Saturday, May 23, 2015

Theories of Western Decline

I've been exploring what happened when Rome became Christian and asked when Europe became Christian. Today I want to begin exploring several theories of Western decline.

1. The Story of Progress
Before I mention several stories of decline, I might mention the story of progress. There are many who view the last five hundred years as something like a non-stop evolution to a better and better understanding. They would view the Middle Ages as something like the "dark" ages and the Renaissance as a rebirth of culture.

The Enlightenment was thus truly about becoming more reasonable, about shedding religious superstition, and so forth. The rise of science is seen as parallel to this trajectory toward reason and truth. We expect science to make the world a better and better place. At one point, we thought humanity would become more and more virtuous.

2. The Modernist Dead End
I don't know how many people still really subscribe to any strong form of the story of progress I just mentioned. Star Trek in the 80s still looked to a future where humanity was more civilized, more evolved than it is now. But the movies of the last 25 years have been much more apocalyptic. There are more zombies, more world-ending catastrophes, more post-apocalyptic reversions.

Nietzsche in the late 1800s was a herald of where modernism ended, namely, with no basis for morality other than the creation of ingenious Superman who could convince the rest of the world. Alistair MacIntyre depicted a moral world where we had fragments of a picture from the past that we could not remember. Louis Pojman's ethics text deliberately mimicked J. L. Mackie with the subtitle Discovering Right and Wrong rather than Mackie's, "inventing" right and wrong.

In Nietzsche's theory of Western decline, Socrates himself was the culprit. It was he who taught the West to ask questions, that the "unexamined life is not worth living." While Nietzsche agreed with the end of that train of thought in his own writings, he warned that it would not be good for most people to play out the train of thought. They might think that it was good for God to be dead, but it would not turn out as well as they thought. In that sense, Nietzsche is sometimes considered a prophet of the twentieth century.

3. The Story of the Protestant Principle
According to Paul Tillich, it was inevitable that Protestantism would splinter into tens of thousands of little groups once it made a text the center of authority. Texts are polyvalent. They are susceptible to multiple interpretations. So each little group, reading the Bible "alone," becomes confident that it knows exactly what God thinks... and it splinters off from its parent body. And it then goes on to hereticize everyone who disagrees... until the next group splits from it.

Brad Gregory, in Unintended Reformation, more or less sees the turn away from the external authority of the Church as the culprit. Left without some third party to arbitrate the meaning of Scripture, each interprets as is right in his own eyes. Most crucially, secular authority becomes the highest authority rather than religious authority. Completely unintended, Christianity hands its ultimate authority over to worldly powers. Gregory is, of course, Roman Catholic.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of almost Catholics around. There are plenty of people in Wesleyan circles who are on some version of the Canterbury Trail, although many of them stop at Episcopalian. You often get the feeling, though, that they think the Reformation was at least in part a mistake, certainly that modernism was a mistake. All we need to do is go back to some version of catholicism, even if it is the catholicism of the 400s.

In another scenario, Protestant Liberalism was a predictable trajectory for a "Bible only" approach. For once the historical consciousness of modernism comes into play, the premodern, unified text suddenly falls apart into 66 distinct books with distinct contexts addressing distinct audiences. Thus, even most evangelical biblical theologies are not divided up by theological topic, but by Paul, Matthew, and so forth.

4. Nominalist Ideas Have Consequences.
Richard Weaver, in 1948, argued that America was in a state of degradation because of a trajectory first set by the nominalists just before the Reformation. In rhetoric now very familiar, he blamed a turn to relativism and away from absolutes. I've recently written on how fallacy-ridden most of this rhetoric is. Weaver's ideal world was the Roman Catholic society of the Middle Ages (even though he was a "nominal" Protestant).

Nominalism was a rejection of the reality of universals in the late Middle Ages. It is, in my opinion, an extension of Aquinas' version of absolutes, where absolutes are not distinct from the things in which they occur. The nominalists took this concept one step further, namely, that there are just individual things. Weaver, unsurprisingly, was somewhat Platonic in orientation.

Luther's theology is often thought to have been influenced by nominalism. God deems a person righteous without a person being righteous.

5. Aquinas and the triumph of reason
Francis Schaeffer taught that Aquinas had started the decline of the West by rejecting that the human mind was fallen. No serious scholar of history or Aquinas agrees. Schaeffer was a presuppositionalist thinker who more or less held that unless God gave you the right presuppositions out of thin air, you couldn't possibly arrive at the truth.

So the introduction of reason into the equation, in his view, inevitably resulted in humanity thinking it was the authority on what was true, with a resultant decline in the West climaxing with the legalization of abortion in the 1970s.

6. James Sire and declining worldviews
In The Universe Next Door, James Sire describes the changing worldviews since the Reformation as a logical unraveling from theism to deism to naturalism to nihilism to existentialism to neo-spiritualism. In the 1500s, God was thought to exist and to be active in the world. In the 1600s and 1700s, we saw the rise of deism, which sees the world more or less as a machine that doesn't require God's intervention.

In the 1800s with evolution, we see the rise of naturalism, where God is not even thought to be needed as creator. This inevitably results in a Nietzschean nihilism. In the 1950s, existentialism rose to try to reintroduce meaning into the universe. But as it is ultimately unsatisfying, an attempt to recapture a spiritual dimension to life is seen in the new age movement and neo-spiritualism.

On Monday, I may try to evaluate these in some sort of synthetic way. What seems true about these somewhat conflicting theories?

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