Junk our culture, trash ourselves

Don’t argue about culture, just blot out the memory of it.

By Gary Scarrabelotti

When you suffer chronically from writer’s block (as I do), it is a tough assignment to attempt the hardest exercise in essay writing: the book review. 

Reviewing a book is difficult partly because you have to sum up and appraise the work of another who took months (and sometimes years) of thought and thousands of words to express. A short book, paradoxically, is no easier than a tome to review. In fact, it’s often harder. A good one, by its very compactness and the quality of its execution, typically enfolds a density of thought and an economy of expression that, in combination, warn of deep waters and the risk of making shallow observations.  Such is Soul of the West: Christianity and the Great Tradition. 

The contention of Soul of the West is that one cannot strip Christianity out of western culture without shredding the culture itself. At every turn, one is confronted with a Christian heritage. Even where the content of that heritage is not expressly Christian, those who handed it down to us were.  So it is in language, literature, law, philosophy government, art, music or architecture.  Take out the Christianity and the whole fabric disintegrates. Shakespeare’s Hamlet – both the play and the character – would be impossible without Christian theology. The English language would be shrunken and impoverished without Latin, until quite recently the lingua franca of Christian culture.  The whole field of Western philosophy would not exist without the concepts and technical terms honed by Christian philosophers and theologians. Absent the Christian concept of man, the abolition of slavery (though long in its accomplishment) would have been inconceivable. Without Christianity the concept of a liberal education would not have been transmitted to us.  In architecture there would be no flying buttress without the Mass of the Catholic west.  Our music rests on foundations laid by the chants and polyphonies of Catholic worship.   

Soul of the West: Christianity and the Great Tradition; by David Daintree; Conor Court, Ballarat, 2015; pp. 76; $22.95.

As the author of this monograph, David Daintree, points out, no matter what side one takes, one cannot enter the debate about the meaning and value of Western culture without first immersing oneself in something that, at every turn, is either Christian in inspiration or a Christian transposition of the Graeco-Roman world. Even to take a credible liberal-progressivist view of our culture requires not only a deep knowledge of the Christian Thing but also demands the employment of intellectual tools bequeathed by that tradition to allege its inferiority to our enlightened secularism.  It is, surely, a uncomfortable position to hold, intellectually speaking: to want to junk the Christian heritage but to rely upon it to hold the “junk it” position. 

All of this slips with conversational easiness from the author’s pen.  It’s the work of gentleman who wears his scholarship lightly.  You will find no savage controversialist in these pages – which is not to say that Daintree recoils from calling a spade a spade when it is impossible to avoid some nonsense or obtuseness in conventional, zeitgeist-y thought.

Early in the piece Daintree offers us a remark that I found arresting: 

“It’s virtually impossible for ordinary people in Western nations today to imagine the impact of hope on [an ancient] people raised in hopelessness.”

It’s the hallmark of this little book: a great observation cloaked in deceptive simplicity.

As the author argues a little later on, we are all so locked into the frame of Enlightenment thinking – which destroyed the influence of Christianity and led us to believe that human advancement lay wholly in this world and has no need of divine aid – that we cannot place ourselves in the position of our ancient ancestors who saw no remedy for the human condition and for whom the Christian promise of redemption was like an unexpected morning. We are unable to empathise with how the ancients actually experienced their lives partly because both the Enlightenment, and the earlier Renaissance, so idealised their world that our thoughts and intuitions about it have been deflected from its underlying theme of futility.

Which poses a great problem: aren’t proponents of the “junk it” option for the Christian tradition at risk of hurtling themselves back into the hopelessness and fatalism of those profoundly misrepresented ancient times? Not wishing to strike too controversial a note, Daintree chose not to raise explicitly this unpleasant possibility. Necessarily, the scope of a short work like this had to be tightly defined.  Still the problem is there and begs for an answer. How is the exponent of a post-Christian western culture going to consign the Great Tradition to the dustbin of history without dumping himself in the same trash can? Since he cannot argue against the heritage he rejects without employing intellectual tools drawn from the very sources he proposes to close up, is there not a danger that his own world view is riddled with a Fifth Column of assumptions that could bring his own house crashing down?

Radical secularists have thought of this and they have a solution: not to argue with the Great Tradition but to blot out the memory of it.  This is what modern education systems – especially in the Anglosphere – aim to do.  Many are the laments these days about the failure of education and the dumbing down of the rising generation.  This, however, is not a failure but a singular mark of success. Contemporary education is intended to erase the cultural memory banks.  For my money, the best expression of this insight was given recently by Patrick J. Deneen in “Res Idiotica” to be found on the conservative American blog Front Porch Republic. It’s a chilling reply to those who treasure the bequest of our Christian forebears.

I should declare that the author is an old and admired friend whom I met over dinner in St Albert’s College at the University of New England in 1970, my first year at the college and the university.  David Daintree is a former President of Campion College and established the Dawson Centre in 2013 as a way of upholding the importance of the Catholic intellectual tradition. I am delighted to say that my old friend’s book is not only worth reading but worth re-reading.  He neatly poses the intellectual problem confronting those who want to take the Christianity out of the culture.

Our difficulty, however, is that our opponents are much more radical than we can imagine.  We say, 

“You can’t take Christianity from the culture without obliterating it – and who we all are along with it.”

They reply, 

“So?” 

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