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Two Smart People Discuss the Disintegration of Culture

I'm trying very hard, and so far successfully, to stifle my impulse to talk about the political crisis of the United States. The crisis is far from abating. It's quieter now that the frenzy surrounding Trump has ceased, but the basic situation hasn't changed, and I'm trying not to spend too much time fretting about the likely outcomes, which seem to me to range from not good to very bad. (All right, I'll go this far: I think the most likely is a continued decline toward a situation like that which has often existed in Latin American countries: a corrupt pseudo-republican government, a small class of very wealthy and powerful people, and a great many poor and almost-poor people.)

The civilizational crisis that underlies the political crisis, though, still engages my attention and still seems worth commenting on as part of my effort to grasp it. A British novelist named Paul Kingsnorth has emerged as an articulate and perceptive voice on that subject. This video is an hour of his conversation with a Canadian artist/thinker name Jonathan Pageau, previously unknown to me. It's very much worth watching as a sort of overview. The most interesting part to me begins a little less than halfway through; the first 25 minutes or so are introductory. I don't entirely agree with him about the importance of climate change, but that's relatively unimportant--I certainly agree that our culture's relationship to the created order is pretty sick. 

Rod Dreher has quoted and written about Kingsnorth frequently, and today is another instance. I have not yet read the First Things and other links in that piece, but as this post has been sitting half-finished for over a week and I'm ready to be done with it, I'm going to go ahead and say that they're most likely very much worth reading. 

St. Ogg's in Our Time

(This is not especially appropriate for Easter Monday--well, it's not appropriate at all, but it's not exactly inappropriate either. But I wrote it a day or two before Palm Sunday, then decided it should wait till after Holy Week. So....)

And the present time was like the level plain where men lose their belief in volcanoes and earthquakes, thinking to-morrow will be as yesterday, and the giant forces that used to shake the earth are forever laid to sleep. 

That's part of a long description of St. Ogg's, the fictional town (named for a fictional saint) in which George Eliot sets The Mill on the Floss. It's an old town where things change slowly. That may seem the opposite of the constantly and wildly changing environment we live in. Our cultural atmosphere is full of rage, much of it associated with rapid changes that are pushed vigorously by some and resisted just as vigorously by others. Doomsayers of many persuasions are constantly telling us that the end is near. And so on.

Yet it strikes me that we are in some sense like the inhabitants of St. Ogg's. Most of our frenzy takes place against an assumed background of something like our current level of wealth and technology. I won't bother theorizing the many ways in which that could come to an end, but while many people are busy doing that, too few seem to appreciate that in the light of human history it is a very, very unusual--no, a unique--situation. Perhaps it will turn out to be a fluke, and a hundred years from now things will be back to normal, meaning that for most people most of the time the effort to get enough food to preserve life is their most important concern.

Now and then, listening to certain political views, it strikes me how thoroughly out of touch with fundamental reality they are. Self-styled revolutionaries assume that material plenty and personal freedom are the natural state of things, and all the questions are about how to rearrange them. All the material wealth and comfort are just there, as if they had just happened naturally. And the whole technological, financial, and political infrastructure of our lives has no connection to the civilization which produced it, but rather is like the land, a naturally-occurring phenomenon which will always be there and is ours to do with as suits us.

That all this could be quite fragile in physical terms is recognized by at least some environmentalists. That it is equally, if not more, fragile in cultural and political terms seems to be noticed only by certain conservatives. "Activists" openly preach racial division and resentment. Right and left increasingly speak of subjugating or eliminating the other as the only possible resolution of their conflict. The notion of "elimination" is at this point only political, not physical, but what happens if the political effort fails? 

Does it cross anyone's mind that the fact that we can turn on a tap and instantly get clean water, preheated to bath temperature if we wish, is connected with the culture in which such luxury became normal and available to almost everyone? That it is the product of centuries of thought and labor? That it continues to exist because millions of people do complex work in complex coordination with others?

The assumption that these things are just there is so strong that people freely sow the wind, because they don't really believe in the whirlwind. Worse, they're so far removed from reality that they no longer even see, much less understand, the connection between sowing and reaping. Or even have any real grasp of the words themselves. What do they even mean to people who have no conception of any way of life outside the modern city? Food comes from the grocery store. Obviously.

Now Is the Acceptable Time

I've forgotten how I wound up reading something at onepeterfive.com earlier today. It's not a site I normally visit. What I've seen and heard of it indicates that it focuses very much on the crisis of the Church, and I decided a few years ago that I just wasn't going to pay much attention to that anymore. I can say that it was a rational decision based on the fact that there's nothing I can do about this or that bad thing coming out of the Vatican or the USCCB. But the strongest reason was more elemental: I was sick of it.

Nevertheless, I'm glad I read this piece by Hilary White, which discusses our response not so much to the crisis of the Church as to that of the world. You don't have to go quite as far as she does in believing that the pandemic is being manipulated. I mean, you don't have to agree that the manipulation is as extensive and focused as it is, but I don't think there's any question that the situation has been successfully manipulated for purposes which were not in the general interest. I am not suggesting that the disease is not real and really dangerous, only that it has been exploited. 

No, you don't have to go very far at all in doom-and-gloom and paranoia to see that there is something really bad going on in the world, and that Christians in particular may in the not-too-distant future have a really bad time of it. At the very least, we're going to be marginalized and despised by the people who hold most of the power and influence, and by those who support them.

I've never been one to engage in end-of-the-world speculation. Every period in history has been more or less disastrous. And I don't like the kind of paranoia that sees the active hand of Satan in every bad idea or trend. I don't look for signs of the end, or of the Antichrist. Nevertheless, whether or not the prophesied individual by that name is among us or soon to be among us, there is such a thing, a vaguer thing, as the spirit of Antichrist. And it's here, right now. It is the spirit that teaches that there is no God, that any "salvation" available to us is of this world only, and that we can achieve it by our own efforts. I think it's fair to say that that spirit is more widespread and powerful than it ever has been, for the very straightforward reason that over the past century and a half or so we have in fact done astonishing things to improve the material lot of mankind, things never before seen in human history. To many, the attainment of some sort of earthly paradise seems possible, maybe even imminent: if only those who refuse to join in the effort would cooperate.

What to do? Well, these words from Hilary White's piece seem to be where we should start. They're especially appropriate for Lent.

The last year – with much of our time spent restricted in space and greatly reduced in powers – has taught us, perhaps, to look to the interior for the things we really can affect to the good [emphasis in the original]. We still have the power to create a change in ourselves. I want the world to be different, but I’m lazy and selfish and I want other people to make it better so I can have an easier time. I don’t want to change myself to want material security less. I don’t want to increase my courage or my trust in God. That’s all difficult work that requires efforts that won’t produce immediate material results – or any material results at all. But these are the concerns of children, and of people who are determined to stay children forever.

What if, letting go of that hope that someone else will fix things to make it so I don’t have to change myself, I did the much, much harder thing and made the effort to change myself?


The Last Christian Generation?

Rod Dreher had a post a month or two back in which he discussed the possibility that we are in a situation comparable to that of the Romans we call "pagans," those who continued to Rome's ancient objects and forms of worhip, when Christianity became the Empire's dominant religion. You can read the post here. It draws on a book which goes into that Roman transition in great detail.

That historical parallel is interesting and surely must have some validity. But what's been preoccupying me lately is just these words: "the last Christian generation." I'm so literal-minded that talk of generations always bothers me: we can speak of the generations of a family, because by definition children are preceded by parents and grandparents in strict order, however long the intervals between them may be. But the idea is only loosely applicable to societies. We don't see a million births in a single year, followed by twenty barren years, followed by a year in which all the twenty-year-olds bear children, and so on. There can't really be a last generation of anything in a society taken as a whole. There is only a waning and waxing of numbers, as more and more children grow up and leave one way and take up another. I know, there is some utility in speaking of, say, the young people of a certain age at a certain time as a generation. But I always want to carp at it a little.

It's precisely the specific and definite use of the word that I keep thinking about--the drying up of Christianity in individual families. I've seen it happen; we all have, I assume. There are a husband and wife who are practicing Christians. Maybe they're very devout. maybe they're fairly casual, but they do consciously think of themselves as Christians, go to church at least frequently, and make at least some effort to pass the faith along to their children.

Then the children leave, either in anger and bitterness or by casual drift, dropping any practice and any explicitly Christian thinking. Maybe they become "spiritual but not religious," maybe they don't even give any thought to that sort of thing. Still, some degree of Christian consciousness remains, some awareness of Christian things, some notion of what Christianity teaches. To that extent they're still part of a Christian culture.

But when they have children of their own, this consciousness, this awareness, does not pass to them. They know no more of Christianity than an American child in 1960 was likely to know of Hinduism. Moreover, they may have been educated, formally and informally, to associate the term "Christian" with sanctimony, eccentricity or outright madness, bigotry, perversion, and so forth. And to regard the history of Christian civilization as chiefly occupied in the burning of witches and heretics, and the enslavement and slaughter of other, superior peoples.

Within their own families, the grandparents in that progression are literally the last Christian generation. And this is not a thing that might happen: it is happening now. Probably we all know of instances. Christian thinkers have seen this coming for a century and a half or so, but it's one thing to hear about a drought, another to see the crops withering before your eyes.

We may already have arrived at a point where our culture is dominated by people who are at the stage of that third generation, or further. (It's arguable that the word "may" there is not accurate, but I'll let that go for now.) At that point the broader conventional use of "generation" becomes applicable. It's a discouraging thought, but appropriate for consideration as we move into Lent. There doesn't seem to be a great deal of a practical nature that we can do about this, which should give our prayers more urgency.

1024px-Cracked_earth_after_prolonged_drought._2020(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

This Is Why I Keep Warning People

And part of the reason why the press is doing so much harm by making Trump seem even worse than he is, which is bad enough. (Not that anybody much is listening to me. This blog has an audience numbered in the dozens at best.) But I'll say it again: sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.

Anyone who doesn't believe that serious left-vs-right violence can't happen here understands neither human nature nor this country nor the real-world effects of spiritual evils such as hatred. And anyone who thinks the evil is all or even mostly on the other side is willfully blind.

Americans Increasingly Believe Violence is Justified If the Other Side Wins.

Remarkable Insight On My Part

A quick post from Fairhope Brewing, where they are actually encouraging people to come in and use their Wi-Fi, even opening in the mornings just for that purpose. Thank you, FBC.

I have a new computer, and have taken the occasion to go through a lot of old files and discard, organize, etc. In the process I ran across a draft of this post from ten years ago, "Firemen and the Gnostic Economy." The last few paragraphs seem, if I may say so, somewhat prescient about the conditions which could produce a phenomenon like Donald Trump.

There is a practical disdain in the upper reaches of our society for anybody so slow-witted and naïve as to make a living with the actual work of his hands, a disdain that is independent of political categories. (If anything the active disdain is stronger in the “liberal” camp, which may give more lip service to the lower-class laborer but doesn’t actually think very highly of him—but that’s a topic for another day.)

Some Ominous Words

"We live in times when the very composition of man is changing."

The remark was made sometime in the 1980s by Fr. John Krestiankin, a Russian Orthodox monk, and is quoted in a long piece called "The New Martyrs and Confessors: A Personal Memoir of Russia's Orthodox Clergy & Elders Under Communism," written by Fr. Vladimir Vorbyev and appearing in the September/October issue of Touchstone.

(This link may take you to the article; I think it's subscriber-only but this link is supposed to allow me to share it.)

Many years ago--maybe in the late '70s or early '80s, maybe even earlier--I read someone's conjecture, based on some esoteric spirituality that included reincarnation, that there is only a certain amount of human spiritual "matter," and that the ever-growing population of the world, especially its growth in the past couple of centuries, means that this essence is being spread ever thinner among the living. I didn't believe it, but it was one of those eccentric theories that make you think "Well, it would explain a few things." 

I have often, over the years, going back to my acquaintance with the literature of the past when I was young, felt that the writers (and other artists) seemed to be made of...well, "sterner stuff" is the phrase that comes to mind after "made of," and that's probably part of it, but there's more to it than that. And anyway it's not only sterner; it's also in a way softer, more sensitive. In general it seems richer and stronger. I wouldn't really defend those observations as truth, but they are, as I say, something that has passed through my mind. I thought of it again a couple of years ago when I was looking through a trove of family records going back into the late 19th century. There were, for instance, poems written more or less casually in letters or published in the local paper that were remarkably well-crafted, certainly beyond what an ordinary person of ordinary education would be likely to produce today. And I guess we've all seen and heard of the McGuffey Readers of that time which were used in elementary schools but would be considered too difficult for our high school or even college students.

I don't wish I had lived in 1850. Or 1150, or any other time. I don't think we can say that people were any more virtuous before, say, 1900: those times were full of brutalities which were accepted as normal but which horrify us. And yet: doesn't it sometimes seem that we are a smaller, more trivial people than we once were? Fr. Vladimir continues:

At first I couldn't understand these words, but then I recalled the Book of Genesis, which says that God sent the Flood to the earth when he saw that men became fleshly (9:3). "The very composition of man is changing" meant that the spirit was diminishing. Alas, there are more and more people in whom it's hard to perceive their spiritual nature, because for some reason they want to behave like beasts.

It isn't the comparison to beasts that strikes me so much as "the spirit was diminishing." I don't know if that's the best way to describe it, either. But I've had the feeling for a long time that there is something bad going on in our culture that is spiritual and very deeply hidden, something more fundamental than mere skepticism, hedonism, and materialism--something that helps to give those their power.