Moving the Ancient Boundaries – I

Do not move the ancient boundary stone set up
    by your forefathers.
        — Proverbs 22:28 —

old houseAncient wisdom: a sage injunction uttered in a time when simple shepherds and farmers parsed out land for grazing and grain, speaking to the prudence of respecting contracts, negotiated agreements with those with whom we live, to abide in a measure of peace. Be honest; respect the property and possessions of those with whom you must abide; do not trade peaceful relations for parcels of land.

Yet like so much of this ancient book of Proverbs, its well runs far deeper than it appears, with ageless wisdom waiting for the discerning, those open to its application in different days and other ages. And so it seems that we, as a culture, have been hard at work for decades, if not longer, moving the boundary stones set up by our forefathers. These markers today are not simple rocks in fields or walls on hills to mark water rights or restrain wandering sheep, but are rather the cultural and moral underpinnings of that which we call Western civilization. We are busy cutting wood from the pilings to add garlands to the gables, and wondering why the house leans so far off vertical.

We have, for the better part of a generation, been hard at work hammering away at the underpinnings of Western culture, attacking and dismantling the restraints and boundaries established by many hundreds of years of religious and cultural influence–and have done so, almost ironically, in the name of freedom and liberty. Look back a mere 50 years, and gaze at a cultural landscape drastically different: divorce is uncommon; most children grow up in homes with two parents (always of the opposite sex); sex outside of marriage is strongly censured; pregnancy outside of marriage something shameful. In one generation–though culturally, it seems like a millennium–child abuse, both physical and sexual–have gone from rare to common; serial killers have gone from isolated horrors to the grist of weekly crime TV. School shootings, then unheard of, now depressingly common; newspapers are replete with stories of congressmen soliciting sex from underage pages, buying votes with prodigious pork and sleazy paybacks, or freezing 6-figure bribes in their kitchen Sub-Zeros. Language has coarsened immensely; political discourse is brutal, dishonest, and personal; respect for professions, authority, and government are at a nadir, and dropping rapidly with no bottom in sight.

Of course, such things are by no means new–profligate behavior is as old as man himself. And many cultures, both ancient and modern, have done little to restrain such errant impulses in man–but have thereby suffered the consequence of a resulting legacy of societal chaos and primitive cultural progress, or brutal tyranny to keep anarchy in check. But Western civilization, in contrast, provided the unique ingredients to maximize the potential for man while restraining his darker side.

The crowning achievement of Western civilization is not democracy, as one might suppose–for democracy had been tried in ancient Greece, and later in Rome, with decidedly mixed results: logos alone proved insufficient for rule by the people. It was instead the elevation of the value of the individual and the recognition of the true nature of man: made in God’s image, and therefore capable of great glory and goodness, but fallen, and therefore capable of great evil. This dawning realization and revelation was the gift of the Christianization of Europe, carrying forward to a barbarian land not merely the reason of the Greeks and the moral framework of Judaism (monotheism and the centrality of law in restraining moral errancy), but augmenting it with the Christian emphasis on mercy and forgiveness, redemption and the importance of the individual in God’s design and creation.

Thus was developed–in fits and starts, with many wrong turns over hundreds of years–a system of both society and government highly suited to the progress of man, economically, judicially, intellectually, and spiritually. A system of justice grew up which deterred individual behavior detrimental to individuals and society, while protecting the innocent from capricious punishment and preserving the hope for reform and correction of the wayward. Economic principles based on just and honest commerce and the freedom of the individual to advance himself through hard work–viewed as much as a service to God as for personal gain–led to a growth in prosperity never before seen in history. The belief that the universe was created by a good and rational Being gave rise to the scientific and mathematical disciplines, further advancing both knowledge and material prosperity. The establishment of the contract and commitment of the institution of marriage–strongly promoted by the Church–gave stability and protection to the raising of children, providing a framework wherein faith, morals, integrity, and personal responsibility could be instilled in subsequent generations. Moral and ethical restraints, their origins in religious faith and tradition, were thereby inculcated not only in individuals but by extension throughout society as a whole. Hence society adopted much of the ethic of the Church, even though not every member of society was a member thereof nor believed in its dogmas. There was widespread consensus that such boundaries and guideposts served societal good as a whole while restraining the destructive impulses of man.

But within the burgeoning progress and prosperity of Western culture lay the seeds of its own demise. For the success of science and technology–driven by the underlying assumption of a logical and discoverable universe created by a rational God–gave increasing credence to the idea that it was reason alone which was responsible for the West’s cultural advancement–and therefore the key to its unlimited enlargement. The Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, and the subsequent Industrial Revolution increasingly segregated faith from reason, rejecting knowledge not empirically obtained and thereby diminishing the influence of more transcendent and spiritual disciplines and insights. With the dawning of the microprocessor age, the rate of information accumulation and technological progress has accelerated to light speed–far outstripping Western society’s ability to integrate such vast knowledge into any meaningful transcendent worldview. Driving electrons through silicon at lightspeed has not driven away evil; you cannot fight perdition with faster processors. The modern secular mind sees the solution to evil in knowledge: we may conquer evil (equated with ignorance in the secular mind) with the acquisition of greater reason and understanding. But reason is morally neutral: science may kill or heal, knowledge may decode the human genome or destroy a Hiroshima.

The marginalization of religion and faith in modern Western culture has not been one of simple attrition, with religion falling far behind in addressing the deep fault lines gaping ominously in a technological world; religion has always positioned itself as that most capable of providing such answers, though not all faiths have done so effectively, and some even destructively. There has been instead an aggressive secular evangelism, actively seeking to strip all religious and spiritual influence and impact from the culture, pursuing the dream that by higher knowledge alone we may reach some Utopian vision of an enlightened mankind. To reach this goal, each ancient boundary stone set in place by religion with its moral and ethical restraints and transcendent principles must be moved, that the secular vision of true human freedom through higher knowledge may triumph.

G.K Chesterton, writing a century ago, understood the mindset of today’s secular culture:

Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church … we hardly excuse the fanatic who wrecks this world for love of the other. But what are we to say of the fanatic who wrecks this world out of hatred of the other? He sacrifices the very existence of humanity to the non-existence of God. He offers his victims not to the altar, but merely to assert the idleness of the altar and the emptiness of the throne. He is ready to ruin even that primary ethic by which all things live, for his strange and eternal vengeance upon some one who never lived at all.

The process whereby these barricades are stormed and toppled–subtly, relentlessly, and mercilessly–is not difficult to discern, if one simply takes the time to look. Over the next few posts, I hope to chronicle the means and methods of this erosion. Such an examination is not merely academic; the pursuit of gnosis without the guidance of faith and transcendent truth leads not to lofty pinnacles of human achievement but threatens instead a dark age of sterile knowledge and unrestrained power.