W.H. Auden says, “All the judgments, aesthetic or moral, that we pass, however objective we try to make them, are in part a rationalization and in part a corrective discipline of our subjective wishes.” It is therefore incumbent on critics, maintains Auden, to spell out clearly their version of Eden in a spirit of intellectual honesty. Though he’s being somewhat tongue-in-cheek, this turns out to be a revealing imaginative exercise. Auden’s personal Eden, for instance, includes “limestone uplands like the Pennines plus a small region of igneous rocks with at least one extinct volcano.” His edenic interiors are “Victorian except for kitchens and bathrooms which are as full of modern gadgets as possible.” A hearty amen to that last part. It’s also revealing to see what doesn’t make the cut. Auden’s Eden notably excludes most modern forms of transportation, along with newspapers (yes!), movies (boo), television (I’m on the fence), and radio (emphatic yes).
I’ll spare you my personal Eden, but here’s a characteristically modern version that many will find enticing: “People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death; they’re blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they’re plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’ve got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about; they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave.” If a basic definition of happiness for most people nowadays boils down to a state of subjective satisfaction, this description would seem to neatly fit the bill. Rendered into even more basic terms, we might venture to say that our ideal world is a place where everybody feels good all the time—a world where we can always say, “I’m okay” and mean it.
What might we need to make this modern Eden feasible? Auden spills a lot of ink on geography and architecture, but the modern Eden cited above is within easy reach if we confine ourselves to a modest level of recreational drugs, splurge on the occasional vacation, and are content to customize the scenery of our living space and leave it at that. If interior design and the occasional cruise aren’t enough, however, countless virtual worlds are beckoning to you. Sex, like drugs, can also be used recreationally, and, as with most of today’s pursuits, there’s an app for it that requires none of the drawn-out song and dance of romance and chivalry from times past. Ours is a world of instant gratification and dwindling responsibilities. Though we haven’t technically eliminated all family ties, functionally, we’re well on our way.
At this point, I need to point out that the quote above is from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. As chilling as the close parallel to our society is, what’s striking is that many of us could look at it and see it as a default paradise—a world where everyone feels good all the time. Of course, a world of instant gratification and minimal responsibilities is, among other things, crushingly lonely. When the ceiling of hope is so low—some magic mushrooms, a tryst, a glass of wine—is it any wonder depression is surging?
Our Lord tells us, “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” Though this quote is sometimes wielded as a kind of austere challenge to lukewarm Christians, it’s also a powerful description of human nature. If you want to embark on a course of self-sabotage, do the opposite of what Jesus prescribes here. Practically speaking, if you live only for yourself, you’ll quickly arrive at a place of isolation and relational sterility. Likewise, if you’re self-obsessed and narrowly focused only on your own ambitions, you’ll gradually grow vain, occluded, and insular—a kind of spiritual shut-in, not unlike Gollum.
We were made for God and neighbor and any world that severs this vital connection is the opposite of paradise. All we need to do is take an honest look at our contemporary scenery for confirmation. Only when we pursue our Lord and work to serve our neighbor will we discover who we are. In a very real sense, we have to give ourselves away in order to truly become who we were made to be. As St. Paul informs us, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”
It’s worth recalling that the word utopia actually means “nowhere.” If we want true heaven, however, we must lose our life for Christ’s sake. If we want our culture’s default paradise, all we have to do is live for ourselves.