I saw a nicely-scoped article on the novel Freedom yesterday: "Jonathan Franzen's Jewish Riddle." With all of the topics raised and wrestled with in Freedom, Joshua Furst examines the novel's significant interest in the varieties of contemporary Judaism. This examination brings him to the conclusion that "As each of Freedom’s heroes eventually discovers, the only socially responsible stance one can take, if one is to find a way out of our current quagmire, is Secular Humanism, which of course has its roots tangled deep in the history of Jewish thought." Yes, but Franzen is too good of a writer for things to be this simple. Instead, this theme forms a kind of hypothesis, which butts up against the relentless cries of human needs and desires. Walter, the environmentalist and zero population growth advocate, wants children again with his young admirer. While Patty Burgland reconciles her family, not everything else is so neatly accounted for. And on a macro level, the many obsessively detailed statistics which Walter surveys (e.g. the impact of housecats on migratory songbirds) describe a real problem that with no clear solution in sight: increased global consumption on a planet with finite resources.
Confronting this problem, Walter sees no greater enemy than the pope. I wonder what he would make of Pope Benedict XVI's interview, Light of the World . . . No doubt, taking a cue from the media Walter would be pleased to see the pope moving toward some agreement with him on condoms. But I have in mind Chapter 4 of Light of the World, in which the pope addresses the environmental crisis:
"Meanwhile, in view of the threatening catastrophe, there is the recognition everywhere that we must make moral decisions. There is also a more or less pronounced awareness of a global responsibility for it; that ethics must no longer refer merely to one's own group or one's own nation, but rather must keep the earth and all people in view.
To this extent a certain potential for moral insight is present. But the conversion of this into political will and political actions is then rendered largely impossible by the lack of willingness to do without. After all, this would have to be implemented in national budgets and finally carried out by individuals, which then in turn leads to an unequal burdening of various groups."
Benedict goes on to make the case for an authority who can move the individual person to make sacrifice (which "becomes an acknowledged value for his life"). The pope proposes that the Church is the authority who can appeal to the individual. There are of course other possible solutions. In Freedom, one solution is to hold a concert to make childlessness cool. And while Benedict is critical of "eye catching events, Franzen doesn't seem to put much faith in them either.
Beyond the Jews described in the article linked, there is also an Evangelical woman who is as driven to consumption as everybody else, but irksome in her self righteousness. It would seem then that secular humanism is less of a solution to the problem and simply the way things are whereas religion is seen as an escape from or a denial of the global scope of contemporary problems.