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.
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