“No one will know what you’re doing.”
I recently took an evening for a movie – a fairly rare undertaking. The movie was Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, which depicts the story of a Catholic man and his family who refused to take an oath of loyalty to Hitler during World War II. He dies a martyr. The story is based in truth. Living in a small valley in the mountains of Austria, his life was already a hidden thing. When his refusal to cooperate with the demands of the State come to light, he begins to hear the mantra, “No one will know what you’re doing.” He hears it from neighbors, from the Church, from family, ultimately from the authorities themselves. It is the most quintessentially modern sentiment within the movie. That he acts as though this does not matter reveals him to be among the most Christian characters ever portrayed on screen.
What matters in your life?
“Make a difference.”
“Make your life count.”
“This is worthwhile.”
A long litany of slogans enforce the notion that “changing” things, even in the slightest way, is how a life should be measured. It is the very essence of the lie that is modernity. We simply are not in charge of history. Even those who imagine themselves (or whom we imagine) to be the great influencers of current events are not in charge of history. Hitler and Mussolini were not in charge of history. Churchill and FDR were not in charge of history. No one holding political office (nor all of them together) is in charge of history.
God alone is in charge of history.
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin,yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:25–30)
Such a declaration (in my experience) immediately produces a “push-back,” in which people question whether I think our decisions and actions matter. I would readily agree that our decisions and actions matter, but not for the reasons modernity tells us. What matters is how we respond to God and to His commandments (which are a verbal icon of God). The world is not a neutral zone, a secular setting in which human action is the defining and determining reality. We are not meant to create the world, but to live in it.
Certain aspects of this distinction will seem to many to be a matter of semantics. We do indeed make decisions, and our decisions have consequences. However, when this is our primary way of framing our actions a subtle distortion sets in that leads us to idolatrous and disastrous results.
The modern world is dominated by the cult of politics. There is no better way to describe how we imagine things to work. Regardless of our protests to the contrary, contemporary people believe in a secular world – a world that operates according to its own laws and principles (cause and effect) – and where those with power are those who are able to “make things happen.” Power is understood to be identical with coercion (or the “authority” to coerce) and wealth (the ability to pay people to do your bidding). The apex of this power is identified with governments. As such, we understand “politics” to be the primary means of controlling and shaping the world. This is life as cult. We are told (and agree) that the thing we call “government” controls and shapes the world, and that it is its legitimate role. Every protest to the contrary is met either with perhaps two verses of Scripture (if you’re a Christian) or dismissal as some sort of nut (perhaps an Amish nut of sorts).
Much of this cult has been created in the crucible of modernity itself. At its heart, modernity (and all of its political forms) teaches that the shaping and control of history is the proper role of government. It is the agent of change. If anyone resists this claim or refuses to participate, then they are charged with failing to take up their responsibilities. It is a cult that demands our participation (the very nature of a cult).
Malick’s film concludes with a quote from George Elliot’s Middlemarch:
“..for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
I would go further than Elliot. The hidden life is the only true life, and what is deemed “historic” is little more than propaganda. The propaganda does not serve the moment-by-moment reality that each of us necessarily inhabits. Rather, it serves to empower those who most want to do violence without the distraction of a conscience.
Years ago, in a conversation with my older brother, the topic of monks and hermits came up. My brother agreed that he much admired their sacrifice and devotion, but added the modern concern. “Who knows that they’re there?” My response at the time was, “The devil knows and he trembles.”
But even this seems too much of a nod to “history.” Our existence does not need to be justified or measured by its struggles. Our life is a gift and is meant to be lived. The living is meant to be an experience of divine fullness, found in every moment without ceasing.
Our lives are not truly “hidden.” Rather, they are seen by God. The great irony within the film, just as in every modern life, is that the protagonist lives with the awareness that he is seen by God. It is only in ignoring that reality that modernity can act out its pretense of importance.
The cult of politics is Adam’s lie to Eve that, with her help, they can fix the world and build their own paradise. Who needs God, anyway.