Sunday, January 29, 2006

On Practical Atheism

We get an analysis of the Troubled Continent from Michael Novak.
There are still pockets of will and vitality. But having turned away from Jewish and Christian faith, a Europe based solely upon the Enlightenment cannot long survive. The Europe that is declining in population is a Europe more rational than Europe has ever been, more scientific, less religious, less pious, more mundane, wealthier, more consumerist, more universally close to living etsi Deus non daretur (as if God does not exist). A very large part of the "European crisis" is the crisis of the Enlightenment. On that ground, a civilization cannot be built, a civilization can only burn down to the last waxed threads of its wick.

For the beginning of culture is cult. Apart from the worship of God, human beings cannot in practice (whatever may be said in theory) transcend themselves--not, at least, in the large numbers needed to sustain a civilization. Unless human beings have a vision of something larger than their own natures, and beyond the bounds of their own natures, they cannot be pulled out of themselves; they cannot be inspired; and they will not aspire, in the way that Gothic steeples aspire. To be sure, there areFrom Michael Novak secular ways to interpret the word "transcendence": as some potential already within human beings to break their own records, to go beyond what has already been achieved in order to achieve new marks, and the like. But that is not the sort of transcendence on which civilizations are built. Real transcendence is from outside, a new form of life, a new human nature, an uplifting into participation in the divine. This transcendence is known to all religions, and is sensed by many artists. It is a new dimension of the human spirit, which does not spring from human potential, but is given from outside. It is experienced as an uplifting, a newness, a vision and a vitality not within one's own powers to achieve or to deserve. It comes as a gift.

Only the type of transcendence that points to the divine inspires a civilization or a culture, properly so called. Ancient Chinese culture, worldly in its practical Confucian wisdom, aspired to harmony with the stars and the will of Heaven. As yeast lifts dough, so the great religions of the world have informed and inspired cultures. A merely secular culture instead reduces human beings to creatures of chance, deprives them of any end for which they were purposely created, and renders universal moral principles into pragmatic bargains or subjective personal preferences. While it often promotes highly moral living, a secular culture can give few reasons for such living except personal preference, and in ethical practice it frequently borrows a sensibility and even concepts formed by an earlier religious heritage. The social morals of a secular culture these days tend also to depend upon moral credits stored up in the past. Even such supposedly secular values as compassion, liberty, fraternity, and equality sprang first from Jewish and Christian moral commitments, as even Richard Rorty notices--not from Greece or Rome or any purely philosophical source.
Read the rest of the article to understand how this relates to "A Crisis of Demography--and of the Spirit". (Hat tip to EU Referendum.)