Of Frogs and Muddling Through
Don’t put frogs in pots and turn up the heat. It is cruel, doesn’t say anything about cultural destruction, and is no way to produce tasty frog legs. Growing up, people said to me that cultures die because they slowly turn up the heat (a symbol for some kind of moral rot) until it is too late.
Perhaps this image works for some culture somewhere, but I am hard pressed to name one. If one looks at great culture that collapsed and was never revived, like Tsarist Russia, it is easy to look backwards and see doom coming. I don’t think doom was coming and that there were several points where total destruction could have been avoided. Russians failed to take those steps and so the system broke down with horrifying consequences.
Millions were killed or died in the turmoil through famine and disease that did not need to die.
All my life certain foolish people have said that this kind of irretrievable loss of what is good about America was about to happen. Almost every election might be the last. We couldn’t survive four more years of Roosevelt, but we did. We couldn’t survive four more years of Johnson, but we did. The Obama administration is ending and despite the warnings in my social media feed last election, martial law has not been declared.
We can still vote. Yet this much is true: sometimes cultures make the wrong mistakes at the wrong time. The system fails totally and no reboot to something better (or even tolerable) is possible. Righteousness exalts a nation and moral evil (sin!) harms, but the dynamic is complicated.
Fortunately, things are (almost) never that bad. Anyone who predicts imminent doom is (generally) wrong . . . unlike frogs, cultures can adapt to changes. A society is so complicated that if it is going bad in one area, then it very well might be getting better in another. Some of our sexual values are very bad, but then we do not have legal segregation. Two generations ago some areas had lynch laws and now things are better (though we still have much further to go).
If we have created a right to a vice, we have also recognized the equal humanity of women. One is a bad thing and the other is a good thing from a Christian perspective and it is hard to know if the improvement outweighs the decay. The moral rot of race based slavery nearly destroyed the nation, but the country existed for “four score and seven” years before the reckoning. Of course, parts of the nation had abused African-Americans for centuries.
It’s easy to cite many areas of cultural improvement from the most traditional Christian point of view in the United States. This is cheering. We are imperfect as we have always been. Since every culture, even ones at full power, has weaknesses or besetting sins at any good point, it is not merely being “bad” that calls a cultural collapse. There seem to be some “sins” that are easier to survive than other “sins.”
This seems obvious when you think about it. A nation built around an idea of a strong ruler may not be able to survive a series of decadent rulers if it also faces some kind of external crisis (such as barbarian hordes). The fact that it was economic slavery is not good, a weakness, but need not be fatal if there are other virtues (say a strong code of laws). Here are five mistakes I think we should avoid to give us the best chance of avoiding doom.
I suppose if you want to be afraid, you could also spend time worrying that we might already have these problems. Stop. Have perfect love and let it cast out fear. Let’s get to work rooting out these bad ideas in self and helping those around us.
Nothing Could Be Worse Than ThisIf you live in a “high civilization,” then things can get worse. You can put Mao in charge of China. It is almost always better to hope a society muddles through problems with gradual change, trying to make mostly good changes, than to despair.
Better the Roman Empire than anything that followed it her wake in the West. Retreating to private estates was an idea that might have worked for some, but it helped doom Rome. Russians on the left and the right began to think that rebooting Russia in a deep, general revolution was acceptable, because what could be worse than the bad rule of Nicholas II?
The answer: every ruler to date since they went for the reboot.
Generally, everyone is better off keeping calm and trying for small improvements over time in the system. When people stop believing this is possible and embrace ideologies of despair, the culture is seriously weakened.
Despair is a vice that Christians rarely consider, but it is a profound lack of faith in God and an arrogant belief that we can improve things. One form of despair is motivated by political Utopianism: the perfect will come if we just chop off enough of our enemies heads and get our way. Another, however, is abject retreat from engagement with the system. While retreating, regrouping, and forming small communities is good, it can never be motivated by nihilistic despair.
Better to die engaging a hostile (but high) culture, than to eke out a few more years in a cave with my stored food! Christians generally predict order and liberty must go together. Blowing up a system (“Burn it down!”) is the realm of God, who has foreknowledge to measure the outcomes, and not people. We cannot know the future and almost always when we pretend we do: we are wrong.
The moment you hear someone say of the Church, or the country, or the times: “Nothing could be worse than this” and they are not living in Nazi Germany, in the Reich Church, then they are confused and wrong. Even in Nazi Germany, the brave fighters of the Warsaw ghetto or the Catholic resistance movement (as small as it was) was preferable to despair or utter nihilism. After all, control by the other Allies was much preferable to control by the other mass murderer in Europe: Stalin. If it could not get worse than Hitler, it could stay nearly as bad, just with different targets.
As we are a minority, we must form communities to keep our folk ways and beliefs alive. That is the powerful truth behind good ideas like The Benedict Option. Perhaps I am just more optimistic that the muddle can continue and that opponents of morality are just as befuddled and hapless as usual. They will appear to win, but then start a monologue, eating their own, and generally overplaying their hand.
That’s how it works. We all agree we must keep engaging . . . but I suggest we do not as those without hope. Societal reboot need not come and God help us if it does, but this I know: if it comes I would rather face it with a smile in urban Houston, working in our garden, and reading Plato with our college students.
Things can get much worse than that! The Constantine Strategy says: build a community open to “outsiders” where people say lots of things could be worse than that, so let’s join and make it even better!
This series is based on lectures prepared for The Saint Constantine School college program. It is part of the Constantine Strategy to serve our time with wisdom, virtue, and joy for Christ and His Church. I gave a shorter version of this talk to the Thrive Apologetics Conference.