Sandra Bullock, in some desperation, uttered the complaint that “no one taught me how to pray” as she faced what looked like certain death in the film Gravity. Did she symbolize the present state of helplessness and hopelessness of Western civilization? But she did pray, and in doing that did she also show that in some way, when the human soul is confronted with what looks like the last space station, it can still be redeemed by the still small voice and what it whispers to it?
Arnold J. Toynbee once wrote that “Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.” Toynbee is not currently the highly thought of historian that he once was but there is no doubt but that his ideas, ideas on the grand scale, can still remind us of some things we might prefer to forget. Civilizations do die.
Equally, cyclical theories of history are taken less seriously now than they once were. Nevertheless, they also often can have an ominous ring of truth about them. The phenomenal changes which the world has seen in material progress over the past half century – and indeed social progress, by some measures at least, – have tended to lull the popular imagination into accepting something like a false sense of the inevitability of progress and a feeling that the job of history is simply to record that progress.
Some historians, perhaps a good few, still take a more open-ended view of history. But, like the economists who were wise enough – there were a few – to see the path of folly which lead to this century’s economic turmoil, we might wonder who is listening to them? There are still, fortunately, some social commentators who remind us of the all-important relationship between cause and effect, that ideas have consequences, and that mankind can regress as well as progress.
Ferdinand Mount wrote a very sobering book a few years ago. He called it Full Circle and its central thesis was that something has happened to Western civilization which modern man finds very hard to accept – that our glorious, seemingly all-conquering Western civilization, in its flight from its Christian roots, may not actually be progressing but may in fact be regressing to its pre-Christian state. However, the idea of progress has now got such grip of the popular imagination that the modern mind refuses to acknowledge it.
This is blindness, a culpable and dangerous blindness which will lead to the death by suicide of what we call Western civilization. Mount’s Full Circle is a description of a process at work in which our society is heading back to where we started. To him it seems clear that the era in which we now find ourselves is one in which we foolishly clap ourselves on the back for being modern and liberated while we are in fact blindly stumbling back to square one. He does not predict that it is going to end in our civilization’s suicide but it should be more than clear that we are in terminal decline and are headed for our inevitable fall, destroyed by our own navel-gazing excesses, just as surely as the old classical world was some 1500 years ago.
We pride ourselves in the Pax Americana which is now filtering out around the world. Yes, the world is now a more peaceful place than it has ever been. News media will always report wars and rumours of war so it may not always appear that most of us are at peace with each other more than at any time in recorded history. But don’t be deceived by this ‘peace’. The Pax Americana is no better an indicator of the health of our civilization than the Pax Romana was. The Pax Romana was in fact the calm before the storm in which the Roman Empire crumbled under the weight of its own decadence.
Mount presents us with a catalogue of the decadence of the present age, too lurid in some of its detail even to recount. It is remarkable how accurately it mirrors what went on in ancient Rome at the height of what seemed to be its imperial achievement of pacifying the world. Mount connects the dots for us. In our own ultra-modern preoccupations with health, the body beautiful, the body animal, the culinary arts, nature, fame and celebrity, the revolt against God and more, he sees parallels with the Roman baths, the circus, the Dionysian cults and the lip-service to the old gods whom no one believed in anymore.
The blindness we suffer from has been induced by the myth of progress. Mount at one point puts it like this:
“We are now hard-wired to expect history to deliver progress, jerky, flawed progress marred by horrors usually of our own making, but progress nonetheless. We look back primarily in order to see how far we have moved on. And one central element in that ever-growing sense of self-confidence was the gradual exclusion of religion from the picture. Man has wriggled free of the divine plan.” We no longer see ourselves, he says, as the creation of the mind of God but the product of natural development.
But as he sees it, we are, all the time, retracing our steps. Mount concludes his odyssey on an ambiguous note. He discusses Cicero’s reflections on the likely fate of Rome and the famous dream of Scipio in De Re Publica. Vision, Cicero held, and the need for vision is central to the preservation of civilization. Mount observes that “we have adopted some high principles from Athens and Rome: tolerance and civility and equality and democracy. And we have picked up some agreeable habits. But we seem to have mislaid Scipio’s dream. And the search parties are still out there looking for it.”
That is about as far as he seems to want to take it.
The fact is that the Romans lost it, and lost it in the same way in which we have lost it. When the worship of man – and all the self indulgence which follows on its heels – takes centre stage, civilization, as Solzhenitsyn reminded us in his famous Nobel address, is on a short road to ruin by its own collective wilful decision. In a word, by suicide.
We may be witnessing the end of what we have called Western Civilization. But we would be wrong to think that this means the end of all civilization. The heart of our civilization may have been torn from its body but its soul is immortal. That soul is Christianity.
Christian civilization is not co-terminus with Western civilization. The civilization we have know in the West for a millennium and a half has been Christian in character. It will cease to be what history has known it as for those 1500 plus years when it ceases to be Christian. But Christian civilization itself will not cease to be – not so long as its values, way of life, live on in the millions throughout the world who bond together in it. As Mount suggests, from the vantage point of the end of this civilization, and as Cicero did from the vantage point of his decaying world, the abandonment of God, religion and the vision of the transcendent is the fatal flaw.
However, against the relentless assaults of the civilization-without-god brigades which have been decade by decade transplanting a materialist heart into our civilization we have to consider the following. In a 2005 issue of The New Criterion, David Bentley Hart, author and Eastern Orthodox theologian teaching in Providence College, Rhode Island, took issue with the pessimism of the English writer, A. N. Wilson. Wilson’s view was that we are now living in the waning days of the Christian religion. “Here we are”, writes Bentley Hart, “living in an age when Christianity is spreading more rapidly and more widely than at any point in the two millennia of its history – throughout the global South and East – and yet, because the Church languishes in the sterile cultures of a small geological apophasis (with a few appertinent isles) at the western edge of continental Asia, Wilson concludes that the faith is in its death throes.”
The reality is that Christian civilization is in robust health. Furthermore is is fully alert to the slings and arrows which are being thrown at it and has within itself all the resources needed to counter the assault on a global scale, the scale on which we now live daily. A few centuries ago Christian civilization was much more dependent on its Western base than it is today. With the waning of the West, with its lemming-like pursuit of extinction – look only at what the culture of death and selfishness which is endemic in the West is now storing up for it on the demographic front – Christian culture will eventually reassert itself from those territories and those populations which have not lost the vision of the transcendental.
These words from the leader of the world’s Catholics speak to all Christians and all men and women who are prepared to raise their eyes above the merely material. They alert us to danger but they also point to a bright future:
“The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.”
“Sometimes we are tempted to find excuses and complain, acting as if we could only be happy if a thousand conditions were met. To some extent this is because our “technological society has succeeded in multiplying occasions of pleasure, yet has found it very difficult to engender joy” [Pope Paul VI]. I can say that the most beautiful and natural expressions of joy which I have seen in my life were in poor people who had little to hold on to.”
These words come from the Catholic Church’s exhortation to all Christians to get out there and save our civilization by simply telling the truth about man – which Christian believe only they have in its fullness. They reminds us that we become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being. Christians, the Pope tells us, cannot but do this. “For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?”
“Goodness always”, he goes on to explain, ”tends to spread. Every authentic experience of truth and goodness seeks by its very nature to grow within us, and any person who has experienced a profound liberation becomes more sensitive to the needs of others. As it expands, goodness takes root and develops. If we wish to lead a dignified and fulfilling life, we have to reach out to others and seek their good.”
This is the force which drove the same embryonic civilization to pick up the pieces of the failed pagan civilization of ancient Greece and Rome after it abandoned “Scipio’s dream”, a dream so powerful that one thinks Cicero would have become a Christian had he had to opportunity to receive the grace to do so. The first Christians did so and gave the world a relatively glorious for 1500 years.
From the time of King David – and who knows how long before – the adherents of the Judaic-Christian faith have been contemplating these words and seeing their palpable truth lived out from generation to generation:
His kingdom is a kingdom of all ages, and all kings shall serve and obey him.
Why this tumult among nations, among peoples this useless murmuring?
They arise, the kings of the earth, princes plot against the Lord and his Anointed.
“Come, let us break their fetters, come let us cast off their yoke.”
“Ask and I shall bequeath you the nations, put the ends of the earth in your possession.”
Who would be foolish enough to say that they will cease seeing it now? There may be limits to the cyclical theory of history, but don’t look for them in this quarter.