Imagine an organization—a bowling league, say, formed by a group of people who get together simply because they like to bowl. And imagine that, over time, the demands and rewards of being the organizers of a bowling league begin to grow, particularly as the members are drawn into organizing leagues for other sports: badminton, ping-pong, trapshooting, skeet. The social pressure on the bowlers is always to move up the chain to administration, so the actual bowling declines. And declines. And declines, until, one day, a few of the league bowlers realize they aren’t bowlers any more. Interest begins to fade away. New members aren’t found; old members slip away. And the great administrative project is left with little to administer—except the left-over investments made in the league during the old, fun bowling days.
Or imagine, for a more complex image, the ecosystem of a pond. Down at the bottom is a thick mud of nutrients, feeding the microorganisms that feed, in turn, the small plants and insects that bring the pond to life. Eventually, over the surface of the pond, there appears something—whether as beautiful as a carpet of water lilies or as fetid as a layer of pond scum—that has the best of all worlds: the warm sun above and the rich water below. But the rewards of the surface layer are too great. The covering spreads; the underlayers die of inanition. Without that support, the surface layers can’t support themselves. They die, too, falling to the bottom to form part of a thick mud from which, naturally, something new arises.
I like the first image, the one of the bowling league, because its subjects are all the same species, the same people, as it traces a small society’s generation and corruption, a rising and a falling. I like the second image—the one of the pond—because it expresses the way the surface dwellers aren’t in a direct line with the other plants in the pond. They influence events, but they don’t act directly—for their exuberant flourishing has only as a secondary effect the choking off of the underlayers and, thereby, the decay of the upper layers.
Still, neither image quite captures what I’m out after, so let me try a third. Imagine a valley culture, surrounded by mountains. Early attempts to climb the mountains end in catastrophe, but eventually the people learn a way to bottle a rich, oxygenated air in clay pots, and explorers begin to climb the mountains. Some of them settle on the high ranges—where they see new sights, discover new plants and minerals, and invent new techniques for the hunting and smelting industries of the culture.
The information flows back to the valley, where the benefits of the explorers’ bravery are so extolled that many more people move up the mountain. A few of the valley dwellers still denounce the sacrilegious breaching of the mystical mountains, which maintains a little of the otherwise faded frisson attached to the project, but, really, the trek up the mountain paths quickly becomes routine. And who wouldn’t want to live up there? The mountain people have the best of both worlds, the oxygen of the lower levels and the vision of the peaks.
Eventually, of course, too many people have moved to the mountains. The remaining valley villages can’t support them and don’t, in truth, much want to support them. And the high people discover that they can actually keep alive without the constant stream of air from below. Yes, their lives are a little thinner and less active. Their breath comes a little harder, and the things for which they went to the mountains grow more difficult to do. No one decides to cut back, but when their individual actions are added up into cultural trends, the totals reveal that they have ceased to bear children. Ceased to make any art, other than a few last gasps of self-congratulation at having defied the valley’s old conventions. Ceased to believe in any long-term goal for what the people do. Ceased, really, to believe in much of anything. In the thin air that surrounds them, with all the rest they have to get done just to survive, it’s just too much work.
Perhaps one day, there arrive explorers from a different valley, still breathing a strong air, who see these weak, starved creatures—and sneer, perceiving how easy it will be to push them from their mountain homes. Or perhaps the elevated people just slowly dwindle, commanding the heights for a few generations but gradually losing control of both the valley and their own mountain fastnesses. Or perhaps, in one last effort to find a purpose, the mountain culture redefines itself entirely in terms of opposition to the valley people it left behind, and, in an orgy of self-righteousness, precipitates civil war by ordering the valley to behave as though it were the mountains—childless, thin-aired, stripped of long-term goals.
There is no perfect metaphor, no absolute image, for our own cultural situation today. But the pattern is clear enough: Out of the religious there has emerged the irreligious—who always end up, whether they will it or not, working to destroy the religious faith that gives them life.
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.