Moral Immunology

When Fyodor Dostoevsky sent the manuscript of his celebrated novel, Crime and Punishment, to the publisher, he included a brief note: “This is the story of a university student who is infected by ideas that float on the wind”.  That image is one that stuck with me in all the years since I first encountered it. Is the idea/project/choice with which I am confronted something that is just floating in the wind or is it something with foundation and anchorage. Enter the age of the covid-19 pandemic and the idea of being infected by things that float in the wind has new meaning. We have taken great efforts over the last 2.5 years to limit infectious floating things and to build up our immune system against such infections so that if we can’t prevent infection we can at least mitigate the short-term and long-term effect.

In yesterday’ post I wrote about forming one’s conscience. When you think about it, such a formation is the effort to build a moral immune system. A system that can defend us from vices such as pride, anger, and envy which are harmful to us and our relationships. A shared moral immune system is one that can defend the larger community against infection by ideas that are harmful to society. The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl saw an interesting connection between some ideas and social catastrophe.  From his holocaust prison camp experiences, he came to see that the camps represented a microcosm mirroring the world as a whole. The “pathology of the Zeitgeist” (the ruling ideas of his time), as Frankl describes it, are not only futile on a personal level but can easily mount to a psychic epidemic – an apt description of Nazism. In Frankl’s world one idea became an epidemic that led to the concentration camps and the Holocaust. Tolerance of immoral ideas invited social catastrophe. It took a world war to prevent the epidemic from becoming a pandemic.

All this came to mind as I walked by a television and a national news broadcast. “Coming up: an interview with three of America’s leading idea influencers.” I had somewhere to be and so I kept walking, but I wonder what ideas three people floated up into the wind. If they are transitory ideas not of God, may they pass and not find a place to root. If they are pernicious and the first step to social catastrophe, it is always good to have formed one’s conscience in the Word of God, but better to have built up a robust moral immune system. You never know what will come floating on the wind.

And sometimes the advice of St. Paul is something of which to take heed:

“Finally, draw your strength from the Lord and from his mighty power. Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil. For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens. Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground. So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace. In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all [the] flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” (Ephesians 6:10-17)

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