A Wonderful Visit and a Worry
I was lucky enough to be asked to give the inaugural lecture in Western Civilization at Concordia University in Edmonton. The city of Edmonton is much like Houston only a bit smaller and a good bit colder. In short, I met many brilliant people, saw a diverse and thriving campus, and got to learn about Plato in a lunch discussion in a tasty Indian restaurant. What is not to love?
And yet, I worry. Here is a bit of my concern from this US citizen to Canda, with love.
Dear Canada (especially Alberta):
People in the States owe Canada many debts. You have been a faithful ally and stood with us in battle since our leaders clarified the mutually unpleasant incidents of the War that started in 1812. My family owes you for the gift of both the jolly William Shatner, and the sublime Robertson Davies. Many of us grew up with Anne of Green Gables and then made music by Howard Shore the sound track of our young adulthood.
Across the border during grad school at the University of Rochester, a trip to Toronto was a wonderful counter to other trips to New York City. We chose Toronto for our honeymoon. Yet when I read, as a friendly outsider, and no expert, I am concerned. What is the core of Canadian life becoming? How shall Canadians live and what is the adequate ethical underpinning for the decency and tolerance that every modern Canadian I have asked points to as national values?
Ideas that are accepted without argument or simply are enforced by central government elites without a shared ethic to support them often are swept away quickly. We saw this in the States when old ideas about marriage, accepted without thought by both parties, were swept out quickly when a strong voice was raised against them. Whatever the merits of that change, what is the common, consistent, philosophically defensible ethic that undergirds it?
I fear in the US it consisted of taking Christian ethics for granted, but trying to remove the bits we perceived as icky. We were presented no alternative, certainly not secularism, which can only agree to dislike the historic United States majority Christian culture. When we are not around, they show no ability to agree on any positive agenda.
Every Culture Has a Core: the Christian Ethic of Love is Part of Your Core
Legally, educationally, and historically, Canadian institutions were built on central assumptions. Here is one that is easy to spot in any nation where most of the population was (or is) a product of Christendom.
“But wait,” I am asked, “what is Christendom?” Christendom is the commonwealth of nations that was shaped by the interaction of Roman, Greek, Jewish, and Christian ideas. This commonwealth is one of ideas and not of race or ethnicity. Historically it has included Ethiopia and England, Russia and Egypt, India and Norway. There are many expressions, legal, political, and cultural of Christendom, but a common set of ideas distinguishes Christendom from other societies.
To name one that is deeply in the core of any part of Christendom is the Christian Ethic of Love. The Christian tradition is clear: God is love. Jesus Himself told us to love everyone even our enemies. As a result, Christians have fought wars (for bad and good), and some inconsistent Christians glorify war, but Christendom idealizes peace. Some Christians have been pacifists, but even the vast majority who are not serve a Prince of Peace and look for an end to war.
Christians have used torture, but only with a guilty conscience. Nations inside Christendom constantly put checks on anything that causes harm to a human body. The idea of Love as the guiding idea of an ethic does not solve all problems and it has not prevented Christians in Christendom from justifying horrible ideas. However, over time, most of Christendom became opposed to the death penalty.
The Christian ethic of love also cannot accept severe poverty. Nations built on the Ethic of Love should not blame the poor for their poverty. Of course, many Christians do blame the poor for poverty and do not help those with less, but such folk are behaving inconsistently with basic Christian values. We want Scrooge to repent, not run the province.
There has never been, of course, a golden age of Christendom to which we should return. Each interaction in each era with the ideas that form the basis for Christendom have produced more clarity, but also mistakes. Though “love your enemies” is plain, doing this with justice is harder than one might think.
If not Christianity, then what?
There is a thoughtlessness that takes the core of a culture for granted, then states: “we will do this, minus the obvious errors.” Generally, the errors are easy to see, but often are intertwined with other more desirable features of the culture. Casting out cultural demons, and they should be cast out, without some better cultural angels to take their place, often leaves a nice clean room for tyrants, demagogues, or grifters. It is easy to criticize the Christian core, but hard to see what comes next.
Somebody is going to say “reason” or “science” can be a core, you can safely ignore that person. Science tells us what is and suggests what will make some outcomes more likely. Science cannot tell us (by itself) which outcomes we should prefer. One will need a philosophy or religion to provide the moral guidance to pair the vital advice that comes from science with what ought to be.
Simple hedonism, choosing pleasure, does not work, since some pain is good for us or at least might be good for us. Few would learn if students avoided pain in study.
Somebody else will suggest that we simply will be decent. The Christian ethic of Love does demand decency and provide resources for encouraging fair and kind behavior. However, decency does not come with self-justification. It is part of a set of ethical values. We know why Canadians value decency, they inherited the idea from historic Christian culture. Why will you value it now?
What if one group decides “honor” is more important than “love?” A Christian ethic of love thinks a victim is not a criminal, but a form of an honor culture might not agree. One cannot throw Christian ethics out and hope that simply telling people to be “good” or “decent” will work. It is hard enough to be decent when you think you should, have Divine backing for the idea, and philosophically sophisticated ideas from the culture to back you up!
Perhaps there is another religion out there capable of doing hard intellectual work as Christians do, can work with modern science without compromise, and is centered in an ethic of Love (as opposed to an ethic of Honor). What would you suggest?
Make sure that whatever you choose can unite those that work with their minds with those that work with their hands. When a Christian college professors says, “Do not steal” and a Christian factory worker says, “Do not steal” they are making the same general argument based on the same principals. These ideas have proven themselves capable of being understood by all classes of society.
Atheism has yet to run a single country without bringing on a bloodbath and is shrinking globally. Islam has not shown an ability to make peace with the positive parts of modernity or to sustain states with strong civil liberties.
I am not worried about Christianity here or Christendom. In all the places having babies, Christendom is growing. We are part (only part) of the future for sure. Yet Canada and the United States need not be part of the future and we might not be if we do not find a stable cultural core. Recently an educated secular friend was expressing a total loss about how to “deal” with those people who are about to put Judge Roy Moore in the US Senate. I agreed he should not be there, but suggested their soft secularism would always lose to hard religion or hard secularism.
Perhaps they should consider they are not the future but a bubble that a majority Christian culture sustained. If they don’t like us gone bad, maybe they should pray for better Christian, stronger, religious people. After all, when we could have, we rejected an amendment putting Jesus in the US Constitution. We governed with our values, but made space for you.
This wasn’t easy… we made mistakes, but we did it
We know Christianity could make Western Europe as she is today, see all those governing Christian Democrats! Find something better fast or consider a revival of the old ideas better applied.
An admirer from Texas who knows we may be in worse shape,
God save Christendom! God save Canada!