Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Memory of Mankind

The radical detachment of the Enlightenment philosophy from its roots ultimately leads it to dispense with man. The spokesmen of the natural sciences tell us that man does not possess any liberty—in total contradiction of the starting point of the whole question. The more advanced spokesmen of a philosophy that is clearly separated from the roots of the historical memory of humanity tell us that man ought not to imagine that the is something different from all other living beings. And it follows that man ought not to be treated any differently from them…

The real antagonism typical of today’s world is not that between diverse religious cultures; rather, it is the antagonism between the radical emancipation of man from God, from the roots of life, on the one hand, and the great religious cultures, on the other. If we come to experience a clash of cultures, this will not be due to a conflict between the great religions, which of course have always been at odds with one another but, nevertheless have ultimately always understood how to coexist with one another. The coming clash will be between the radical emancipation of man and the great historical cultures.

Joseph Ratzinger, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 42-44

Reflection – See, it’s quotes like this which got me started on this blog, and which are why Pope Benedict’s resignation from the papacy and public life do not mean his writings will vanish any time soon from my blogging and, I hope, from the interest of the public.

It is this whole business of the ‘historical memory of mankind’ that is so central in his writings and reflections. There is a fundamental core of truth—or at least, to be fair, what has always been taken to be true by the vast mass of humanity—that is shared between traditional cultures and it is precisely this core that is rejected by modern secularism.

What is this core of truth? That there is a divine spiritual realm above the human and the earthly material one. That everything comes from the divine, from God in some sense, and is under the authority of God. That there is a moral law which is binding on every human being and that does not change from one generation to the next (for how could it be a binding moral law if it always changes?). That the life of humanity is one part, perhaps a central part as we Christians understand, in a drama that we did not initiate and whose final outcome and meaning is not ours to determine.

Some might argue that the moral law varies widely from place to place, culture to culture. C.S. Lewis answered that one long ago in his writings by pointing out that… well, it really doesn’t. There has never been a culture that valued cowardice or oath-breaking or indiscriminate killing. There is vast overlap in the actual content of the moral law among cultures; most of the real variance lies in who the moral law gets applied to, and who is left outside its protection.

At any rate, secularism is the true radical variant here, casting out any sense of a moral law, a divine origin, meaning, and goal to life, and any real connection with the vast traditions of humanity. We have been assured that all this is vitally necessary if humanity is to climb out its tragic barbaric past into a glorious and truly civilized future. And what secularism has delivered has been abortions by the tens of millions, euthanasia on the immediate horizon in most of the Western nations and already present in some, the ever-increasing degradation of human sexuality in ever-increasing corrosively  explicit displays of obscenity, and a casual contempt for human freedom and dignity that shows up in all manners and forms, in social media and government policy, in the light entertainments of music and TV, and in serious academic discourse.
Enough. Secularism has had its day, and its promises have proven false. Let us return to the wisdom of our mothers and fathers going back to the dim recesses of human memory, which has been cast aside so lightly, of so little account to us. It is the feast of St. Joseph today, patron of Canada and of the universal Church. A good feast day to ponder this clash of cultures, perhaps, and to choose wisely the path of life and freedom, which is the path of God in the world, of love and of the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God.


  1. Father Denis,

    Well, what if the memory of man really isn't one or the other but a combination of things both intrinsic and extrinsic? What if it all is a gift from God?

    Also, I think secularism is too big a word. It has too many meanings, and no one understands it well. I find it is a word that is used like relativism is...often to insult those of a more liberal persuasion. But, I am pretty sure that was not your intent and I do not feel seperated..I just do not really understand you well.

    I like the new pictures. ?Caryll Houselander?, ?Dostoevsky?

    Bless you.

    1. Well yes - of course it is both. The law is written on our hearts... but it does seem to be the general sense that our hearts have a hard time reading that interior law until we are taught and formed by the moral wisdom of the tradition... and this is what modern secularism rejects.
      Secularism may be an abused word (so very many words are these days, eh?), but it does have a very specific meaning, which is how Pope Benedict and I use it - the assertion of a sphere of reality that is either unrelated to God or in which God has no authority, a carving out of a portion of reality that is entirely under the authority of man... or more often, the increasingly reluctant ceding of a small portion of reality as belonging to God.
      Flannery O'Connor and George MacDonald, actually! But Caryll Houselander is a good idea - my policy is to only put people on the wall who have actually been my guides in life... but she definitely qualifies.

    2. Sorry. I still do not understand this very much. It seems to me still a dismissmissive argument. If I do not agree with your truth, I dismiss it as improperly or incompletely formed. With 2000 years of tradition, I do not see this so clearly.
      Our hearts are not pure, we are subject to desire and error and malice....but basically we are created to seek truth and goodness. We are sinners, but responsive to love and grace and yes the goodness in each other.

    3. I'm afraid I really can't follow you here, you know? I would say it is the progressive secularists who are dismissive as they reject the mass of humanity and its moral beliefs as irrelevant. How am I being dismissive? Who am I dismissing? We all need help from outside our own hearts to find truth - I am arguing that that help has always been afforded us by the moral tradition of humanity and (in particular) by the great Judeo-Christian moral law tradition. How am I being dismissive?

  2. Father Denis,
    Sorry for the late response, I had hoped to write earlier in the week, but it is sort of busy here. I probably won't have time again until after Easter.
    The thing is secularism is a value that has been recognized by the church in years past. I think there is a kind of secularism that is intolerant and unchristian.... There is a kind of orthodoxy that is the same way....
    Secularism is not athesim ( lack of belief in God) and nor is it humanism ( a non religious belief system). Basically, it is a political movement seeking specific policy end points. Many secularists are religious and many religious people recognizing the value of keeping government and religion seperate are secular.
    Historically, secularism seeks defend the absolute freedom of religious and other beliefs, seeks to maximize freedom of religious expression and protect the right to manifest religious belief insofar as it does nOt impinge disproportionately on the rights and freedoms of others.
    In addition secularism aims to end religious privileges or persecutions and to fully seperate the state from religion. I don't just mean Catholicism here, I mean all religions....
    So it seems to me, to say simply that secularism is a path without God, misses a lot of other stuff and other people. Seems like the time has come to really see each other, really hear that point of view. Who knows what you might see in that face? Who knows what common ground you might find? Who knows, might even find an ally....
    Bless you.


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