Maybe it takes a Torah scholar and religious Jew to help us understand the roots of the inverted values that animate Western civilization. For over ten years, author and radio talk show host Dennis Prager taught the first five books of the Bible verse-by-verse at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. According to Prager there is no greater concept in the Torah than that of “distinction,” or, put another way, the clear separation God makes between certain things: God and man, animal and human, life and death, sacred and profane, good and evil, male and female. He even goes so far as to call these distinctions “God’s Signature” on the created order. Like six pillars holding up a great house, when the structural integrity of those columns becomes significantly compromised, the whole house comes crashing down.
Of the six distinctions listed, the one between God and man is antecedent to all the others: once it is compromised, the others will fall too like so many dominoes. When Adam and Eve succumbed to the serpent’s temptation, they switched places with God and made themselves the arbiters of truth and morality. The seeds of their godship that were sown in Eden are coming to full flower in our age. In his magisterial work, The Study of History, the eminent historian Arnold Toynbee divides world history into twenty-one ages and makes the case that our present age is the first one whose prevailing ethos does not appeal to a divine text or a holy tradition for guidance in the major areas of life. To say that we are living in a post-Christian age is as obvious as saying that the sun rises in the east.
What’s sometimes overlooked is that this godship is not exclusively driven by agnostics and atheists, but receives major contributions by those calling themselves Christians. I can’t help but think of the recent effort by Catholics for Choice to overturn the Hyde Amendment thereby allowing taxpayer-funded abortions. Their position on this issue rejects two thousand years of Church teaching.
Then there are large sectors of the mainline Protestant denominations who have become so accommodating to the Zeitgeist that they are actually just the cultural ethos dressed up in religious vestments (e.g., the United Church of Christ). Chesterton was right that only dead fish swim with the current. Without guilt I admit that I am encouraged each time I read about their precipitous decline in membership and finances and look forward to their eventual placement on the slag pile of history. As the late, great Richard John Neuhaus used to say, “The mainline has become the sideline.”
When man becomes God, the other distinctions that Prager identified become blurred and introduce toxins into the cultural bloodstream. If people are not created in the image of God, then it follows that they are no different than animals. Prager cites the example of animal rights groups like the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who call the slaughter of chickens a “Holocaust on a Plate,” thereby equating such an act with the slaughter of Jews during the Holocaust.
For over thirty years Prager has asked high school seniors the question, “If a stranger and your pet were both drowning and you could only save one, who would it be?” In this informal poll, about two-thirds of the students chose their pet. An Associated Press poll revealed that half of American pet owners consider their pet just as much a member of the family as anyone else. Prager is right to say that we live in the Age of Foolishness with our folly being rooted in a lack of reverence for God: the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.
No reverence for God = no wisdom. No wonder our secular universities have become institutions where great knowledge (e.g., the hard sciences) is juxtaposed with great foolishness. In recent years, at Swarthmore College, a course was offered called “Interrogating Gender: Centuries of Dramatic Cross-Dressing.” Examples like this are plentiful. And practicing Catholics will be embarrassed to learn that the University of Notre Dame has twice hosted the Queer Film Festival.
Prager makes the case that one of the major reasons that the Torah was written was to counteract the values of Egyptian culture. Ancient Egypt loved death. Their holy book was the Book of the Dead and their pyramids were monuments that were merely tombs for their dead kings. The Torah, in contrast, was a Book of Life that told the nation of Israel that they had a choice between death and life and exhorted them to choose life. Priests were not allowed to enter a cemetery or be in the presence of a corpse. Many other laws were given to keep death and life separate.
If people are not ascribed the dignity of being creatures made in the image of God, it opens the floodgates of death in our culture with abortion, euthanasia and infanticide. More than 57 million abortions since Roe vs. Wade in 1973. Polls reflect that America is divided on the issue but the pro-choice camp may be pulling ahead. Princeton University has a feted professor and “ethicist,” Peter Singer, who believes that if a couple has a Down Syndrome child, they have the right to kill that child one month after his or her birth.
Remember the Terry Schiavo case. Like good ancient Egyptians, the supporters of that euthanasia had palpable contempt for their opponents. They loved death. I’m no Freudian but the episode seemed to lend credibility to the Freudian concept of a Death Drive (Wish). It called to mind Walker Percy’s last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome (In Greek mythology, Thanatos was the personification of Death), where the water supply of the town where the story takes place is poisoned with a chemical additive that leads to the demeaning and destruction of the townspeople. In the novel those in power euthanize the inactive, the old, and the sick.
Because there are so many examples that are easy to come by, it seems banal to talk about the blurring of distinctions in our culture between the sacred and profane. Recent decades have seen a loss of reverent awe among American Catholics in relation to how they dress and behave during Mass. Chewing gum is more common; people wear sweat pants, tank tops, tube tops, spaghetti straps, flip flops, beach sandals, and sometimes dress immodestly. No wonder many earnest Catholics are running like frightened antelope to the Latin Mass. How would we dress if we were having dinner with the pope? Doesn’t partaking of the Holy Eucharist at least demand equal propriety? “Cultural Catholics” should also examine their lives. If you’re in Mass on Sunday morning, going through the motions, simply because you are an Italian from Providence, Rhode Island, or of Irish descent from Albany, New York, you may want to ask yourself if you’re taking Communion unworthily.
For a good snapshot of the sacred being devoured by the profane, look at the American Pie film franchise. The original 1999 teen sex comedy told the story of five friends who were high school seniors in western Michigan who made a pact to all lose their virginity by their graduation day. The movie takes its title from the Don McClean song but also from a scene in the movie that involves the main character engaging in autoeroticism with an apple pie because he heard that “third base feels like warm apple pie.” The movie cost $11 million to make but made over $235 million at the box office and spawned three more sequels and four direct-to-DVD spin-offs. What’s somewhat depressing is how easy it is to cite dozens of other commercial successes of similar moral degradation to this franchise.
Even more revolting than the vulgar pop culture is the landscape of the avant-garde art world. The homoerotic and sadomasochistic work of Robert Maplethorpe, the immersion of a crucifix in a jar of urine by Andres Serrano, or the spattering of elephant dung on a picture of the Virgin Mary in the work of Chris Ofili leave the orthodox Christian aghast. The distinction between the sacred and profane hasn’t been blurred; it’s been destroyed: the profane is the sacred in many fashionable precincts in the art world.
The natural consequence of secularism is moral relativism. The prominent atheists who follow their beliefs to their logical conclusion all say this: Nietzsche, Sartre, Russell, Mackie, et al. Other atheists contradict themselves. Prager talks about a professor he had at Columbia University Graduate School in the early 70s who would say, “There are no moral absolutes,” on Tuesday, then say, “The Vietnam War is evil,” two days later on a Thursday. In contrast, Nietzsche would opine that we sit as gods on the throne of our universe deciding right and wrong. Morality becomes a matter of taste: “You like jazz, I like classical, she likes rock & roll.” It makes no difference whether we help the elderly woman across the street or hit her with our car. As aghast as we may be by the beliefs of Peter Singer, he is very much living consistently with his atheism.
Back in 2005 Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said, “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate standard consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.” Dostoyevsky concurs: “If there is no God then everything is permitted.” It’s not by chance that the bloodiest regimes of the twentieth century were rooted in atheism—Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, et al—with 100 million perishing at their hands by starvation and in gulags and killing fields. The Spanish Inquisition, which is often cited to disparage the Catholic Church and make the point that most evil comes from religion, put to death approximately 3,000-5,000 people over a 350-year span. One death is too many but the Inquisition is like a bee bee rolling around in the railroad boxcar of atheistic Communism.
The Age of Foolishness continues in the realm of male and female. Prager’s first clue that Columbia University was not going to be a treasure trove of Solomonic wisdom was when he realized that many professors on campus believed that men and women were basically the same and that what seemed like differences were merely social constructs. Give little boys tea sets to play with and little girls trucks and you’ll see that this is true he was told. Only the little boys turned their tea sets into weapons of war and the little girls tucked their trucks in at night and gave them names. As George Orwell said, “There are some ideas that are so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.”
At the same time who can’t support the First Wave of feminism that gave women the right to vote, execute wills, own property, attend college, etc.? What man can’t tip his cap to women who have attained places of high honor in our civilization: prime minister (Margaret Thatcher), CEO of a Fortune 500 company (e.g., Carli Fiorina), Harvard astrophysicist (e.g., Sallie Baliunas)? Unfortunately, we live in an age of overreach. One aspect of godship is when human beings assume divine prerogatives for themselves such as believing that there are no limits for themselves: “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases” (Psalm 115:3 RSV).
Exhibit A: the issue of the ordination of women to the Catholic priesthood. There are limits: Jesus selected men and not women and those original apostles turned around and selected men and not women for ordained ministry. This pattern holds true for two millennia of Church history. Those who want women priests don’t understand that we have ontological limitations. In my being I cannot be a mother; I cannot carry a child in a womb for nine months and subsequently nurse that child until it is weaned. In fact, the nurture that a mother gives that child is qualitatively different than what I would give: it’s a difference in kind not a difference in degree. Women in their being cannot be fathers either biologically or spiritually. That’s not who they are. The priesthood is for spiritual fathers and there is an ontological chasm that women cannot bridge.
In the battle between distinctions in the Torah and our secular age, Prager says the Torah (Judeo-Christian values) is losing and I agree. We are like Jeremiah in 587 BC watching the Babylonian army reduce Jerusalem to a debris-strewn apocalypse. We are all called to continue to fight the good fight of faith to reverse the trend. As bleak as things can look sometimes, we must remind ourselves that, as counter-intuitive as this may sound, much good can come out of a period of captivity. In Babylon the Jewish exiles were (1) cured of their idolatry, (2) the office of the scribe emerged with its accompanying Rabbinic literature, (3) synagogues began, (4) Scripture was taught with renewed fervor, and (5) the Jewish people were more unified than they had been for centuries. Like Jeremiah we must be the Church Militant and stand against the spirit of the age and also hope against hope for renewal in the days to come.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is radio talk-show host and author Dennis Prager in 2012. (Photo credit: Michael Tortorich.)