Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Blogging the ... source of Western civilization?

All right. If the yelling pundits and scholars, activists and chin-pullers are correct and Western civilization is in free-fall collapse, attacked (pardon the mixed metaphor) on one side by its own exhausted moral relativism, its shoving away of Christianity and its guilt at what it did to itself and other people in the 20th century; and attacked on the other side by rampant and grinning and violent Islam, then -- all right -- what will we find if we return to the West's sources? Will we rediscover exactly what was so "civilizing" about it all? Can it be put to use again, in the individual's life? Was it really so attractive, so different, so wondrous?

Since we seem pressed for time and since I think it would be useful to grab on to what little of "the West" is at all present in a lot of people's lives, I decided to open the Gospels. No one but scholars are reading other Western things, ancient Greek plays or Roman law arguments, no one but the incredibly devout -- or orthodox Jews, probably -- are reading the more obscure books of the Bible, Isaiah or Psalms for example. No one but scholars are reading Enlightenment science or Voltaire. Also, Charles Murray in his great book Human Accomplishment credits Christianity for much of the West's roster of superb achievement: Christianity, he says, taught individual man that he is of infinite value, and that when he explores his rational and artistic questions, he honors the truth and beauty of creation, and therefore pleases God. (Judaism launched this, but then held group survival, understandably, higher than individual meandering you might call it and so, on the whole, produced less. Islam valued nothing of the kind, stressing only submission and the violent expansion of submission throughout all the world. The Eastern faiths also valued nothing of the kind, stressing mostly tranquility until the gift of death.) If Murray is right, then the Gospels are our fount.

In addition, a writer at Chronicles worries that our collapsing civilization is "coasting on the fumes of natural law." This sounds alarming. (It's amazing how you can read just one thing and find yourself blinking.) What is "natural law"? It is the idea not only that God created an orderly, comprehensible universe, but that man has "a nature and a moral purpose defined by" his creation, also intended by God. In other words, there is stuff we should be doing and thinking, or else we are wasting the gift of life. If you google "natural law" you quickly find the most prominent name mentioned about it, after Aristotle, seems to be St. Thomas Aquinas. His summary of it can be simple: "good is to be done, and evil avoided," always remembering our God-given nature and moral purpose. A lot of the pundits' yelling and chin-pulling seems also to translate to this, that coasting on the fumes of natural law means Westerners are still nice to each other, Western men are nice to women for example, in a way non-Westerners are not, -- but we no longer understand why. It's all fumes and no fuel. For us "doing good" has degenerated into tolerance and compassion for whatever. This now includes tolerance and compassion, for example, for Muslim men who are cruel to women. And yes, Islam rejects natural law.

So, in randomly reading essays that make me blink, in wondering about Western uniqueness and unearthing this large matter of natural law, the Christian roots of science, St. Thomas Aquinas, etc., -- it seems we must unearth, again, the fount of the Gospels. Since churches still stand and one-third of the American population are evangelical Christians no less (not to mention other types), I think I am justified in grabbing on to these four short books, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and  John, as constituting "what little of 'the West' is at all present in a lot of people's lives." If it is present there, how does it make them operate? And if it has vanished elsewhere but was once a good, can it be revived? It's like an anthropology experiment. Before you travel to the island to observe the tribe, you read the classically accepted fount of their folkways. You hope not to repeat Dr. Johnson's experience in the Hebrides: "We came too late to see what we expected."

I have done my share, my fatheads, of exploring religious folkways, but I haven't opened the Gospels in about twenty-five years. Thereat in approaching Matthew, who comes first, I will be in the position almost of an ignoramus.




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