Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Christianity in the Modern Age

A friend posted this piece entitled "Elephants in Rooms" from The Catholic Thing and asked people's thoughts on it, and since I needed a post for the day I figured I'd write them up here.

It summarized the economic changes from a largely agrarian world which it describes as one in which families worked together as a whole to a world in which adults work outside the home while retreating to the home for some degree of time together as a family (though that itself is much interrupted by the entertainment and digital world.) This economic change, it posits, is the elephant in the room which has disrupted the traditional mores of Christianity. The conclusion:

We are all “trans” today. Men and women are treated as interchangeable, and since the development of public education, all the traditional functions of family have been farmed out. The family exists today as a unit only of consumption; if that, in light of fast food and fast everything.

The Christian religion (as all other religions) is predicated upon basic, universal, pre-modern social arrangements. These no longer exist, unless they are voluntarily adopted. But they cannot be adopted without comprehensive interference by the vast agencies of government and business which have by now assumed ALL the ancient patriarchal functions.

One might say, as some feminists do, that this makes men unnecessary. It also makes women and children unnecessary, except to generate a labor force, itself increasingly unnecessary due to advances in production techniques. The abortion mills thus make perfect sense: first to free women from distractions to employment, and then to phase out men and women entirely.

This, to my mind, is the elephant in our room. We do all in our power to accommodate it. Perhaps we should work on re-accommodating Christianity, instead.

A couple reactions occur to me.

Firstly, while I think there's a good argument to made that changes in economics and technology have had a major impact on the extent to which 'traditional morality' is re-enforced by cultural circumstances, think it's important to recall that neither traditional morals nor traditional social structures are the central aspects of Christianity. Rather, the central aspect of Christianity is the fact that God became man, suffered for our sins, rose from the dead, and provides the sacraments to us as channels of grace so that we may some day spent the rest of eternity in the beatific vision of Him. I assume that the author of the piece is well aware of this, but it's worth reiterating because too often these days moral practice is seen as the central aspect of religion. Certainly, if we believe that Christ is God, we should desire very much to follow His moral laws. And we often find ourselves expending considerable energy in insisting the God's laws remain immutable. But if God's laws are immutable, then they are in substance no less for this moment than they were for 33 A.D.

Second, it's worth recalling that the past was not always as conducive to moral behavior as we might think. The image that we often hear of is of a society in which people married and stayed married, lived in rural cottages, and worked together while rearing their children. This did, of course, happen. But these same traditional societies featured younger sons who were expected never to marry because they didn't have enough money to support a family; women who didn't find or couldn't afford a husband and so became single domestic staff to their own families, 'fallen women' who had few other options than to live by prostitution (thus providing an outlet for the men who would never be able to afford marriage), etc. Traditional societies had their own strong tendencies to vice, it's just that they were different tendencies to different vices than those in our highly fluid economy and individualistic society in which people are told they should value personal fulfillment above all things.

So yes, the modern economy (and perhaps even more so, modern contraceptive technology) have removed many of the incentives which we recall in cultural memory as belonging to the time just before the modern era. As we Christians think about how to live morally within the modern era, we must in part think about the particular ways in which modern society has embedded in it assumptions and incentives towards immoral choices. And yet, all eras present their own tendencies to vice. Our need to find ways to live counter-culturally in seeking virtue is not unique. The culture is different, but it's imperfection is not.


Agnes said...

"The Christian religion (as all other religions) is predicated upon basic, universal, pre-modern social arrangements"

I have never read anything by this author, but this is really not a Catholic statement. Actually, I learned it in my childhood as a Marxist and Communist social theory (the concliusion in that contest was, of course, that in our modern society there was really no place for such an antiquated and outdated entitiy). One can, of course, view religion/the Church as a social structure founded in a certain social surrounding and as such, of course it reflects that society's attitudes. Christianity, however, is transcendent: it surpasses society's mores and rules. Christ did not obey meaningless social rules of his own society - not even those which were supposedly of religious origin.
Also, the "traditional morality", when it was upheld by nothing more than the outward pressure from society, did not necessarily reflect personal moral actions, did not people obeying social pressure virtuous and moral - not any more than wearing black for deceased relatives would induce personal feelings of grief if the feeling doesn't come from within.
That exalted traditional morality (from society's point of view) quite liberally allowed men as heads of families to beat and abuse their dependent family members.

"Our need to find ways to live counter-culturally in seeking virtue is not unique."
I agree completely. Well said!

mandamum said...

Good points, Darwin and Agnes. A statement that begins, "The Christian religion (as all other religions) is predicated upon..." and doesn't end with some form of ..."the truth - ie the way things REALLY are, also known as reality - revealed to us by God who can neither deceive nor be deceived," can't be Catholic. The assumption that a religion "is predicated upon" anything else points to the speaker's underlying assumption that it's a purely human construction, reacting to the surroundings, rather than something BEGUN by God, as we profess to believe.

Darwin said...


Very good point. The idea that Christianity depends for its existence on the economy/society of the past is pretty clearly how some of Christianity's enemies such as atheistic communism talks about it. It's problematic for a Christian to be describing his faith that way.

Agnes said...

Also, I find fault with the concept of "Christian religion as all other religions" - Christianity comes from God's revelation and although its traits (and its place in society/role in society) are similar to other religions which are born from humanity's attempts to reach towards transcendency, this sets it clearly apart from them.

Pat D. said...

To say that all religions are predicated on social conditions is to say that no religion is true. I don't see any way around that.