Why I’m Wary of Civilization and Why You Should Be Too

I just finished reading Leonard Wibberley’s hilarious, poignant, and eminently readable The Trouble with the Irish (Or the English, Depending on Your Point of View). At one point in the tortured history of Anglo-Irish relations, Norman invaders had invited an Irish lord to a parley where they betrayed and killed him. Wibberley had this to say about the episode:

The explanation for this ungracious behavior, so surprising to the Irish, is simple. It lies in the fact that Irish were regarded by the Normans as barbarous people. It has for centuries been recognized as the duty of civilized people to slaughter those whom they hold barbarous, this being a method of spreading civilization. This tenet was held quite as strongly in the nineteenth century as in the twelfth. The Normans, if they thought of the matter at all, felt they were civilizing the Irish. [The Trouble With the Irish, 48]

Assyrian Foot on Enemy - Enlarge

Tiglath-Pileser III, Assyrian King, subjugates someone under his foot (The British Museum)

Wibberley is, of course, right. A vast portion of the history of society—not only in the West but in the East and South as well—is the history of civilization pitted against non-civilization. One group, more organized, more resourced, cleverer, takes advantage of a weaker, more barbaric, less organized, or less clever group, and “civilizes” it—that is, incorporates it forcefully into its own construct. The weak are made to serve the stronger, and the strong continue their march toward destiny, or progress, or whatever. We could better laugh at such antiquated perceptions if they did not continue to operate so insidiously today.

Ironically, it is in the agenda of modern Liberalism where this idea of forcible civilization is most entrenched today. To the adherents of this mindset, the future is an inevitability of progress and is represented, among other beliefs, in an increased role of government oversight, unlimited contraception, abortion on demand, sexual mores defined solely by consent, redistribution of wealth, and with all of these the ridicule and dismantling of any and all opposition. As card-carrying ambassadors of tolerance and diversity, they quite readily vilify any opposition to their enlightened agenda. Above all else, such liberalism views antiquated Christianity with enraged intolerance, and demands the purgation and “civilization” of any vestiges of Christendom. They believe they are doing the Christians a favor.

Not long ago I was seat-mates on a plane with a lovely young woman working in the tech industry. She, an ideological vegan, was passionately working to develop a veggie burger that truly tasted like meat. Her primary motive was ecological (the cattle industry is a big contributor to environmental change in many nations). Later, our conversation ranged to a number of other subjects, and as often happens when she found out I was a minister the subject turned to homosexuality and gay marriage. She found it incomprehensible that a Christian would deny another person the right to love whom they choose. We had a lovely conversation, but she seemed blissfully unaware of the double standard in her thoughts—she was perfectly happy to make choices for others when it comes to the environment (you shouldn’t eat meat), but completely in defense of people’s rights to make choices for themselves in other areas (you should love whom you choose). The view that progressivism is completely natural, while Christianity is utterly backwards, illustrates merely one way that Liberalism is remarkably blind to its own contradictions as it projects onto the world its own peculiar brand of “civilization.”

Veggie Burger

The deep and fatal flaw of this thinking—expressed both in Liberalism but also in the idea of “civilization”—is rooted in progressivism. Progressivism is the belief that society is getting better and better. Maybe not people, of course, but generally speaking, progressivism holds that the world is moving towards a better and better state. If you have doubts about this, consider how desperate are the vast technological pressures of our day—to become better, to release new products or else. Consider the idea of planned obsolescence, which holds that a thing should be built to last only until the next, newer model comes out. Consider the tacit belief that we are searching for other habitable planets in the universe in the hope that one day we can colonize them (presumably so that we can wreck them just like we are wrecking this one—as Albany says to Goneril in King Lear, “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well”). Consider the roots of this thinking in how we perceive evolutionary theory—the core of our modern societal belief about the human self. Species change over time, but the implied, unspoken assumption is that they are always changing for the better. But why should this necessarily be the case? If evolutionary change is indeed grounded in random mutations, doesn’t that mean that sometimes species will change for the worse? Furthermore, if this universe is all there is, and if it is slowly dying out, what does the idea of “better” even mean? If life is as meaningless as such an outlook suggests, aren’t the best adapted life forms those which have already died?

When you think about it, our whole outlook is shaped by the idea that civilization is advancing—few are asking towards what. I am reminded of Ian Malcolm’s criticism of scientific advances from Jurassic Park—words that might be lost in the flashy effects and pure excitement of seeing dinosaurs on screen—“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” We are very much moving without thinking, without reflection; moving, as it were, without direction at all. C.S. Lewis speaks to this situation with his usual perspicacity,

We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. [Mere Christianity, “We Have Cause to Be Uneasy”]

Ian Malcolm Jurassic Park

Liberalism, blinded by progressivism, is in love with its own agenda—and yet it is an agenda without roots. Why should we follow it? Where does it lead us? Precisely how does it make humanity better? Why should this vision of “civilization” be privileged over any other? To stand on any solid ground Liberalism has to give answer—Where is it going? What is the human person? What is the purpose of the human person on earth? And how does such an agenda facilitate pursuit of that objective? To do this it must appeal to categories of good and evil, of truth and falsehood, and so engage with decidedly old and nonprogressive ideas—it must engage, in short, with Christianity.

Richard Weaver in his 1948 book Ideas Have Consequences paints a vivid and prophetic picture of the necessary solution and imminent dangers:

Hysterical optimism will prevail until the world again admits the existence of tragedy, and it cannot admit the existence of tragedy until it again distinguishes between good and evil. Hope of restoration depends upon recovery of the “ceremony of innocence,” of that clearness of vision and knowledge of form which enable us to sense what is alien or destructive, what does not comport with our moral ambition. The time to seek this is now, before we have acquired the perfect insouciance of those who prefer perdition. For, as the course goes on, the movement turns centrifugal; we rejoice in our abandon and are never so full of the sense of accomplishment as when we have struck some bulwark of our culture a deadly blow. [Ideas Have Consequences, 11]

Until an acknowledgement of good and evil, of truth and falsehood, has reasserted itself in our public discourse, no motion towards progress can be faithfully made, and no advance of “civilization” can be faithfully trusted. Until we know what we’re doing, and where we’re going, and why we’re going there, we are traveling blind. And that is a very dangerous state in which to be.

In The Trouble with the Irish Wibberley recounts how in time the Irish were forced to become a kind of cultural underground—disenfranchised from all cultural rights they preserved themselves through hidden schools, language preservation, and secret religious practice. This was the only way to survive the onslaught of “civilization.” By God’s grace such extremes won’t happen to Christians today, but if it does, then God give us strength to be faithful until the agenda of the world, and of its civilization, and of this kingdom set so firmly in opposition to God’s, collapses under its own perverse and twisted weight. In the words of the Psalmist (11:3-4), “If the foundations are destroyed, What can the righteous do?” The answer is clear: “The Lord is in His holy temple.” If the foundations are destroyed, God’s people are to look ever more closely to Him.

4 comments on “Why I’m Wary of Civilization and Why You Should Be Too

  1. Jamie Carter says:

    Let’s not forget that Christians also tried to civilize their slaves and “savage” neighbors (when they weren’t stealing land from them by making and breaking their promoses) – it has taken a leaf out of the world’s book even today, trying to use it’s power to set rules by which the world operates. If the secular world wants to accept a more diverse understanding of marriage – then what’s that to the church – why should it be surprised that the worldly world is acting worldly?

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Yes, Christians have been terribly complicit and uncritical in their exercise of worldly power–no disagreement there. Even the first example of Normans and Irish is two groups of Christians–one defrauding the other. Lots to grieve about there. Two issues remain, however–how do you *actually* distinguish between the so-called “secular” and “Christian” worlds? And if the “secular” world initiates a program of “civilizing” the Christian one, what are Christians to do about it? I’m not advocating theocracy, but at some point coming to terms means coming to a table made out of the knowledge of good and evil. At such a neutral table, how do you suppose the secular agenda would far?

      • Jamie Carter says:

        I guess it all depends on what we call common ground. Biblical gender roles to one is sexism to the other. One is good and the other is not. First we figure out where we have common ground and build off of that.

  2. JD says:

    “She, an ideological vegan, was passionately working to develop a veggie burger that truly tasted like meat.” This seems a perfect metaphor for progressivism, which is increasingly described in religious terms even as it seeks to stamp out any religious zealots who dare oppose its agenda. It’s like establishing a religion based on Lennon’s song imagining “no religion too.”

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