The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Reclaiming Our Christian Culture?

When Alexander Solzhenitsyn won the Templeton Prize in 1983 he gave a stirring address that began with the words:
"More than half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened." (Click here to read his entire address.)
Reading these words one cannot help but apply them to our floundering Western Civilization and wonder what kind of future to expect. A few weeks ago I posted some thoughts on this subject -- Bye-bye Western Civilization -- thoughts precipitated by Whittaker Chambers' comment: “The enemy — he is ourselves. That is why it is idle to talk about preventing the wreck of Western Civilization. It is already a wreck from within.” Anyway, I've continued to toss these thoughts around in my aging brain and decided to share a few of them here before the gray cells in which the reside float off into some inaccessible void.

Solzhenitsyn and Chambers would agree -- along with others such as Christopher Dawson, Eric Voegelin, and Russell Kirk -- that a culture grows from and rests on the foundation of the cult, its sense of the holy, the sacred. The cult, then, is the binding force from which all elements of the culture derive. It's no accident that the word "religion" has its roots in the Latin, religare, meaning to bind fast.

Once the culture's binding force begins to decay and lose its meaning, the culture itself can do nothing but decay as well. Some cultures have tried to substitute something else for religion, but nothing else generates the kind of bonds found only in religion. Anything else -- the state, the race, a personality cult -- does not bind the culture as religion does, and such attempts are invariably short-lived.

 In our Western Civilization the bonds of religion began unraveling some time ago, even before the Reformation and the so-called Enlightenment. Richard Weaver, in his wonderful book, Ideas Have Consequences, traces it back to the 14th century English friar, William of Ockham, "who propounded the fateful doctrine of nominalism, which denies that universals have a real existence." And so it's not as if our religious foundation just began to crumble yesterday. It's been a long time coming, but advances in technology have only made the process speedier so that we can more easily recognize the decay from generation to generation.

The only solution, of course, is to restore the religious bonds that have kept our culture and civilization intact over the centuries...a tall order. When I talk about this with others, some invariably say, "What you're suggesting is impossible. You can't reclaim the past. We have to put our trust in progress." They're wrong, of course, for any number of reasons. But the primary reason is their unwillingness to accept the very concept of truth. If, unlike old William of Ockham, one believes in such as thing as objective truth, then he will also believe that truth does not change over time. Today's relativist, though, ignores truth and believes instead that time and matter rule, that "truth" is different for different times and for different people. We Christians, however, believe that truth is timeless. And because truth is unaffected by time, the ideals and values that stem from it, can certainly be reclaimed.

This doesn't mean that we are trying to "turn back the clock" and revert to some pre-technological society. True Christians are not Luddites. We view the products of technological advancement as tools that can be used for good or for evil. One can use a box-cutter to open boxes in a supermarket, as I did when I worked at the Grand Union as a teenager; or one can use it to murder crew members of an airplane, as the 9-11 hijackers chose to do. The same applies to nuclear energy or the Internet. The application of technology is a moral choice no different from any other.

There's really no reason that Christian values and ideals cannot be reclaimed by our culture. I admit, I haven't always been very optimisitc in this regard, but that could change. And after listening to Pope Benedict in recent weeks, I find myself more hopeful. His "new evangelization" -- a favorite term of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II -- is focused on renewing the Faith in (formerly) Christian countries and seems to be a key priority of his pontificate. This is reinforced by the Vatican's recent official announcement of the establishment of a Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization. According to Vatcian Radio:
"Pope Benedict said he received this legacy upon his own election to the Chair of Peter, and noted the challenges of the present time are mostly spiritual. He said he wanted to give the new Pontifical Council the task of promoting a renewed evangelization in countries with deep Christian roots which are now experiencing a sense of the 'eclipse of God', and becoming increasingly secularized.

"He said this situation presents a challenge in finding the appropriate means in which to revive the perennial truth of the Gospel of Christ."

Too many of us, however, consider this a task for the pope and his bishops, forgetting that we are all called to evangelize. And since the vast majority of us are not missionaries doing God's work in other cultures, but people living right in the midst of our own decaying culture, this new evangelization is made to order for us. And in the event you don't believe evangelization is for you, just read what the fathers of Vatican II proclaimed about the true vocation of the laity. They were pretty explicit:

"They exercise the apostolate in fact by their activity directed to the evangelization and sanctification of men and to the penetrating and perfecting of the temporal order through  the spirit of the Gospel...Since the laity, in accordance with their state of life, live in the midst of the word and its concerns, they are called by God to exercise their apostolate in the world like leaven, with the ardor of the spirit of Christ." [Apostolicam Actuositatem, 2]
If you believe that religion should be kept private, then, quite simply, you are not a Christian. The People of God are called to be an evangelistic people; there's no escaping the fact. Just read Matthew 28:19-20 and meditate on this great commission Jesus gave to those who would be his disciples.

We don't know what God has in store for us as individuals, or for our society as a whole. But the one thing we do know with certainty is that the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church will remain under the guidance of the Holy Spirit until the end of time. We know this because Christ promised it.

Praise God!

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