Wednesday, July 2, 2014

How Do We Counter the Culture of Narcissism?

     There’s an interesting piece at The Catholic Thing [here] by David Warren called “The Counter-Culture”. I find myself agreeing with his conclusion, but not with everything he says along the way.  Warren takes issue with those Catholics who disparage Western Civilization, and insists that the Church is the author of that civilization, however much it might owe to previous societies (just how much is included in that “however much” is the rub; more on that in a moment), as well as secularists who tout an oddly non-Christian interpretation of it.  He concludes that championing that culture, and particularly its Christian dimension, is the only way to counter the rapidly decaying culture of secularism that has grown up around us in recent decades.
     So far, so good.  Problems arise, however, when Warren attempts to counter secularists who would draw a direct line from Greco-Roman times that, somehow, skips over the heavily Christian period from about 300 A.D. to 1968.  Warren commits the mirror-image error of dismissing the critical importance of Greece and Rome:

The conceit of the modern “gliberal” (glib plus liberal), since Humanism began exiting the Church, is that our Civ was founded in ancient pagan Greece. There are fragments of that built into the whole, but only because Holy Mother Church preserved and adapted them, to her own purposes.
Likewise the old pagan Roman conception of open roads and tranquil freedom, under the law to the far horizon – Christendom was inspired by that. But it could equally have been inspired by the Chinese, or any other vast, ordered realm. It was Holy Church, and the minds she applied to worldly government, which transformed that model, introducing such principles as subsidiarity to make what was, in effect, a vast and extremely fertile theocracy.

Vergil and Dante in Hell
Again, I am in complete agreement with his main point, which is that our civilization is not simply an updated version of Greco-Roman antiquity, but something completely new, about which the most important and essential fact is the intervention of Christ in history and the Church he left behind.  The problem here is that Warren would have us believe that Christ erased history, that there is no (or little) organic connection between the civilization of the Roman Empire and the Christian civilization that succeeded it.  This is simply bad historiography. Certainly everyone from the Franks and Visigoths crashing across the frontiers, not intending to destroy so much as to grab their own share of Romanitas, to medieval monks busily copying Vergil’s Aeneid and Horace’s Odes in their scriptoria, to the great Catholic poet Dante, whose guide through Hell and Purgatory in his magnum opus the Commedia is none other than that same Vergil, to Thomas Aquinas and his successors imbibing and baptizing the thought of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, to the colonial American who needed to know Latin and Greek to enter Harvard College – none of them doubted that they were heirs to the great pre-Christian civilizations of the West. The Church grew and formed for its first few centuries within the Roman Empire, and the templates, at least, of all her major institutions were formed before Alaric swept into Rome. God could certainly have established his Church in China or in some other culture, but it would have been a very different Church, and would have authored a very different culture.
     That’s the strictly historical perspective, but I think Warren is missing something else, something about our understanding of how God intervenes in our world.  The Church that could have developed out of any “vast, ordered realm” is an abstraction, but both revelation and our experience is that we don’t have a God who deals in abstractions; He is a God of particulars.  He chose a particular people to whom he first revealed himself in order that he might incarnate himself among them in the person of the God-Man Jesus of Nazareth; he carefully chose and prepared Mary as the human mother of Jesus; he likewise chose and prepared particular individuals such as Peter and Paul to carry forward the mission of Jesus. Does it make any sense at all that he would then leave his Church, the Mystical Body of Christ on Earth, to the random inspiration of whatever vast, ordered realm happened to be at hand?  I argue that God would be as careful in this choice as in the others.
      One might ask, why does it matter?  It matters, first of all, because the truth is important, and we can’t counter the untruths of some with distortions of our own.  Second, Warren is absolutely correct that the Church is the primary creator of Western Culture, and that what is has created far transcends anything that might have developed from Greco-Roman culture in its absence, which is to say the absence of Christ.  Jesus says, “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5). For all its flaws, the civilization that was nurtured by his Church is new in human history, and uniquely bears his stamp.  It’s our best resource in the culture war that is raging in this world, which is at its root a spiritual battle, but one which is fought out in the material world: it can’t be fought with abstractions.  I can’t say it better than Warren does himself in his own conclusion:

To the “culture of narcissism” by which we are surrounded, in a Western world that has denied Christ, we must oppose a counter-culture.  And we must oppose on every level: in our literature, our music, our art, our architecture, even our science.  Whether or not it is our intention, we cannot plausibly be Catholic Christian without becoming civilized again.