Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
October 23, 2000
The roots of our cultural malaise
The way out lies in Pope John Paul's call for a new Christian society
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
A question I've spent countless hours pondering over the year is "How did Western society lose its Christian ethos over such a short interval?"
Actually, while this phenomenon seemed to happen with whirlwind speed during the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, that was just the culmination of an attack on Western Christian consensus over a much longer period.
I am inclined to agree with historian Hillaire Belloc that the zenith of Western Christian civilization was probably reached in the high Middle Ages - the 11th through 13th centuries.
In the 14th century the Black Death killed about a third of Europe's population. Priests, who were exposed to infection while ministering to the sick, were disproportionately represented among plague victims, and were often replaced by under-qualified, and often illiterate clerics, greatly weakening the Church.
This, along with political upheavals engendered by the epidemic, led to the notorious corruption of the Renaissance Church leadership, and to excesses like the Inquisition, in turn catalyzing the 15th-century Protestant Reformation which demonstrated that the Church's authority could be successfully challenged and defied.
The Protestant revolution opened the door for the ascendancy of scientism and the Industrial Revolution, neither of which could have happened as rapidly in traditional Catholic culture.
While it is virtually unthinkable for modern minds to question the desirability of these developments, reflexive assumptions should be tempered by contemplation of the fact that for several hundred years they resulted in poor people, including children, working long hours in hellish sweatshops, or on their knees in the dark in coal mines - conditions that existed in the West well into the 20th century.
Then there's the issue of environmental destruction, which may eventually terminate the bourgeois, materialist culture that industrial technology enabled.
Christianity's purchase on the Western public ethos was further eroded by the 18th century's so-called philosophical "Enlightenment," aggressively anti-Christian on nearly every point of claim. The Enlightenment was followed by more explicit attacks on Christian belief from 19th and 20th century existentialists like Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre.
Post-Enlightenment philosophy split into two streams - secular humanism and scientific positivism, considerably at odds with each other but in solidarity against Christianity.
Humanism asserts that the "human spirit" represents, at least potentially, the supreme ultimate; that morality is relative; and that Christian ethical standards are merely arbitrary constructs of a dominant patriarchy that blocked realization of unfettered human freedom.
Scientific positivism contends that truth inheres in scientific knowledge, not divine creation and revelation. It affirms the perfectibility of science and the inevitability of human progress, and teaches that human reason, unleashed from the bonds of Christian backwardness by the Enlightenment, is a liberating force; that religious faith is mere superstition which will eventually be obliterated by complete scientific understanding; and most pernicious of all - that life has no objective purpose or meaning and morality no objective justification.
The West has fallen under the domination of these two anti-Christian sets of notions. Most who bother to think about these things at all, assume that we are living in the best of all possible worlds, save for an even better one that will be attained through further progress.
These godless optimists are apparently blind to the fact that while material affluence and comfort are indeed at unprecedented levels, levels of psychological and spiritual comfort are plumbing new lows. Depression, alienation, despair, nihilism, anomie, hopelessness, and a gnawing sense of purposelessness are rampant in humanist, positivist culture, which, under a veneer of day-to-day normality, is coming apart at the seams.
"Certainly there is no more innocent-seeming form of debauchery," wrote American philosopher Richard Weaver, "than the worship of comfort, and when it is accompanied by a high degree of technical resourcefulness, the difficulty of getting people not to renounce it, but merely to see its consequences is staggering."
I could fill this entire column cataloging evidence of the demoralization Weaver speaks of, but a salutary example is the appalling rate of suicide in post-modern Western society, especially among the young. As someone observed, "there was no suicide in the Middle Ages."
The remedy? As Weaver noted, even getting people to recognize the nature of the problem is monumentally difficult. And no, I am not advocating a return to the Middle Ages, even if that were possible, which of course it is not.
There never was a "perfect" era in human history, and there never will be, but there is vast potential for improvement, which won't be effected through more humanism or scientific positivism, which are the root of our present socio-cultural distempers.
I'm not temporally optimistic, but I see the West's only real hope in Pope John Paul's proposal of re-establishing an essentially Christian philosophy as an alternative to the corrosive ideologies of secularism - a new sociology and anthropology based on genuine Christianity.
John Paul isn't just talking about theological esoterica. He means a restoration of bona fide Christian society.
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