Are western ideas compatible with western culture?

Thursday, November 10, 2005
Yesterday's post on the question of whether Islam can find a place under the western umbrella, sparked a number of comments on the competition among and future of cultures. Last night, I came across these comments from Gil Bailie, a Catholic intellectual and follower of the anthropology of Rene Girard, that present the issue in terms we did not discuss. To the extent that we are conservatives (or, for Bailie, Christians) are we out to conserve our culture or rather human values that transcend today's culture?

Writing in September in response to Hurricane Katrina, Gil is addressing a Christian audience, but I don't see why his ideas cannot be translated into some, but perhaps not all, other faith systems; I hope I offend no one by quoting them here:

We who are usually surrounded by sundry social, technological, moral and legal protections were given a brief glimpse into what the world would be like without them. As nature was crushing lives and hopes along the Gulf Coast, human nature, its fallen condition on conspicuous display, was slipping its leash and returning to forms of predation that culture exists to forefend, giving those sitting in safe, dry living rooms a rudimentary anthropological lesson in cultural fragility. A degree of finger-pointing may be in order and in any case is understandable, but the message to be heeded is about cultural fragility. Were we more aware of this fragility, we might be a less cavalier about the steady elimination of the moral and religious sources of Western cultural resilience and social civility.

Lest we turn culture into an idol, however, it is good to remember that Christ was put to death by political and religious authorities anxious to protect their respective cultural institutions; each regarding Jesus as either naively or treasonously indifferent to the fate of the culture they sought to preserve. It is hardly surprising that the One who came to save us from death wasn’t as anxious as the rest of us about the cultural efforts to postpone it or strike a bargain with it. Christianity, correspondingly, is about the salvation of souls, not the preservation of cultures, for the simple reason that souls live forever and cultures do not. But souls and the bodies they animate are inevitably shaped by the cultures they inhabit.

From Augustine to Toynbee and beyond, Christians have been keenly aware that human cultures come and go, succumbing more often than not to either hubris or moral decay or both. Such an anthropological long view, however, has never led Christians to think that one culture is as good as the next, or that all cultures were equally congenial to Christian existence or the Christian vocation. Their many pathologies notwithstanding, those cultures long influenced by Christianity are neither easy to come by nor likely to be replaced by something more propitious.

The idea of inevitable human progress has taken a beating in recent decades and in recent days, and it’s no doubt in for more. The idea was never more than a secular trivialization of Christian hope, and as the mounting evidence of our fallen condition undermines the idea, it will be up to Christians to revive the only hopeful alternative to it: namely, faith in God’s providence.

Read the whole thing

10 comments:

flenser said...

truepeers

"To the extent that we are conservatives (or, for Bailie, Christians) are we out to conserve our culture or rather human values that transcend today's culture?"

I think that is a false question. It assumes that there is something called "todays culture" which is transitory. As I and others use the term, culture means something exactly the opposite. It means something that endures over time. As I read Gil, that is the meaning he gives to the term also.


I realize that there are people who refer to "hip hop culture" and so forth. Perhaps that is the meaning you are disparaging.


As to the broader point, any system which claims to be universal is bound to provoke strong opposition. That applies equally to Islam, Christianity, and liberalism, among other systems.

In Europe, the secular side of liberalism has won out over Christianity. The irony being that as a result Europe is likely to become Islamic over time.

I believe that Canada is in much the same condition as Europe, minus the large Muslim population at present.

To respond to your headline question, no, I don't think western ideas are compatable with western culture. In Europe the ideas won out over the culture, to the long term detriment of both. It remains to be seen which will win in America.

dilys said...

To the extent Bailie tracks Girard, the thesis is that any polis will systemically fall into the barbarism of one kind or another of human sacrifice as a defense against the "many pathologies" derived from primal envy. Certain cultural safeguards against this are worth preserving!

Trust in Providence for the welfare of individual and group is a rather neat antidote to envy, buttressed by lifestyles incorporating some degree of fortitude and temperance, and social organizations honoring, however tenuously, prudence and justice.

Knucklehead said...

To the extent that we are conservatives (or, for Bailie, Christians) are we out to conserve our culture or rather human values that transcend today's culture?

Unlike Flenser I think that is one heck of a good question. I don't see how it "assumes something called 'today's culture'".

While I agree with Flenser that culture endures over time it also changes over time. Cultures are by no means stagnant - stagnation in culture as in water breeds nasty things.

In a way that is intangibly similar to a loving embrace, culture gives us values which give us culture and, like a healthy marriage, those adapt over time to the changing world around us. I don't claim the timelines involved are the same - marriages must adapt within the timelines applicable to human lifetimes whereas the marriage of culture and values adapts over generations with, perhaps, three generations being the timeframe by which to judge real change/adaptation within cultures. Perhaps this is too long but I'm not entirely convinced that "my culture" is hugely different than my grandfather's culture regardless of the enormous differences in technology and daily life.

But onward to Mr. Bailie's address:

...As nature was crushing lives and hopes along the Gulf Coast, human nature, its fallen condition on conspicuous display, was slipping its leash and returning to forms of predation that culture exists to forefend, giving those sitting in safe, dry living rooms a rudimentary anthropological lesson in cultural fragility...

I have to disagree with here. First off, this seems as if it was designed with the false story of Katrina in mind. Yes, some people behaved about as badly as we could fear in our modern American society. But it wasn't all that many people and it wasn't as badly as we have seen others in other cultures behave recently.

Huge numbers of people behaved in manners that, in my opinion, we extraordinarily exemplary. Far more people than the number who behaved badly put their lives aside, and in some cases risked their lives, to help their fellow man and complete strangers.

I am not prone to spouting gospel (and cannot remember the last time I did so), but:

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." John 15:13

As an admitted unbeliever it seems to me that the love demonstrated by those who put aside (however temporarily), and perhaps risk, their lives for strangers they have chosen to regard as friends, is a darned close second to what John describes. This level of love was demonstrated in nearly countless cases wrt to Katrina and, for that matter, other natural disasters.

Which is all to say that I do not think human nature slipped its leash at all. I think human nature tied itself willingly to the yoke and set to work.

I would like to come back and further consider the words of Mr. Bailie. From what I have read (everything up to the "read the whole thing") he seems to me an intelligent man with his heart and intentions in the right place but who is making the wrong conclusions about humans (he may be on the right track re: "political and religious authorities").

Knucklehead said...

Flenser,

In Europe, the secular side of liberalism has won out over Christianity. The irony being that as a result Europe is likely to become Islamic over time.

I, a non-radical secularist, could not possibly agree with you more about that statement. I'm sitting here pondering it and it is spot on.

Above I mentioned John's words about the greatest measure of love and the measure of love that was brought to bear by Katrina and other disasters. I am often astonished and humbled to the point of tears witnessing the actions of people who demonstrate this level of love for their fellow man. I see it nearly daily - certainly regularly - from my fellow Americans. It is, in all honesty, all around me despite the seeming callousness of 21st century life.

I have not witnessed the same in Europe. They chose, rather than to put aside their lives upon occassion for the sake of their fellow man, to run a sort of low-grade fever. They'd rather pay high taxes over time than to be called upon to make extraordinary efforts. They don't want to be called upon as needed. They'd rather just give at the office each payday.

DISCLAIMER: Yes, I generalized. Many Americans behave as I have described Europeans and many Europeans behave as I have described Americans.

Which provokes a thought that just occured. Are there Frenchmen stepping forth and finding some way to "lay down their lives for their friends"? Are there members of the muslim community doing so? (and no, I don't mean by waging war or riot). If I were somehow forced to wager I'd wager that we'd sooner find a muslim making John proud in Paris than we would a "white" Frenchman. But that's just my own speculation and may well be born of ignorance and bigotry.

terrye said...

People always think there is something special about their time. As if hurricanes and war and poverty have not been visited upon man for most of his history.

Think the huge fleet of Kublai Khan. Four thousands ships vanished in a kamikaze, a sacred wind, as they sailed to Japan.

140,000 men lost their lives and our culture was oblivious.

I believe in God, I really do and I believe in the goodness of people...but I don't think that terms such as conservative really fit here.

I know right now there are a lot of conservatives I am not all that happy with myself.

I have always said extremes meet. Jesus Christ was not an extremist, nor was he considered conservative. But in his teachings are found the fundamentals for our own sense of justice and compassion.

In his time he was a radical.

mrp said...

Truepeers -

To the extent that we are conservatives (or, for Bailie, Christians) are we out to conserve our culture or rather human values that transcend today's culture?

Great question, but -

On what basis can any culture be 'conserved' within contemporary Western political establishments? The secular Left has invested two generations of political and intellectual capital promoting the theory of the "multi-cultural" society; a political fabrication that requires the members of a country to agree to a social contract of political, cultural, and moral relativism.

It is certainly not a coffee-house exercise - human rights legislation, hate-speech laws, international criminal courts, and their incorporation into the jurisprudence of several Western countries - have given the multicultural relativists enormous political clout.

But to what end?

The death knell of this latest man-made theory started with the rejection of the EU Constitution by France and the Netherlands - two charter members of the organization. The European political elite have STILL not recovered from that debacle. I don't have the statistics before me, but certainly the public polling in Europe has shown a steep drop in public approval of the governing class after the charter's overwhelming defeat.

Yet the EU elite fought and rebuffed Pope John Paul II's effort to include a reference to Europe's Christian heritage in the proposed EU Constitution. Nothing to conserve THERE, obviously, and why not? Are not the powers of Man, such as those capable of writing such a document, superior to the superstitious beliefs of Christian, Jews, and Muslims? And where is the EU Constitution now? And where are the Christians and the Jews? As for the Muslims, well, they've never been shy about making their presence felt.

So this summer there were meetings, of sorts, between the majore European religions. Pope Benedict XVI delivered addresses to Catholics, non-Catholic Christians, Jews (at the Cologne synagogue), and a Muslim assembly, all during the Catholic World Youth Day celebrations. A column by Sandro Magister offers a nice summation of the proceedings. After Cologne: The Remarkable Lesson of Professor Ratzinger

The important stuff for non-Catholics is about half-way down the piece.

Excerpt:

In concrete terms, he proposed that Christians and Muslims work together for the rights of the person, and for religious liberty, and for respect for minorities. But even before this he asked for "eliminating from hearts" the rancor, intolerance, and fanaticism upon which the terrorists feed.

Before this occasion in Cologne, no pope had ever been so explicit and hard-hitting in facing the question of terrorism on a personal level with representatives of the Islamic community.

Benedict XVI did not make any allowances for the phenomenon, and did not make reference to oppression and misery. He indicated that the use of the name of God on the behalf of terrorism, if anything, just makes it worse. He said that "those who instigate and plan these attacks evidently wish to poison our relations, making use of all means, including religion." He accused terrorism of "the very foundations of all civil society." He recalled the battles and wars that Christians and Muslims have fought "as if fighting and killing the enemy could be pleasing to God." And he immediately added that "The recollection of these sad events should fill us with shame, for we know only too well what atrocities have been committed in the name of religion. The lessons of the past must help us to avoid repeating the same mistakes."

truepeers said...

As to the broader point, any system which claims to be universal is bound to provoke strong opposition. That applies equally to Islam, Christianity, and liberalism, among other systems.

-yes this is correct. What we now have to find a way to do is less to argue for universal values as to live them. By showing, not telling, we raise less ire and can encourage others to do the same. What this means in the blogosphere, I think, is that we move away from polemical argument and towards the kind of centrism I mentioned in my previous thread: a spirit of open-endedness where our committment to the human system as a whole is shown to outweigh our partisanship or devotion to winning particular battles.

In Europe, the secular side of liberalism has won out over Christianity. The irony being that as a result Europe is likely to become Islamic over time.

I believe that Canada is in much the same condition as Europe, minus the large Muslim population at present.


-yes, I think Canada has lost its way somewhat though I rather expect that most Canadians are still much more confident about their nation than most Europeans. The economic indicators are certainly better. And some here are postively giddy about our "multiculturalism" and couldn't care less that it makes them look like they don't really believe in anything, or don't know how to articulate what they really believe. But people are still mostly decent, hard-working and law-abiding - if uncommitted, cautious and even nihilistic in some respects - and I don't think one can talk of an imminent collapse in our society, despite the low fertility and silly political correctness which we can still laugh at. Anyway, I don't think it is Islam that is coming in the wake of liberalism here. More like Confucianism, if anything foreign will replace us :-)

truepeers said...

Trust in Providence for the welfare of individual and group is a rather neat antidote to envy, buttressed by lifestyles incorporating some degree of fortitude and temperance, and social organizations honoring, however tenuously, prudence and justice.

-I could just be imagining this, Dilys, but in talking about putting faith in providence I think Bailie is moving somewhat away from the apocalpytic, time to love one another or die, attitude that is common to Girardian thought, as if if we don't radically re-envision ourselves at this point in history, we are going to kill ourselves off.

I think he is saying, let's more humbly put faith in our ability to survive - thanks to our culture which exists precisely to "forefend" violence - as have generations before us. We need faith that our crisis is not unprecedented, even as we face up to the spiritual crisis posed by postmodern nihilism.

truepeers said...

Knucklehead, Keep in mind that Bailie's comments were written in early September when the nightmare things were being said about New Orleans. Still today, I don't really know what went on but I'm sure that there were both the many noble acts of humanity you mention and some barbarism of the kind Bailie fears. In any case, I don't think determining the proper balance of virtue and vice in the Katrina aftermath will validate or negate Bailie's general idea one way or the other. The history of the last century showed us many instances of barbarism replacing civilization, and still it goes on today.

I think you are right that we are a lot more like our grandparents than we are sometimes led to believe by the cult of progress and change. I think for many in the west, the world changed much more profoundly in the nineteenth than the twentieth century.

truepeers said...

Terrye, I understand your desire not to confuse terms such as Christianity and conservatism and I regret that I worded my post in the way i did. And surely you are right that Jesus was a radical.

Where this leaves us today with many people's growing disaffection with the liberalism of the elites and the growing belief that conservatism, in some shape or stripe (though surely not eveyr shape), is the truly radical force of our times, a time that is seeing something of a religious revival, I'm not sure.

MRP,

I don't know if Europe will renew itself or slowly fade away. But so far I'm a fan of Benedict XVI's and I think that if Europe is to continue as anything like the civilization it has been the last thousand-odd years, it will have to go through some kind of revisiting of the Judeo-Christian and national traditions, and gain renewed respect and appreciation for what it there, even if this be understood in more secular than religous terms. In any case, they have to get beyond their present leftist elitist leadership soon, or they will collapse. Almost half of Germans seem to have gotten that idea; maybe times are changing.