Our strange civilization

Our strange civilization August 11, 2011

A cluster of recent experiences have got me thinking about the strangeness of our Western civilization, and made me look differently at the Church’s participation in it.

First: reading about evolutionary theory of sex, the gist of which suggests that early hominids, including homo sapiens, might have lived in relatively small groups, engaging in various kinds of sexual experiences, sharing parenting.  Certain indigenous peoples around the world manifest this kind of pattern even in the modern era.  (Source: Sex at Dawn)

Second: traveling to China, reading about its control over family planning (source: Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother), contemplating our own family made possible through two adoptions; witnessing different attitudes and practices among families.

Third: thinking about indigenous American cultures after a trip to Plymouth, MA, home of the annual Day of Mourning, which recalls the way that European incursion into the Americas led to hard times for many native peoples.

These experiences have led me to think about the way Western civilization is built upon a number of convictions about family, property, civility, polity, war and aggression, and so on.  And since the Church is so intertwined with Western civilization, I can see how those who decry the evils of that civilization (racism, misogyny, constriction of various kinds of freedoms, etc.) want to point a finger at the Church.

Some challenging questions: why do we promote monogamy? why do we have private property? why do we build churches? what is “natural” for human beings?  What is the proper relationship between Christianity and culture, especially in this age when we are so attuned to the sins of the Western tradition?

My hypothesis is that we must not conflate Christianity and Western civilization, because worship of Christ is more fundamental than any civilization.  Of course it grew out of a history which was governed by a Near Eastern cultural tradition, but it took root in the Roman Empire and thus grew along with the historical trajectory beginning in Rome and the subsequent “West.”  But in this age of globalization we must remind ourselves that Christianity is decidedly not a Western phenomenon; its home is Asian.  It is possible to disentangle, for example, Xavier’s preaching and Portuguese colonialism.  Yes, one was related to the other, but they had different aims and different meanings.  We must disentangle Christianity from Western civilization, both because Western civilization is changing and because Christianity must become more African, Asian, and indigenous.  Thus we must tread very softly when, for example, we talk about the relationship between the gospel and family structures.  Most of the world does not look like the modern American nuclear family.

What of sex, then, if civilization is changing?  I continue to think that the root challenge of the gospel is summarized in Jesus’ parting command to the disciples: “love one another as I have loved you.”  I imagine the early development of monogamy as a particular focusing of symbolic behavior: “I am for you and no other.”  Jesus’ words to the disciples name this impulse as reflecting the way God loves.  Far from being a way of treating a woman as property, it reins in a man’s “natural” tendency toward promiscuous sex and adds meaning to the unique sexual relationship.  Marriage as a public act then sacralizes it in a public way: it is a statement that one intends to wed the other as an icon of Christ.

There is nothing “natural” about monogamy, any more than about Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, Hopkins’ poetry, or Gaudí’s architecture.  I’m less interested in what’s natural and more interested in the ways we act in love.  Civilizations can be built on power: they are not always about love and justice.  But Christianity, if it is to be worthy of its name, must always be rooted in love.  It is more fundamental than any civilization, and more radical in its call to imitate Christ.


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