08 Dec All That We Owe: A Thanksgiving Reflection
When learned men begin to use their reason, then I generally discover they haven’t got any.
Tis an age of scientific marvels. Let’s imagine a group of researchers board a spaceship and travel through space a thousand light years, to a distant planet the size of a star. NASA has long searched for such a planet: one which can support human life. These researchers are, to no one’s surprise, not above treating human beings as guinea pigs.
An Experiment in Civilization
The researchers establish a town on this distant planet. They drop off a missionary priest in this town to administer the Sacraments. The dwellings are clustered around a church. The men and women in the town are given the Bible to read, and are all taught the Apostle’s Creed. These citizens are instructed to model their lives after the Son of God who suffered death and gave His life so that fallen man may be redeemed.
The researchers go on to establish a second town, thousands of miles away from the first. They drop off an imam to lecture and lead in prayers. The dwellings of this town are clustered around a mosque. The citizens are given the Quran and hadiths (sayings of Muhammad) to read, and they are taught the very rigid oneness of God (Allah) and the Five Pillars of Islam. They are instructed to model their lives after Muhammad, the great conquerer and “seal of the prophets.”
A third town is established, thousands of miles away from the other two. The citizens are given science textbooks, and taught the methods for observing the world around them. They are told that belief in a higher power is nonsense, that the existence of the universe was the result of a random event.
The researchers go on to found a Hindu town, centered around a temple, where the citizens are given a guru to lead them, the Vedas to read, and are taught the benefits of yoga. A Buddhist town, a Taoist town, a Bahai town, a New Age-crap town, are all likewise established. And in their morbid humor and curiosity, the researchers go on to establish a Scientologist town, a Voodoo town, a Wicca town, and even a Satanist town.
After some time, this distant planet has a town to represent each and every faith on earth. The researchers go back to earth for a little rest and relaxation, and to replenish their supplies. They go back to the distant planet, and though only a few years has passed for these researchers, a thousand years time has passed for the people on this distant planet.
The established towns are too far removed from one another to have had contact. Over the course of these thousand years they have had the time to blossom into cities, or to crumble. The art and architecture, sciences, social norms, and living conditions, of these cities have been moved forward by men and women who, whether pious or not, were raised in cities and towns with a foundational, and tacitly presumptive, worldview. The respective worldviews have molded how these citizens relate vertically, to that which is above, and horizontally, to the neighbors whom they must share their worlds with.
The researchers visit the towns, one by one. With their very own eyes they observe how each particular worldview molds a civilization. But the patrons of this experiment have a serpentine humor, much like the researchers, and they order that the spaceship be returned to earth while the researchers are still gathering their data on the surface of this distant planet. The researchers, none of whom are any good at hunting and gathering, must now choose which of these cities they shall make their own dwellings in. Which would they choose?
It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.
The Christian City
The researchers, if we presume that they value their comfort, would choose the Christian city. Sure, it would have its flaws, since its citizens are human, and are therefore flawed. In fact, those citizens who are most serious about their own faith will be the most aware of their own flaws, and the awareness of such would proceed to aid them in taking themselves rather lightly. But warts and all, the Christian city will have developed, far and away, the greatest art, the highest degree of liberty consistent with order, the most transparency in its affairs, the healthiest view of the family, the fewest social problems, the most sanitary living conditions, and also the most developed sciences and education. A thousand years of striving to make their city of man resemble visions of the Kingdom of God will have had its benefits. How many among those living Christian citizens would realize, and appreciate, their inheritance?
Those towns founded upon faiths which are demonic will have long perished before that thousand years is up, with piles of rubble and bones being the only evidence that they once existed. If the atheist city does still exist, and the citizens have not yet altogether despaired on the notion that a state (a “Caesar”) can act as a surrogate savior, it would have the blandest art and architecture, a severely misled and brainwashed population, and would rank among the highest in misery indexes of those towns still standing.
The Muslim city, having had no neighboring towns to conquer and absorb knowledge from, will only have developed very modestly. The Shinto city, having had no neighboring towns to imitate and learn from, will only have developed very modestly. The Hindu city, with its caste system and belief in reincarnation, which gives little spiritual incentive to improve the temporal lot of neighbors, will have developed very modestly. Modest, if any, development will be a shared characteristic for those other cities and towns that remain standing and yet have no neighboring towns to borrow knowledge from. The natural faiths and the supernatural faith yield wildly different outcomes for the civilizations built upon them. And even if the natural faiths would rival the supernatural faith in the number of adherents, they would still hardly be rivals.
A Supernatural Faith
If I were given a thousand dollars to bet on this, and the Christian city was given a thousand-to-one odds, I would be a millionaire. If the world were inclined to give the supernatural faith equal odds with the natural faiths, I would still bet on Christ, the sure winner. I would bet on citizens who consume the Body and Blood of Our Lord, who are taught to allow the Spirit of God to make themselves into temples of God, into saints (little Christs) that is. And even if I were a mere deist or an agnostic, rather than a Catholic, I could still be privy to a glimpse of what foundational faiths do for the civilizations built upon them: this is because I can observe our own world.
Just a little bit of detachment can go a long way. I could, even if I were an agnostic, observe the shortcomings of the charge of irreligion and atheism by noting what disasters Nazi Germany and the Communist states managed to make in a remarkably short period of time (granted, there are plenty of people in our present day who haven’t figured out the pitfalls of ideology even with such glaring examples).
As an American who grew up Muslim, and whose mother was born in Pakistan, I could still be quite aware that our country, flawed as it may be, is, materially speaking, like a heaven compared to much of the world. As someone who has met a good number of “educated” individuals, I could still recognize that many of the popular mantras tossed around by such individuals, such as “Christianity led Europe to the Dark Ages,” are actually just the parroting of slogans to relieve educated men and women from the burden of having to think: the Church, in fact, led Europe through the Early Middle Ages while she was still purging the remnants of paganism, and our so-called “Enlightenment” was built upon more than a millennia of Christian thought. There may well be, a hundred years hence, mildly detached observers noting the strides that were made in sub-Saharan Africa in a century since its rapid Christianization.
The researchers on that distant planet, having failed to shed their old habits, may find themselves scrambling to come up with answers, rigidly materialist theories to yield a library of research papers, as to why the Christian city was so wildly successful compared to the others. I wonder if it would ever occur to them that the answer is as straightforward as can be: that what Christianity teaches is true.
The world stands at the same stage as it did at the beginning of the Dark Ages. And the Church has the same task as it had at the beginning of the Dark Ages; to save all the light & liberty that can be saved, to resist the downward drag of the world, and to wait for better days.
A Reasonable Gratitude
What are you thankful for?
This is a question many of us will answer while surrounded at the table by our friends and family on this Thanksgiving. To count one’s blessings is always healthy.
“My family,” many of us will answer, especially those of us fortunate enough to have families that are happy and still intact. But to how many of us will it occur that our very notions of the proper and ideal family, of fidelity and monogamy, are, in fact, largely modeled after the Sacred Family?
“To have friends like you,” others will answer, most especially those of us in the midst of a Friendsgiving. I myself shall be ever grateful for those times in which the Weber’s put up with the company of a jackass such as myself on those Thanksgivings when I was living in New York, and at risk of being a holiday orphan. But to how many does it occur that the quality of our friendships are made great in our ability to see the face of Christ in the other person?
“My health,” still others will answer. But how many of us would consider that modern hospitals and medicine are, in fact, the heir of a long tradition of men and women following Christ’s charge to care for the sick, or that our methods of studying nature through empiricism were pushed forward centuries ago by religious thinkers (for instance, Roger Bacon was a Franciscan friar), or that the Doctors of the Church had paved the way long ago by insisting that faith and knowledge are complimentary, or that the Church herself is a historical patron of the sciences and medicine?
“This house,” or “my job,” some others will answer, more or less as way of saying “my abundance.” Yes, there is much evil in the worship of Mammon, and there are hardly words to aptly describe the shallowness of a “Prosperity Gospel” which preaches faith too pathetic to endure and embrace suffering. But there is nothing wrong with being grateful for one’s material blessings. We today understand that flourishing economies are better built from the bottom up, by men and women who make their own financial decisions, rather than top-down, by planners who make such decisions for them: that the accumulated knowledge of millions of common people is always greater than the knowledge of a few highly-intelligent (supposedly, at least) planners. How many of us realize that such is very much rooted in the primacy of the individual, which is also a very Christian development? Economist Thomas Sowell and psychology professor Jordan Peterson, neither of whom would be considered religious figures, have each likewise, and quite independently, pointed out how economies heavily rely on our ability to trust strangers and on being trustworthy ourselves. What institution, aside from the Church, has historically been the authoritative instructor of integrity and trust for the now-wealthy nations of the West?
“To live in this free country,” a few might answer, especially those who have loved ones serving in our armed forces, or who have themselves served. To say so much would be to touch upon the birth of this holiday, when President Lincoln declared, while our nation was engulfed in her bitter Civil War, a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” But how many of us would care to wonder whether the words uttered by Our Lord such as “the truth shall set you free” have anything to do with this, or would consider whether our modern political freedom was a development made possible by His freeing of our souls? Or how many of us ask whether it is because we tacitly presume there to be truth in the Sermon on the Mount that we today have the liberties guaranteed in our Constitution?
We Americans, whether Christian or not, are the beneficiaries of 2,000 years of Christian development. So many of us have it so (comparatively, at least) easy because the evangelists and martyrs and Doctors of the Church witnessed and suffered and thought before we were ever born. The blessings that so many of us cite as making our lives really worth living are so because the Word dwelt among us! This can so easily be forgotten, just as it is easy to stand or breathe without giving a second thought to the gravity or oxygen that has always been “just there.” How often are we, members of the Church, the Bride of Christ, guilty of forgetting all that He does, and the much greater things that He wants to do, for us? And can the fruits ever be greater than the tree? Can we still enjoy the fruits if we would cut down the tree?
“Christ,” I hope at least few of us would be bold and sober enough to answer. It is because of Him that we get to live a life blessed with abundance and liberty and a true appreciation for those whom we love. It is the Son of God who will bring comfort and hope to so many of the sick and poor and lonely on this holiday. It is He alone who gives us purpose. It is His Spirit which turns sinners like ourselves into saints, that we may be his hands while here on earth. To recognize so much can put anyone, even those of us who might otherwise be quite dense, miles ahead of any academic researchers scrambling to figure out just why it is that we have so much to be thankful for.
Have a happy and blessed Thanksgiving!
When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.