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The Past As Bathwater

A great comment from a reader, reflecting on changing norms and same-sex marriage: I think you’re missing another fundamental divide, which may also have a generational component: between people who think in terms of “cultural grand strategies” and people who don’t. Religions are grand strategies, attempts to explain the universe and human life and then […]

A great comment from a reader, reflecting on changing norms and same-sex marriage:

I think you’re missing another fundamental divide, which may also have a generational component: between people who think in terms of “cultural grand strategies” and people who don’t.

Religions are grand strategies, attempts to explain the universe and human life and then deliver a program — a coherent set of ethical rules and social arrangements that will put the culture right with God (or, in accord with cosmic values and principles, or however you want to put this).

Most people do not think strategically. They have personal goals for themselves and their families, but even these are makeshift and to large degrees made up “on the fly.” Day to day, people are staggering along, navigating the circumstances they find themselves in as best they can. Very few people take a big, strategic view of “the culture” and how it should be functioning. As you say, to them it’s like a river: a natural, undirected feature of the landscape, just flowing wherever it flows.

For a long time, people got their cultural grand strategies “off the shelf” from their religious traditions. They may not have thought through their own answers to the big questions, but they adhered to some big group whose leaders and theorists (= theologians) worked out those answers on their behalf while ordinary people went about their daily lives. The plain folk would attend church for various reasons, but partly to get a weekly briefing or update, brought down from Central H.Q., on what the shared strategy had to offer them and what they should currently be doing to execute it.

There is obviously still an appetite out there, if not for grand strategy, at least for tactical guidance — hence Dr. Phil and the whole self-help industry. But increasingly, I think, people don’t understand why you would need any grand strategy, any big, cohesive, overarching Theory of Everything in human existence. And if you did have one, it’s not clear why it would be that of traditional Christian churches. The conservative arguments against SSM fall on deaf ears because they draw from religious worldviews that, especially to young people, seem about as relevant to contemporary life as the war plans of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. If those plans made any sense, it was within the framework of Austro-Hungarian politics, an enterprise that no longer exists. Perhaps we can still study the old plans in hopes of gleaning lessons applicable to the present, but that’s a scholarly endeavor; it doesn’t bring the empire back.

Opponents of SSM sound to many people, I think, as if that’s exactly what they’re trying to do, as if they’re arguing that we’d be better off if we still lived the way people lived under Emperor Franz Joseph and continued somehow to follow the strategies of that time. And maybe in a few ways we would. Maybe people were more courtly then, or something. But that old system had horrible problems, and so did the old religions and the societies the shaped. That’s why they lost their hegemony. Some of the more moderate traditionalists of today grant that things had to change, but see traditional marriage as a baby that was thrown out with the bathwater. Most people just see it as bathwater.

What the debate of the last 15 years exposed is that there really were no very compelling arguments for it that could hold up independently, absent the broader strategies that the old religions provided.

I agree with much of this. As I’ve blogged here before, it’s impossible to separate the same-sex marriage cause from deeper and broader trends in our culture and civilization, especially over the last century. The reader brought up the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which of course calls to mind the impossible-to-overestimate effect of World War I in dealing the death blow to the Western tradition. The book to read is Paul Fussell’s The Great War And Modern Memory.  It’s literary criticism, but so much more than that. By examining the British literature that emerged from the trenches, Fussell more or less traces the suicide of Western civilization. Excerpt:

Furthermore, the Great War was perhaps the last to be conceived as taking place within a seamless, purposeful “history” involving a coherent stream of time running from past through present to future. The shrewd recruiting poster depicting a worried father of the future being asked by his children, “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” assumes a future whose moral and social pressures are identical with those of the past. Today, when each day’s experience seems notably ad hoc, no such appeal would shame the most stupid to the recruiting office. But the Great War took place in what was, compared with ours, a static world, where the values appears stable and where the meaning of abstractions seemed permanent and reliable. Everyone knew what Glory was, and what Honor meant. It was not until eleven years after the war that Hemingway could declare in A Farewell to Arms that “abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.” In the summer of 1914 no one would have understood what on earth he was talking about.

Fussell’s main point:

I am saying that there seems to be one dominating form of modern understanding; that it is essentially ironic; and that it originates largely in the application of mind and memory to the events of the Great War.

Ironic detachment from all absolutes as a basic stance towards reality. That is our condition. That is everyone’s condition, to one degree or another.

It is useless to speculate counterfactually on what would have happened to our culture and civilization absent the two Great Wars of the 20th century, but it’s probably safe to assume that the disenchantment of the West — its unchristening, as C.S. Lewis said — would have continued, though perhaps it would not be so far along, or would have taken some other, gentler path. It’s impossible to know. The point is, however, that an entire world, and worldview, died in the Great Wars, though it took time for this effect to be absorbed by European and North American culture. This is a big story, of course, but I think it worth mentioning as an addendum to the reader’s observations.

I’ve mentioned here recently the work of cultural analysis by Philip Rieff and Charles Taylor, explaining how radical individualism, which entails sexual “liberation,” came to be the dominant culture-making force in the West. The reader above is right to point out that most people don’t make their way through life with a theory in mind. They just go with the flow (to make clichéd use of the river metaphor), and depended on implicit authority to keep them more or less in the middle of the channel. But various forces in our culture — economic, religious, sexual, political, and so forth — have worked to make the individual and his desires the locus of authority, and this has profound consequences. Most of this is obvious, but I think one force that is underappreciated in this regard is the accelerating velocity of our culture, which greatly exacerbates the sense we all live with of being disconnected from history and the past. Nowadays, the past isn’t even seen as the thing we react against; it isn’t seen, or felt, at all.

This, I think, is why so many young Americans simply don’t understand why anybody would be against SSM. They can’t imagine a time when marriage was thought to be something more than the temporal, contractual expression of romantic love. I’m reminded of European friends of mine who regard my religious beliefs not with hostility, but with bemused curiosity. Their parents rebelled against religion. For my friends, though, there was no sense of inner tension about religion. Religion was something that belonged to another world. It’s an eccentric hobby, but certainly not a challenge or a threat. The world made by Christianity has passed, and they know it. We in the United States don’t really understand this, but it’s emerging here too, though a superficial religiosity is veiling this from us.

Twice in the past few weeks, I’ve heard people who identify as Christians say, in all sincerity, that they didn’t see why anybody needs to go to church, that they can “find God” on their own. I hear some version of that a good bit. With that comes an entire worldview. It’s the complete liberation of the individual from any authority other than his or her own conscience and judgment. Outside an authoritative interpretive community in which one anchors one’s own understanding, the search for God really becomes a search for oneself, and the deification of one’s own attitudes and desires. It becomes Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which is the true American religion. The point is, the churches, as carriers of Christian tradition, have little or no authority within this culture, because people won’t accept it. The past is only worthwhile insofar as it is useful to the present.

This seems like freedom to most people. It’s really a different kind of servitude, of bondage, as we can already see now, and will continue to see unfolding over the next decades. As a Christian friend told me recently, the problem with us traditionalists is we’re fighting this battle moralistically, when we should be fighting it cosmologically.



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