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Barbarism, In A Sentence

A reader, commenting on the Catholic doctrine thread, says without irony:

The German tribes of pre-Roman times got by just fine living in the dark woods, thank you very much.

This could not possibly have made my overall point for me more succinctly, however unintentionally the reader meant to do so. To recap: my argument in that thread is that to cease to care about doctrine is to cease to believe that religion is about anything other than expressing one’s own feelings. If you believe that Christianity (in this case, Catholic Christianity) tells us the truth about the human condition and God’s plan to rescue us from our own darkness, and bring us into the light, then it will be important to you to hold as close to the reliable map as you can. Doctrine and tradition will be important, if only because they preserve our understanding of Who We Are and What We Must Do. This is not just a Catholic thing or a Christian thing; this is what religion does. The religion scholar Mircea Eliade, in Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries, on primitive religion:

Periodically, the most important events were re-enacted, and so re-lived: thus, one recited the cosmogony, repeated the exemplary gestures of the Gods, the deeds that founded civilisation. There was a nostalgia for the origins; in some cases one could even speak of a nostalgia for the primordial Paradise. The real “nostalgia for Paradise” is found among the mystics of the primitive societies; during their ecstasies, they enter into the paradisiac condition of the mythic Ancestor before the “fall”. These ecstatic experiences are not without consequence for the whole community: all its ideas about the Gods and the nature of the soul, the mystical geographies of Heaven and the Land of the Dead, and, in general, the diverse conceptions of “spirituality”, as well as the origins of lyric poetry and the epic and — partly, at all events — the origins of music, are more or less directly derived from such ecstatic experiences of the shamanist type. One may say, then, that the nostalgia for Paradise, the longing to recover the Eden-like state of the Ancestor, were it only for the briefest space of time and only in an ecstasy, has had considerable repercussions upon the cultural creations of primitive man.

If you are a pagan German tribesman living with your people in the deepest valleys of the Black Forest, and you are practicing your tribal religion, the coming into your neighborhood of Christian missionaries is a grave threat. They preach a different religion. If you accept their belief, even just a little bit, you have a serious risk of forgetting what Paradise was like for your people, and how to reconnect with that Paradise, individually and collectively. The rites that made that possible, that connected the finite with the infinite, the temporal with the eternal, begin to break down. You will end by ceasing to believe that there was a Paradise at all. If you and your people accept the new religion, it will radically change your tribe’s “mystical geography,” and with it the source of all your art and culture.

Now, if you believe in the new religion, Christianity, you will have been enlightened. You and your people will have been delivered from the darkness by a new guide, who showed you that you and your people had been deceived about the nature of that primitive Paradise, and how to get back to it. True, you will have substituted an alien cosmogony and religion for the traditional one of your people — but if the new religion, Christianity, is true, then thank God that He sent his missionaries to show you all the real way home. But if you believe the new religion is untrue, and you hold to the old ways, you will not only have seen your people throw away their passport to Paradise for the sake of a mess of lies, you will also have witnessed the turning point in which everything that gave your people a sense of who they are will have been radically changed. The people still live, of course, but they will already have become a new people — a people who dwell in darkness.

A German pagan who took his religion and his culture seriously could not have remained indifferent to “doctrine,” so to speak; to have done so would have been putting the eternal souls of his people at risk, or, if they did not have a concept of eternity in the afterlife, at least it would have risked ending the immortality of his people in the perpetuation of their religion and culture. Frankly, a German tribesman who didn’t look upon the Christian missionaries as a mortal threat would have been extremely naive.

But, given the core beliefs of Christianity, a Christian who did not want to help the German pagans come to know the truth and to be delivered from the darkness of barbarism would not have been one who took his religion and its claims seriously.

The ancient Hebrews had to fight a constant battle against syncretism — one they lost from time to time. To have admitted strange gods into the collective religious imagination of Israel would have been to have forgotten the one true God. To lose Him would have meant to dwell in darkness, and to cease to be a people.

That’s not nothing.

To claim that the pre-Christian German tribes “got by just fine” living in the dark woods is a statement that is only possible if one does not believe in religious truth. That’s fine, I guess, if you are an atheist or a pagan (presumably the reader who made that comment is one or the other). It is an absurd statement for a professed Christian to make, and not just absurd, but suicidal. If you believe there is no meaningful difference between pre-Christian German paganism and the Christianity that displaced it, then you do not take religion seriously. At all. Would you be happy to see your children or grandchildren cease to be Catholic and instead become atheists or pagans, because they can “get along just fine” as an atheist or pagan? You had better, because that’s what you are going to get.

Anyway, such a statement is trite. Would the reader say that nobody should go to the dark wood of tribal Africa and teach the people to quit cutting the clitorises out of little girls? Would the reader say that the Africans who hold to that practice are “getting along just fine”? From the African point of view, maybe they are. Who are we to judge them, in that sense? For that matter, who are we to tell the Nigerians that they are not getting along just fine in their legalized persecution of gays? Hey, they’re getting along just fine, thank you very much. Right?

Let’s go further. What was this so-called Enlightenment all about? The European peoples before the Enlightenment were getting along just fine, thank you very much. Right? Et cetera.

The point is, nobody is actually a relativist about things that matter to them. Catholics and other Christians who say doctrine is irrelevant are saying that truth is irrelevant, whether they realize it or not. They are retreating into a kind of barbarism, in the sense that a barbarian dwells in darkness and confusion, and doesn’t know who he truly is or where he should go. Insofar as liberal Christians want to substitute therapy for truth — that is, insofar as they believe religion should be about expressing one’s feelings and dispelling one’s anxiety rather than bringing one’s mind, heart, and actions into unity with the Truth that is God — well, to that extent they are barbarians, and should not be paid attention to by other Christians, except as an object of prayer and evangelism, or at least as an example of how not to think if you want to hold on to your faith.

Here’s 1 John, verses 5 and 6:

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.  If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth.

If there is no such thing as darkness, there is no such thing as light. If there is no such thing as lies, there is no such thing as truth. We Christians will not always agree among ourselves where the line of the shadow falls separating darkness from light; nor, in the same way, will we agree precisely on what is a lie and what is the truth. But if we tell ourselves that there is no such thing as light and darkness, and no such thing as truth and lies, we are lost so deep in the woods we will die there — and so will all who follow our counsel.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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