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The Death of Christian culture
By John Senior
IHS Press Copyright © 2008 IHS Press
All rights reserved.
What Is Christian Culture?
MATTHEW ARNOLD WAS ONE OF THE HINGES ON WHICH the English-speaking world, a century ago, turned from Christianity to Modernism. He was a most fair-minded and articulate exponent of the Liberal view and, like many Liberals today, still thought of himself – somehow – as a Christian. But he wrote:
In spite of the crimes and follies in which it has lost itself, the French Revolution derives from the force, truth, and universality of the ideas which it took for its law, and from the passion with which it could inspire a multitude for these ideas, a unique and still living power; it is–it will probably long remain – the greatest, the most animating event in history.
Arnold had absorbed a classical education from a famous Christian father. He had the highest respect for Christianity, but did not believe it. The Revolution was the "greatest, the most animating event in history," he said – not the Crucifixion. He was convinced that the revolutionaries had carried things too far, in the right direction. The "religious problem," as he calls it, is how to reconceive Christianity so as to put it in the services of the revolution.
A fresh synthesis of the New Testament data – not a making war on them, in Voltaire's fashion, not leaving them out of mind, in the world's fashion, but the putting a new construction upon them, the taking them from under the old, traditional, conventional point of view and placing them under a new one – is the very essence of the religious problem, as now presented, and only by efforts in this direction can it receive a solution.
The identification of the traditional with the conventional is, of course, as old as sophistry and serves as an opening for change.
But Christ Himself said, Omnia mihi tradita sunt a Patre meo. Christian doctrine is not the result of convention, though it is indeed traditional: "All things have been handed down to me by the Father." Christianity can never serve the times. According to the Declaration of the Rights of Man, liberty is always the power of doing what we will, so long as it does not injure another. In a sense this can be true (provided that the will is rightly formed). But according to the Liberal view, "Do what thou wilt" includes willing to do what thou shouldst not. The Liberal takes a stand in No Man's Land between "the law that is in my members" and "the law that is in my mind." In that precarious and self-righteous place, doing what thou wilt is separate from the good. By doing evil to others or to ourselves, we first of all injure ourselves, because to do evil is the worst thing that can happen to a man. And because we are members of the human race, we injure the species even by an act only directed against ourselves. If others consent, the harm reciprocally injures every-one. There is no such thing as victimless crime any more than a free lunch. There is no such thing as a Christianity in which the commandments of God are accommodated to the Rights of Man.
But to save appearances and secure a useful social continuity, the Liberal thinks "religion" must be saved – though in the service of the revolution and its new culture in which God will depend for His existence on us. "Religion," Arnold writes,
is the greatest and most important of the efforts by which the human race has manifested its impulses to perfect itself.
But no contingent being in itself can be the source of its own perfection, nor, given an infinity of contingent beings each dependent on another, could they all together be a source of their own perfection. Rather, some Being must exist necessarily, if any does contingently. For Arnold, that order is reversed. The necessary is made dependent on the contingent. And religion is,
that voice of the deepest human experience, [which] does not only enjoin and sanction the aim which is the great aim of culture, the aim of setting ourselves to ascertain what perfection is and to make it prevail; but also, in determining generally in what perfection consists, religion comes to a conclusion identical with that of ... culture.
For Arnold, religion works along with art, science and philosophy to achieve what he calls "perfection." Perfection he defines in defiance of etymology:
It is in making endless additions to itself, in the endless expansion of its powers, in endless growth in wisdom and beauty, that the spirit of the human race finds its ideal. To reach this ideal, culture is an indispensable aid, and that is the true value of culture. Not a having and a lasting, but a growing and a becoming is the character of perfection.
I said "in defiance of etymology" because the root of the word perfection, exactly opposite to "becoming," means "done," "complete," "totally at rest," "having become" — per-facere. "To reach the ideal ...," Arnold says. But how can an ideal of "endless growth" be reached? Here we have an old sophism dressed up as a new principle of Liberal religion – that perfection is becoming. The present historical task – always the present historical task in any age – is revolution, though Arnold more subtly insists that the revolution is best achieved by reinterpreting rather than simply destroying the past. At the metaphysical root of his error is the Heraclitean failure to solve the problem of the one and the many. Because nothing ever is, they say, there is nothing constant, only endless flux.
From this false view of becoming it immediately follows, and Arnold puts it in the same paragraph, that Liberal culture must be collectivist. For in an endless and contradictory movement there is no permanent substance. A person is a meaningless nonentity; so a number of coagulated nonentities, by their own collective contingency, must somehow create their being out in front of themselves, so to speak. It is a kind of Indian rope trick in which a tissue of nonentities throws its finality into the air and climbs up after it. This is the basis for religious evolutionism – often confused with Newman's exactly contrary view of the development of doctrine – in which the whole of creation is forever hoisted on its own petard. Evolution, Newman insists, is not development. In development, what is given once and for all in the beginning is merely made explicit. What was given once and for all in Scripture and Tradition has been clarified in succeeding generations, but only by addition, never contradiction; whereas evolution proceeds by negation. Newman devotes a whole chapter in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine to refuting the idea that anything contrary to dogma can ever be a proper development, nor anything not found in the consensus of the Fathers' dogma. Put positively, development is radically conservative, permitting only that change which helps doctrine remain true by defining errors that arise in every age against it. Doctrine grows, as Ronald Knox put it in a homely figure, like a horse's hoof, from trodding on hard, uneven ground.
The best of us are prone to sophistry when an obvious truth contradicts a strong desire. Recent ecumenical commissions from various churches have tried to create approaches to unity by reconstructing their articles of faith so as to make room for contradictory articles of faith held by others. Protestants and Catholics can both keep and give up their identities at the same time. Jacques Maritain, for example, speaking of a declaration of the Council of Florence notoriously obnoxious to any convergence of doctrine, says:
What matters here is the declaration itself, not the manner in which one understood it in that epoch ... according to the mentality of the epoch, without having been conscious of the ambiguity . ... It is with the time that the ambiguity in question appeared – and as the same stroke the true sense in which the declaration must be taken. There has therefore been a mutation, not with regard to the declaration itself, but with regard to the manner in which those who formulated it understood it. The declaration is infallibly true (provided it is rightly understood).
Surely no Protestant in his right mind will accept an argument like this as the price of peace, because the whole Christian revelation, church authority, all authority, the noble mind of Maritain, and reason itself are here overthrown. "Words," said the Mad Hatter to Alice, "mean exactly whatever I say they mean." Go back to start! Begin again. We are here at the first of the first principles. A definition that includes its contradictory is not a definition at all. And any agreed statement by theologians who think this way is a trap. You will be signing a contract with a huckster who tomorrow will not be held to the bargain he struck according to the mentality of today. Peace at the price of one's reason can only be that "evil peace" St. Augustine speaks of as the violent enforcement of injustice. No. It is very much in the interest of everyone that clear distinctions be kept. The current defection of Catholic theologians from their own explicit doctrines is the worst setback for Protestants since they took up the puerilities of the Higher Criticism. If we are to love one another as ourselves, it is one another we must love, not ourselves pretending to be others, all the while pretending others to be ourselves. It is easy for men of good will (and bad will) to come together if they affirm contradictions. "The declaration is infallibly true (provided it is rightly understood)." That is either a truism – anything must be rightly understood – or what used to be called "Jesuitical." Understood by whom? Gospels, Epistles, the Law and the Prophets, creeds, confessions – all these are infallibly true if "rightly understood" according to the ideals of the French Revolution and the mind of Maritain ... Infallible? Such music hath a dying fall. The only rational way for Protestants and Catholics to get along together is to practice the difficult virtue of tolerance – not to falsify their claims by ambiguities.
"A fresh synthesis of the New Testament data," Arnold urged. "Not a making war on them, in Voltaire's fashion, not leaving them out of mind in the world's fashion, but the putting a new construction on them." Frankly, I prefer Voltaire; the fox to the weasel; the wolf in sheep's to the wolf in shepherd's clothing.
Arnold explains how this reconstruction of the New Testament data must involve a collectivity:
The expansion of our humanity to suit the idea of perfection which culture forms, must be a general expansion. Perfection, as culture conceives it, is not possible while the individual remains isolated. The individual is required under pain of being stunted and enfeebled in his own development if he disobeys, to carry others along with him in his march toward perfection, to be continually doing all he can to enlarge and increase the volume of the human stream sweeping thitherward. And here once more, culture lays on us the same obligation as religion, which says, as Bishop Wilson has admirably put it, that "to promote the kingdom of God is to increase and hasten one's own happiness."
There he goes, putting a new construction on the plain meaning of words; surely the Bishop did not think that the kingdom of God is culture. For the Christian, to promote the kingdom of God increases one's happiness because in loving our neighbor as ourselves we increase our own love of God, which is a participation in eternal life. It has nothing at all to do with the perfection of the secular city. Arnold has identified the kingdom of God with the Benthamite idea of the greatest good for the greatest number. He has repeated the folly of Auguste Comte who, as Christopher Dawson put it, believed that humanity was a reality while the individual person was an abstraction. Note how often he uses abstractions as personal agents: "As culture conceives it ... culture lays on us the obligation ..." Arnold is not interpreting Christian doctrine but parading an old collective hedonism in new clothes. The "religious problem" for Christians has always been the same: to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbor as ourself.
What the Modernist means by "mentality" or the "mentality of the epoch" is imagination, which gives a kind of halfway knowledge of material objects. An image, to the extent that it exists, exists in the mind, so that a reality outside the mind is spiritualized, retaining, however, the accidents of its concrete existence, its outward qualities – quantity, shape, color, and so on. When the imagination is taken as the terminus of the mind and used to judge the meaning of doctrine, concepts are reduced to images; what we wish can seem to be what is. Thus, in the first kind of error that imagination may commit, the mind simply does not "see" the concept – naturally, because concepts are invisible – and refuses therefore to acknowledge its existence. In the second kind of error, the image takes the place of the concept and we get that reaction called "Epiphany" by Joyce – "God is a shout in the street" – so that theology and philosophy become poetry, and reason metaphor. Philosophical and religious "systems" are enjoyed as if they were works of art; we may prefer Christianity or Buddhism, admiring both, or Plato's or Spinoza's metaphysics.
Unless the mind achieves its perfection in the making of conceptual judgments, religion and philosophy cannot be understood; and with religion and philosophy gone, all human activity is rudderless.
Surrounded as we are by a hedonistic and even demonic imaginative ground, it is not impossible, of course, but very difficult for the intellect to grasp ideas like "spirit," "soul," and "God." We are doubly blocked: to restore the imagination, we must put the intellect in its proper place; but to put the intellect first, we must have restored the imagination.
The study of philosophy and theology will not cure a diseased imagination, because anyone with a diseased imagination is incapable of studying philosophy and theology. Popularizations like Gilson's and Maritain's, though salutary, are insufficient. They started a Neo-Scholastic fad that like the others of the day flourished, faded, and is gone, because the proper study of these subjects presupposes an immersion in Christian culture. Despite a lifetime of study of St. Thomas, Maritain himself, blinded by desire, fell into the same errors he had refuted in others.
What is so appalling about the new theologians – even Maritain – is not only the theology but the kitsch. They celebrate surrealistic poetry and art. They seem actually to believe that Christianity can be "updated" by translating its concepts into alien and shoddy literary stuff – into music measured only by decibels of noise. The word "culture" as they use it, is indeed ambiguous: in the strict sense there is only one culture, that of the Christian, Latin West. In another sense, as used by anthropologists, it means any milieu – and thus we may speak of Bantu or even British "culture." The only way to bring Christianity to the Bantu or the British, however, is to bring them clothes, chairs, bread, wine, and Latin. Belloc was exactly right in his famous epigram: "Europe is the Faith; the Faith is Europe." The deep foundations of English Protestant and even neopagan poetry are the Latin Mass and the Benedictine Office. If we want to bring Christianity to other cultures in the anthropological sense, we must first restore the real culture of Christendom in ourselves. Too often we have exported an empty missionary cant along with economic capital. Christ was born in the fullness of time into a definite place. Classical culture was and is the pr?paratio fidei, its philosophy and literature the Egyptian gold and silver Christendom has taken on its pilgrimage. The Church has grown in a particular way and has always brought its habits with it, so that wherever it has gone it has been a European thing – stretched, adapted, but essentially a European thing.
The beginning of the cure of sick theology, for English-speaking people, is a schoolboy course in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and even Matthew Arnold, in the disciplined sounds of honest, English music:
Such Musick (as 'tis said)
Before was ever made,
But when of old the sons of the morning sung,
While the Creator great
His constellations set,
And the well-ballanc't world on hinges hung
And cast forth the foundations deep,
And bid the weltering waves their oozy channel keep.
CULTURE, AS IN "AGRICULTURE," is the cultivation of the soil from which men grow. To determine proper methods, we must have a clear idea of the crop. "What is man?" the Penny Catechism asks, and answers: "A creature made in the image and likeness of God, to know, love and serve Him." Culture, therefore, clearly has this simple end, no matter how complex or difficult the means. Our happiness consists in a perfection that is no mere endless hedonistic whoosh through space and time, but the achievement of that definite love and knowledge which is final and complete. All the paraphernalia of our lives, intellectual, moral, social, psychological, and physical, has this end: Christian culture is the cultivation of saints.
Excerpted from The Death of Christian culture by John Senior. Copyright © 2008 IHS Press. Excerpted by permission of IHS Press.
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