the imaginative conservative logo

For much of contemporary thought, God is an invention. But the idea of God accords with the nature of reality. Belief in God is useful for human order, as it centers and grounds all knowledge…

glenn arberyOn Tuesday, the United States Senate voted not to ban abortion after five months. To say that this decision is unbelievable would certainly not be true. Like many other social innovations of the last decade, the refusal to put restrictions on abortion was predictable. The consciences of these legislators—certainly those who high-fived each other when the proposal was defeated—must be brimming over with a sense of righteousness about their affirmation of the freedom of women. But nothing could testify more vividly to these 51 senators’ belief in the absence of transcendental good.

In Milton’s Paradise Lost (the current reading for the junior Humanities class at Wyoming Catholic College), Milton describes the child sacrifices offered to the fallen angel Moloch, whose worship was accompanied by “the noise of drums and timbrels loud,” in order to cover the sound of the screaming children “passed through fire/To his grim idol.” The difference is that Milton imagines “parents’ tears”—parents obviously horrified to lose their children—whereas the senators imagine a mother herself freely sacrificing to the ideology of self-willed freedom. Sacrificing what? The child who has already been innocently sharing the life of its mother for months and who by now is already fully capable of feeling pain. It is an offering to an abstract but exacting idol, savagely worshipped, that requires for its flourishing the agony of the innocent.

How did we get here? Several months ago, Barton Swaim gave a particularly apt and simple explanation in a book review for the Wall Street Journal. Describing Moral Combat by Marie Griffith, he wrote that the book is “a vivid illustration of a principle that liberals understand well and that religious conservatives usually do not: Culture precedes politics. By the time a controversial question hits the sphere of politics, it has already been decided.” Gay marriage is certainly an example, as is the vote on Tuesday. But what Swaim argues next is the crucial point: “While traditionalists are busy with press conferences and political maneuvering, their progressive adversaries are quietly reshaping the outlooks of Americans young and old through the news media, the entertainment industry, the courts, and of course the universities.”

Of course the universities: the multi-generational influence is too obvious to require an argument. Ever since education turned from its preservation of a great, profoundly human tradition rooted in the good, the true and the beautiful, a great erosion has set in, not just of principle but of common sense. And of course—of course—the central cause is the loss of God from the curriculum (where there is a curriculum). “Untune that string,” as Ulysses says in one of Shakespeare’s plays, “and hark what discord follows.”

Yet for much of contemporary thought, God is an invention, the “opiate of the masses,” an emotionally potent imagined figure. Belief in this punitive or rewarding figure keeps in line those incapable of independent thought. What kind of fealty could we owe to a projected being of our own self-conscious invention? Just such an invention, many of our contemporaries think, is what God is, and they cannot switch off the faculty of reason that tells them so.

Yes, we answer them, the idea of God is useful for human order—but why is that? Because it accords with the nature of reality. Belief in God centers and grounds all knowledge. That is precisely why the education at Wyoming Catholic College and our sister institutions is so vital in this age. We affirm reason in its divine origin. We ask, with Pope Benedict at Regensburg, why it should be that the universe has a rational structure; we affirm the marriage of reason and what exceeds reason in Jesus Christ, the Logos, the Word made flesh; and we give the mind and heart freedom through formation, not through aimless wandering and not through mere indoctrination.

In the past century (aside from canonized saints), T.S. Eliot probably did more than anyone else to refashion culture in keeping with the Christian tradition. His advice is potent for a Great Books education like ours: “we can only capture the enduring by perpetual movement and adaptation.” That is our work now at Wyoming Catholic. To achieve it means looking back (but not with mere nostalgia) to those times that brimmed over with artistic and intellectual achievement; it means finding the guides who teach us the most (as Dante found Virgil) and using their example to help us, with divine assistance, to shape the new culture we need.

This essay first appeared in the Wyoming Catholic College Weekly Bulletin (February 2018). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
3 replies to this post
  1. A few random observations upon reading this essay:

    As noted, culture precedes politics. And people forget that when a culture sacrifices it’s young (whether by abortion, drugs, or mindless amusement), that culture is already doomed, without possibility of reversal. But perhaps I am too pessimistic?

    The measure was not passed by Democratic Progressives alone, but with the help of Republican “conservatives”. Any who subsist in thrall to partisan politics, and presume “the baddies” are all in The Other Party, or that a touted adherence to limited government and reduced taxes is sufficient, should wake up.

    In conversations with hard-core STEM advocates, they brush off my principal contention. Granted, STEM can tell us how to build atomic bombs, but not whether TO build them, or whether to USE then, and if so on WHOM. However, an exclusive diet of STEM is a) good for business, and b) not going to cause pangs of conscience when technological fruit are employed for evil ends.

    As the culture has abolished the concept of Evil, it has relativized everything, and made ethical decisions subject to consensus. This mindset affects all sides, and whenever a person, or group, determines a fact to be uncomfortable, immediately derides it as “fake news”.

    The “bottom line” which the self-proclaimed Realists like to badger for is, are we past the Point of No Return? If so, are there any arks, caves, or safe refuges to which we can flee?

  2. I agree it is high time we started fighting cultural battles before they become political ones. And I have no doubt universities play a pivotal role in the conflict between worldviews. But surely, as well as appealing to the young minds entering our universities, we also need to be reaching out to make sure the wonder of the permanent things is felt by those outside academia who are searching for the light. Universities are essential in the long term, but I am not sure they are outward-focused enough to turn the tide in the short-term. And if the immediate battles are not fought, I am afraid our long-term preparation may be too little too late.

  3. In the decade before Roe v Wade attempts were made to legalize abortion by referendum. They all lost, even in liberal New Jersey. It was the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v Wade, a political not a cultural event, that ordered the American people to accept abortion. Even now most Americans oppose allowing most abortions, even if Congress (a political body) does not. Politics changed culture. BTW until a relatively short time ago the Supreme Court had a Catholic majority.

Leave a Reply to Lauren Mandaville Cancel reply