Notes from the Generation X Files

I have several friends who are "X Philes" (that is, fans of The X Files). I've not seen the show myself, but (such is our media-soaked culture) I'm fairly familiar with the basic idea: government agents try to get at The Bottom of Things and learn The Mystery/Conspiracy is Bigger Than We Imagined. What interests me in the show's explosive popularity is the way in which two slogans sum up the peculiar combination of cynicism, wonder and paranoia of our time. For the show insists that "The Truth is Out There" while it simultaneously exhorts us to "Trust No One."

We live in a time which knows it has been lied to. CIA plots, plutonium injections, Watergate, Iran-Contra scandals, and Baby Boomers who have proclaimed their moral superiority for decades while wallowing in self-absorbed narcissism have undermined our faith that "They" are anything but self-interested liars. Thus the rising generation (commonly known as "Generation X") seems to have embraced a general widespread notion that the way to get by in life is by adopting a philosophy of skepticism and even cynicism which it imagines is "mature" in opposition to a "childish" (read "contemptible") trust.

As one Gen X friend of mine put it, "Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect." Or as The X Files says more plainly, "Trust no one." Which makes it tough for us believers in Christ to get our message across since we too are, as far as Gen X is concerned, part of the Powers That Be.

Nonetheless, Catholics do have some things in common with the Gen X skeptic which we would do well to point out. In the first place, we know that the Truth is out there. Second, we can give the Gen X skeptic some credit for, however dimly, perceiving the reality that we ought to "put not our trust in princes", a reality which whole populations forgot as they rallied behind Hitler, Stalin, Mao and the various secular ideologies of our insane century. And finally, we can even find room in our Tradition for the notion that there really is a conspiracy of cosmic proportions at work in the world--that "we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Eph. 6:12).

This common ground is important since Catholics, standing on it, find themselves in a position to offer to the Gen X skeptic something he hungers for: Love and a complete philosophy of life.

For the skeptic is partly wrong as well as partly right. Skepticism, however, good a medicine it may be in a world of liars, is not food. It does not satisfy. It does not heal. It does not feed. You cannot build a life or a love on skepticism. Indeed, so far from being the chastity of the intellect, a thorough-going attitude of skepticism is actually the contraceptive of the intellect. It forces us into the position of "going through the motions" of seeking love and life and truth ("The truth is out there!") yet forbids us from trusting anyone enough to receive. Adopted as a philosophy, skepticism places us into the position of being "ever learning and never able to come to a knowledge of the truth" (2 Tm 3:7). As G.K. Chesterton observed, the mouth was made to open so that it could bite down on solid food. So too, the intellect was made to open so that it can bite down on truth, not remain open and starving forever. To see through everything is the same as being blind.

The irony is that the thing the Gen Xer imagines as a "breaking away" from the past is, in fact, a repetition of something that has been tried for centuries: he is identifying purity with sterility. But the Catholic knows that purity is really to be identified with fruitfulness. The ancient gnostic (of whom our Gen X neighbor has never heard) had a horror of contact with the world and believed that "the truth" could only be encountered when he scoured all the world away. But God entered the world and joined it to himself by the down and dirty process of incarnation, death and resurrection, whereby he defeated the powers and principalities and called us to be more human, more in touch with this wounded world, not less.

The truth is out there. His name is Jesus.

Copyright 2001 - Mark P. Shea