First Things RSS Feed - Gerald J. Russello
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60Catholicism Before and After 1963https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2015/01/catholicism-before-and-after-1963
Mon, 19 Jan 2015 23:04:00 -0500In trying to understand the extraordinary changes the Catholic Church underwent in the middle of the twentieth century, I recently came across two illuminating novels. The first was the last novel in Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honor trilogy,
. The three novels loosely trace Waugh’s own military experience, darkly satirizing the military and more broadly modern society. Specifically, Waugh uses the war as a backdrop against which to lay out a different battle, this one between Catholicism and the modern world. The trilogy is widely regarded as Waugh’s masterwork.
Wed, 14 Jan 2015 00:00:00 -0500My commuter railway sent out the warning on a Friday afternoon in late December: No alcoholic beverages would be allowed on the trains this weekend. It was not a new temperance message or Bloombergian attempt to control our vices, just a safety announcement on the eve of SantaCon, an event in New York and many other cities, during which Kris Kringle-disguised revelers drink themselves silly through a weekend before Christmas.
Mon, 01 Apr 2013 00:00:00 -0400My family had been in Brooklyn (or, as I will ever call it, God’s country) for over a century, refugees from the Lower East Side and a Jacob Riis–style life in early-twentieth-century New York. My father didn’t speak much about his youth in Bensonhurst, but what he did say was enough to fill that neighborhood—which we visited every Saturday for dinner at my grandparents’ house, with several dozen cousins and hangers-on—with myth.
]]>The Achievement of Jacques Barzunhttps://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2012/10/the-achievement-of-jacques-barzun
Fri, 26 Oct 2012 00:01:00 -0400 One of the last of the generation of critics that included Edmund Wilson, Irving Howe, and Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, who died yesterday at the age of 104, developed a historically informed critical approach that, without descending into polemic, didnt shy from defining or diagnosing Western culture. For Barzun, the historian can only show, not prove; persuade, not convince. To do that required both sureness of judgment as well as respect for the unpredictability and vagaries of history.
Like only a few others”his longtime Columbia colleague Trilling, for example, or the late Philip Rieff”Barzun inspired respect both as a critic beyond the academy and as a scholar within it. Though he came to be viewed as a conservative, in that he defended a series of values that were superior to others, and (more important) could be distinguished from them, Barzun evaded neat description. He certainly avoided the vilification poured upon others, such as Allan Bloom, when offering his critiques of popular culture and modern education, which he criticized for credential inflation and failure to maintain its proper object, the removal of ignorance, in favor of networking and life skills.
For example, Barzun helped invent the area of study now known as cultural history, which has been derided (often rightly) by conservatives as a hotbed of leftist agitprop, poor scholarship, and political correctness. This was a world away from Barzuns view, which stressed the importance for the historian to use cultural materials to identify the makers of culture from the mass of humanity, a focus that has now largely been reversed in contemporary academia.
Given the struggles the West now faces before a resurgent Islam, it may be worth returning again to Barzuns work. It was not that long ago when certain elites saw the West to be backward, if not hopelessly oppressive. Barzun did not share this opinion, though he was not shy about his assessment of the weaknesses of Western culture. In the magisterial
From Dawn to Decadence
, published in 2000, Barzun opens his study of the last half-millennium survey of Western culture as follows:
Thu, 01 Dec 2011 00:00:00 -0500 The Democratic Soul: A Wilson Carey McWilliams Reader
by Wilson Carey Mcwilliams,? edited by Patrick J. Deneen and Susan J. Mcwilliams
?University Press of Kentucky, 440 pages, $40
]]>The Real Mythhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/02/the-real-myth
Tue, 01 Feb 2011 00:00:00 -0500 The Myth of American Religious Freedom
by David Sehat
Oxford, 368 pages, $29.95
]]>Russell Kirk & Postmodern Conservatismhttps://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2008/10/russell-kirk-postmodern-conser
Fri, 24 Oct 2008 00:00:00 -0400This week marks the ninetieth anniversary of the birth of Russell Kirk. Kirk, who died in 1994, is best remembered for his role in helping to create the postwar conservative movement in America. His groundbreaking work,
The Conservative Mind
, received national attention when it was published in 1953, upsetting the settled elite consensus (as articulated most famously by Lionel Trilling) that liberalism was the only intellectual tradition in America.
]]>Barzun at 100https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2007/12/barzun-at
Mon, 31 Dec 2007 00:00:00 -0500Remember the culture wars? In light of September 11 and the continuing War on Terror, it seems hard to believe that there was a time when Jesse Jackson chanting with Stanford undergraduates seemed like a real threat. The fight still rages on in some quarters, however, generating, as it did two decades ago, more heat than light. Writers like Christopher Hitchens have written that, once the war against terrorism here and abroad has been won, the world will enter a new era of liberal secularist progress, while others mutter darkly about American fundamentalism. Meanwhile, conservatives too have their divisions. Some, like David Brooks, see the future largely as a pleasant bourgeois paradise; others, such as Russell Kirk, were less optimistic about the benefits of technology and consumer culture.
]]>The Fall of Rome: Season Twohttps://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2007/04/the-fall-of-rome-season-two
Mon, 09 Apr 2007 00:00:00 -0400What was perhaps the most pro-Christian show on television did not have a single Christian character in it¯and there was no way it could have.
, the hit series that has just completed its second (and for now final) season on the cable channel HBO, turned out to be a surprising affirmation of the Western religious tradition. While it is packed with sex and violence, its message¯intended or not¯is that the Roman world was desperate for Christianity.
]]>Progress and Religionhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2002/04/progress-and-religion
Mon, 01 Apr 2002 00:00:00 -0500 Not so long ago, before the dot“com bubble“burst and the September 11 terrorist attack, it seemed as if history would deliver all good things. The Dow was continuing its steady rise, and the nation seemingly faced no insurmountable problems. We were living at or near the end of history, with only a little tidying up to do at the rougher edges of the world before all would be permanently well. The events of last September compelled us to reconsider such rosy assumptions.
This pre“September 11 idyll was no anomaly. The belief in a perfect future has been a consistent feature of Western thought, emerging out of Christian hope of salvation in the next world. For the last two hundred years, however, this hope has been expressed usually in political or economic, rather than in religious, terms. This change has been so complete that the common presumption among elites, from the Davos World Economic Forum to the UN, is that this future path will entail the demise of religion. It is thus particularly appropriate that the Catholic University of America Press has reissued Christopher Dawsons
Progress and Religion
(originally published in 1929) as part of a planned series of Dawson volumes. Long before Francis Fukuyamas declaration of the end of history or Samuel Huntingtons clash of civilizations, Dawson (1889“1970) proposed a very different foundation for the study of human society. With
Progress and Religion
as well as such other books as
The Age of the Gods
The Making of Europe
(1932), Dawson unapologetically placed religion at the center of culture rather than on the periphery.
Dawson is one of those historians everyone should read but few actually do. It was not always so. In his lifetime, Arnold Toynbee and T. S. Eliot, among others, recognized his mastery of comparative history and religion and admired his crisp prose style. Almost alone in the 1920s and 30s, he contended with those who denied religion any cultural significance. A young convert to Catholicism, Dawson was active for many years in ecumenical efforts in England. This experience had a clear impact on his awareness of cultural differences that is reflected in his sympathetic understanding of other cultures.
Progress and Religion
is a direct attack on the nineteenth“ and early twentieth“century social sciences and their understanding of progress. Now known as the secularization thesis, the theory of progress proposes that civilizational development is directly proportional to a decline in religious belief and influence. In three chapters, one each devoted to sociology, anthropology, and history, Dawson examines the thought of such figures as Condorcet, Comte, Frazer, and LePlay. Drawing on their work, the social sciences excluded religion, either through Cartesian rationalism, Spenglerian theories of civilizational life cycles, or supposed general laws of anthropological development. They uniformly neglected the study of religion in its fundamental social aspects. In the view of such thinkers, religion was essentially a negative force like ignorance or tyranny and so could not be a creative cultural influence.
Dawson overturned this entire way of thinking about culture. In passionate, disciplined prose, he demonstrated that materialist or environmental explanations of religious belief simply did not accord with the evidence. Modern writers on anthropology and primitive thought have tended to assume that religion is a secondary phenomenon and that mans earliest attitude to reality was a kind of empirical materialism. On the contrary, as he wrote in 1925, the great civilizations of the world do not produce the great religions as a kind of cultural by“product; in a very real sense the great religions are the foundations on which the great civilizations rest. In her introduction to the new edition of the book, the distinguished anthropologist Mary Douglas notes that Dawson artfully stages a dialogue between the eighteenth“century philosophers, Condorcet, Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel, and the people they thought of as primitive. Religious faith takes on a different perspective if examined from the point of view of these people themselves, and not through the prism of anthropological theory. The thin rationalism [of modern anthropology], which proceeded by arbitrarily separating one level of experience from the next, grossly distorted the subject matter and made a mockery of its pretensions to objectivity. These thinkers largely ignored the brute fact that an obscure and confused intuition of transcendent being was present in and influenced both so“called primitive cultures and more advanced ones.
Progress and Religion
shows, moreover, that the religious factor has had a far more important share in the development of human cultures than that which has usually been ascribed to it. Contrary to the assumptions of the progressive anthropologists, material and cultural progress need not go together. The early Christians in the Roman Empire, for example, created a more dynamic and vibrant culture than the dying, higher culture of the pagans. Likewise, Dawson notes peoples such as the Eskimo or Bushmen, whom the theorists of progress considered completely dominated by their physical surroundings. In fact, these cultures are the results of a free and intelligent activity, and it expresses itself in an art and a folklore far richer and more original than that of many more advanced peoples. Dawson was no cultural relativist, but his analysis reveals that the secular scale of values simply does not capture the reality of human social life. The lesson he drew was that religious faith is the spark of culture, and external material success will not survive its being extinguished. That lesson is particularly important today, when some continue to describe complex world cultures in simple, undifferentiated terms and understand them using the same imprecise Enlightenment concepts.
Recent anthropological scholarship has confirmed Dawsons thesis about the religious basis of culture and cast serious doubt on the modern equation of progress with secularism. As such scholars as Rebecca French and David Hollinger have noted, religious ways of seeing the world remain the dominant interpretive tool for most people. Dawson anticipated this transition, insisting that progress has begun to lose its hold on the mind of society . . . because the phase of civilization of which it was characteristic is already beginning to pass away. While a more positive assessment of religions role has gained some ground, most of the academy and the wider circle of intellectuals and writers continue to ignore the formative role of religion, in the West and throughout the world.
Religion is a natural human impulse, and if it cannot be ex pressed in culture, it will find an outlet in ideology. In Dawsons time, the great temptations were the ideologies of fascism, communism, and Nazism. Today, our vulnerability is different. Elites in the West have become almost unable to understand religious motivations for conduct, even if the antiquated theory of progress no longer commands the scientific support it once did. This blindness has clear dangers not only with respect to our current efforts to understand Islam, but also in relation to other parts of the world, such as Tibet, and even in the United States itself, where the culture wars are largely motivated by a latent progressivism. The recent flare“up about evangelicals being uneducated and easy to lead, not to mention the efforts to explain away certain strains of Islam as motivated by economic or other nonreligious factors, are recurring echoes of the problem Dawson originally diagnosed. Despite its claim to universality, the secularization thesis, no less than the end of history schema, contributes little to our understanding of the place of religion in the world today.
America, which Dawson did not visit until the late 1950s when he was appointed to the first Stillman Chair in Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard, initially seemed to be his worst“case scenario. The nation regarded itself as the culmination of the project of human freedom, where old loyalties were cast aside in favor of the
novus ordo seclorum
, and where self“invention was part of the national character. In the 1920s and 30s, Dawson thought that America could not resist becoming a purely secular type of culture which subordinates the whole of life to practical and economic ends and leaves no room for independent spiritual activity. In
Progress and Religion
, American civilization was the embodiment of technology gone awry: life acquired meaning only through consumption and production, by more cinemas, motor“cars for all, wireless installations, more elaborate methods of killing people, purchase on the hire system, preserved foods, and picture papers. (One can only wonder what Dawson would have made of the Internet.)
However, in an important lecture on America and the Secularization of Modern Culture, presented in the same year that John Courtney Murrays
We Hold These Truths
was published (1960), Dawson set forth a more hopeful view. Americas origins in the dissenting and pluralist tradition of Protestantism had established a realm of personal and communal freedom outside the power of the state. The nations individualism clearly bore the imprint of the Christian focus on the sacredness of the person, despite occasional lapses into narcissism. Just as importantly, American culture had developed without the anticlericalism or antireligious character that was common among its European counterparts. Further, America had a clear, if legally unrecognized, role for religion in public life. While Dawson foresaw that the sometimes stark separation of the world of business and politics from that of religious belief threatened to produce what has been called a naked public square, he nevertheless thought that because the nation combined a deep religiosity with enormous material wealth and productivity, there is great opportunity in America that may never be repeated.
Because of this heritage, Americans are able to understand religious belief. More importantly, at its best the nation can be a model of how to interpret modern political forms through the eyes of faith. The ability to hold strong religious convictions and to profess democratic principles is Americas great contribution to the world, despite elite opinion about the separation of church and state on the one hand or a restricted Christian America on the other. This comfort with the modern mix of religion and politics may be of even greater importance in the coming century.
Gerald J. Russello, a lawyer in New York City, is the editor of
Christianity and European Culture: Selections from the Work of Christopher Dawson
(CUA Press, 1998). The book is unrelated to the new series of Dawsons works.