Friday, March 12, 2010

"Religion is the key to history."

That's according to the renowned British historian Christopher Dawson. Reading what he goes on to say is an exercise in remorse, for the situation he described as recently as the late 1940s has simply ceased to exist:
Religion stands at the threshold of all the great literatures of the world. Philosophy is its offspring and is a child which constantly returns to its parent. And the same is true of social institutions. Kingship and law are religious institutions and even today they have not entirely divested themselves of their numinous character, as we can see in the English coronation rite and in the formulas of our law courts. All the institutions of family and marriage and kinship have a religious background and have been maintained and are still maintained by formidable social sanctions.
Gone are the days. What René Girard has helped us realize is that it is the Christian revelation that has led to the desacralization of our institutions, beginning with the "rending of the Temple veil" at the crucifixion. That is a very long story, but it is also a story of our cultural neglect. For the Christian alternative to what Girard once called the "primitive sacred" is a combination of what Philip Rieff calls fresh new interdicts -- a vibrant system of moral constrains -- and what catholic Christianity calls the sacramental life of the Church.

Without such moral constrains (themselves requiring religious underpinning) and the sacramental instantiation of these constraints into the lived experience of those being civilized by them -- without that, secularism and nihilism follow as night follows day.

As late in the day as it is, we must, I feel, commit ourselves ever anew to the task of clarifying our present predicament and summoning the moral, intellectual and religious resources requisite to its amelioration. The happiness, wellbeing and freedom of children's children are on the line.


Athos said...

Without such moral constrains ... secularism and nihilism follow as night follows day

Isn't the above another way of saying that the culture will fall into sacrificial preparation if ritualized - and I refuse to believe this has been a conscious ritual process carried out by a priestly caste - or, more likely, the "war of all against all."

What I hear consistently from you, Gil - correct me if I'm wrong - is that from that chaos, no new founding violence will emerge, because of the gospel.

But is it not possible that humanity might so completely forget or discard the gospel that it would re-enact once more the "eternal return" of the sacred?

Gil Bailie said...

Alas, that is a possibility. Whether it has the power to defeat the Gospel IN THIS WORLD or not remains to be seen. The ultimate impotence of the "eternal return" -- i.e. its non-eternality -- is, praise God, assured.

Athos said...

Thank you for the reply, Gil. My darkest fantasy is that if there is at some point a total break down of the infrastructure due to whatever - solar flare, social chaos, WMD - the networks least dependent on the Rube Goldberg contraption running on Middle Eastern energy and still extremely vital would be the greatest assistance both to their own people and many others as well.

Like what 'networks'? The local parishes of the Catholic Church pops into my mind. Our roots of subsidiarty, service, sustenance, and sacrament run vvery deep. Liked or not, understood and appreciated or not by progressivists, the parish church would become the Mother Hen at the center of town and village as in the Middle Ages once more; only this time with persons of considerable skill sets functioning under a sacramental umbrella.

Doughlas Remy said...

René Girard has helped us realize [that] the Christian revelation ...has led to the desacralization of our institutions.

...without that [Catholic Christianity’s sacramental instantiation of fresh new interdicts after Biblical revelations about the old interdicts of the primitive sacred], secularism and nihilism follow as night follows day.

I must be missing something here. Isn’t “desacralization” the same as “secularization?” So, if the Christian revelation led to the gradual desacralization (secularization) of our institutions, then why would we want to turn back the pages of history toward an earlier era dominated by the sacred? Our institutions in the West (universities, courts, governments, etc.) have indeed become untethered from the sacred, but isn’t that a sign of our superiority to certain pockets of Islamic culture where no such separation exists? If we want to observe the unfettered workings of the primitive sacred in our modern era, we need only look at the Taliban, a true throwback to an archaic system of moral constraints based on Girard’s three pillars of the sacred: myth, ritual, and prohibitions/obligations.

The superiority of Christianity, in my view, is that it pointed us away from the archaic sacred and toward the liberal secularism that we now enjoy (e.g., as seen in our separation of church and state in this country). While there can be no doubt that the road has been rough, the alternative is unacceptable, and I believe that people of faith should be the first to recognize that. This is because liberal secularism has historically emerged as the only way to peacefully manage the tensions of various belief systems in the kind of pluralistic framework that we have in the modern world. Because it values individual freedom of conscience, it ensures that no one is persecuted for his or her beliefs or prevented from practicing those beliefs as long as they do no harm to others. Without liberal secularism, we either succumb to theocratic totalitarianism (including the crypto-theocratic varieties such as Stalinism or the supreme leadership Kim Jong-il in North Korea), or we descend into sectarian violence.

As Warren Breckman points out in a recent Lapham’s Quarterly article (“Secular Revival”), “the original Christian concept of the secular had nothing to do with nonbelief, but with a division of human reality into two distinct regions.” Jesus, St. Paul, and St. Augustine all drew a sharp line of division between the sacred and the secular. Jesus told his followers, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” St. Paul taught that “everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” St. Augustine seconded and elaborated on this principle.

I don’t think any of these founders of Christianity would have paired secularism and nihilism as you do. (I know a great many secularists, but I don’t know a single nihilist.) Furthermore, your claim that moral constraints require religious underpinning would be very hard to substantiate. Though I am a secularist and have a moral aversion to slander (as you have discovered), my aversion has nothing to do with Biblical teachings, though I certainly appreciate that it is supported by them. Meanwhile, a lot of highly immoral behavior, such as Uganda’s current persecution of homosexuals or the inhumane treatment of Jews in Catholic Europe over the centuries, has had religious underpinnings.

It sometimes seems to me that the Christianity to which you are so attached, far from following the path adumbrated by its founder, still has a foot in the primitive sacred. The veil of the temple is slightly torn but still protecting the mysteries of the sacred, so highly valued because they seem to promise order in a chaotic world. The liberal secularist has a right to ask whether any “order” based on the sacred is worth having, considering the costs, and whether another kind of order might be envisioned.