Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Shining Example

Multiculturalism and the sundry bromides out of which it was patched together was based on the unadjudicated and unsubstantiated premise that any given culture is as anthropologically sound and as conducive to human flourishing as any other, and that there is no criteria for measuring the relative social, moral, political and spiritual value of disparate cultures. However warm and fuzzy that premise might be for Western elites, it shamelessly patronizes all cultures but the post-modern secular one, for virtually every culture in the history of the world – certainly every one that lasted for any length of time – has regarded itself as preferable to the cultural or tribal alternatives. Multiculturalists might be right to be dubious about these presumptions of superiority, but by dismissing the sensibilities of the cultures for which they claim to be solicitous they hardly demonstrate their vaunted cultural neutrality. In other words, multiculturalism’s whole ideological apparatus is riddled with inner contradictions; for it is designed more to make privileged Westerners feel less guilty about their privileges than to share these privileges with non-Westerners by humbling acknowledging where they came from.

You and I live in a culture that is indisputably toxic in many ways, but one that is at the same time deeply imprinted by Christianity, though that imprint is far from indelible and eroding rapidly. The Christian response to its host culture is always both critical and appreciative, for no culture is or can be fully and truly Christian. Culture can, however, be deeply indebted to Christianity, as Western culture has historically been. Through no merit of our own, we are the heirs of the evangelical missions that converted the Western edge of the Roman Empire centuries ago. There is no presumption in appreciating the great good fortune that is ours because of this providential fact.

Though he felt no compunction about criticizing its pagan ways, St. Paul was both proud of being a Roman citizen and respectful of its institutions and the legitimacy of the authority it exercised in its own realm. How much more should Christians and others appreciate the moral, social, political, and religious benefits they enjoy as members of a culture that would never have happened without Christianity. And with that appreciation should come a determination to hand these blessings on to their children and their children’s children. Instead, we are witnessing a massive evisceration of Western culture, creating a moral and spiritual vacuum which cultural forces of a far different sort are eager and increasingly impatient to fill.

In the Emmaus Road Initiative lecture series I gave last spring in a number of cities, I alluded to an essay by Lee Harris in which he wrote of the importance of a culture’s “shining example.” While not as profound as RenĂ© Girard’s work on the role of mimesis in cultural life, Harris wrote persuasively of the importance, not just of “role models” but of those figures who represent the ultimate values of a society, the telos or goal toward which the culture encourages well-lived and well-ordered lives to aspire.

It should be obvious to all but the ideologically blinded that not all shining examples are equal, nor will the culture that looks to them for inspiration be equally well served by its devotion to them. Is the Ultimate Shining Example, for instance, the Buddha, or Muhammad, or Mao, or Jesus, or Kim Jong Il (North Korea’s Great Leader) … ?

The point is: It makes a difference.

What if your Shining Example was an ideological fanatic capable of coldly calculating the violent elimination of those regarded as retrograde to the consummation of some ridiculous utopian dream?

What if your culture’s Shining Example was a master of interior states of consciousness, a virtuoso of dispassionate detachment from the trials and tribulations of this world, whose central message was how, by quieting the mind and freeing yourself from desire, you can avoid suffering?

What if you culture’s Shining Example was a war lord and slave owner who ordered the assassination of his political enemies and who generally terrified the peoples he and his conquering army subjugated, slaughtering or socially subordinating those he regarded as infidels?

What if your Shining Example was a man of peace who spent his life healing and giving solace and comfort to the poor and the poor in spirit, and who walked defenselessly into the terrifying maw of worldly and religious violence to die there without lifting his hand or raising his voice?

Just as cultural Islam cannot be reduced to the biographical details of Muhammad’s life, neither can the Western culture be expected to be a perfect replica of Christ’s. The point is simply that the Shining Example is culturally decisive.

One cultural difference, paradoxically I suppose, is the degree to which any given culture inspires a genuine, and not just rhetorical, hospitality toward those from other cultures.

The superficial multicultural opposition between a culture’s religious identity and moral patrimony, on one hand, and its pluralist generosity and hospitality, on the other, is pure nonsense. It has been those cultures under Christian influence that have been the most hospitable to non-believers and those of other faiths. (Compare, for instance, the religious freedom enjoyed by those living in Detroit, Michigan and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.) The historical and cultural uniqueness this generosity represents is undeniable. The fact that it developed historically, rather than magically, and that the principle has been betrayed often enough, in no way diminishes its uniqueness. Nor is it forsaken by a host culture refusing to have its hospitality taken to be a license for its guests and newcomers to scrap the very spiritual resources that gave rise to the hospitality in the first place. In other words, it does not require acts of cultural suicide.

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