My friend Shane Morris whipped up rather a remarkable storm recently on Twitter with this:
Millennials who are very cavalier about not having children are in for a shock when they enter their 40s & realize life is only half over. What do you do at that point? Keep trying to be sexy & have fun? I expect to see a lot of sadness & confusion about what to do at that point.
— Shane Morris (@GShaneMorris) August 23, 2022
If I recall correctly, someone told me it took all of four hours for him to hit 10,000 quote tweets, a figure the thought of which is enough to give me a headache and strengthen my resolve to avoid the bird site. Even so, there was something striking about the particular responses Morris’s post elicited.
In The Screwtape Letters one of the chief images that C. S. Lewis uses to talk about the demonic relationship both to humanity and to one another is that of consumption. Consumption is an act that is, by its very nature, focused on and terminating on the self. This isn’t always wrong, of course. There are appetites and needs we have that are naturally sated through an act of consumption.
And yet the good life, Christianly speaking, is also one of creation, of making, of fruitfulness. Consumption is a fairly narrow band of human activity—and even there it’s always paired with other elements of our lives that are creative, generative, etc. We grow the food before we consume it. Consumption, rightly understood and practiced, then is something that exists within a broader relationship of creativity and renewal which occurs alongside use and consumption.
But what Lewis has in view with Screwtape is something different:
One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself – creatures, whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His.
We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself: the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct.
What was striking about the backlash to Morris’s comments was how critics read into his remarks. Virtually all of his many, many critics read him as suggesting that children are essentially a consumable good we create to console ourselves and deal with our own loneliness and unhappiness as we reach middle age.
But that’s not what Morris said, nor is it how Christianity imagines the life of the family or the purpose of children. And the imaginative failure of virtually any of his non-Christian critics to understand this points to a core failure of our day, I think. It’s not as if Morris was describing some hitherto unimaginable way of living in the world; he was describing something that describes the way most human beings across time have lived. Our lives are governed by distinct phases. As we enter into middle and old age, it is normal, right, and good that we would be surrounded by children and, eventually, grandchildren and that their youthfulness, energy, and work would provide support as we age as well as a reminder that the story of our lives will go on after we are gone. This sort of assumption is everywhere in the work of someone like Julius Nyerere, the Kenyan Catholic socialist and politician.
To be sure, this is not to say that the celibate or those who cannot have children are cut off from the good life. Indeed, Christianity offers a high and lofty calling to celibate Christians which, in many ways, is superior to the calling given to the married. Similarly, it is precisely within the logic and imagination of Christianity that we can define other forms of fruitfulness, care, and authority available to those unable to conceive. All I am saying here is that the ordinary course of most human lives is to pass through a number of phases, often culminating in a time as they reach middle and old age when they are surrounded by children and grandchildren, not as some kind of consumable good but rather as the natural fruit of a life defined by fruitful, faithful love.
What interests me about the hostility to Morris’s remark is what it implies about our shared imagination as it concerns phases of life, succession, and the consolations we expect as we age, as well as any idea of what kind of legacy we might leave behind after we are gone.
I’ve long been struck by the way that C. S. Lewis depicts two contrary visions of the world through the two dominant communities described in his novel That Hideous Strength. One is Belbury, the fortress of the demon-inspired technocrats at the NICE. It’s perhaps worth noting that another rendering of “Belbury” might be “fortress of Baal”—bury being a common term for a fortress in old English and Bel being a modified spelling for Baal. And just as in Scripture when the prophets of Baal were marked by cruelty as well as an apparent belief that they could manipulate their god for their own ends, so too the men and women of Belbury are marked by a certain cruelty and inhumanity as well as a desire to use their god to remake the world in their own image.
At Belbury, animals are hoarded into cages and experimented on, employees are treated like cattle, and plans are made for the destruction of both environmental life and many forms of human life. The foil to the fortress of Baal is St Anne’s-on-the-Hill, an old abbey so named for the mother of Mary the mother of God. So the idea of motherhood is implicitly built into the very name of the place.
In the story’s climactic scene, two things happen: The animals at Belbury arise and (literally) devour the scientists and magicians of the NICE. So nature bites back. It’s a striking and frightening reminder for us, living as we are in an era of both mass ecological destruction and the destruction of the family. Alongside nature biting back at Belbury, however, we see nature in its rightful state at St Anne’s, where virtually all of the creatures living at St Anne’s, human and animal, pair off in couples as the story ends. Indeed, the final scene of the novel is when the two protagonists, Mark and Jane Studdock, married but separated for most of the story, come back together. The two visions of life represented here, then, are divorce and marriage, consumption and fruitfulness. What we have today, in contrast, is a regime in which divorce and marriage have too often been rendered indistinguishable, as Wendell Berry long ago observed:
Marriage, in what is evidently its most popular version, is now on the one hand an intimate “relationship” involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed, and on the other hand a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be constantly asserted and defended. Marriage, in other words, has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided. During their understandably temporary association, the “married” couple will typically consume a large quantity of merchandise and a large portion of each other.
What I find so dispiriting in this moment is the basic absence of visions of human life that are generative, that presuppose that fruitfulness of all sorts is normal and good and right. If you look at our dominant political fights, they nearly all center around questions of consumption.
The right wing is hedonistic and argues for basically limitless consumption of all sorts (environmental, agricultural, sexual, and so on) while the left is moralistic, but their moralism chiefly manifests in terms of regulating consumption rather than offering a positive moral vision of life together. What is missing is any vision of a common project we are pursuing together as a people, goods we are trying to lay hold of collectively, and so on.
And what I want to see Christians doing is refusing to accept these terms. But as the Christian right has been MAGA-ified, we’ve seen them form alliances with the barstool right that basically no one wants to break (probably because plenty of prominent Christian right leaders basically live like the barstool right folks already). Meanwhile, what remains of the evangelical left that hasn’t gone fully exvangelical, increasingly buys into visions of life and reality that presuppose primordial conflict and violence in ways that make true Christian reconciliation impossible. And so there’s no one left arguing for anything outside of the consumptive framework.
Yet the reality is looking for generative frames for imagining common life isn’t really an option at this point. Between the violence being done to the world and the violence done to the family, if our life together is to continue into the future, we will have to abandon the consumptive frame. Christians should lead the way in this pursuit.
I just wish I had any confidence that we will.