Buffered and porous sexuality

Buffered and porous sexuality

There is no easy way to talk about what I’m about to mention, even anonymous I’m trying to be light on the personal details of the issue. Yet recently I’ve been challenged by my view of sex as one that is arguably sub-Christian. I think my view is one that many Christians in and in a way many outside the Church share, to the Churches shame. That is one in which we have essentially sundered the link between sex and new life. Procreation has become an opt-in measure, not the natural by-product of sex and this is as much a change of the mind as a change in our bodies and practices.

For years I realised that I had come to view sex as something in and of itself to no absolute end. I held marriage as the natural and right place for such a thing but sex within that was about shared union and mutual enjoyment, not life. Biologically I knew what was meant to take place, but I was also aware of the barriers we had put in place to stop biology taking its natural course. The reason deep down was economic and arguably selfish. We told ourselves we could not afford children and wanted to pursue careers and lifestyles that were not possible as parents. We did not want the responsibility.

When we changed our mind on this my idea of sex changed too. It became scary, to be honest, it became something potent and powerful in a way which was bigger than either of us that was beyond our control. The idea of choosing this responsibility also seemed somewhat inane and cheaper than the idea of just embracing the fact that sex for many people in history was always like this. I realised, to use Charles Taylor’s terms that sex is an inherently ‘porous’ act and we had been living with a ‘buffered’ imitation of such things. That is not to denigrate ‘buffered’ sexuality but really to explain that ‘porous’ sexuality seemed so much more powerful. It changed you physically but it changed you in coming to terms, climbing and overcoming that mountain that parenthood presents. To choose it, to bottle it and put it on the shelf for a rainy day seems artificial and manufactured, not authentic in the same way.

We are emotionally invested in the choices we make, and we make them for our own reasons. Our autonomy is really important to us in today’s age and it is something taken from us with pregnancy. It follows its own course for good or bad and you cannot help but worry your way through it because it is in many ways out of your hands and totally in God’s. We are unwillingly dragged into becoming porous people for a time as life grows outside and yet within us. We are so desperate to bring a measure of control and agency over the whole experience but you realise in some ways pregnancy, like life, isn’t about you ultimately. You are a passenger as much as the child in a way. The fate of all of you on that journey is still, even today, uncertain. I feel uncomfortable writing about this, mainly because I am a man, sex doesn’t affect me in the same way as a woman. At a personal and a societal level I realised the opportunities a buffered sexuality has afforded women in the developed world. Yet I am not a eunuch and I live in a society that has been shaped by this sexuality. In many ways, this society is safer, tamer, freer but it is also made of plastic rather than earth. Mary Eberstadt in her book ‘How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization’ places the decline in faith in line with the decline in the family. Having a family is expensive both in time and money today, people in my generation don’t have stable jobs, especially in London. Relationships are less stable too. Yet we have just enough disposable income to distract and entertain ourselves. You could even argue that as a society now are more promiscuous that pragmatically people increasingly see marriage as a bridge too far in terms of finding an avenue to gratify their sexual desires. This buffering of the self and the tumultuous environment we find ourselves in arguably don’t lend themselves to faith. This is arguably cultural as well as religious decline. Our culture is not sustainable if we need to import the children of other nations because we cannot meet the needs of our own society. To replace the generations that are now unborn because of our lifestyle choices. We should not be surprised if they look at our culture and see it as impotent. Maybe this is too strong,

At a personal and a societal level I realised the opportunities a buffered sexuality has afforded women in the developed world. Yet I am not a eunuch and I live in a society that has been shaped by this sexuality. In many ways, this society is safer, tamer, freer but it is also made of plastic rather than earth. Mary Eberstadt in her book ‘How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization’ places the decline in faith in line with the decline in the family. Having a family is expensive both in time and money today, people in my generation don’t have stable jobs, especially in London. Relationships are less stable too. Yet we have just enough disposable income to distract and entertain ourselves. You could even argue that as a society now are more promiscuous that pragmatically people increasingly see marriage as a bridge too far in terms of finding an avenue to gratify their sexual desires. This buffering of the self and the tumultuous environment we find ourselves in arguably don’t lend themselves to faith. This is arguably cultural as well as religious decline. Our culture is not sustainable if we need to import the children of other nations because we cannot meet the needs of our own society. To replace the working generations that are now unborn because of our lifestyle choices. We should not be surprised if they look at our culture and see it as impotent. Maybe this is too strong, maybe not.

At a personal and a societal level I realised the opportunities a buffered sexuality has afforded women in the developed world. Yet I am not a eunuch and I live in a society that has been shaped by this sexuality. In many ways, this society is safer, tamer, freer but it is also made of plastic rather than earth. Mary Eberstadt in her book ‘How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization’ places the decline in faith in line with the decline in the family. Having a family is expensive both in time and money today, people in my generation don’t have stable jobs, especially in London. Relationships are less stable too. Yet we have just enough disposable income to distract and entertain ourselves in small ways. You could even argue that as a society now are more promiscuous that pragmatically people increasingly see marriage as a bridge too far in terms of finding an avenue to gratify their sexual desires. Even the church is loosening its sexual mores in the face of this. This buffering of the self and the tumultuous environment we find ourselves in arguably don’t lend themselves to faith. Faith isn’t the only thing that suffers from this but our culture too. Our culture is not sustainable if we need to import the children of other nations because we cannot meet the needs of our own society. That we need to replace the generational gaps in the labour market that lie unborn because of our lifestyle choices. We should not be surprised if the new arrivals look at our culture and see it as impotent.

As a Protestant, I realise now maybe I sound more Catholic on this matter but I think they are right in this and we have simply no voice of any conviction on this. Yet I think, to be honest, this is the downside of having churches localised to a particular nation, culture or time. The ever-quotable G.K Chesterton once said that tradition is the democracy of the dead that refuses to be overthrown by those who happen to be living (paraphrased). Yet people say that something like 80% of Catholics use contraception in the West and I completely understand why. At the same time, however, I increasingly think that they are wrong to do so. Despite all the struggle and challenges, it might present to us. We want our lives to be safe, we want to be in control but that isn’t life as intended. Maybe this is naive but I’m wondering if the accepted societal wisdom isn’t right on this. I understand choice, I understand autonomy, but I also understand that this might be idolatry.

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On a recent visit to Rome

On a recent visit to Rome

I recently got back from a break in Rome. I’d imagined what visiting it would be like for some time and was really fortunate to be there with my wife. Experiencing it with her and sharing our different thoughts and reactions to it was a real gift. I’ll try and break-down some of the things that I thought about whilst there.

The City

I can see why people call Rome the eternal city, everywhere new developments sit side by side with structures that go back to the time of Caesar.

I got a strong sense that contemporary Romans are proud of their heritage, culture, where they came from and the continuity linking the past to the present. The line between old and new is blurred and it wasn’t uncommon to see new developments built into or amongst Roman ruins. I think in the UK such a thing would be sacrilege but it was nice in a way to breath life into old structures once more in a new way. It also struck me how architecture is an integral part of culture and the acts of building on and exposing one’s history cannot be anything but an expression of cultural continuity and an embrace of the past. Perhaps we need to do the same at home. Instead of being a spectacle our history will become participative and part of us.

Piazza Navona Rome Italy

When we visited the colosseum, I was struck by how it was much more than a gladiator arena and a site of early Christian martyrdom. At times it was also a barracks, farm, home, muse and ecological treasure. It was alive in that sense and it was only more recently that it had become something very different in its transition to spectacle.

Tourism

I came to Rome as a tourist, I’m grateful because it gave me access to places in previous years I might not of come close to. The interior of the Vatican comes to mind when I think of this. Yet I could not be shocked by the sheer volume of tourists in such a place. When we walked down a street we could not help but be reminded of when we visited Bali years ago where you are relentlessly accosted with various forms of paraphernalia and trinkets. You can’t blame them since that is perhaps the best form of income available to these hawkers but I could not help but feel the whole thing denigrated the city. Yet in a way I was part of that denigration, I was part of an economic ecosystem that seemed to have stolen something from the city. I was conflicted because I greatly appreciated being there, but my presence lessened the place itself.

I’m reminded particularly of visiting the sistine chapel, we were asked not to take photos and to keep silence yet the whole hall was rammed with tourists loudly talking to themselves and taking photos. The disrespect was shocking and the impotency of the guards who stood above the crowd and shouted in an effort to bring order was embarrassing. We had little time available there and had rushed to see it and thought the whole thing induced a mild form of anticlimactic cognitive dissonance. The Vatican itself I thought was generally run badly, at least publicly facing, and my wife commented that the whole thing felt largely like a theme park. I couldn’t help but agree.

I was also consciously aware of the sheer number of monks, nuns and priests wandering about Rome. I quite enjoyed seeing them although I didn’t interact with any. Many nuns were acting as a form of tour guide for some and I did wonder about the dividing line between tourist and pilgrim. The line seemed increasingly blurred and it wasn’t unusual to see someone walk around snapping photos in a church, check twitter and then quickly bow and cross themselves before heading off to the next site. A tourist shop, depending on where you were, was as likely to sell icons, rosaries and medals as it was roman swords and small cheap stone statues.  It was incredible to be surrounded by such art, such history and yet the accessibility of it in a peculiar way denigrated it. Even the act of ‘paywalling’ some of it, whilst understandable, only contributed to the theme park impression left on my mind. Yet I was honestly grateful to have been there and see what I did but that Rome was somehow worse for it.

Churches and art

The sheer volume of churches, and their wealth is eye watering. I quite enjoyed seeing the aforementioned monks, nuns and priests going about their days in Rome. I enjoyed the reality that there was a church on every corner, open and in active use. There was an accessibility in this which left the mind to ponder the opportunity and blessing of being able to take communion and pray throughout the day no matter whether you were at work, at home or somewhere in between. Would it be that every city was like Rome in that regard.

Santa_Maria_della_Vittoria_-_interno_-_Gaspa

When I first visited Rome one of the first churches I wanted to visit, near where we were staying, was Santa Maria della Vittoria which housed the Ecstasy of St Teresa. Truth be told I found the church incredibly disturbing and it sent my Protestant ‘spider sense’ off as soon as I stepped through the door. I couldn’t help but feel it was a total perversion of the gospel with its ostentatious displays of wealth, to say nothing of the saint veneration taking place. The Marian churches in particular I could not honestly believe and to my mind I could not help but notice in many instances Mary appeared more than Christ and that when the two were together Christ was either smaller or off to the side entirely. I’m reminded of one painting in the Vatican, I wish I knew its name, which was huge and appeared to be the second coming of Christ. Only that Mary was at the center and Christ was off to one side. I honestly could not believe it, this picture like many was beautiful in its craftsmanship but at the same time, to be honest, was utterly perverted to my mind.

Interior_Sant'Andrea_della_Valle_02

The one exception to my experience, and I cannot explain why was the Sant’Andrea della Valle. My wife noticed this church and wanted to step in. Outside it is huge and aside from the dome on top relatively unremarkable, but inside it is so beautiful. The interior is golden, the windows are tinted so that the light is yellowed, there were huge lettered mosaic inscriptions in latin around the edges. The ceiling covered in depictions of the patriarchs, saints and near the altar a triptych of St Andrew’s martyrdom on his cross. Everywhere there was light and my wife commented that here you can really feel the saints looking down on you. I don’t think we ever talked about such things but you could and their depictions were literally doing so in this case! We sat for a bit and as we did the organist started to practice, the addition of the music moved me profoundly and induced a form of aesthetic experience that almost caused me to well up a little bit as I took in the work inside. To bring it back down I found the body of a dead cardinal on display in a side chapel, this was a repeated feature that occurred in the other church I mentioned and even in Westminster Cathedral back home. I found the whole thing absurd and my wife didn’t realise they were the actual corpses at first but statues. It was only when I pointed out the decayed teeth and withered flesh behind the slightly open mouth and broken plaster that she noticed. It was sobering and in a way reminded me of reading Martin Luther’s reaction to the church in Rome when he visited. I can appreciate the aesthetics of the churches but I am distinctly more grateful and appreciate the tragic necessity of the reformers.

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The other thing I was reminded of on this topic was that I had recently watched the HBO miniseries the ‘Young Pope’ which, for all its faults really taps into the aesthetic marvels of Catholicism. As I walked around I couldn’t help but contrast the Church of Pope Jude Law to the Church of Pope Francis and be reminded of a First Things article on the peculiar appeal of the former over the latter.

Paolo Sorrentino, who wrote and directed the series, does not seem to be a traditional Catholic. As with most recent treatments of faith, a little more religious literacy would have gone a long way. Nonetheless, The Young Pope reveals the exhaustion of attempts to make the Church attractive by conforming it to the world. Reveling in supposedly old-fashioned garments like the papal red shoes and wide-brimmed saturno, it shows how attractive an unapologetically traditional Catholicism can be.

Sorrentino is not the first artist to admire Catholic tradition without adhering to it. Perhaps because they stand at some distance from the faith, or perhaps because they are trained in manipulating forms, artists have a way of hitting on truths about the Church that many Catholics cannot see. The signatories of the 1971 “Agatha Christie Letter” that pleaded for the preservation of the Latin Mass—people like Vladimir Ashkenazy, Agatha Christie, Graham Greene, Nancy Mitford, Iris Murdoch, and Joan Sutherland—were not generally Catholics, let alone traditional ones. But as artists, they were able to see the beauty and value of a liturgical form that too many practicing Catholics, through familiarity, had foolishly come to despise.

As a filmmaker, Sorrentino is particularly alert to the power of images. “In the 60s,” says Pius, “the young people that protested in the streets spouted all kinds of heresies. All except one: power to the imagination. In that, they were correct.” He vows that his first public appearance will be a great visual event, a “dazzling image, so dazzling it blinds people.” For Sorrentino, the Church is most eloquent in its pomp and dumbshow.

Marshall McLuhan! Thou shouldst be living at this hour. The media theorist believed that every group needed a common symbol or code, something that set them apart and made clear their purpose. Often this would involve “costume and vestment”—visible markers of identity. “What the young are obviously telling us is this: we want beards, we want massive costumes and vestments for everybody. We do not want any of this simple, plain, individual stuff.” Decades later, watching HBO, it is hard to deny that McLuhan was right.

https://www.firstthings.com/article/2017/03/waiting-for-a-young-pope

I’m not sure how I’d react if the Church did move in this direction but there is something powerful being tapped into there. To be honest I had thought about wandering in my Protestantism recently but if anything a visit to Rome more than undid that. I didn’t realise how Protestant some Catholics or Orthodox were in the west and Rome reminded me of times I visited Orthodox churches and monasteries in Russia. Beautiful undoubtedly and sincere too but I can see how the reformers turned away and instead proclaimed ‘sola fide’ in face of such things. If anything I admire their bravery for doing so all the more now.

In closing

Rome is definitely a city unlike any other, in many ways I wish every city was like it. It didn’t feel like a city in a traditional sense because of its unique blend of history and religion. I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that so much of the contemporary western identity has its roots in what is found in Rome. It feels naturally suited to pilgrimage but in its contemporary setting seems tailored increasingly to tourism. Tourism takes a place and turns it into a spectacle for those wandering its streets. It makes a place accessible but simultaneously creates distance between it and the visitor. Maybe it was because I was a Protestant in the most Catholic of cities that I could only have seen it from the outside. Despite this, I loved the italians merging of historic and contemporary architecture that brought it alive and think it’d be great if the British did a similar thing with their historic buildings in some measure.

In any case I’d definitely recommend a visit

Pushed up into the world

Pushed up into the world

Over the last few years I’ve been noticing a particular shift in my beliefs. I don’t know why, because it isn’t intentional and it feels in many ways out of my control. What seems right or decent today is something I’m not sure the me a decade or even five years ago would necessarily agree with. A decade ago I was more ‘principled’ I believed in rights or values that were universal. I believed society should be organised along those rights and values applying them without consideration to all people. Yet in many ways whilst this is admirable I’ve increasingly seen such things enacted or enforced by those in authority, in power to pressure smaller groups, increasingly individuals, to fall in line. These principles don’t have to be popular they just have to be ‘right’ to those with the ability to enact change.

Today I increasingly see the value in community, in immediacy and the particular. That is an intrinsic part of being British, in our politics we don’t have a constitution like the US, we have a tradition. It’s not always for the ‘best’ but love it or hate it this is who we are, and if we don’t like it we acknowledge that and change it but we cannot forget who we are. This is why the blind insistence on ‘British values’ by politicians in trying to combat extremism is so asinine. The very attempt is an exercise in denigrating who we are by conjuring up vague, ahistorical and generalised principles that we should fall in line with. What is being British? In reality it has a great more to do with Tolkein’s ‘Hobbits’ than Parliament’s ‘Values’. Who we are is a particular thing more rooted in our history, culture, habits and language than any abstraction. Abstraction is what we have been seeing increasingly in the tail end and conception of the 20th and 21st centuries which has gone hand in hand with a diminishment of individual liberty.

From my own perspective, this change is a shift of seeing the good in the world not as something pushed down on the world but instead as something pushed up into the world. It starts with the individual, family and what they produce is important. They produce beliefs, aesthetics, languages and homes. They might be good, they might be bad but an abstraction of the truth does not determine this. Truth isn’t abstract but grounded in the particular, there is a reason Christ was born to Mary, died on a Roman cross and rose again. These things are increasingly being treated by the world as incidental or even optional but they are not, they’re important. Truth is ultimately found in Christ, nothing else. It can’t be abstracted, it can’t be divorced from Christ and his particulars. We live in an age where we are taught that secularism is value neutral, this is a lie. Secularism is a relativising notion that supplants any truth for the authority of the state. A Monarch in that sense is more honest in their particularity of beliefs and convictions, just as you can be an honest opponent or supporter for your own differing reasons. The contemporary secular state by contrast claims it has no time for the particulars of right or wrong and instead seeks to universalise, to homogenise. In place of truth is pure commerce and the erosion of anything other than the facilitation of the state and its financing.

This particularism is the natural outworking of position that prioritises a love not just of home but the land itself. We should care about our environment because it’s not only our home but our sustainer. Environmental abuse is nearly always perpetrated by those who have no attachment to the land being abused. This is most applicable to the natural environment, but I believe increasingly it applies to our social and cultural environments. None of these are sustainable in our current circumstances. We are fortunate in that social and cultural environments are inevitable and should old ones be supplanted new ones will be founded. Yet this is to say nothing of the cost of loss passed on to a community in the event of such a thing.

As a result of this change I realise I don’t really believe in things like ‘human rights’ anymore and the statement ‘we hold these rights to be self-evident’ in the US constitution I think are based on a faulty premise. Yet as a Christian I know certain behaviour is warranted of me by God that might constitute something akin to human rights but that the language is not helpful. Economically I subscribe much more to something like Distributism these days. I feel like I have a greater respect for other cultures and languages and how we communicate the kingdom of god to various cultures becomes a much more important consideration. I’m interested in how that has been done historically in addition to being much more passionate about my own history, the good and the bad. People do matter, but the term people is too abstract. My neighbour matters.

The Investigatory Powers Bill

The Investigatory Powers Bill

There was a recent article circulated that sums up a troubling development in the UK. The Investigatory Powers Bill was recently passed into law legalising government behaviour in the UK that enables the government total invasive access into the online lives of everyone within its borders.

The passing of this bill is troubling but what is worse is the level of general support in the population for such a thing. If someone asked to view your private online history, your emails and location at all times most would balk and refuse out of principle. Yet when this is written on a piece of paper by politicians this behaviour is now somehow deemed acceptable in the name of security. Every terrorist attack, or threat of terrorist attack has been used to sway public support for the erosion of digital liberty and anonymity.

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I wonder what the eventual destination of this trajectory is that we are on. Today there are few bodies or authorities that exist outside the state to protect the individual. Institutions that were hard fought for have been stripped back over time as the role of the state has grown largely unquestioned. Privacy isn’t a natural state and a relatively recent thing but so is the extent to which the state determines how one lives now. The image that increasingly comes to mind concerning the internet is that of the Panopticon. Foucault wrote on the subject…

Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. To achieve this, it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so.

Foucault, Michel. “Discipline and Punish, Panopticism.” In Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison.

In the Panopticon the idea that an individual might be being watched is enough to bring their behaviour under the desired influence of the captor. Likewise the very potential that you are being watched by the government will influence your behaviour towards the government increasing rates of self-censorship and being unwilling to step outside of mainstream opinion. This also means that when you are placed within the Panopticon you are less likely to verbalise opposition to such monitoring than had you not been monitored at all. Something that is generally known as ‘The Spiral of Silence’. This is why the power of anonymity on the internet was so important to those with minority views and beliefs. It gave them the means to speak in a fashion that wasn’t censored, not by themselves or anyone else. In some ways it’s the same reason I started to write here. I wanted to process and externalise my thoughts in a way I wouldn’t if I had to do such a thing in public. The steps of the UK government with the passing of this bill promise that this is all beginning to change.

As according to the law of nature each must be born free … many of our common people have fallen into servitude and diverse conditions which very much displease us; we, considering that our kingdom is called … the kingdom of the Franks [free men], and wishing that the fact should be truly accordant with the name … have ordered and order that … such servitudes be brought back to freedom …

Louis X of France

I do not think it a coincidence that as Britain moves away from being a society where people are sincere Christians that we increasingly live in an age in which others attempt to determine the thoughts and beliefs of others. If the popular consensus is that we are determined by our biology, that we are fleshy machines, it’s not a great step to believe that we might as well begin to determine one another. That might seem disingenuous to the sincere beliefs of determinists, but I think anyone would be hard pressed to make an argument on the basis of abstract rights. What good are principles where the mind itself is ultimately an accident of evolution? If we think we are machines we begin to treat each other like machines.

We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us

Father John Culkin

Why do the nations say,

   ‘Where is their God?’

Our God is in heaven;

   he does whatever pleases him.

But their idols are silver and gold,

   made by human hands.

They have mouths, but cannot speak,

   eyes, but cannot see.

They have ears, but cannot hear,

   noses, but cannot smell.

They have hands, but cannot feel,

   feet, but cannot walk,

   nor can they utter a sound with their throats.

Those who make them will be like them,

   and so will all who trust in them.

Psalm 115:2-8

All of this might seem hyperbolic or alarmist but I think there is a genuine reason to be unwelcoming of these changes in practice by the authorities. More so that there are grounds for a critical Christian position on these matters. The often quoted mantra is “you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide” but we know people are fallible and our salvation ultimately won’t come from any man-made institution, no matter the security we are promised. To give any institution so much power is to invite abuse. The pursuit of utopia consistently has lead to its very opposite.

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In an age where we are increasingly living digital lives I think there’s an argument from these recent changes to moderate our interactions with the online world. An element of sobriety and vigilance online is not only a spiritual good but a practical one too. If we believe in the liberty of individuals there are also avenues here to interact with others concerned with these issues too. Not because we wish to hide who we are, but because we believe people are more than numbers to be watched and moderated by the state. Is it too much to say such an invasion into the lives of individuals is a sin? I don’t think so, by doing this we are failing to love our neighbour.

The basis of society

The basis of society

For a long time I thought of myself, or rather the individual, as the basis of society. Like pixels on a screen make an image individuals en masse make a society. I didn’t really think the church had a great deal to say on this matter, to my mind it was something so basic that it went unchallenged. God made the Man alone in the beginning and we all ultimately live and die alone before God. Yet whilst God did make the Man alone, this wasn’t good, it only became so when out of his side God made Woman.

It is in the dynamics that emerge between husband and wife that I am now beginning to believe form the basis of society. It is the first point in which the interior world of the individual moves beyond itself and engages with the interior world of another at its most comprehensive degree. The world of ideas becomes incarnated in the physical interactions of a husband and wife, more so, it is the most basic unit that is self-perpetuating. The presence of children ensures this society continues and the means by which they are raised communicate what is collectively held of value and importance. In fact the catechism of the Catholic church describes the family as.

The family is the original cell of social life. It is the natural society in which husband and wife are called to give themselves in love and in the gift of life. Authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society. The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honour God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society.

Catechism of the Catholic Church #2207

An individual in their interactions with others may form something approximating society yet it is not self-sustaining. Nor does it hold the special intimacy found between husband and wife, parent and child. If we boiled everything back and some tragedy struck England it is the family through which everything begins again. What the parents pass on to their children defines the shape of the subsequent society.

Looking at the issue from another perspective, we have the individual and we have contemporary society-at-large, a family of families. The individual alone, something only possible more recently, is subject to the values and expectations of the society they find themselves in. The family is the most basic institution where the individual might flourish and work out there own vision of the world, to create their own culture. As a result the family can be the foundation of resistance, it stands between the individual and overbearing external authorities. It creates space for new culture to emerge. Just as it is the most basic unit of society, a healthy family enriches even the largest society. To lose the family is a loss of the bedrock of individual liberty. Other institutions; formal societies, guilds, religious institutions, unions, orders, organisations and corporations do this too but none in quite such a foundational way as the family. The extent to which these groups facilitate the family or oppose it collectively determines the ultimate flourishing of the individual in any given society. Likewise these things can lead to the flourishing of the family and help unite separate families together to form the bonds that make increasingly large scale societies successful. This is why the assault on these institutions, ultimately all rooted in the family, is the hallmark of authoritarians who seek to impose their own will upon a mass of individuals.

When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale

G.K Chesterton, Heretics

On the subject of the individual, Charles Taylor in his work A Secular Age highlights the shift in where we find meaning as integral to the rise of the individual as a form of ‘buffered self’. Prior to secularisation we found meaning inherent in the world around us but the secular mind places it as something generated within the mind. With the shift in posture from an communal self to a individualist self it follows that our association with any institution or external influence is progressively questioned and negotiated. Does this now mean that society is found in the mind of the individual? So if the family was once the basis of society, has it now become the individual? Can the basis shift?

Yet for the buffered self, if meaning is generated within the mind, can one mind reach out and genuinely touch another? Or is it simply giving itself the impression that such a thing is occurring? For the buffered self its a subject always open to debate, a lingering doubt. Could such a private mind be driven to create a sustainable society? Its more reasonable that the buffered self can inherit a society, rather than found one. Yet even then its inherent doubt will over time contribute to the renegotiation of public institutions to the point in which they cease to exist in any ‘meaningful’ sense. Even the language used in such a setting becomes increasingly contentious as people can no longer agree over the very meaning of words. During such times a society either eventually becomes possessed by more robust visions of society or it becomes increasingly authoritarian in an effort to maintain current social arrangements. Something I think we are seeing in the West.

Considerations of the individual aside it does nothing to address the inherent creative nature of the family. The individual will expire, family will not but instead changes over time, children becoming parents who give rise to their own children. The individuals can transmit beliefs but if they have no vision for the family it cannot be considered sustainable.

The individual is often put forward for the basis of society as opposed to that of the family. However I would contend that the individual is most enabled when emerging from the context of the family. As a result the healthy society is only guaranteed by, among other things, the promotion of the family as its most basic constituent unit. From this individuals are taught a vision of the world and find, in the words of the catechism above ‘initiation into life in society’. That life might take the form of meaningful work and participation in organisations that reach across families as necessary and form nations. Yet we should never forget it all started with the union of a husband and wife.