that often undermine spiritual discipline and draw our affections away from the Lord; and that riches can be distractions, averting our gaze from what matters most.

The reason for this may be because every human heart is divided against itself, easily distracted, prone to waywardness. Living in the most opulent and consumeristic society in human history can magnify those tendencies; it can place in shadows and mist the understanding that this is not our true home, that we are citizens of another kingdom. That has been, at least for me, an ongoing challenge in my Christian pilgrimage. How do we die to self while living in a culture that so relentlessly celebrates the imperial self?

In his autobiography Pilgrim’s Way, John Buchan warned about his nightmare world. “It would be a feverish, bustling world,” he wrote, “self-satisfied and yet malcontent, and under the mask of a riotous life there would be death at the heart.”  He goes on:

Men would go everywhere and live nowhere; know everything and understand nothing. In the perpetual hurry of life there would be no chance of quiet for the soul. In the tumult of a jazz existence what hope would there be for the still small voices of the prophets and philosophers and poets? A world which claimed to be a triumph of the human personality would in truth have killed that personality. In such a bagman’s paradise, where life would be rationalised and padded with every material comfort, there would be little satisfaction for the immortal part of man. It would be a new Vanity Fair… Not for the first time in history have the idols that humanity has shaped for its own ends become its master.

That is, I think, what Peter Hitchens was getting at with his metaphor about the stars being blotted out, with us unable to examine either their significance or their beauty.

Now it needs to be said that every society has struggled with its own set of problems, many of them far worse than this one. But societies also struggle to identify their problems, to understand the challenges they present not just to national greatness but to the human spirit, to our capacity to perceive reality rather than getting caught up in alluring images and evanescent pursuits.

Perhaps the most worrisome thing of all is not that we can’t see the stars, but that so many people don’t even seem to miss them.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.