Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Sorta political: Our secular paganism

Casanova told Voltaire that if religion was eliminated, something would have to be found to replace it. Chesterton seems to have thought that the problem then was that we would bounce to just about anything to replace religion. Although both have been partly vindicated, neither man seems to have gotten it entirely right. What has happened as Christianity recedes is that a very specific set of pagan beliefs—a set of beliefs that anyone who has studied the pagan superstitions of the ancient world would recognize—has sprung up.  The shift has not been nearly so random as was anticipated.

Saying the Office of Readings this morning, I came across a very clear example of the contrast between Christianity and the secular paganism that has replaced it in many people's hearts. The second reading is a special one for the memorial for Saint Joseph the Worker and it's taken from Gaudium et spes. That is interesting in itself for while many Catholics and non-Catholics talk about Vatican II, very few actually read the documents of the council. A lot of people prefer to just make stuff up and claim it's backed by the council (but that is a subject for another day).

The reading starts as you might expect, "By his labor and abilities man has always striven to improve the quality of his life." And then it goes on to a discussion of how the modern world has changed things:
Through the development of the many means of communication among nations, the human family is coming to see itself, and establish itself, as a single worldwide community. As a result, where formerly man looked especially to supernatural forces for blessings, he now secures many of these blessings for himself, thanks to his own efforts.
You may be thinking that the next step is condemn the modern world for this and say that men should abandon this and revert to looking to supernatural forces for blessings. In fact Vatican II went exactly the opposite way:
Those who believe in God take it for granted that, taken by itself, man's activity, both individual and collective—that great struggle in which men in the course of the ages have sought to  improve the conditions of human living—is in keeping with God's purpose.
Note that: the modern world and all its comforts and conveniences are in accord with God's purpose—this is the way God wants it to be.

On the other hand, and what I think is interesting, is the degree to which our secular paganism condemns all the mod cons. Think of literature and movies that paints the suburbs as awful, soulless places, of those who attack the American dream, of the  environmentalist movement. All these would have us believe that our attempts to make our lives better are the source of evil.

Of course, no one knew this yet when the documents of Vatican II were composed. There was fear of the bomb in those days but most still took modern technology as something to be optimistic about. New cars, new technology, new houses and new neighbourhoods were all taken to be good things. That optimism is gone now.

As I've said before, honour and shame morality and fatalism go part and partial with paganism. The fatality that drives so  much contemporary culture is not an accident. The incredible irony here is that, as the general culture becomes more pagan, it is in the documents of Vatican II that we find the clearest faith in and optimism for modernity:
So far from thinking that the achievements gained by man's abilities and strength are in opposition to God's power, or that man with his intelligence is in some sense a rival to his creator, Christians are, on the contrary convinced that the triumphs of the human race are a sign of God's greatness and the effect of his wonderful providence.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of Catholics who don't get that. Worse, the people who claim to be great fans of Vatican II are the ones most likely to be importing a lot of Gaia worshiping bullshit into the church and society at large.

On this day of Saint Joseph the worker, make a point of enjoying the benefits of modern technology: use your electric appliances, drive your car, get in your hot tub, read your e-reader and have a chilled beer with your dinner.

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