Too often we Catholics have been criticized, nay, have been savaged, for being mere medievalists, disloyal to the modernism; the Christianity we confess has been dismissed as an anachronism promoting a moral code past its sell-by date.
I confess I am always amused when those who denounce eternal truths as old-fashioned seem not to realize this denunciation was fashionable in the days when Marx and Hegel, bastardizing Darwin, took pen to paper. The idea that truth is relative to its time period belongs to the optimistic Victorian Age. It is an idea long past its sell-by date.
The argument about anachronism is itself anachronistic: the last gasp of grayhaired and dying conformity in no sense fitted for life in the future. It is not an accusation one needs soberly to answer, since it is not a sober accusation.
But I was reminded of this recently. Crisis Magazine has an essay written by Jason Jones that you would do well to read. It is from last month, the dread date of January 22. (Hat tip to Frank Weathers at Why I am Catholic). Allow me to recite some telling paragraphs:
For most of you this weekend contains a date you’ll never forget, along the lines of September 11, or December 7 — anniversaries of profound wounds to our country as a whole, even if we didn’t lose a relative in those surprise attacks or the wars that ensued. For millions of Americans, however, January 22 portends a loss that is much more rawly personal. One woman in three who came of age after Roe v. Wade has exercised the “right” the judges discovered in 1973 to terminate a pregnancy; millions of men took part in those decisions; too often forgotten are men who (like me at 17) were bereaved of our unborn children against our wishes. All those Americans lost a family member in the events of January 22, and so this day will never slip by unnoticed, much as most of us wish it would. We’d rather not “go there,” not dredge up the guilt of many flavors—participant’s, bystander’s, survivor’s. It all feels much the same. If I can speak for the many, let me tell you we’d rather think about almost anything else, be it baseball, stock prices, or shoes.
So let’s talk about shoes.
One of the authors to whom I owe the most intellectually is the political philosopher Hadley Arkes, of Amherst College. Arkes is the world’s leading advocate of a deeply unfashionable theory called Natural Law. You never hear about that notion any more, but it played a major role in certain historic events: the American Declaration of Independence, the Abolitionist movement, the U.N.’s post-war assertion of human rights that transcend the laws of nations, and the U.S. Civil Rights movement. It’s almost stunning to think that an idea with such a pedigree could simply be dropped by the world’s intellectuals, like a toy that a child grew bored with, but that is what has happened. People will still assert human rights, or insist that our government act with justice, plucking fruit from the branches of a tree they pretend isn’t there. (I won’t speculate for the moment why they do this. Just take it from me that “Natural Law” is a term you shouldn’t use in academia, law, or politics. It will brand you as an extremist.) Anyway, in one of my favorite books by my favorite thinker, Natural Rights and the Right to Choose, Arkes starts by talking not about abstract right and wrong but a particular pile of shoes. That has a better philosophical precedent than you might think: One of Heidegger’s most famous essays concerns the making of shoes.
But Arkes isn’t interested in what Germans have thought about crafting shoes, as in the careful way they protected them, kept shoes safe from heedless destruction in time of war, gathered them carefully and avoided wherever they could the needless waste of a single shoe—almost as if each pair had a unique and irreplaceable destiny, a dignity no man could rightly ignore.
The Pile of Shoes at Dachau
You have probably guessed by now where the shoes that interest Arkes were found: piled neatly, outside the gas chamber at an extermination camp. Those shoes, and other personal items like gold teeth, were extracted from the items of human waste those plants efficiently processed into smoke. They remain with us as a testimony to modern economy and thrift. Really, I can think of no other single thing (not a skyscraper or a space ship) that sums up the essence of what it means to be modern as that pile of Jewish shoes.
The age we mark as modernity began with grand, exhilarating gestures: discourses on method that would set us free from the dead hand of tradition (Descartes); declarations of the rights of man (the French Revolutionary Assembly); manifestos rejecting the tyranny of mere economic laws over the lives and labor of men (Karl Marx). The grand progression of the movement Henri de Lubac dubbed “heroic humanism” was full of such golden moments, which moved through the dark night of history like torches leading us forward, ever forward, to a glittering future that would make life at long last worthy of man. At the end of all the struggles, after the next (surely final!) conflict, or the next, we were promised without any irony a brave new world, an earthly paradise. Descartes had no doubt that science would end disease and aging, so men could live forever. Robespierre offered public safety and a reign of absolute virtue. Marx fought to eliminate war, inequality, and even boring jobs: in the stateless, classless Communist endpoint of history, no one would even have to specialize in anything. We could move from one career to another from day to day, and have ample time in the evening to philosophize or write poetry. As Thomas Paine said, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
And we did. That’s what we spent the 19th and 20th centuries doing, energetically. We broke up historic empires into nation-states, where men forgot their loyalty to tiny village or global Church, and learned to think as members of ethnic tribes or aggrieved social classes. After these collectives had done their work, and proved themselves too dangerous (in 1945, and 1989, respectively) we set about smashing them, too. We broke down the ramshackle, inefficient structure of the old extended family to its minimal, nuclear core—and then when that didn’t prove as economically useful, we split that into atoms. When we learned that families have no economic use or political import, we redefined them at last as consensual, temporary alliances of adults—to whom the State contracts the duty of caring for children overnight, in the hours when schools and daycare facilities aren’t open. We have very thoroughly accomplished the job modernity’s founders set us: liquidating every barrier to the assertion of the Self, short of the laws of physics. We have killed all the fathers. We are free to make of ourselves exactly what we will, no less and no more. And here we sit with the treasure we’ve won: this pile of shoes.
Go and read the rest.
Like most Catholics at some point in their lives, I found myself upbraided for my disloyalty to the modern age and to the grand march from apehood to supermanhood the modern age has so brashly promised.
I was told that the work of creating the superman was important, and that it was sad that a man of my intelligence would not join the glorious triumphal procession away from the musty superstitions of the past into the iron immensity of Tomorrow, lit by cold and metallic greenish light, roaring with the turning of wheels, ebullient with the shouts of multitudes speaking in unison, and no silence any where, and no music.
The criticism was of course meaningless pro foma, uttered by someone unfamiliar either with my public statements and private opinions: to a bigot, whatever bigotry says Christians are like, all Christians must be like! The cirtic failed to note that I am a great fan, booster, and supporter of the future and futurism. I am, in fact, a science fiction writer. My assigned task in life is glamorizing the future.
What I do not do is glamorize the past.
The cheerful Victorian utopianism which pretended whatever the calendar brought next must of course surpass what the calendar left behind was an idea found quaint and unscientific 120 years ago, back when the meat of the idea was fresh. That very scientific notion called entropy belies the concept that mere passage of time makes things better. If you prefer frontiers to factories, a world with fewer frontiers and more factories may not win your enthusiasm.
The notion was revived in the 1930’s in Russia and Germany.
The idea of the bold march over the smashed statues and toppled spires of the Church by jackbooted echelons of scientifically efficient secular visionaries reaching the immanent eschaton is also one which, to me, has the odor of antiquity, a quaint “diesel-punk” anachronism.
I get the same sensation seeing retro-futuristic images from the 1930’s and 1940’s, or seeing the Red Skull’s Flying Wing from the recent CAPTAIN AMERICA flick, or the Youtube commercials for IRON SKY of Luftwaffe Flying Saucer bases on the Moon. To be blunt, it is an idea that our fathers bled to extinguish on VE-Day.
My loyalty to the Modern Age, or to the Glorious Future cannot be questioned by any quaint retro-futurian still drunk on the unmixed wine of Victorian promises of progress, or fascist daydreams of eugenics.
It is not that I (or any Christian) can be called disloyal to the future. It is that we Christians, and all men of good will of any faith, must be the enemy of the particular future which equates “progress” with the extinction of human decency and human life and perhaps even human nature. It is “progress” in the sense that burning a Cathedral and all its books is progress away from civilization and progress toward glowing ashheaps beneath gasping clouds of smoke.
It is progress in the same sense leprosy or senility progresses.
That pile of shoes is not an aberration to the modern age. It was erected in the most modern and scientific of nations, Germany, renowned alike for its mathematicians and technicians as for its militarism and Progressive programs under Bismarck. Those shoes are a monument to modern ideals of Darwinian eugenics, of placing emotion over reason, of saying truth is relative to era and class and race: all notions repudiated and denounced in Christian doctrine.
So, Christian gentlemen and ladies, and all men of good will, the next time a Progressive sneers at your disloyalty to the glorious future of glorious modernity and postmodernity, as we slouch from the Age of Reason into the Age of the Postrational, ask yourself this:
Is there nothing to criticize in the Modernity? Truly? Not a thing?
Philosophy is as luminous as ever it was in Athens, art as divine as ever shined from the hand of Phideas, our music as wondrous as that of Beethoven, our poetry as sublime as what lept from the lips of Milton, and our women are as chaste as St. Agnes and pagan Diana, our men as concerned with honor as the passengers of the Titanic, our courts of law as careful of justice as Trajan?
The Modern Age has given us wealth and liberty undreamed by our ancestors. It would be wrong to be ungrateful for these blessings. Science has opened creation like a vast treasure hoard of wonders, and, unlike earthly treasure, this grows ever greater the deeper we go. Medicine has abolished countless forms of suffering. The slave trade has been abolished world wide.
But those who say that it was not Christendom that did these things tell lies. Where Christian virtues fail, the liberty turns into license and licentiousness: pornographers admired as men of business. Wealth promotes an industry of envy, as a lawyers, bureaucrats and politicians make it their daily business to loot what others produce. Medicine turns to infanticide, and the Hippocratic Oath languishes. Science goes mad, and says the universe is nothing but a carousel of atoms, and your brain a defective calculation machine that merely hallucinates self-awareness and free will.
These are not inevitable. There is nothing in modernity which make these evils necessary evils, and no rule of history which decrees that liberty must evolve into tyranny, capitalism to socialism, virtue to vice, chastity to all-permissive hedonism. These things are not the goods whose price tag demands we abandon Judeochristian virtues, values, traditions, goals and goods. Indeed, this wealth and virtue and goodness are the outcome and by-product of the Christian world-view.
There is a reason why other great civilizations in South America, India and China stagnated before their discovery by the West, and why only the civilization of the Mediterranean produced modern science: that reason is Christianity.
It is not a trade-off and not a zero-sum game. When the Roman Empire converted, it gave up slavery, gladiatorial games, abortion, infanticide, divorce, sodomy, pornography, temple prostitution, and other inhuman practices. Nothing good in the pagan world was lost, and must pagan virtue and learning preserved through the Christian era.
Then, as the Modern Era devolved into the Postmodern, one after another, the Old Ways came back, and the rate of Progress slowed. The traditions we were told were the obstacles standing in the path of progress, the faith of our fathers, was nothing other than the engine of progress. As is the coachman shot the horses to prevent them from blocking the career of the coach, and then wondered why the coach ground slowly to a halt.
Have you ever wondered where your Flying Car is, now that you live in the Age of the Jetson’s, dead reader? Answer: you sold it for a mess of pottage. When civilization abandoned institutional Christianity for liberalism, then abandoned Christian notions of decency and individualism for socialism, and then abandoned Christian notions of chivalry and truth for political correctness, and then abandoned Christian notions of the objectivity of truth, beauty and virtue for the roaring abyss of nihilism, civilization lost the engine and motive of its progress.
When you stopped calling yourself sons of God and started calling yourself naked apes, you stopped climbing Jacob’s Ladder toward the angels, and slumped instead toward the jungle where Nature red in tooth and claw holds reign.
That pile of shoes makes a lie of notions that all things of the modern age are wonderful, and all things of all times past abhorrent.