The Frankfort School and Critical Theory . . .

Max Horkheimer was a German philosopher and sociologist and leader of the famous Frankfort School where Critical Theory was born. Since the West is now awash in the residue of that toxic brew, we are indebted to Bradley A. Thayer for providing a quick sketch of its impact on the matter at hand:
“Horkheimer…wanted to discover why [the proletariat in the West] were not behaving as Marxist thought required. The answer was the bourgeois family.…In particular, the role of the father and his authority needed to be undermined. This was necessary because of the indispensable education for authority that occurred in the patriarchal family. The family, as the “germ cell” of bourgeois culture, had to be undermined, destroyed, and reconstituted.…Accordingly, the family and civil society must be targeted, weakened, and transformed into a progressive force or else their traditional roles must be eliminated.”
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Self-proclaimed eccentrics …

The Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko points out an irony that can hardly be lost on anyone seriously observing contemporary affairs:
“Once eccentricity became the fashion or the norm, it unleashed a wave of collectivism, not creativity. Throngs of self-proclaimed eccentrics shouting the same slogans against every form of real or imagined ancient régimes have always made a rather depressing spectacle of human conformity.”
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Social Agitation and Spiritual Upheavals

Writing of the cultural and spiritual situation at the beginning of the last century, Henri de Lubac has aptly captured our present situation:
“In the misleading calm that marked the last years of the liberal period, before the era of catastrophes, of social agitation and spiritual upheavals opened by the war of 1914, minds flew into passion…New solutions were sought, which were only mirages. Many were the victims of this collective dizziness.”
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When earthly certainty sees decline and doom as inevitable …

“[The power of faith] becomes most visible where the secular power begins to dwindle, where earthly certainty sees decline and doom as inevitable. It is here that its line intersects the sinking human curve and draws up out of it what must be salvaged. This faith is the end of psychology and of world history, revaluing all downfalls because these can be the decisive dawns of the invisible salvation…the downfalls remain what they are: a humiliation and a disgrace unto death. But they are woven about with the mystery of germination, indeed, of public triumph; in God’s eyes they are not what they appear to be on earth.”
– Hans Urs von Balthasar
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The Theodrama

“The Holy Spirit reveals to each age that side of the divine truth which has been specially reserved for it, if the age strives for it in prayer. And this truth does not then lie in some out-of-the-way corner that has so far happened to remain unnoticed and is only now lit up by the Spirit. It is always in the center, in the fiery furnace whence the light radiates, from where Christians have strayed unawares into ease and comfort, and into which they must return.”
– Hans Urs von Balthasar
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Vaccination

“It is evident that Christianity, however degraded and distorted by cruelty and intolerance, must always exert a modifying influence on men’s passions, and protect them from the more violent forms of fanatical fever, as we are protected from smallpox by vaccination.”

– Winston Churchill
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Sacrificial subjects

“While regretting the absence of great figures in our time, we must not forget the army of those nameless ones who suffer in silence, who have offered, and are still offering, a burnt sacrifice that is generally overlooked, in war and deportation, in camps and torture, victims of the totalitarian powers, externally undistinguished from their unbelieving or weakly believing brethren.”

Hans Urs von Balthasar
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Theater of War

We still speak of the “theater of war” even though all but the last vestiges of what our ancestors and forebearers instinctively enacted on the battlefield – the ritual of warfare – have all but disappeared, resulting in a nihilistic form of warfare that, as René Girard recognized, moves all but inexorably toward apocalyptic violence.
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Ash Wednesday, Armageddon, and Apocalypse

Lent begins this year, as always, with the imposition on worshiper’s foreheads of the ashen remains of burnt palm fronds that at a previous Palm Sunday waved hosannas to the Messiah. The words “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” are spoken over us. As we hear these words this year the war in Ukraine rages. Many fighting in the conflict have died or will soon die and in time return to dust. No one knows when the carnage and destruction will end, or where the Russian aggression will stop. Some fear this could be the beginning of WW III.

At the same time, we are into the third year of the Covid pandemic which has taken the lives of millions worldwide, having sickened many millions more and drastically altered our lives. Thankfully it is on the wane. Or so we dearly hope. Much of what we in the comfortable Western world assumed was stable from international norms to prices at the grocery store now seems uncertain.

Thirty-eight years ago, the Czech author Milan Kundera wrote an essay in the New York Review of Books entitled The Tragedy of Central Europe. The first paragraph read,

“In November 1956, the director of the Hungarian News Agency, shortly before his office was flattened by artillery fire, sent a telex to the entire world with a desperate message announcing that the Russian attack against Budapest had begun. The dispatch ended with these words: “We are going to die for Hungary and for Europe.”

Mr. Kundera goes on to ask, what did that man mean by saying he and his compatriots were about to die for their homeland and Europe? He concludes, after a detailed review of history and culture, by asserting that for many ethnic groups living on the periphery of the then USSR under totalitarian puppet regimes (Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, East Germany) their cultural aspirations caused them to look to the West as a model, but the soul deadening reality of living under autocratic communist rule negated any hope of realizing this desire. Scenarios like the Hungarian revolution occurred in many countries until five years after that essay was published the Soviet empire began to implode.

The current Ukrainian conflict holds the possibility that having had respite from Soviet domination for a generation, the Ukrainian defender’s hope for freedom from tyranny has been deepened and fortified. Whether they will be able to withstand the Russian army’s onslaught on their own is doubtful. So much for the rude return of history to the world stage.

One thing Mr. Kundera alludes to, and then only in passing, is the Judeo-Christian religious influence in Central Europe. It is a common slight of our enlightened, secular, literate and educated class to overlook the role of faith since it may only play a perfunctory role in their own lives, if any at all. However, as others more astute than I have pointed out, what we understand as the ‘West’ would never have come into being without the transmutational work of the Christian church on the heritage of Greece and Rome as well as Jerusalem.

But today much of the West seems to have lost or perhaps discarded its defining Judeo-Christian cultural inheritance. Perhaps the shock of the Russian invasion and war in Ukraine will awaken a renewed appreciation for the foundational values the West was built upon. Absent a great awakening of religious faith and fervor among the people of the West, however, it is unlikely that current appeals to ‘democracy’ will stop the decline of the West’s fortitude and confidence in the face of the likes of Russia and China. The eschatological vision of the Church has always understood human history as apocalyptic, as revelatory. What it reveals is Jesus Christ, without whom we can do nothing.

Milan Kundera ended his essay with the following:

“The real tragedy for Central Europe, then, is not Russia but Europe: this Europe that represented a value so great that the director of the Hungarian News Agency was ready to die for it, and for which he did indeed die. Behind the iron curtain, he did not suspect that the times had changed and that in Europe itself Europe was no longer experienced as a value. He did not suspect that the sentence he was sending by telex beyond the borders of his flat country would seem outmoded and would not be understood.”

Leonard Cohen’s song/poem The Future should provide us added words to ponder as we stagger from one shock after another. Consider, in a few months the SCOTUS may, it is to be hoped, declare the 1973 ruling in Roe v Wade void.

Give me back my broken night
My mirrored room, my secret life
It's lonely here,
There's no one left to torture
Give me absolute control
Over every living soul
And lie beside me, baby
That's an order

Give me crack and anal sex
Take the only tree that's left
And stuff it up the hole
In your culture
Give me back the Berlin wall
Give me Stalin and St. Paul
I've seen the future, brother
It is murder

Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
Won't be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
Has crossed the threshold
And it has overturned
The order of the soul
When they said repent, repent, repent
I wonder what they meant

You don't know me from the wind
You never will, you never did
I'm the little Jew
Who wrote the Bible
I've seen the nations rise and fall
I've heard their stories, heard them all
But love's the only engine of survival
Your servant here, he has been told
To say it clear, to say it cold
It's over, it ain't going
Any further
And now the wheels of heaven stop
You feel the devil's riding crop
Get ready for the future
It is murder

Things are going to slide
Slide in all directions
Won't be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
Has crossed the threshold
And it has overturned
The order of the soul
When they said repent, repent, repent
I wonder what they meant

There'll be the breaking of the ancient
Western code
Your private life will suddenly explode
There'll be phantoms
There'll be fires on the road
And the white man dancing
You'll see a woman
Hanging upside down
Her features covered by her fallen gown
And all the lousy little poets
Coming round
Tryin' to sound like Charlie Manson
And the white man dancin'

Give me back the Berlin wall
Give me Stalin and St. Paul
Give me Christ or give me Hiroshima
Destroy another fetus now
We don't like children anyhow
I've seen the future, baby
it is murder

Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
Won't be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
Has crossed the threshold
And it has overturned
The order of the soul
When they said repent, repent, repent
I wonder what they meant

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Reactionary

The Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac was no reactionary. Quite the contrary, he was a man of great learning and heartfelt sympathy for those caught in the turmoil of history. In one instance, however, he was reactionary:

“In examining this entirely secularized concept of society, which at the present time dominates men’s minds everywhere and only degrades what it has inherited of the historical and social character of our Faith, we must have the courage to show ourselves resolutely reactionary.”

Henri de Lubac
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