The Center (of Western Culture) Cannot Hold

Just after the First World War, the Irish poet W. B. Yeats — whose own life seemed to have no center — wrote of his vision for the 20th century:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

It is now, in the year 2015, nearly a century later. And the center has not held. Western civilization is shattering. The old points of stability are shaken and fallen. Old values are not celebrated as “tested by time” but simply as outmoded. Some of the finest achievements of Western civilization — such as literacy! — are endangered as we turn into a shallow and image-oriented people. “Image is everything,” proclaimed the ads for Canon cameras a few years back.

Christian writer Leslie Newbigen, an astute observer of the church and of our society, points out in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, that the great battle of our era is not between religion and science, which is just the form the battle happens to take at the moment, but between humanism and biblical Christianity. Humanism has been challenging faith since the early Renaissance and is currently in the ascendance.

Science is simply today’s strongest instance of humanism but is not itself a challenge at all. There are far too many good scientists who are faithful Christians for us to believe science is the enemy. No, it is humanism that opposes faith. Humanism can be thought of simply as the assumption that we humans have the ability to recognize, analyze, and conquer all the problems in the universe. While claiming ancient Greece as its root, modern humanism shows a hubris that would horrify the old Greeks. It also shows a remarkable inability to recognize that we humans have more than ample cause for humility, from the sinking of the Titanic to the dropping of the Bomb.

Want to have a quick reminder of how small a slice of life is touched by science? Try to imagine yourself abandoned by the one you love and to whom you have entrusted yourself unconditionally. That person goes off and marries another. Would you suddenly have some great urge to go talk with Stephen Hawking to help you understand what has happened and how you can move on?  Not likely. It actually would be highly unlikely that you would think a great physicist would have any particular insight into the human heart. Hawking may claim to know that we can now explain the universe without recourse to a god-hypothesis but that doesn’t mean he knows your lover’s heart any more than you do.

Western culture is not simply an outgrowth of ancient Athens. It is the intermingling of Athens and Jerusalem. That unique blending is now being scuttled and, just as Yeats told us, the center is not holding. Science cannot substitute for faith, just as faith cannot build a Hubble telescope. We have spent more than two millennia building a wonderful structure and, just as it seemed to reach some sort of great climax, we began working on dismantling it.

Boundaries are to be broken. Compromises rejected. Greed is enthroned. There is no center. And when the shattering is complete and we enter again on a building phase, faith will be there, stronger than ever. God will not let go completely.


About mthayes42

I am a retired pastor, interested in the Bible, cross-cultural ministries, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the current and past history of western civilization.
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