DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Decadence
The wealthy West is often accused by poorer nations - and many of its own people - of decadence. Its root-and-branch decay will one day bring about its downfall, it is said. Here Rick and Mick debate whether or not there is any justice in this accusation.
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Rick: Fifty years ago my alma mater offered a semester course in philosophy entitled, The Disintegrating Sensate Society. Discussion developed around an analysis of a number of books including Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. The thesis was developed that Western society was in decline because of an obsession with materialism in all its manifestations.

About a year ago I chanced to meet the professor again who taught the course. I asked him if his predictions had come true or were about to come true. He said unequivocally, "Yes." Since he instigated the course one might question his objectivity. Nonetheless, his ideas reflect a widely-held view that the West, child of the Enlightenment, is indeed in a state of decadence.

Empires, nations, tribes and societies decline for many reasons that are often difficult to pinpoint. In other cases, from an historical perspective, the seeds of decadence are apparent such as demographics, economic failure, over-population, inadequate food supplies, invading hordes, pestilence, incompetent governance, corruption and the like.

Often the reasons for decline are not apparent to the leaders of a particular society or group and, therefore, no corrective measures are or can be taken. Mick, my questions are: Do you agree that Western society is decadent? If so, what are the chief factors responsible for the decline? Is materialism one? What if anything can be done to ameliorate the decay?

Mick: I find myself hesitating in response to your questions. I'll try to explain why. When I was a boy, Euro-Africans in Southern Africa almost always employed servants. They had the comparative wealth to do so.

A man servant who once worked for my family came from Malawi. He had migrated 600 kilometres south to earn a few dollars a day. This was better than a few dollars a month at home. Like most of his race and time, he had no shoes. As a result his feet were heavily calloused - but not enough to resist the sharpest thorns. I recall one day watching him digging just such a thorn out of his foot with considerable discomfort. The next payday he appeared with new sandals, fashioned out of a discarded motor car tyre by a local entrepreneur.

The point I'm making is that the poor of the world today would give their back teeth to become "decadent" and "materialistic" like the West. What poverty-stricken nation or group would not, I wonder? Perhaps we should acknowledge that our Western society is just plain successful.

Rick: Your point is well taken. Poverty must be an awful thing. Since it was my good fortune to be born at a certain time and certain place I have never known poverty and deprivation. Hence, I can understand it only in the abstract. When a person is starving or has no shelter, he or she is not interested in philosophic discussions. Materialism looks pretty good to any in such situations.

How do societies or individuals extricate themselves from poverty? Can or should they themselves be the main engines of their release? Or must aid come from societies that have material wealth? These are age old questions without pat answers. If the wealthy Western materialist societies are to be of assistance, they must have strength and solvency. This brings us back to the original question about a decadent West.

You are right in saying that Western society has been successful. I doubt there have been any societies in history that have provided more people with material well being. You may not agree that there is any evidence of decadence at all.

I have made a list of what I believe may serve as criteria or tests for decadence in civil society.

  1. Instability of the family.
  2. Rising crime
  3. Decline of the arts and cultural institutions
  4. Public moral apathy
  5. Public and private gluttony, over-consumption and depletion of natural resources
  6. Economic instability with unsustainable private and public debt

I am sure others could be listed. From my perspective I see evidence for decadence in all of the categories. Maybe I am na�ve and should know better that there have been cycles in human society when all of the above and more were rampaging about. Yet humankind seems to have a resilience to survive the worst calamities. Maybe the forces of entropy that periodically dissolve societies are too strong to influence. What do you think?

Mick: "Things ain't what they used to be," is a common refrain of ancient codgers like us. I remind myself that my parents were brought up nearly a century ago, and I was formed in the 1940s and 1950s. So I mustn't be surprised if I find some aspects of life either unfamiliar or downright unpleasant in this time of rapid change.

What I'm trying to say is that decadence may be a matter of perspective. This is not to deny that decadence is possible, nor that Western cultures are to a degree decadent. But isn't it possible that the instances you list are symptoms and not the illness?

If I try to identify an underlying malady, it may be that Western decadence is symptomatic of a failure to change. A society (or a Church) which responds incorrectly to a changed environment tends to lose its mettle. The Hebrew Bible is full of stories about God's people failing to hear and heed God's messages. The prophets proclaimed this failure and called for changed behaviours.

So rather than ask, "Are we decadent?" I prefer to wonder, "What part of God's message are we refusing to respond to?"

Rick: Indeed, my six points represent symptoms. A physician constructs what is called a differential diagnosis based on symptoms and signs observed. Ultimately and hopefully, this will lead to a diagnosis of a specific disease. This is very important so that a specific treatment can be applied. I frequently gave non-specific or "symptomatic" treatment to make a patient more comfortable. I never felt entirely comfortable doing this until I made a specific diagnosis because I knew the underlying disease was not being treated.

Perhaps the most important point in the diagnostic algorithm is elucidation of the cause. Unfortunately, many diseases continue to be "idiopathic" or of unknown cause making specific treatment impossible. Most cancers fall into this category

Continuing with the medical metaphor and the case at hand, our patient is civil society (humankind). The diagnosis is decadence. What is the cause? You have suggested it may be due to a failure to respond appropriately to a changed environment. In addition you have postulated a failure of response to "God�s message," as a possible cause.

Can you elaborate on the failures of adapting to change? Moreover, explain how can one who does not believe in a non-material reality, invoke the precepts of God?

Mick: Again, response is not easy because it involves treading a tightrope over an abyss. Below are the sharp rocks of Church prohibitions about heresy, and around them boil fierce currents of censure.

First, you are right to talk of "precepts" - that is, of commands or principles governing action. Second, a precept by definition derives from an authority. But what authority gives us our precepts, and how?

I'm saying that we have two basic choices. We can suppose that our universe is an "accident", the outcome of fortuitous circumstances. Or we can suppose that it is purposeful and therefore derives from someone (to use a metaphor).

I prefer the latter. It might be said that I have bet my life's shirt on the universe as a purposeful creation rather than a happenstance.

But I think that the creation is itself the message. The cause of a cancer may be unknown, but I have faith that a cause exists. That's the way the world works. That's the creator's message. So the symptoms we call "decay-dence" are God's wake-up call. "Change! Or you will self-destruct. That's how my world works."

Rick: We are in agreement in that we choose to believe the universe is creation rather than happenstance. We can't prove the proposition but we intuit it. This belief provides a basis for understanding how the world works.

This discussion centers on morality. I would like to paraphrase a biblical injunction:

If we say we have no moral imperfections we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

Consciousness imposes morality on humankind. Animals create no offenses among themselves because I doubt they are able to reflect on their actions. 

If there is no awareness there is no offense. Decadence is meaningful only to conscious humankind. There are those who are aware of their offenses but do not care and are morally numb. Others perceive and accept the reality of their shortcomings and make efforts to redress the wrong. Yet others never become aware of their moral failure and though they cause offense no redress is possible.

Thus, I see consciousness as the root of decadence. But, if there is any hope of achieving a morally perfect world it will be consciousness that enables us to find the way. It is a two-edged sword. Until the perfect world is realized there will be ebbs and flows, successes and failures as is well documented in human history. Due to our fundamental natures, success may never be reached. In the meantime we must live in the world as it is and attempt to make the best accommodation possible.

For some, Jesus of Nazareth provides the road map and heightens our moral acuity. For others, Jesus the Christ is the guide. Do you think the distinction between the Nazarene and the Christ is of any consequence?

Mick: I think you're correct about human capacity for self-reflection being at the root of all morality. The existence of a self-reflective being creates a moral imperative.

Working out "the best accommodation possible" at the social level has proved to be a long process so far. Witness the many and varied attempts over the ages. Witness also the struggles of each of us to work out our best accommodation in daily life.

I take it you are wondering if I think that Jesus laid down imperatives for us. There are two parts to my tentative response.

First, I think we now know more about the Jesus of history than anyone before us except those who knew him personally.

Second, another response is to accept the Church's vision of Jesus as the Messiah ("Christ" in Greek). But if I do that, I have to also buy into a pre-modern world-view, upon which all traditional teachings depend.

I choose the first option. If I perceive Jesus as my forerunner in history, then I can affirm in my life the paths he took. I do that by making my own paths, in my own way, just as settlers create new cultures from the foundations laid by their pioneers.

The history of Jesus contains the seeds of the good life. The world is much more than just those seeds. But the whole fails to attain its potential without them.

I suppose my thesis is that decadence inevitably results if we don't carry forward what Jesus gave us about the way God does things - which the gospels term "the kingdom of God".

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