10 Lies of Contemporary Culture
Dr. Peter Kreef | Franciscan University of Steubenville 2022 Commencement Address
Before I actually give you my commencement address, I’d like to sell it to you by telling you that it’s going to be mercifully short.
Since our plethora of technological time-saving devices have robbed us of leisure time nowadays, I will do you the charitable deed of saving you a little time by summarizing in one short speech what thousands of other commencement speakers have been telling you for the last generation or two.
I want to say 10 uncomfortable things about 10 comfortable ideas that they say you need to cultivate: identity, self-esteem, service to the world, creativity, critical thinking, peace, justice, openness, love, and freedom. These are 10 nice, happy face words but, unlike most commencement speakers, I will not tell you happy lies about them.
First, a word about lies. It’s a well-known platitude, especially in economics departments, that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.
As they also say, figures don’t lie, but liars figure. But I think that principle should be expanded, and I think there are four kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, statistics, and commencement addresses.
I think most commencement addresses were inspired by the inventor of advertising, which is the world’s oldest profession, the one that was invented in the Garden of Eden by a shape shifter with many names, some of which are Beelzebub, Mephistopheles, Astaroth, Baal, and Satan. The first product of his advertising was an apple; an icon of that product with the bite taken out of it is proudly displayed on many of his products today.
He has chutzpah because these are labels that shamelessly say “Made in Hell.” His partner in sadism is Bill Gates, author of the world’s cleverest torture chamber, Microsoft Word.
Our Lord promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against Peter, son of Jonas. But he did not promise that the hell of Gates would not prevail against Peter, son of Kreeft.
The word advertising is itself an advertisement. It’s a weasel word. It’s a euphemism for lying, for no man-made product could ever be successfully sold to this ship of fools by simply telling the truth. Most people think that the world’s oldest profession is prostitution, but that’s only one form of advertising.
I know something about this form of advertising for my job is to be an intellectual prostitute, that is, a college professor. I don’t sell my body from money. Nobody’d buy that. But I do sell my mind. Boston College is my pimp. Students pay my pimp, it’s called tuition, and my pimp pays me, it’s called salary. That’s what Socrates would say. The business I work for is brains for hire. That’s why it’s called higher education.
But today, there has been a miracle. I have been rendered incapable of lying for one day, just like Jim Carrey in the hilariously funny movie “Liar Liar.” So, I can lie today only if I tell the truth about lies, and therefore I will give you 10 common, comfortable lies that my fellow advertisers and prostitutes have been telling you for many years in their commencement speeches.
Lie number one is that you can be whatever you want to be. Well, that’s not true, even for God. He can’t be the devil, even if he wanted to be. Good cannot be evil, and evil cannot be good. There is indeed a little good in the worst of us and a little bad in the best of us, so that it ill becomes the best of us to speak ill of the worst of us.
But there is not a little evil in goodness itself or a little good in evil itself because nothing can be what it is not. That’s the law of non-contradiction, that which nothing more certain can ever be thought except by a deconstructionist. So this popular self-contradiction is, well, self-contradictory. Or if it’s altered into something that is logically possible and changed into “you can become anything you want to become,” well, it’s still a lie because if it were not a lie, I guarantee you I would have become the greatest left-handed relief pitcher in the history of baseball.
Hobbits cannot become wizards, only better or worse hobbits. Men cannot become women, only better or badder men. You cannot make yourself immortal. You can’t even make yourself a saint. Only God can do that, though you can let him do it. But since we are essentially temporal creatures, that cannot done instantly, only gradually, because nothing can escape from its own essential nature. When it tries to do that, it becomes both comic and tragic and, as all our great dramatists have perceived, human life in this world is indeed a tragic comedy.
Lie number two is what I think is the most seductively satanic sentence I have ever heard, and it was the theme song of a TV show for small children back in the ’70s called “The Electric Company.” The song went like this: “The most important person in the whole wide world is you!”
In other words, “God, how dare you sit on my throne?” That was the essence of Satan’s philosophy and the motivation for his rebellion. As John Milton sagely said, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.”
In fact, whenever we worship ourselves, we make hell. God does not make hell. We do. The song everyone sings as they enter hell is: “I did it my way.”
When I was a kid, way back in the Jurassic age, perhaps once every few years some crazy man would make the news by killing dozens of strangers in public for no reason at all. Nowadays, that happens every few days. What has made the difference? Well, when I was a little kid, we didn’t listen to “The Electric Company.” I can’t think of a better way than that philosophy to raise a generation of psychopaths.
Some of these little kids grow up to be psychologists. I actually heard a psychologist once say that Hitler’s problem was that he didn’t have enough self-esteem. He’d probably say the same thing about Satan. A good friend of mine swears that he heard a Catholic priest say in an Easter Sunday sermon that, and I quote word for word, “the message that Christ was trying to preach to the world from his pulpit of the cross on Good Friday was, ‘I’m okay, you’re okay.'”
This makes me angry because I love comedy and such people put satirical comedians like Monty Python out of business. When satire has become identical with reality, there’s nothing left to satire.
Lie number three is a sweeter version of the previous lie. It is that the world needs you, that you can save the world, or at least Western civilization or America or the culture. You are the messiah. When you ride into Jerusalem in triumph, you will need an animal to ride on, and the donkey is very preferable to the elephant and certainly preferable to the lamb, but the real party animal is the jackass.
Mother Teresa once said to Malcolm Muggeridge, the brilliant and cynical British journalist who had become a Christian but not yet a Catholic, “Malcom, you’re a good man. Why don’t you go all the way and become a Catholic?”
Malcolm replied, “Well, to answer you in your own words, Mother, I guess God sees that I’m a good man and he needs some good men outside his Church as well as inside.”
And then Mother Teresa uttered three words: “No, he doesn’t.”
And Malcolm writes in his autobiography, “I could not answer that argument, so I became a Catholic.”
Nobody ever won an argument with Mother Teresa, except God.
Lie number four is that you need education in creative thinking, interpreted as thinking that creates a new reality, a new world. This ability logically follows from your newly-discovered divine identity, and this is why you are encouraged to be spiritual but not religious. After all, you’ve just discovered your divine identity, and God is not religious because religion is the worship of God as an other. And God is also spiritual, not material. So, if you’ve discovered your divine identity, what you need is not God’s incarnation but your excarnation, your spirituality.
The devil is very spiritual, so you can create your own world. It is you, not God, who can say, “Behold, I make all things new.” You are the creator of truth, not its discoverer and servant. That old superstition of objective truth is oppressive, and that’s an objective truth.
Lie number five is that you also need education in critical thinking, which means not the search for any positive truth but a negative skepticism towards anything that claims to be truth. Except, of course, that truth, which you yourself have created with your own creative thinking. In other words, don’t believe any dogma. I dogmatically assure you of that. All truth claims must be deconstructed, except that one. Remember your teacher and your patron, Pontius Pilate, who defined a truth with that sacred word, “whatever.”
No building may stand in the way of your deconstructive demolition ball, especially a cathedral. One of Karl Marx’s favorite quotations from Mephistopheles in Goethe’s “Faust” is “everything that exists deserves to perish.” Chilling.
Lie number six is the lie of a spiritual pacifism. According to this notion of peace, all peace is good, including peace with the world, the flesh, and the devil. Our only enemies are those who speak of enemies, as the Bible does 272 times. I counted in “Strong’s Concordance.”
We must be tolerant of everything except intolerance. When anyone comes calling, even the devil, we must accompany him and welcome him and open the door and invite him to dialogue, exactly as Eve did. But the devil won’t dialogue with you if you also invite St. Michael the Archangel or the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are warriors and therefore evil.
You see, if all peace is good, then all war is bad, including the war against greed, lust, and pride, the war against the world, the flesh, and the devil, the war against sin, because that assumes that there is such a thing as sin and that assumption is sinful and intolerably intolerant, and you must judge that as being judgmental. The only thing that’s really evil is to believe that there really is a thing called evil. There is no devil. You have no enemies. Stop fighting and come dine with me, says the spider to the fly.
Your religion is simply escapism, but think: Who condemns escapism? Jailers. Think about that.
Lie number seven is about peace and justice, the slogan that summarizes the most popular and successful modern version of the reduction of Christianity to secularism. Christianity is a radically different and distinctive and surprising and controversial thing, but everyone is for peace and justice. So if Christianity can be reduced to peace and justice, it becomes as controversial as warm milk. Did you ever hear the slogan, “Give war a chance?”
An especially popular lie is the coupling of peace and justice by the popular slogan: If you want peace, seek justice. In other words, if you can’t deny the very existence of your enemies, as our previous lie recommended, then at least don’t forgive them. Demand justice and nothing more. See how successful that philosophy has been for both sides in Palestine for the last 74 years, and remember to demand justice from God at the last judgment, so that you can get what you deserve, which is not that escapist fantasy called heaven.
Lie number eight is the exaltation of openness and welcoming and tolerance as the supreme good, as the summum bonum, the end of ends. If this philosophy is practiced consistently, your mind will become so open that all your brains will spill out.
An open mind is an excellent means but a bad end. It’s like an open mouth. If it’s used as a means to eating food, some nourishing food might enter it and then it will close on that food and eat it and be nourished by it. The name of that food is truth. But if that openness is treated as an end in itself, then your mind and your mouth will never close but will stay open all the time. Then, you will never eat anything and you will die, and also flies will enter that always-open mouth and they will deposit maggots in your mouth, and the lord of the flies will do the same thing to your soul.
Lie number nine is that all you need is love, sweet love. In other words, you don’t need truth, whatever that is. You just need love, whatever that is. Remember that sacred word, “whatever.” And of course, you don’t need discrimination between truth and lies, or between true love and false love. All discrimination is evil, especially the discrimination between good and evil.
Sweet love clearly refers to love as a feeling, and as Obi-Wan Kenobi says to Luke Skywalker, “Trust your feelings, Luke.” As Debby Boone sang, “It can’t be wrong when it feels so right.” That was exactly what Hitler thought.
Lie number 10 is the exaltation of freedom as an end, rather than a means. For if freedom were a means, that would mean that we would have to ask the question, “Freedom for what end?” What is the true end? This is the sweet land of liberty, but liberty for what? For the name of our new deity, “whatever.”
Victor Frankl wrote that we ought to balance the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor by having another statue, a statue of responsibility in San Francisco Bay. But that would violate our new Ten Commandments, which forbid only being judgmental, repressive, dogmatic, intolerant, uncompassionate, unfeeling, insensitive, narrow-minded, hypocritical, and fundamentalist, our new obscene f-word.
Well, I’m finished.
I fully expect to be charged with hate speech for this talk, and if you, too, oppose these lies, you may also receive hate, for cavities hate dentists, and cancers hate radiation, and cockroaches hate flashlights, and demons hate truth. But love cannot stop warring against hate and light cannot stop warring against darkness, as you see every time you light a candle in a dark room.
And that little experiment is a clue about what is inevitably bound to happen in the end. No matter how smoky and stinky and slimy the darkness is, it cannot endure the light. However successful the darkness may be, for however long a time, and however it may increase, and however many more times we continue to lose every battle in the culture war, yet the light is imperishable.
All lies die. Truth alone remains.
So, there’s my commencement address, then. It wasn’t very long, and its positive point is very simple. Just go forth and preach the truth, the good news, by both word and deed, and then let the chips fall as they may.
And please remember Mother Teresa’s life-changing and liberating principle: God did not put you in this world to be successful. He put you in this world to be faithful.
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