The Eclipse of Everything (and How To Avoid It)

by
June 20, 2014

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger once said that we live in the “age of the world picture.” One of the things he meant was that the way we think about things has now become an external object of contemplation rather than being simply the way we actually think about things. We now not only think a certain way, we think about the fact that we think a certain way, and so we want to talk about it.

This is why we Christians write books and have conferences about “worldviews.” Whereas once we had a worldview, we now want to talk about the fact that we have one—and presumably that some other people have a different one. Who are the people who we expect to read these books and come to these conferences? If they are people who already think the way we think they should, then why do they need to come? And if they are people who do not already think this way, then why would they want to come?

What did we know before we knew we had a “worldview”? How did we think when we didn’t know how we thought?

In fact, our need to talk about the way we think is a sure sign that, in fact, we no longer think this way. The very reason we objectify the things that had formerly been subjective is to preserve them. We use the process of objectification as a sort of intellectual formaldehyde and put them on exhibit.

We talk about the “Christian worldview” not because we have it, but because we want to preserve it. And the reason we want to preserve it is because we worry that we don’t have it anymore.

This is also the case with the word “culture.” We have committed it to the museum—the Museum of the Mind—to be put on display with all the other things that are extinct or the survival of which has been put in question.

We talk about culture because we no longer have one.

The reason we no longer have a culture is because a common culture requires shared values and shared values presume a shared religion. This is why T.S. Eliot, in his essay “The Idea of a Christian Society,” said that religion and culture are two sides of the same coin. Not only is a one-sided physical coin impossible, so is a one-sided cultural coin. In traditional cultures there was never such a distinction. It is only in more recent centuries when such a distinction was even thought possible.

What we in America are now going through is what Europe went through in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For the “first time in Europe,” said A.N. Wilson, “a generation was coming to birth who had no God or no God of any substance, and who found it difficult to justify religion except in the most basic Utilitarian terms.”

When a culture is disconnected with its religious foundation, it has two courses open to it: It can try to maintain them without it, or it can abandon the values that were tied to its religion altogether.

The chief historical examplar of the former approach was the Victorians. England, like most European countries in the nineteenth century, was fast abandoning Christian belief. But unlike some continental European countries, it tried to preserve its Christian morality. This, as historian Gertrude Himmelfarb has pointed out, was the great Victorian experiment.

The chief examplar of the opposite view—that without the religion go the values, was Friedrich Nietzsche. While Himmelfarb admires the Victorians for their cultural pluck, Nietzsche despised them for not taking their intellectual beliefs to their logical conclusion.

By the expression “death of God,” Nietzsche meant simply the cultural death of Christianity in the West. Christianity, he rightly pointed out, had lost its power as a societal force—it no longer exercised the unchallenged influence it once did over the minds of Western man. The Victorians, he believed, had seen this too, but they were acting as if God was still culturally alive. Nietzsche had little but contempt for this. He used the word “Englishman” as a pejorative for anyone who tried to preserve Christian morality without the explicit Christian belief that supported it.

In his book The Gay Science, Nietzsche spoke of a cave in the East in which, for many years after the death of Buddha, one could still see his shadow: “God is dead,” he said, “but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow may be cast—and we—we must vanquish even his shadow.” The shadow of Christianity was cast over the culture long after it had itself ceased to be believed—a shadow the “Englishman” clings to and Nietzsche reviles.

Nietzsche and many later existentialists were wrong in their belief that God did not exist. But they were right in thinking that if he did not, then morality (as well as every other cultural belief) were no longer rationally or culturally tenable. Nietzsche was impatient with the length of time it took for shadow to abate. In places like France, this realization came more quickly, in England, much later. This process of secularization has taken longest in America, a nation, as G.K. Chesterton was still able to say in the early twentieth century, “with the soul of a church.”

It is hard to identify exact dates for this cultural change, but the tipping point in British culture—the point at which its morality caught up with its religious disbelief—seems to have been about the end of the first decade of the twentieth century. Virginia Woolf famously (and somewhat recklessly) set a date: “on or about December, 1910,” she declared, “human character changed.”

At some recent point, probably not determinable, America reached its December 1910. Our culture has caught up with our lack of faith. The loss of religious influence—and the decline in morality—is now not just palpable, but pronounced. The acceleration of this change over just the last five to ten years is astounding. This is particularly the case with issues involving marriage and sex, always the first aspects of conventional morality to suffer from secularization. We now have a President elected from a party whose convention featured the advocacy of same-sex marriage, a position the mere mention of which would have been politically poisonous only four years before. The United States Senate, at the end of 2013, passed a gay rights bill by a comfortable margin that would have had a hard time finding many votes at all ten years ago. And then there is almost a complete collapse in decency standards on television and other media.

Culture is no longer on our side.

Although happening at different times the process of secularization and consequent “de-moralization” of society (Himmelfarb’s expression) in both Europe and America followed the same pattern. It started among the intellectual classes and filtered down to the general public. It has never been a big secret that cultural elites tend to be more permissive in their moral views than the masses. The common man, Chesterton argued with some plausibility, has always been the great bulwark against moral corruption.

In America, the problem of the divergence in worldviews between the cultural elite and the general public has long been an acknowledged fact. Even before the Williamsburg Charter Survey confirmed the societal fissure in 1987, Peter Burger had already observed that America was a “nation of Indians ruled by Swedes”: conservative and religious at the bottom and liberal and secular at the top. This is significant because the values of the upper classes have always had a prescriptive force, which is why culture, as the ancients said of fish, rots from the head first.

In different societies, these cultural elites have been differently constituted. In nineteenth-century continental Europe, with religion on the wane, it became the philosophers who were imparted intellectual and moral values. In England, it was the literary elite who were the cultural rock stars. What was once dictated by a royal court was, in nineteenth-century Germany, produced at the University of Heidelberg or Jena—and Tubingen, from which the “higher criticism” of the Bible was worked out. In England, after the turn of the twentieth century, it was the Bloomsbury Group (of which Virginia Woolf was a prominent member), made up of poets, playwrights, novelists and essayists.

With the exception of John Dewey, America’s philosophers never had the cultural influence of its novelists. Josiah Royce and C.S. Pierce were not unimportant, but they were eclipsed culturally by Hemingway and Faulkner. And philosopher William James never achieved the influence of his novelist brother Henry.

But in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century the writer and the novelist has fast given way to the celebrity, a person, as Daniel Boorstin put it, who is “famous for being famous.” In America, the rock stars are, … well, rock stars. We are now less likely to pay attention to what some academic philosopher or literary figure might have said in a treatise or a novel (indeed, it’s hard to even think of the name of a prominent American contemporary philosopher) than to what Bruce Springsteen or Bono might have said to Piers Morgan in an evening interview on television.

And if the celebrity is a celebrity psychologist, all the better. Dr. Phil now occupies the cultural place once inhabited by Fulton Sheen and Billy Graham.

Elite intellectual classes have always dictated intellectual and moral fashion, and traditionally this has been a good thing: they promoted values that were good, and these values were universally shared. In fact, when we use the word “culture,” we almost always mean the culture of an elite. Greek culture was not only the product of Athens, but enjoyed almost exclusively by Athenians. And Roman culture was the culture of Rome. In fact, when we speak of culture, we almost always refer to a city: Athens, Rome, Alexandria, Vienna, Paris. In America, it would once have been New York. Today, it is Hollywood, which dictates our morality more effectively than any college of cardinals ever did.

In previous times, if someone did not participate in the kind of high culture centered in the city, they participated in some kind of folk culture. But such folk cultures—less explicitly articulated, less universal, less institutionalized, and, unlike high cultures, more dependent for their existence on geographical isolation—are fast disappearing along with the local and regional communities that sustained them.

Beginning in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the influence of the intellectual elites turned mischievous. In what has been referred to as the “treason of the clerks,” the intellectual class began to abandon the traditional conceptions of the good, the true and the beautiful of which it had traditionally been the champion. Both high culture and Folk culture have been replaced by popular culture, creating a kind of low monoculture, egalitarian and relativistic in nature and impatient of the traditional values that characterized all prior cultures.

All this is not to say that those who dictated culture were always themselves good—only that, whatever their actual practice, they acknowledged the good. According to Julien Benda, “Humanity did evil for two thousand years, but honored good. This contradiction was an honor to the human species, and formed the rift whereby civilization slipped into the world.”

It is tempting to say that this was simply a hypocrisy we no longer need, but we should think about this long and hard. We need to ask ourselves whether a culture without hypocrisy is better or worse than what is even now replacing it. Hypocrisy has been the universally acknowledged sin only because there was always a standard someone could uphold while he violated it. But we are now entering a world in which, particularly on matters of sexual morality, hypocrisy is no longer even possible because there are no shared values that we can be hypocritical about.

The high values we all once shared are no longer common to the Church and to the wider culture. The first problem this causes is simply that it is harder to be moral. In Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel Shadows on the Hudson, about Jewish refugees in New York in the years after World War II, the protagonist, Hertz Grein, finds himself in the home of a friend with whose wife Grein is having an affair, unbeknownst to his friend. While the wife is in the kitchen preparing coffee, their conversation turns, ironically, to adultery. “Today,” says Grein, who is wrestling with sin, “man can do everything but make up his mind.”

“What do you mean by that?” asks his friend Luria. “You’re speaking in riddles.”

“I’ll give you an example,” says Grein. “Our fathers and grandfathers knew that it was forbidden to lust after another man’s wife, so they didn’t lust. If they did they smother the desire in themselves, never admitted it, never let their bodies get the best of them, and lust gradually wore off. Modern man can be given every demonstration that he’s forbidden to do something, and he’ll still do it. I know this from my own life.”

Luria thinks he has the answer: “Well, that’s a very fine example,” he says. “But it’s simply because our parents had faith and we do not.”

“Faith alone,” argues Grein, “does not enable a person to make up his mind.”

“What else does one need?”

“Organization. Just as patriotism is not enough to win a world war, so faith is not enough to win the war with oneself. One needs strategies and tactics, all the generalship of war. Our fathers and grandfathers did not fight alone. They had an army. They had fortresses, trenches, commanders and subordinate officers. They had uniforms.”

In other words, it is hard to be moral without a whole network of outside support. Just ask anyone who has sent their son or daughter off to a secular college—or for that matter, many ostensibly Christian colleges.

But the problem of being moral is subordinate to another problem. The fact is that, however much those who formed the high culture fell short of honoring it themselves, they at least acknowledged the values they fell short of. And this is the chief difference between our modern culture and past cultures—the chief characteristic of the new monoculture: We not only violate moral standards, we deny that there are moral standards to violate.

There are many who would argue that there is no more sin today than there was one, two or three hundred years ago. This may be true, but it is beside the point. The point is not that people acted differently than they do now; the point is that they believed differently than they do now. As religious sociologist Will Herberg observed a generation ago about the moral crisis of our time:

… consists primarily not in the widespread violation of accepted moral standards, … but in the repudiation of those very moral standards themselves. And this, indeed, is our time’s challenge to morality; not so much the all-too-frequent breakdown of a moral code, but the fact that today there seems to be no moral code to break down.

… To violate moral standards while at the same time acknowledging their authority is one thing; to lose all sense of the moral claim, to repudiate all moral authority and every moral standard as such, is something far more serious. It is this loss of the moral sense, I would suggest to you, that constitutes the real challenge to morality in our time.

Given that our culture has undergone a fundamental transformation, what do we do about it? The approach Christians have taken in the past to the problem of the loss of moral sensibility is to do everything they could to make everyone—themselves and others—more moral. This might have worked when there really was a moral majority, but it will not work in a culture in which the majority doesn’t share the same morality. It is trying to bring back Buddha’s shadow.

Again, the primary problem with our culture is not that too few people are moral, but that too few people agree on what morality consists of.

For Singer’s protagonist Grein, the answer is to join an Israeli commune, where he grows a beard and sidelocks, wears the girdle during prayers and the fringed ritual undergarment. “Whoever wants to serve God must wear God’s insignia,” he asserts. But this is the path of isolation. It is the path of the Amish, who have the benefit of having taken steps to preserve their culture at a time when they still had one.

On the other hand, there is the path of participation and engagement: Refusing to isolate ourselves and try, in some sense, to be salt and light to the culture. And yet how does a Christian in good conscience participate in a culture that has metastasized in so many ways into something evil?

I suspect the answer is somewhere between these two extremes. One does not have to completely drop out of culture in order to resist its temptations. But to do this requires the formation of some kind of subculture that does not isolate one from the larger culture, but creates a cultural space within which the religious values one holds are able to be believed and practiced, as well as transmitted to the next generation.

I will give just one example of how this is already being done. There are certainly more.

My wife and I homeschooled our four children. And when we did it, we participated in the community of Christian homeschoolers in our area, which is part of a larger movement nationally. After having observed the homeschooling movement over a number of years, both locally and nationally, it has become very clear to me that what has been created is not just a movement of individual families educating their children. What has been developed is a subculture. It isn’t perfect by any means, but it does serve the purpose of preserving and transmitting Christian values in a way even many modern churches have a hard time doing. And it is growing dramatically.

It doesn’t isolate you from the culture around you, but it does create enough culture space within which healthy cultural values can be maintained. It gives you, in Singer’s terms, a uniform to wear without joining a commune.

I have seen this in my own family. Of my four homeschooled children, two (both boys) have married in the last several years, both to young girls who were themselves homeschooled. Their addition to our family has preserved and strengthened the culture of our family because those who have come into it share the same values, and those values will be handed on to our grandchildren.

We want to think that, because the problem of the decline in culture and the disintegration of shared values is a big problem, it must require a big solution. We want to treat our cultural malady with policy prescriptions and new laws. But this is not the way in which cultural change happens. It doesn’t happen through politics: It happens instead through the smaller cultural institutions out of which our culture is made up. Sometimes big problems don’t require big solutions, they require small solutions. Lots of them. Edmund Burke spoke of the “little platoons”: “To love the little platoon we belong to in society,” he said, “is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country and to mankind.”

This is done by families and by the networks of relations between families. Alan Paton, in his book Cry, the Beloved Country, speaks of the three things that had corrupted South African society, and they are the three things that corrupt any society: the “sickness of the land,” the “broken tribe,” and the “broken house.” The first of these is the least familiar to us. In South Africa it was the abuse and consequent barrenness of farmland, destroyed through lack of care. Writers such as Wendell Berry have written here in America of the cultural consequences of the despoliation of our environment. But the broken tribe and the broken house are terms we should understand. The decline of the family is reaching crisis proportions. And in our lust for individuality, we have let lapse the local institutions and voluntary associations that once constituted the local loyalties that wed our culture together. With an entertainment culture at odds with our values and without these little loyalties to transmit what values we still have in our churches and families, there can be little progress. Even if we had them, the ill health of these institutions would prevent us from passing them on.

With the help of our churches, we need to establish these little platoons once again.


Martin Cothran
Martin Cothran is the editor of Classical Teacher magazine and is the author of Traditional Logic, Books I & II and several other textbooks on logic and classical rhetoric. He also serves as senior policy analyst with the Family Foundation of Kentucky.