The Heresy of Immediacy

The Heresy of Immediacy

The word “immediate” has a few different connotations.

The most common is the sense of something happening without delay.  When a child cries for a toy, he wants that toy immediately.  To understand that life consists of a gap between what we desire and when we are satisfied is part of maturity.  To demand “instant gratification” (as it is called) is a sign of immaturity, indeed of a kind of infantile puerility.  But, as everyone knows, we are a culture of “instant gratification”, so that even saving for a budgeted item is no longer an option for most families.  “If you want it, here it is, come and get it”, even if getting it instantly means acquiring debt with usurious interest, mortgaging the farm to pay for the sports car, so to speak.  We know we want this or that and we know we want it now.  

But this observation has become trite.  “Instant gratification” has been a phenomenon of the modern affluent lifestyle for some time now.  We are a people of “immediacy” in our wants and desires and have little patience for any kind of sacrifice or delay that would impede this immediacy.

What is less noticeable is the other sense of the word “immediate” and how it applies in an even more profound way to how we live.  For the etymology of the word “immediate”, and even its deeper conventional meaning, is “That thing which is not separated from another thing.”  “Immediate” means there is no “medium” between point A and point B.  This meaning holds both physically and psychologically.  If I am your immediate neighbor, our properties abut one another, with no other neighbor in between.  If I give a child his toy immediately, as soon as he cries for it, there is no lapse of time in between his demand and its satisfaction.  If this child is a member of my immediate family, it means (typically) that he lives with me and there is no household or city that separates us.  That which is “immediate” is that which has no medium, no middle ground between it and something else.

I used to think that the true name for the modern heresy was “Inconsequentialism”, not only because most religious services or Catholic Masses have pastors or priests, musicians and lectors who work hard to convince us that it’s all inconsequential, but because we hate the thought that any of our actions have consequences.

But a better word for the essence of the modern heresy, and a clearer diagnosis, is “Immediacy”.  

We are all about Sentiment, about “feeling”, which is (especially as opposed to Reason), immediate.  Reason seeks some sort of goal, keeps its eyes on that which is separate and distant, aspires for the greater good.  This is why Love is reasonable and not merely sentimental.  We seek through loving desire (Eros) that which is beyond us, we seek what is greater, we seek the true, the beautiful and the good because, although our vision of these beatitudes and our desire for them is immediate, the fullness of attaining them eludes us, both in time and in our capacity to embody them and live them out.  The whole of human life, in fact, is lived in this middle world between what we lack and what we attain, and religion is (or should be) about how to approach this greater good (God) and submit ourselves to the kind of sacrifices He demands of us so that we can indeed be sanctified (made holy) and beatified (made perfectly happy).  Of course, religion, and especially the Christian religion, is about much more than this, but this is at least an outline of the dramatic structure (so to speak), or, you might say, the “directional structure” that religious worship of all sorts (prayer, sacrifice, ritual) entails.

But we live in an age where even the major religions teach the opposite of religion.  I will say something here that is based on fifteen years of observation, though many readers tend to disagree with me.  In my fifteen years as a Catholic, traveling all over the world (which is how I make my living), and participating in Catholic Masses all over creation, I have found it very rare that the homily or the music or the tone of the typical Mass (worldwide) deals with anything beyond us, and focuses on anything but immediacy – and (usually) a shallow and contrived immediacy at that.

Many readers will say, “But my parish is great!”  Good for you.  Or, “You are so full of yourself!  Just shut up and pray and quit critiquing the Mass!”  But if the Mass, which is made by God to lead us to God, is frustrated by mere men, it deserves not only criticism but reform.

At any rate, this Heresy of Immediacy (as I am now calling it) is seen much more in the secular world than in religious enclaves.  The typical young person (under the age of 40) does not believe that there is anything beyond mere matter.  The typical secularist is a materialistic nihilist, through and through.  He or she believes (even innocent 14 year old girls believe this; I know, as I have tutored some of them) that we are mere random accumulations of stuff.  We are cosmic accidents.  Our desires have no function or purpose.  There are only efficient causes, not final ones.  There is no design, no form.  Sex is for pleasure only.  Everything is for pleasure only, and a kind of dumb or meaningless pleasure at that.  There is no common good in society because there is no good, period.  Everything – absolutely everything – is immediate.

And this follows logically.  Since there is nothing beyond – since “this is all there is, folks” – then there can be no medium between here and there, for there is no “there” there; there is no middle ground between point A and point B because there is no point B, only point A.  And if there is no medium, then existence is (by definition) immediate.

And this atmosphere – which is all around us – seeps into the Church, which largely explains the insipid state of the Catholic Church in America. 

But wait! you may exclaim.  I know some Catholics, or Protestants, or Orthodox, who are very devout and who reject any form of immediacy, including instant gratification!  
But I would answer that the problem is, in some ways, worse among devout Christians.  For most devout Christians that I know are just as “immediate” in their thinking as secularists, but from a different angle.  
Most devout Christians that I know (and this does not apply to all devout Christians, and it may not apply to you or your friends, dear reader, but it’s true for most devout Christians I know) are devoted to the Immediate, despite the fact that they reject the secular notion that “there is no there there”.  Indeed, they believe that we are separated from that which fulfills and perfects us, that God is indeed real and that He is in heaven.  They believe quite fervently in a natural world and a supernatural world and a gap between the two.  They believe in both a point A and a point B and they believe in almost a kind of “Great Divorce” between them.
Fine!  So, then, they are not “immediatists”, right?
Wrong.  What makes these devout Christians “Immediates” is they are convinced (without being able to articulate it) that, while there is a point A (the natural world) and a point B (the supernatural world) – while they admit this separation, denying the immediacy of all existence that the secularists claim – they nevertheless believe that there is no real bridge between the two worlds.  For many Devout Christians, the supernatural and the natural are completely distinct.  Grace does not penetrate nature, either through the sacraments or in any other way.  Indeed, it would be shocking and offensive to them to suggest that grace does indeed penetrate nature, to suggest that the Incarnation was the great event and Sign that this is how God shows His love for us.  A deep Puritan or Manichean streak makes even “Super Catholics” pull back in horror from the idea that God is willing to get messy for our sakes, or that sexual desire is a good thing that has both a natural and a supernatural end, or that anger can be righteous and can tend toward the good.  Even devout Christians buy into a Culture of Sterility in which nothing leads to anything else.
Sex does not lead to babies for many devout Christians (including for many who congratulate themselves for avoiding babies by means of Natural Family Planning).  For many devout Christians, suffering does not lead to sanctification.  Pain does not lead to gain.  Work does not lead to money.  Hungering and thirsting for righteousness does not mean that you will be filled (despite what Our Lord said).  Desire does not lead to a natural (and supernatural) satisfaction.  It’s all about feeling and only about feeling – and feeling is always, by its nature, an immediate thing – not about actually approaching or attaining that which is beyond us.
And if you think about it, you can see how little distinction in practise there is between secularists and devout Christians.  If (as the secularists think) there is no point B, but only point A, then everything is immediate to point A.  However, if (as the Manichean Christians think) there is both a point A and a point B, but point B can never interact with point A, then, for all practical purposes, there is only point A and everything is immediate to it.
Because of this fundamental error in thinking and perceiving in the Church and in the world, we cannot even begin to talk about virtues or sacrifice.  The cross loses all of its significance, for the cross is not seen to lead anywhere (we don’t even understand how it leads, by its grace-filled nature, to the resurrection).  The cross leads nowhere other than to occasional feelings of pity that have a kind of dead end about them, for such feelings neither lift the heart nor open the mind to the great mystery of the Mess that God willingly descended – and continues to descend – into.   
That Mess is the Middle Ground, the medium, the Way of Sorrows and Suffering between the here and the now.  The Middle Ground, which is where we live while we live on this earth, is that medium between the world where we see through a glass darkly (here), and the world where we see face to face (there).  
But we despise and disdain this medium, almost every single one of us, believers and disbelievers alike.
For the great heresy of this age is Immediacy.
Kevin O'Brien
Kevin O'Brien is the founder and artistic director of the Theater of the Word Incorporated, which tours the world evangelizing through drama. He and his actors appear on several EWTN television programs, with video clips featured on O'Brien's website, Kevin teaches many online classes for Homeschool Connections and writes a regular column for the St. Austin Review. His autobiography, A Bad Actor's Guide to the Meaning of Life, will be published soon by ACS Press.
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