Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Cultural Amnesia

A few evenings ago, I watched Bill Moyers interviewing Clive James, the Australian journalist, on PBS. James has written a book entitled 'Cultural Amnesia,' which they were discussing, (or marketing, depending on your point of view). Apparently, the main thesis of the book is that something of great value will be lost if the West forgets its cultural heritage. I agree. Like a fish that fails to appreciate the water in which it swims, Western Civilisation depends, to a large extent, upon the intellectual inheritance birthed, first by the Renaissance, then by the Enlightenment. Unless an appreciation for the liberal arts is taught to a new generation, their benefits may be lost. Unless the rights afforded by democracy are championed, they are likely to be taken for granted, before being sold for a mess of potage or a bag of magic beans. I didn't hear the entire interview, but I did wonder whether James would be as vocal in his defense of the benefits won by the Reformation.
I have always enjoyed Clive James' writing. He has a penchant for le bon mot, and seems able to express complicated subjects in terms which make them accessible to ordinary people. He's an old-fashioned Socialist at heart, with Old Labour's disdain for anything approaching elitism. His writing is clear, insightful, and thought-provoking. He also has a great sense of humor. If writers are to be judged on the basis of whether one would wish to spend time in their company, then Clive James is near the top of my list.
Towards the end of the interview, Bill Moyers asked James how he would have ordered the world differently, if he were God. It was a good question to ask a person thoroughly immersed in the secularism of modern Europe. James' reply was revealing. On the one hand, he had no idea how he would order the world differently. On the other hand, he was quite sure that he would make a better job of it than God. When asked why, James laughed and replied that, if there is some kind of divine force, it is "obvious" that this god does not interfere in the affairs of men.
The horrors of the Holocaust made a lasting impression upon Clive James as a young man. To this day, he cannot understand how such evil could have been perpetrated without divine intervention. Neither can he understand how his father could have survived internment in Japan, during the Second World War, only to be killed in a tragic accident while being repatriated to Australia by the Americans at war's end. He would not accept that a loving God could allow such seemingly senseless human suffering.
As an expression of the argument from evil, James' words are nothing new. I remember a debate I had with Alan Dutton, one of my old philosophy professors in Birmingham, which followed the same course almost exactly. Alan wanted to believe. He found Christ tremendously attractive. But he could not or would not believe. "Evil trumps love," he used to say. Nevertheless, he was open to being proved wrong. We talked about not blaming God for human evil, and the context of human freedom which stays God's hand. The arguments on both sides are well-known. For myself, I remain convinced that suffering has to be understood in light of the Cross - God's self-identification with the pain of a fallen world through the person of His Son. I also remain sure that God, in His mercy, only allows evil because He does not want to compel us to do good. Unless we are to be no more than mindless automata, obeying without the action of our wills, then we must be free to choose evil. Finally, I believe that human suffering must be understood within a teleological framework that acknowledges history's goal. If human history is purposive; if God has a desired end in sight, then we cannot judge the play until the curtain falls.
What surprised me about Clive James was the arrogance of his laughter. To be fair, Bill Moyer did not invite him to debate. James was never challenged. It was not put to him that his position is as much an act of faith as is that of the theist. The difference is, of course, that James has faith in his own mental faculties, not in God. He does not see that "the fallenness of humanity," one of the key ingredients of Christian anthropology, has warped him, just as it made a demon out of Adolf Hitler. James fails to grasp that Western Civilisation requires Augustine, not just Aristotle.
Culture, we are told, depends upon a humanist intellectual inheritance, derived from Enlightenment thinkers from Rousseau to Voltaire. In one sense, this is true. The seeds of optimistic modernism have blossomed, but they have become the poisoned plant of postmodernity. Instead of Diderot we are left with Derrida. Yet the culture that gave birth to Erasmus also produced Martin Luther. We cannot lament the loss of cultural icons without recognising the part played by the Christian faith. That's why James' laughter is dangerous. He, and many like him, already have selective cultural amnesia.

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