Wednesday, March 27, 2019

As If Recently Heathen

I once thought, and thought for a very long time, that it would be very interesting to live in a generation when a society shifted from pagan to Christian, and people are still trying to sort things out, where people's Christianity is sincere but growing in a soil that's still esssentially heathen -- the Germanic tribes in the Greco-Roman period, or Iceland in the middle of Njal's Saga, or Lithuania in the fifteenth century. But there came a time when I suddenly realized that it's actually not hard for us in the modern West to know what this would be like, because the way modern education and upbringing works has a very similar effect: whatever our family may have been, and no matter how sincere our Christianity, it's as if we are, every generation, recently converted.

I was thinking of this today. When discussing virtue ethics, I always do a section on the cardinal virtues, because you can't really do virtue ethics without looking at how specific virtues work. And I always make sure to mention that 'prudence', 'providence', and 'provision' are very closely related words, because this is true and I think important for how the words have worked historically. It's only the intrinsic importance that leads me to do it; it's certainly not that it makes pedagogy easier, because the overwhelming majority of my college students cannot tell me what the word 'providence' means. They usually can't even go so far as to say that you might hear the word in a religious context. They don't remember ever coming across the word. I find it impossible to believe even in this day and age that they have really never come across it, ever, but it's certainly true that they have come across it so rarely that they don't remember it at all. I cannot really wrap my mind around that, but it is true, term after term. It's been true as long as I've been asking. Many of them are Christian, and are strictly speaking committed to it; for that matter, more than a few of the non-Christians are in fact committed to something of the sort. But you couldn't tell that from their language; it's as if they recently converted and their language is still catching up.

Tomorrow I'll look a bit at the cardinal virtues in IV Maccabees, which is a minor classic in virtue ethics. There are no Maccabees in IV Maccabees (it's a philosophical reflection on II Maccabees, which also has no Maccabees), but it covers the period of the Maccabean martyrs, that is, the lead-up to the revolt by the Maccabees. But I will certainly have to explain what a Maccabee is, because it's important context, and I always have to explain it, because they don't have even the most vague and loose knowledge of who the Maccabees were. I remember when I started teaching that I was just utterly floored, astounded, baffled, that the majority of my Catholic students and a large minority of my Jewish students had no idea who the Maccabees were. It still flummoxes me, to some extent; I grew up Southern Baptist and I could have told you who the Maccabees were, and the story of Hanukkah, when I was twelve years old. That's one of the reasons it so baffled me; I thought everybody learned that sort of thing. That there are Catholics and Jews who don't, despite being Catholics or Jews, is truly remarkable. I would have understood being hazy about it; being completely in the dark about it, having gone through childhood and part of adulthood without ever having come across it, made and still makes no sense to me. But so it is. And it's certainly true that you can be Catholic, sincerely and definitely Catholic, without knowing who the Maccabees are; that's exactly the sort of thing you'd expect, in fact, of people who became Catholic in a context that had itself only recently become Catholic.

I consistently have students in my Intro classes, probably the majority of students in every class, who don't recognize "In the beginning was the Word" is from the Gospel of John (it comes up briefly when I talk about Middle Platonism and the transition to Neoplatonism, again because of the intrinsic importance and not because it makes it easier to teach). We're not talking about not being able to recall it from memory on their own; we're talking that most don't even recognize it and many of those who do might only be tipped off to the possibility that it is from the Bible if you continued the rest of the verse and so mentioned God. But most of my students are Christian, and quite sincerely so.

This is not a rant about ignorance; obviously there are other things they do recognize quite well and can talk quite intelligently about. And sometimes it's a matter of their not knowing what they already know, and not recognizing what they have seen in a different form. And more importantly, I don't think any of us are really any different. Those of us who know more do so because we deliberately set out to learn more, in very much the same way that some people did in societies that had only Christianized in the past generation or two. Some may have had a bit of an extra boost from one thing or another, but it doesn't seem to change the fundamental nature of being Christian in an ambience that is only uncertainly Christian, as if the whole thing were new. The ignorance is much the same ignorance, yes, but so is the learning; the apathies are the same, yes, but so are the zeals.

I couldn't say precisely what it is the cause of it all, or why the modern West manages to do this repeatedly. I don't think I really have a moral to all this. I certainly don't have a solution. I'm not even sure it needs a definite solution, rather than just time to work itself out naturally. In the long run, it makes little difference; things go in cycles and history shows that even evangelism itself really only occurs through layers laid on layers by a tide that goes in and out. But I think a lot of the problems Christian churches have are partly explained by the fact that we are all acting, however strange it may be that we are so acting, as if we were all in the first or second generation of a conversion from heathenism.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.