The Third Millennium, So Far

It was a close call, but I made it into the third Christian millennium. I was glad to see the Pope made it also. A small industry of those expecting him quickly to pass from the scene has recently developed. This odd business is composed almost totally of those whose understanding of the Church and the world is, in their view, superior to his. Most of us would just as soon see the Holy Father stick around a bit longer, though we all know, as he knows, that we are each of us mortal, beings who die and know that they die.

When God decided that John Paul II was to be pope this round, he displayed considerable humor. He chose a pope who was smarter and more humanly attractive than any of his critics. These latter never forgave either God or pope. This curious refusal to acknowledge what is good explains more of the dark side of our time than I care to contemplate.

Furthermore, neither a Y2K computer breakdown, nor the end of the world, nor the rapture happened, but we cannot relax our vigil. Michael Novak wrote recently that we rarely heard in the media just what event happened 2,000 years ago. It was kept pretty quiet. We are too sensitive to mention the name of Christ in most public contexts. We are reluctant to know whether Christianity did any “good” in the world for fear it might compromise us. Chesterton used to say that it was a good idea to try to think Christianity out of the world, just to see what the alternative might be like. It is not a pretty picture. Our future may well be our past.

In a previous column, I remarked on the end of Charles Schulz’ Peanuts. Jennifer Roback Morse, in the meantime, sent me a column by Chris Coursey of the Santa Rosa, Calif., newspaper in which he wrote that “readers' polls show that comic strips with a harder humor (than Schulz) are more popular today.” One wonders about this estimate. It would be difficult to find a “harder” humor than Lucy's.

The universities today are full of professors and students who think that the world can be “improved” almost infinitely and quickly, if: A.) most of us go to law school and if B.) we all try harder. The notion of grace is practically unknown except in the form of “benevolence” which is supposedly under our control.

We are, to recall Eric Voegelin, mainly “gnostics,” that is, we think that some special form of knowledge and some sort of volitional eagerness will do it all. Lucy was more realistic about our lot than these incipient utopians.

Lucy van Pelt was also closer to the truth of things, especially to the reality of the Fall. In a 1959 Fawcett collection entitled Let's Face It, Charlie Brown!, we see Charlie Brown with a very concerned, vague face standing with his hands in his pockets. He is listening to Lucy tell him (in a passage in which we only need to substitute the word “millennium” for the word “year” to see how pertinent it is), “Charlie Brown, I think you should resolve to be perfect during the coming year.” In the next scene, Charlie, reasonable man that he is, at first objects to this utopianism, “Good grief! Nobody's perfect! What do you expect of me?” Lucy, of course, with apparent sincerity, replies, “I think you CAN be if you really try … I really do!” With Lucy looking on with a certain sly “hardness” of her own, Charlie buys this exhortation: “All right, Lucy, if you have that much faith in me, I'll try! I hereby resolve to be perfect during the next year.” The last scene shows an utterly dejected, fooled-again Charlie Brown enduring Lucy laughing at him uproariously, “YOU? PERFECT? HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA!”

There is little doubt that, at the heart of so many of our problems, lies the desire to be perfect, not so much as “our Heavenly Father is perfect,” but as we choose to be perfect on our own terms. Each year after Christmas, we read at Mass the First Letter of John. It is sometimes amazing how the Scripture we read is addressed to our very pretensions. On Dec. 29 we read, “We can say that we know Jesus only by keeping his commandments. Anyone who says ‘I know him’ and does not keep his commandments is a liar.”

The growth industry of our time is surely in the “not keeping the commandments.” Not only the “not keeping the commandments” but the redefining them so that what Scripture calls evil is now called good. We are more and more reluctant to say anything of any action that it is clearly “against the commandments.” And when we do not “speak,” we soon do not hesitate to do. It is, in fact, most curious how closely the language and the deeds follow each other.

Now, of course, it is just possible that the end-time did arrive with the third millennium's inception. We are told that we know not the hour, nor are we given any real assurance that we will be able correctly to read the famous “signs of the times” when they appear. I have just finished reading George Weigel's good book on John Paul II. It is astonishing that this Pope's very first words come back again and again: “Be not afraid.” These words, no doubt, are not said of him who tells us “‘I know him’ and does not keep his commandments.” Scripture uses tough words — tougher than we ever hear any more from our pulpits or popular media. The word “liar” is a striking, almost shocking word. It means that we knowingly say something that we know is not true or that we know to be the opposite of the truth. It is a very contemporary word.

The Fall is not the last word. But it is a word that we cannot afford to neglect. There is something touching about Charlie's putting his “faith” in Lucy's word, just as there is something cheering in our calling what is sin to be a “right” or a “duty.” But the fact that Charlie, and hence each of us, is not “perfect” is itself the truth. Lucy's humor is much more “hard” than anything we find in the comic strips today. She does not tell us we can escape our condition, which, as far as I can ascertain, was the main theme in the media I watched “on reaching the third millennium.”

Father James Schall is a professor of government at Georgetown University.