Sunday, March 26, 2017

Chapter 2: The Roots of the Crisis

This chapter begins with an anecdote from an older woman who has gone to six consecutive baby showers in which the expectant mother was unwed.  Illegitimacy rates continue to rise, to the detriment of the children, their mothers, and society at large.  But the point here is made to highlight the collapse of religion among the working class.  How has America, this once Christian nation, fallen so far, and so fast?

What follows is a breezy summary of western thought from the high middle ages through the sexual revolution which continues in our time.  Dreher admits that this is an "incomplete and oversimplified" picture, but argues that it remains important.  This strikes me as basically correct, though the grand narrative does have its shortcomings.  It fails to acknowledge the tremendous accomplishments of men and women who lived authentic Christian lives in challenging circumstances.  We are called to nothing less, whether America continues slouching towards Gomorrah, or whether it experiences another religious revival.

Now let's examine Dreher's narrative.  "The people of the Middle Ages lived in what philosopher Charles Taylor calls 'an enchanted world.'"  It wasn't just that God's existence was clear, as that He imbued all of His creation with His essence.  The divine wasn't something only encountered by holy people on occasion, it was an integral component of the medieval experience.  Even those of us who share their beliefs live in a radically different world.

As Dreher tells it, the first blow to the medieval synthesis came from William of Ockham.  For thinkers like Aquinas, God willed the good because it was good.  Or rather, it was in His nature to will the good, and only the good.  For Ockham, something was good because God willed it.  Ockham argued out of a desire to avoid limiting God's sovereignty.  But in so doing, God could no longer be understood, however imperfectly.  All we could do was to bow before His inscrutable will.

This had significant implications.  For instance, no longer could scientists say, the dry tree erupted into flames when hit by lightning because of properties inherent in the tree and the lighting; instead, the tree erupted into flames because God so willed it.  So much for science.  (As an aside, the main reason the Islamic world has produced so little science is that a dominant strain of philosophy subscribes to an Ockhamite conception of God.)

The next blow--or rather, blows--came in the Renaissance and the Reformation.  The former caused man to become, in Protagoras' phrase, "the measure of all things."  Rather than study God, or His creation, man began to study himself in isolation from his Creator.  Undoubtedly, there was much glory in ancient paganism, and scholars unearthed material that was worthy of study.  The error was to believe that man was sufficient without the assistance of God.

The Reformation also called men back to an ideal.  To Martin Luther, the medieval Church had lost its way; it was too corrupt and had polluted Jesus's teaching with extra-biblical nonsense.  Whatever the merits of his claims, Luther, and reformers like him, tore Christendom apart.  No longer did people from Ireland to Spain, Norway to Italy, live in the same enchanted world.  They lived in (at least) two different ones.

Next came the so-called Enlightenment.  If the claims of religion were incompatible--as clearly they were in a world divided between Protestants and Catholics--philosophers arose who insisted that reason alone would provide the solution to the human dilemma.  Descartes doubted everything, and from this, reasoned that his very doubt proved his existence.  From this thin proof, he claimed to construct his entire philosophy.  Descartes remained Catholic, but centuries later, his followers would construct an entirely different philosophy.  If God was allowed to remain, He was no longer the Christian God Who revealed His Son in the Person of Jesus Christ.   He was simply the divine being, necessary to get the system up and running, who afterwards refrained from meddling.

Tellingly, some of the founding fathers shared these deistic beliefs.  This is worth mentioning, because the Benedict Option makes sense insofar as America is no longer Christian.  Of course, while some of the founders were hardly Christian, the bulk of the nation was; hence, the culture, which came from the masses, was likewise Christian.  The point remains: there were significant flaws even in America's founding.

Dreher next recounts the calamitous nineteenth century.  His account is confusing, as there were too many disparate impulses to file under a single heading.  To be sure, our culture has been influence by: Karl Marx and capitalism; the romantics and Darwin; Nietzsche and the third great awakening.  History can be a real muddle.  Anyway, "the important changes... took place among the cultural elites, who continued to shed any semblance of traditional Christianity."   Mainline Protestantism especially, jettisoned the Gospel for social causes.  Little has changed in this regard today, apart from the causes.

Finally, we have the triumph of Eros.  After two world wars in half a century, man had enough of sacrifice, and sought to fulfill his own desires.  Chiefly, these desires were sexual; as Malcolm Muggeridge put it: “The orgasm has replaced the Cross as the focus of longing and the image of fulfillment.”  The birth control pill has facilitated this replacement, but only apparently satisfied it.  In its wake are broken families, stilted relationships, abused children, and corpses of millions of unborn babies.

Thus things stand today.  It's not hard to see why MacIntyre, and Dreher, find the comparison with Rome to be as apt as it is troubling.  Nor is it surprising that St. Benedict and his rule would be seen as inspirational.  The next chapter will examine that Saint and his rule.

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