Permit me a few rambling thoughts on the situation we now face.
Christians hope; it’s a theological virtue. But we hope for the final fulfillment of events that took place millennia ago. Notwithstanding the radical newness of the New Testament, its novelty was recognizable only in light of the history of the people as recounted in the Jewish scriptures. Paradoxically, without this prehistory, the incomparable newness of Christianity would not have come fully to light. Indeed, it was misunderstood by the second century Marcionites. They declared that Christianity was so utterly new that it required the renunciation of all that prepared for it and made it recognizable once it arrived. In other words, Marcion and his followers failed to assess the breathtaking originality of Christianity precisely because they rejected the tradition that made this recognition possible.
This same paradox of originality and tradition would distinguish Christianity in its march through history. Christianity, in the famous formulation by Saint Augustine, is “ever-ancient and ever-new.” In fact, the newness of the Christian revelation becomes ever more apparent as its ancient prefigurations and anticipations become more recognizable. As Hans Urs von Balthasar has written: “The drama that begins with Christ and attains its culmination in him is continually showing us more of its prehistory.”
In the nineteenth century, Saint John Henry Newman celebrated Christianity’s disciplined capacity to develop and enrich the ancient deposit of faith precisely by holding firmly to its patristic formulations while remaining open to a deeper understanding of their breadth and depth. In other words, the dew of discovery adheres to the central doctrines of Christian faith without threatening their constancy and irrefutability. These truths survive, not because of their rigidity, but because of their inexhaustibility.
Ours, alas, is a Marcionite world. On our watch, all traditional forms have been under attack for offending the moral sensibilities of college sophomores, their tenured professors, and cable news talking heads. Recently, a number of Hollywood celebrities collectively serenaded their Twitter followers with the lyrics of John Lennon’s post-national, post-religious anthem:
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace.
And imagine that a pandemic comes along.
As juvenile as are the lyrics of the John Lennon song, its lingering popularity among the most privileged members of our society confirms Thomas Sowell’s warning about the tragedy in store for those who replace what works with what sounds good. As Cardinal Robert Sarah has pointed out: “A society that rejects the past cuts itself off from its future is a dead society, a society with no memory, a society carried off by Alzheimer’s disease.”
The coronavirus pandemic is as heartbreaking as it is likely to be world-altering. Just what that world-alteration will look like remains to be seen. The scope of the tragedy does not permit one to speak of silver linings, of course, but if the survivors of the pandemic are sufficiently sobered by it, some of the strange ideas that have found favor in Western cultures in the last few decades may finally be recognized as anthropologically preposterous. Such ideas could only find a receptive audience among those not seriously facing more perennial challenges of life.
The time may be at hand for re-adjudicating many of the anthropological experiments of the last several decades: the attack on the traditional family, the moral acceptability of killing two thousand unborn children each day in this country alone, the mocking of national sovereignty and the healthy forms of patriotism, the idea that biological reality is subject to the will or the whim of the individual, and so on. In the face of a pandemic, the moral shallowness, cultural perils, and shameless self-indulgence of these fashionable experiments may finally be more widely recognized.
Cardinal Sarah is a theologian, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, but he understands basic cultural principles:
The abolition of ancestral boundaries hushes up the identity of the old nations. The roots, the millennial culture, and history of a country no longer matter. Commerce and free trade are the only valid norms. It is not surprising that the populaces rebel against this attempt to erase their own identity, their history, their language, and their specificity.
The distinguished French philosopher, Rémi Brague reminds us that “a deliberate break with the past brings about a loss of civilization and is the harbinger of some form of barbarism.” The American historian, Wilford McClay, concurs:
“Citizenship” means a vivid and enduring sense of one’s full membership in one of the greatest enterprises in human history: the astonishing, perilous, and immensely consequential story of one’s own country. Today, we must redouble our efforts to make that past our own, and then be about the business of passing it on.
The future, writes Stanford professor Robert Harrison, “is born of the past and the past reborn from out of the future, thanks to a mysterious process of transmission.” And those who fail to understand this, those who soar on what they fancy to be the wings of a dove, will sooner or later find themselves perched atop a gargoyle frozen in time. Harrison writes that “when the new does not renew – when it does not rejuvenate latent legacies – it gets old in a hurry.” By comparison, modernity took its time getting old, while its once promising successor, postmodernity, has gotten old in a hurry. This will become the more apparent as the coronavirus pandemic awakens a realism that has lately been suffocated by the fashionable fads emanating from our educational, entertainment, and journalistic establishments. Harrison sums the matter up well:
A nation can build for the future, invest in the future, and undertake industrial, social, or technological projects for the future, yet if it does not find ways to metabolize its past, it remains without genuine prospects. That means that its youth remains largely stagnant, culturally speaking. The greatness of Western civilization, for all its disfiguring vices, consists in the fact that it has repeatedly found ways to regenerate itself by returning to, or fetching from, its nascent sources. The creative synergy between Western wisdom and Western genius has always taken the form of projective retrieval – of birthing the new from the womb of antecedence.
We pray that you and your loved ones survive the pandemic now causing so much death and destruction. As the crisis passes, we can hope that it leaves behind a more sober and responsible populace, more eager than ever to get about the perennial task of passing on a culture steeped in the theological, moral, and anthropological realism of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
On behalf of Randy Coleman-Riese and myself, I want to thank you for being part of our extended community, and especially for your prayers and support, which sustain us materially and spiritually.