Of Elephants in Rooms
Is the Christian religion in any way relevant to the modern world?
Having read a lot about “elephants in the room,” lately, I propose this elephantine question. Like most other big questions, it has been in the room for some time (we seem to have a whole zoo up here), without being properly acknowledged. Occasionally a trunk, ear, belly, knee, or tail is described, but seldom with reference to the rest of the beast.
This is understandable. Elephants are big, we are small; rooms are intellectually confining. After a certain amount of time, the habit of working around big things, such as elephants, becomes ingrained. They are taken for granted, normalized. We only notice elephants when they move; and then we see it as a local issue.
Of course, with elephants, a whole room can fill with local issues.
Yet, not one can be isolated, with respect to cause.
Related questions: How did the elephant get in the room? And, given the small size of our portals, how do we get it out again?
Gentle reader will guess that my elephant – OUR elephant, according to me – is not a physical animal but an analogy. It is something so big that everyone is affected by its every twitch and grunt. Would that it even had a name we could all agree on.
For all the names proposed seem inadequate to its dimensions. I will use, “Technology,” which for present purpose I have awarded a capital “T.”
Everywhere in the world, until quite recently in historical time, the family was the basic economic unit. There was zero unemployment. All members of all families worked, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, or “gender” – except those physically unable. And they were cared for by their families.
True, there were larger, even international trading enterprises, but even these could be resolved into chains of family enterprises. Almost all of every population was agricultural. Food was grown, and cloth spun, in cottages built by families, and what they did not make for themselves, was traded mostly by barter.
And this was true even of America, for many decades after the Revolutionary War, or the writing of the U.S. Constitution. It continued to be true in rural places well into the last century, and in my own youth I traveled through regions of India, for instance, where it was still basically true. An ecological paradise to some: before electrification, before power in anything but “organic” form; before bottles of shampoo or any other disposal problem.
This was not merely “a way of life,” but the only way, before Technology made larger units of production possible.
Minor controversy may be had in trying to distinguish waves within the overall tsunami. In the space of this column I won’t touch on those, beyond giving as my opinion that what is called our “post-industrial” age – in which services overtook goods in our economy, and computer algorithms now replace bosses – is only a further extension of the same old industrial revolution.
As Aaron M. Renn has argued in his Masculinist essays, the consequences to “patriarchy” — that is, traditional family life – are total.
Men formerly ruled households – families including extended families – which were complete or nearly complete economic units, each member doing what he or she seemed best suited by nature to do. Work was thus parceled out by custom among men, women, and children; and inheritance assured, along with basic survival.
Divorce, disobedience, delinquency, were unthinkable. They would lead immediately to starvation. To a modern, feminist view, this meant women and children were subjugated.
But the men were, too, within what the Enlightenment liberals called this “contractual” bond (but was really pre-contractual). Habits of industry, responsibility, honesty, decency, were forced upon them by their very circumstances. For their “subjects” looked them straight in the eye, and became intimately familiar with every vice and virtue. A man could not hide; could not behave whimsically, without seeing his own reflection in the mirror of every beloved face.
Still, this is the world, and there have always been failures.
The point here is that this unspeakably ancient family unit began to break with the cottage industries of the Industrial Revolution. The individuals within the family became, by increments, members of a labor force, externally organized. “Efficiency” was redefined.
Even while women stayed home, still cooking and spinning and acting as the primary educators, the men were now out of the house. They were working for cash, at “jobs” that hadn’t existed for their fathers or grandfathers.
By increments, to the present day, women found “jobs,” too, first piecework at home and then in factories. Hearth and home then became a place of resort, until, with further improvements in Technology, the family ceased to be even the retreat for dinner.
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.
David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at davidwarrenonline.com.
Happy Columbus Day! You might have missed it, but October 12, 1492, is the day Christopher Columbus supposedly arrived on the shores of the Americas.
Celebrating Columbus Day used to be a big thing in the United States. There used to be “Columbus Day” parades. It is still a national holiday in some countries. But as all the ills of later European settlement of this continent have been heaped upon Columbus’s shoulders, his cult has dimmed somewhat.
He used to be a great hero. Now he is an even greater villain. Perhaps the truth is he was never quite as great a hero as people made him out to be, nor quite as great a villain as people make him out to be now.
I have never been a big fan of Columbus, but like nearly all children in public school when I was growing up, I was taught that he was brave for daring to sail across the ocean when everyone thought he would sail off the end of the flat earth. This, of course, is a ridiculous myth, still commonly propagated. The Greeks had correctly calculated the earth’s circumference centuries before. Every educated person knew that a ship’s masts disappear over the horizon because the earth’s surface is curved. The myth of Columbus and the flat earth was propagated by nineteenth-century anti-Catholic bigots John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White. (For the details, see Jeffrey Burton Russell’s Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians.) They wanted to crown Columbus as a proto-Enlightenment saint who boldly shook off the unscientific superstitions of the Catholic Middle Ages. But to do that, they had to propagate the myth of the “flat earth.”
The truth is, Columbus was foolish but lucky. Following the theories of those who had spectacularly underestimated the circumference of the globe, Columbus thought he could sail West for a certain number of days and reach the Indies. No educated person thought he would fall off the earth. That’s just silly. They assumed, quite reasonably, that he would likely run out of food in the middle of a huge ocean long before he reached the Indies.
And he would have, except there was another continent between Europe and the Indies big enough for him to reach before he and his crew starved to death. He was wrong but ended up “discovering America,” even though plenty of people already lived here. So Columbus’s status as a pre-Enlightenment saint is clearly undeserved. If anything, he would be the patron saint of dumb luck.
But can we really heap upon him the crimes and sorrows of the following five hundred years? Isn’t this precisely the sort of scapegoating described by philosopher René Girard? A society has unresolved tensions and conflicts. So the people heap upon one, lone creature all their collective guilt and then cast it out as a symbolic gesture meant to expiate their sins.
Whether that one creature is responsible for the guilt of all or can possibly bear the guilt of all is not the issue. The sacrifice isn’t about the goat or the ox or the particular human. What is important is that we symbolically rid ourselves of impurity and resolve the unresolved tensions that plague us. Poor Columbus. Maybe it would have been better for him if he had drowned in the middle of that large ocean everyone predicted was there.
Several weeks ago, I published an article based on a catch-phrase of former Notre Dame president Fr. John Cavanaugh who used to say, “Two things I know: there is a God, and I am not Him.” The article was not about Notre Dame, but it appeared under a picture of Notre Dame’s “golden dome.” In that famous building, there are a series of wall-sized murals that depict the whole Columbus saga painted in the 1880s by Italian artist Luigi Gregori. They are controversial these days, and petitions go out periodically for their removal.
I have nothing valuable to add to that particular debate. I am, as I have made clear, no great fan of Columbus. For me, the most notable thing about those murals is that, when they were restored in the 1990s, one restorer, while he was painting a fringe border around one mural, included a little, barely discernible image of Kermit the Frog in the tassels. I sometimes wonder whether that little hidden Kermit is the only thing keeping those murals up.
But there is something else about those murals worth noting, I think; something that has very little to do with Columbus himself and more to do with “the myth of Columbus” as it was celebrated in the late nineteenth century. Why would Catholics at Notre Dame be interested in paintings about Columbus rather than, say, the Italian St. Francis of Assisi, the Irishman St. Patrick, or the French martyr St. Isaac Jogues?
Is it perhaps because those paintings were meant as a message from immigrant Catholics to a Protestant American establishment that had rejected Catholics as “un-American” to remind them that their great hero, Columbus, was a (gasp) Catholic, and worse yet, the first Catholic immigrant. Were they perhaps a plea to the Protestant American establishment not to forget the nation’s Catholic heritage nor reject its immigrant roots?
I have no idea whether the paintings should stay or go. If they were gone, I’d miss Kermit. But if they go, perhaps something should replace them that would remind everyone who walks those halls of the bigotry and prejudice that generation of Catholics had to endure. And to remind all of us that places like Notre Dame did not grow to be great because of the generosity and goodwill of the Ivy League, but because they made possible the dreams of the children of poor immigrants who came to this country with little more than their willingness to work hard and their Catholic faith.
Randall B. Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His most recent book is Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide.
*Image 1: Hannibal Crossing the Alps by Nicholas Poussin, c. 1625 [Private collection]
**Image 2: Death of Columbus by Luigi Gregori, 1884 [University of Notre Dame, South Bend]