As we have discussed on this blog before, the Western World seems to have embarked on a (failed) experiment, testing whether a culture can exist without a shared cultus. That, is to say whether a true and unifying vision that we call culture can really exist at all without something above and beyond it, which unifies it and to which it must answer.
Unfortunately the word “cult” has strongly negative connotations in English, referring to extremist forms of religious association. But the Latin word cultus refers to devotion and/or religious adoration to God or to a body of religious beliefs and vision. As such, it serves as the basis for culture and makes up the very heart of that word.
In America, and to some extent parts Europe, the cultus did not have to be so specific that it admitted only of a strict sectarian quality. It was enough that we had a basic agreement on the biblical vision of God and a general assent to what has been called the Judeo-Christian vision.
But having largely shed this premise, our culture has broken down into a series of increasingly isolated and warring sectors which have no real basis even for simple discussion, let alone some significant agreement.
In fact, many now refer to our culture as an “anti-culture” given the iconclastic shredding of most of what was once considered sacred and inviolable. Almost nothing in our “culture” has withstood the efforts of those who recklessly tear down and exultantly destroy any vestige of anything they consider to limit their freedom or raise doubts about their behavior. In a way, to the cultural iconoclasts, everything must go. And while it is true that individuals may possess this iconoclasm to a greater or lesser degree, collectively, the devastation is vast, and shows no signs of stopping.
I would like to comments on excerpts of an article recently published over at the American Conservative by Rod Dreher entitled: Sex After Christianity. In that article he details some of demise of culture that we have discussed here as well. He focuses especially on how and why the recasting of sex has been the pulling of the linchpin in culture. And while he focuses on the issue of same sex unions and how we have gotten here, since we have discussed that issue a lot already, I will here excerpt the sections of his article on the wider question of culture. But I do encourage you to read the whole article as it sheds a lot of light on the bizarre celebration of same-sex attraction in our culture and where it has come from and where it will lead.
As is the usual case I will present Mr Dreher’s remarks in bold, italic print, and my remarks in plain red text.
Is sex the linchpin of Christian cultural order? Is it really the case that to cast off Christian teaching on sex and sexuality is to remove the factor that gives—or gave—Christianity its power as a social force?
The term linchpin refers to a pin inserted through the end of an axle to keep the wheel on. By extension it is something that holds the various elements of a complicated structure together. Sex, of course, is not the only element in a culture, but it is surely critical since it serves not only the future of any community or nation, but also rests at the heart of social order and the proper rearing and raising of the next generation.
Those who like to argue that “sex is no big deal” are simply living is a magical fantasy world. Of course sex is important, and getting it right is critical to the success of any culture. It also makes sense that if you want to quickly destroy a culture that distorting this mysterious and powerful force is a quick way to wreak havoc and bring down institutions. Properly understood and exercised in well ordered way, sex is a kind of glue that holds things together, that is meant to walk in harmony with love, loyalty, family ties, and the procreation that reaches into the future. Pull this linchpin and the wheels come off quickly. Welcome to decaying West.
Philip Rieff , author of the landmark 1966 book The Triumph Of the Therapeutic was an unbeliever, but he understood that religion is the key to understanding any culture. For Rieff, the essence of any and every culture can be identified by what it forbids. Each imposes a series of moral demands on its members, for the sake of serving communal purposes, and helps them cope with these demands. A culture requires a cultus—a sense of sacred order, a cosmology that roots these moral demands within a metaphysical framework….
Exactly. And note too how “moral demands” and the forbidding of certain things exist for the purpose of serving communal ends. The rather childish and prideful rejection of limits and the “nobody will tell me what to do or judge me” mentality does not stop to consider that limits are necessary for the true exercise of freedom. Absolute freedom is anarchy and chaos. But constructive freedom exists only within a range and with certain limits in place. I am free to communicate only if I and we observe the limits of grammar. I am free to drive only if we all accept the rules of the road.
Hence to “forbid” and to speak of moral limits or demands, while politically incorrect today, are necessary for there to be a culture. And, given the need for a culture to have a cultus, Christianity has had that role in our culture. Now, being kicked to the curb, there is little to fill the place left by the Christian vision. Things break down, power struggles ensue, litigious court battles become the daily fare.
The radical individualism of the West, and the generally selfish and egotistical mindset of many Moderns, has little time or appreciation for “communal purposes.” And to the degree we talk about this at all, it is in the boiler-plate socialist jargon of the “collective” rather than the communal. Socialist thinking transfers moral responsibility to the State and away from the individual. As such is it paradoxically individualistic as well, at least in its decadent Western expression. But I digress.
[R]enouncing the sexual autonomy and sensuality of pagan culture was at the core of Christian culture—a culture that, crucially, did not merely renounce but redirected the erotic instinct…. Indeed, “sexual autonomy” is a kind of oxymoron. For, of its nature sex orients one to the other and to the third, since it is procreative. Of its very nature sex is about the other, and the third, indeed, the whole community since it is about the future of the community, Church and nation.
It is nearly impossible for contemporary Americans to grasp why sex was a central concern of early Christianity. Sarah Ruden, the Yale-trained classics translator, explains the culture into which Christianity appeared in her 2010 book Paul Among The People. Ruden contends that it’s profoundly ignorant to think of the Apostle Paul as a dour proto-Puritan descending upon happy-go-lucky pagan hippies, ordering them to stop having fun. In fact, Paul’s teachings on sexual purity and marriage were adopted as liberating in the pornographic, sexually exploitative Greco-Roman culture of the time—exploitative especially of slaves and women….Christianity, as articulated by Paul, worked a cultural revolution, restraining and channeling male eros, elevating the status of both women and of the human body, and infusing marriage—and marital sexuality—with love.
And excellent analysis here. Too often we Christians have simply allowed ourselves to be defined in terms of what we are against, rather than to insist that if we are “against” something it is for a greater good. In this case, the sexual ethic of Christianity exists to preserve the dignity of women, of the family, of marriage, of children, of the human body, and even of sex itself. We are FOR these things, not merely, in some puritanical sense, against sex.
Without these limits sex is too easily about exploitation and ends up being imposed by the powerful rather than in a mutual self-giving rooted in promise of stable, fruitful and faithful commitment we call Holy Matrimony. Without such loyalty and respect there can be little basis for social order, let alone culture.
Christianity encountered the Greco-Roman world that was breaking down on account of the violation of these insights. It took the rearticulation of these insights to refashion and restore the culture of the ancient world.
The point is not that Christianity was only, or primarily, about redefining and revaluing sexuality, but that within a Christian anthropology sex takes on a new and different meaning…In Christianity, what people do with their sexuality cannot be separated from what the human person is….[This] established a way to harness the sexual instinct, embed it within a community, and direct it in positive ways….what culture must do [is] restrain individual passions and channel them creatively toward communal purposes. Excellent. George Gilder makes a similar point in his book Men and Marriage
[But], in the modern era, we have inverted the role of culture. Instead of teaching us what we must deprive ourselves of to be civilized, we have a society that tells us we find meaning and purpose in releasing ourselves from the old prohibitions. Usher in the iconoclasm of the West!
How this came to be is a complicated story….[but] gradually the West lost the sense that Christianity had much to do with civilizational order…. In the 20th century, casting off restrictive Christian ideals about sexuality became increasingly identified with health. By the 1960s, the conviction that sexual expression was healthy and good—the more of it, the better—and that sexual desire was intrinsic to one’s personal identity culminated in the sexual revolution, the animating spirit of which held that freedom and authenticity were to be found not in sexual withholding (the Christian view) but in sexual expression and assertion. That is how the modern American claims his freedom.
Yes, what a strange assertion of “health.” I have often heard Catholic teaching on sexuality referred to as “unhealthy” as repressive etc.
But it is so strange that such a sick culture speaks of my “health.” And I mean literal health. What the “healthy” sexual expression of the libertines ushers in is and explosion of STDs, AIDS, herpes, sterility, women on heavy doses of hormones, not to mention the outright death of children dismembered by abortion. And then there is the “unhealth” of broken families, higher divorce rates, single motherhood, teenage moms, addictive pornography, and all the social ills that explode on the scene through broken and malformed families.
Hmm…And I am ‘repressed’ and unhealthy? But try to raise this with a libertine and be prepared for either a blank stare or a diversionary tactic such as pointing to the sins of some clergy etc.
…Because it denies the possibility of communal knowledge of binding truths transcending the individual, the revolution cannot establish a stable social order.
Exactly my own point above and before on this blog. There can be no culture without the cultus that transcends the community and has a binding power. Without this, there “cannot” establish a culture, cannot establish a stable social order. Something from above and outside must order and focus a culture, and something we call God.
Our post-Christian culture, then, is an “anti-culture.”….The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling.
Yes, because it is iconoclastic, “culture” is actually an “anti-culture.” Note finally too our part in all this. We have failed to communicate our ideals in ways that are inwardly compelling. Hence the new evangelization, the need to repropose the gospel in new and more compelling ways.
Rod Dreher blogs at www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher.
Please take time to read the whole article, it is well worth the time: Sex After Christianity.