Sometimes you do live to see it. In my book America Alone, I point out that, to a five-year-old boy waving his flag as Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee procession marched down the Mall in 1897, it would have been inconceivable that by the time of his 80th birthday the greatest empire the world had ever known would have shriveled to an economically moribund strike-bound socialist slough of despond, one in which (stop me if this sounds familiar) the government ran the hospitals, the automobile industry, and much of the housing stock, and, partly as a consequence thereof, had permanent high unemployment and confiscatory tax rates that drove its best talents to seek refuge abroad.
That's Mark Steyn's lede in today's article in National Review Online. The little boy in his story was the future historian Arnold Toynbee. Steyn continues:
Permanence is an illusion — and you would be surprised at how fast mighty nations can be entirely transformed. But, more important, national decline is psychological — and therefore what matters is accepting the psychology of decline. . . .
Is America set for decline? It’s been a grand run. The country’s been the leading economic power since it overtook Britain in the 1880s. That’s impressive. Nevertheless, over the course of that century and a quarter, Detroit went from the world’s industrial powerhouse to an urban wasteland, and the once-golden state of California atrophied into a land of government run by the government for the government. What happens when the policies that brought ruin to Detroit and sclerosis to California become the basis for the nation at large? Strictly on the numbers, the United States is in the express lane to Declinistan: unsustainable entitlements, the remorseless governmentalization of the economy and individual liberty, and a centralization of power that will cripple a nation of this size. Decline is the way to bet. But what will ensure it is if the American people accept decline as a price worth paying for European social democracy. . . .
. . . as Charles Krauthammer said recently, “decline is a choice.” The Democrats are offering it to the American people, and a certain proportion of them seem minded to accept. Enough to make decline inevitable? To return to the young schoolboy on his uncle’s shoulders watching the Queen-Empress’s jubilee, in the words of Arnold Toynbee: “Civilizations die from suicide, not from murder.”
Don't miss the whole piece here.
You blog is turning into a billboard of idolatrous musings that as far as I can tell have little to nothing to do with the Gospel. More like the bemaoning of the loss of the Golden Calf. Oh Gil..where art though?
In the post-war years, Europe lost its faith, its cultural confidence, its sense of historical mission and its willingness to pass on to the next generation the religious and moral traditions that were the source of its cultural uniqueness and historical importance. Without these things millions of young people in Europe are stumbling in the dark, with hardly a hint of the Christian worldview and all the graces and blessings that it brings with it. Our society is following that same path and, in doing so, consigning to those coming after us -- and to whom we have a moral responsibility -- a culture in ruins. I'm not bemoaning the LOSS of a Golden Calf; I"m bemoaning the creation of one.
It is very interesting to me that the image of the “Golden Calf” should arise this day.
In today’s first reading, DN 3:14-20, we are once again reminded of the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who would not worship the golden statue that King “had made”. Though commanded to “Be ready now to fall down and worship the statue I had made, whenever you hear the sound of the trumpet, flute, lyre, harp, psaltery, bagpipe, and all the other musical instruments…”, (like the Bolsheviks early in the 20th century, Nebuchadnezzar was trying to artificially sacralize his man-made god), they refused. They were then threatened with utter destruction at the hands of the State and taunted about the inability of their God to save them-“who is the God who can deliver you out of my hands”- but nevertheless remained steadfast in their refusal to worship the god fashioned by the prevailing power of the age. Nebuchadnezzar became “livid with rage” and had the 3 men cast into a white-hot furnace. But instead of being consumed, the men were unharmed and the king was astounded to see that they were accompanied in their time of trial by who “looks like a son of God”. At that, Nebuchadnezzar excclaimed “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who sent his angel to deliver the servants who trusted in him; they disobeyed the royal command and yielded their bodies rather than serve or worship any god except their own God.”
We who believe are also being called to be steadfast, and to put our trust in God, in the face of myriad gods being erected by the powers and principalities of the current age. Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, we are being called to resist all attempts to sacralize the golden statues all around us. And, most important, we are being called to witness to the Truth of Christ in how we live, and die.
Thank you Gil for continuing to remind us of this call.
I don't see nearly as much cause for pessimism about Europe as Gil does. In fact, I think it is pretty incredible what Europe has achieved since the war. Gil sees a "culture in ruins," but the real ruins were visible at the end of the First and Second World Wars. Who can forget the aerial photos of Nurnberg and Berlin and London after the war? Before WWII, Europe's churches were full. Today they are empty. Could it be secularization that has made peace between Europe's nations possible for the first time? How are we to explain that this era of peace has coincided with the decline of church affiliation throughout Europe?
Europe is not at war and tensions between European states are at an all-time low. Europe's economies are strong. Are Europe's young people "stumbling in the dark?" Maybe someone can help me here. I don't see evidence for that claim. Europeans are still producing great music, art, literature, and film, they appear to have a robust scientific worldview, and they are no longer in the vice-grip of religious traditions, for the most part. (Though we might agree that Islamic fundamentalism is a potential threat within Europe's borders.)
I'm sure that a host of negatives can be found, but I think it would be hard to maintain that Europe is now worse off than at any other time in its history. Gil bemoans Europe's loss of faith, but we need to remind ourselves what Europe was like before that faith was lost. What was the golden age of faith, and in what way was it superior to modern Europe in terms of overall human flourishing? I can't think of such an age.
The posted piece really doesn't speak to loss of Christian faith, but something different. I don't think that Americans generally have much of a clue about what Europeans gave up and why as a result of 30 years of catstrophic, cosmic bloodletting. It destroyed the confidence and self understanding of an entire cultural paradigm that included an institutionalized Christian culture that was at best powerless to stop the bloodletting and at worst egged it on. If nothing makes sense anymore, why not party? The loss was was not some much a failure of will as a vote of no confidence. Small ball version is folks abandoning our Church over the sex-abuse and cover up tragedy. Poland alone because of their self understanding as a martyred nation stood out for a while anyhow. I agree with some of what you have to say about some aspects of the current state of Europe but do not agree about what caused it. Not sure what to do with it. I think the problem here is different.
Global fertility rates are in general decline and this trend is most pronounced in industrialized countries, especially Western Europe, where populations are projected to decline dramatically over the next 50 years.
-World Factbook, CIA (2009)
"When an entire continent, healthier, wealthier, and more secure than ever before, fails to create the human future in the most elemental sense-by creating the next generation-something very serious is afoot…Europe began the twentieth century with bright expectations of new and unprecedented scientific, cultural, and political achievements. Yet within fifty years, Europe, the undisputed center of world civilization in 1900, produced two world wars, three totalitarian systems, a Cold War that threatened global holocaust, oceans of blood, mountains of corpses, the Gulag, and Auschwitz. What happened? And, perhaps more to the point, why had what happened happened? Political and economic analyses do not offer satisfactory answers to those urgent questions. Cultural-which is to say spiritual, even theological-answers might help…
Take, for example, the proposal made by a French Jesuit, Henri de Lubac, during World War II. De Lubac argued that Europe's torments in the 1940s were the "real world" results of defective ideas, which he summarized under the rubric "atheistic humanism"-the deliberate rejection of the God of the Bible in the name of authentic human liberation. This, de Lubac suggested, was something entirely new. Biblical man had perceived his relationship to the God of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus as a liberation…The proponents of nineteenth-century European atheistic humanism turned this inside out and upside down. Human freedom, they argued, could not coexist with the God of Jews and Christians. Human greatness required rejecting the biblical God, according to such avatars of atheistic humanism as Auguste Comte, Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche. And here, Father de Lubac argued, were ideas with consequences-lethal consequences, as it turned out. For when you marry modern technology to the ideas of atheistic humanism, what you get are the great mid-twentieth century tyrannies-communism, fascism, Nazism...
Contemporary European culture is not bedeviled by atheistic humanism in its most raw forms; Europe today is profoundly shaped, however, by a kinder, gentler cousin... "exclusive humanism": a set of ideas that, in the name of democracy, human rights, tolerance, and civility, demands that all transcendent religious or spiritual reference points must be kept out of European public life"
--Excerpted from “Is Europe Dying?”By: George Weigel / Foreign Policy Research Institute
Global fertility rates are in general decline...
True, but so are mortality rates, and so we have a growing population. Global population is now at 6.8 billion, and best estimates are that it will reach 7 billion by 2012. After that, the United Nations offers a high, a medium, and a low forecast for the rest of the century. The high would take us to 14 billion, the medium to 9 billion, and the low forecast would have us falling back to around 5.5 billion.
Mortality rates can fluctuate dramatically as a result of wars, famines, natural catastrophes, medical advances, etc. They are harder to predict than birth rates, and that is why the UN has the three very different forecasts.
Why the low forecast (falling back to 5.5 billion)? Because Planet Earth cannot sustain more than about one billion people, the number that was reached as recently as 1804. Population has been growing exponentially, a trend that obviously (even logically) cannot continue indefinitely. Just since 1927, within the memory of many people now living, Earth’s population has more than tripled, from 2 billion to nearly 7 billion.
This astonishing growth would not have been possible without the green revolution, which brought about huge increases in crop yields. But there are a number of reasons why this bonanza may not continue for much longer. One is that it depends on petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, which will become more and more expensive as oil supplies begin to fail and to come under increased demand for other uses, such as biofuels. Another is that many crops have become so genetically uniform that they are subject to sudden collapse from disease. Food prices worldwide are now rising sharply, and so are the numbers of undernourished people in the world, now at over a billion. These are only some of the problems associated with increased agricultural yield.
So we have a scenario of growing population, declining fuel supplies, and food shortages. Do we want to continue growing our population? Probably not. Do we want to witness a greying of a population that increasingly depends on the labor of the young? Probably not. So what do we do?
Answer: Hold on for a rough ride.
Correction in my previous comment, where two thoughts got tangled up somehow: I meant to say that agricultural lands (not oil supplies) have come under increased demand for other uses, such as biofuels.
Political and economic analyses do not offer satisfactory answers to those urgent questions. Cultural—which is to say spiritual, even theological—answers may help.
George Wiegel betrays his bias in this sentence. An anthropological (i.e., “cultural”) approach is not necessarily either spiritual or theological. Anthropology is a vast field of inquiry, only a small part of which adopts a spiritual or theological perspective. I have often seen the word “anthropology” used on this site as if it were a subset of Christian theology. But it is not. The reverse is true.
Henri de Lubac’s theory of recent European history is of course skewed to exonerate the Church for its part in many of the most horrendous debacles of the fascist era and to inculpate the traditional enemies of the Church—particularly atheism and liberalism. Let’s not forget that the Church supported fascist dictatorships in Germany, Sudetenland, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Vichy-France, Croatia, Belgium, Bohemia-Moravia, and Slovakia. These were all pro-Catholic regimes, and the Vatican gave them its blessings. Neither Hitler nor any member of the SS was excommunicated, except Herman Goering. He was excommunicated for... marrying a protestant. Josef Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich, and Rudolf Hoess were Roman Catholics, and Rudolf Hess, Martin Bormann, Albert Speer, and Adolf Eichmann were Protestants. Not a single one of the Nazi leaders was raised in a family of liberals or atheists.
I am not siding with atheists in this debate, because I think that atheism by itself can form dangerous liaisons with secular faith-based systems such as Communism, to produce something that is structurally identical to religion, but without the supernatural per se. (Communism had its saints, its holy books, its relics, its pilgrimages, its absolute submission to authority, and yes, even its Gods...)
I would also refer you to James Carroll’s magisterial work on the Church and the Jews: “Constantine’s Sword.” That golden age (The “Belle Epoque”) that Wiegel looks back to was riddled with Catholic anti-Semitism, as seen, for example, in the Dreyfus Affair, and the Holocaust was a disaster waiting to happen.
For de Lubac, the operative polarity is between atheism and Christianity. But he is speaking as a Jesuit, and I believe his model is simplistic and fails to account for the complexities of a world in which atheists may be Communists or liberal democrats (compare Soviet Russia and, e.g., the countries of present-day Northern Europe), and Catholics may be fascists or, again, liberal democrats (e.g., Italy under Mussolini vs. modern Italy). And it is a world in which countries whose citizens are indifferent to religion can score high in overall happiness and prosperity.
I would propose an alternative and slightly less simplistic model which I hope will improve with age. At one pole is faith (understood as submission to authority, or the opposite of doubt), which may be expressed in secular or sacred domains—with both positive and negative effects for each:
Sacred positive: Charity, civil rights movement, etc.
Sacred negative: Holocaust, jihads, etc.
Secular positive: Various modes of group cooperation.
Secular negative: Gulags, killing fields, etc.
And at the other pole are reason and doubt, skepticism, and the scientific method. I will just call this pole “Doubt” (in honor of Jennifer Hecht’s book by that name) and it is entirely secular and mostly positive, with some actual but unnecessary negatives.
Positive: Respect for evidence as the proper basis for decision-making in matters of policy, ethical and moral conduct, etc.
Negative: Excessive individualism, lack of group cohesion.
As I said, this model is also simplistic, and I hope to refine it. But I believe it offers some insight as to why the ills of the 20th century should not be blamed on atheism. I believe a more likely culprit to be authoritarian systems of belief, whether they are religious or secular ones.
"Because Planet Earth cannot sustain more than about one billion people, the number that was reached as recently as 1804."
This might be obvious to some of the more practiced students of mimetic theory but something just occurred to me. Whether we believe in it or not, the "population crisis" that Doughlas and many other global warming alarmists continually draw attention to characterizes the earth and its resources as the objects of desire. Not only that, but it emphasizes their limitations.
Is it coincedence then, that this issue falls on the same side of the political isle as the pro-abortion movement? What better way to remove the threat of the other than to snuff him out before he his even born?
Or is it that the left recognizes the heavy guilt of the abortion machine that it has helped sustain? In its need to justify this horrific evil has it created a crisis in an attempt to rationalize what it has done? I mean justifying abortion for an abstract idea like choice doesn't cut it. Doesn't it sound better if we say it's being done for self-preservation?
Mike, those are interesting hypotheses, but I wouldn’t have any idea how to test them. My comment about the population crisis was, of course, purely descriptive. My only prescription was “Hold on for a rough ride.” The population crisis, like anthropogenic global warming and environmental degradation, is very real, and we may be well beyond the point where painless solutions can be found.
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