Friday, November 2, 2012

Of tattoos and a loss of faith....

Well, Rev. Know-it-all,

You’ve really outdone yourself. You’ve insulted a lot of fine young people who have tattoos because they like the artistic expression of tattoo art. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to have tattoos, such as remembering a loved one or reminding oneself of a deeply held principle. At least you didn’t say that tattooing is a sin.

An irritated reader,
Mark Dupp

Dear Mark,

I agree with you. There are good reasons for tattoos. I find it hard to believe that they are artistic expressions on the part of those who get them, unless of course the proud tattoo wearer stands in front of a mirror and regularly admires them. Belonging and permanent commitment are noble ideals and I suspect that these are the ideals that tattooists express. (Note that I have just coined a word: tattooists, a term that includes both tattoo artists and tattoo wearers, though not body piercers. They are  beyond even my ability to speculate.) 

As I said, I don’t think that tattoos are immoral. I think they are sad. Perhaps my sadness is just an old man’s reminiscence of a world that is dead. In my long distant and half forgotten youth, commitment and permanence were expressed by vows and sacraments. In Lower Upper Hessia, my ancestors lived in the same place for about 4,000 years. Then we came to America and met Henry Ford who lived on the farm down the road. (He really did.) Didn’t do much work. Just tinkered with motors in the barn all day. His father said he would never amount to anything. The next thing we knew everyone was driving those infernal tin lizzies, scaring the horses and the children and building expressways and then everybody up and moved to the west coast and got a divorce as they passed through Nevada. I suppose a tattoo is a fine thing if it’s the best one can do in the quest for permanence. Like I said, tattoos aren’t evil in themselves. They are just the tip of the iceberg of modern sadness. They are only a symptom of a great, cold, hidden mountain of sad.

Civilizations die. They die very quietly, but remarkably quickly. Michael Aquilina is a great scholar who denies he is a scholar. In his book Yours is the Church, (published by Servant Books, and a real page turner if you ask me) he talks about one such death of a civilization. In southern France, even after the barbarian invasions, St. Sidonius Apollinaris raved about the library of a country house in southern France around 480 AD. One hundred years later St Gregory of Tours undertook the writing a history of his times because he was the only bishop in the area who was capable of writing a book, and his Latin wasn’t very good at that! In one century, literacy and technology had been lost. Rome almost died because there were not  people skilled enough in the technology of the aqueducts to repair them. They leaked, causing the city of Rome to dwindle to a city of thousands from city of a million. The thirsty population of Rome just died or packed up and moved. Couldn’t happen here? Think about it next time you are at Happy Burger and some  salesperson can’t sell you a cheeseburger because the computers are down. They cant add or subtract even when they are allowed to.

Cultures die because those who benefit from them have no reason to preserve them. Cultures dies from a loss of faith that life is worth living. When the English brought civilization to Tasmania, they shot the local population for sport. Life for indigenous people became utter hell and they just stopped having babies. Life was no longer worth passing on. The Romans had the opposite problem. They essentially extincted their own ruling classes because life had become too good. Why spoil it with the burden of children? The Roman upper classes stopped having children because life’s meaning had been reduced to what one ate and drank and owned. For both the Tasmanians and the patrician classes of Rome, life ceased to be about the future. It was simply about getting through today. Those cultures died from a loss of purpose, a loss of vision.  Well, here we are in the great US of A. We, too, seem to be headed for some unseen cliff. We have the Roman version of the disease. We are so fixated on the pleasures of the present that we see no good reason to think of the future.  We have no need of hope, and thus are quite hopeless.

The demise of civilizations is, at heart, a religious crisis. If we have no system of belief, no agreed on standard of conduct, how is a shared life, a society possible? If I believe I can drive on the right side of the road and you think it proper to drive on the left there is going to be trouble. More seriously, if I believe it is right for me to take what you have, and you believe that it is right for you to kill my family if I steal from you, there is going to be even bigger trouble. These rules that restrict our behavior are religious. The very word religion means restriction. If I have no reasonable theology that I share with those around me, no reasonable restrictions, society becomes impossible. I am left with barbarism. I suspect that is what has happened to us.

Europe, Japan, China, India, most of North America, and Russia are among the nations that have fallen below the rate of replacement of their populations. In other word, those societies are dying. Somehow they have decided that it is just not worth it to pass on life itself. The US is only saved from a shrinking population by immigration from Mexico, and I suppose the Amish are doing their part. Still, by 2050, the number of older persons in the world will be larger than the number of young for the first time in history. Like the Romans and the Tasmanians, we in the developed world have decided that life is not really all that worthwhile. What’s the point of having children? As the old song say, “Is that all there is? Then let’s keep dancing, let’s break out the booze and have a ball, if that’s all....” The faith died first and now the society which that faith sustained is dying.

A new study by the Pew Forum claims that it is not just mainline Protestants, whose churches are evaporating, but finally the numbers of evangelical Protestants are shrinking, especially among white Protestants. When people leave the evangelical churches, they don’t switch churches, they simply stop being church members. Nearly one in five Americans say they are atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” Only five years ago, those who claimed “no religion” made up about 15 percent of the population and 40 years ago, about 7 percent of Americans said they had no religious affiliation. Far more ominously, one-third of those ages 18 to 22 now say they have no religious affiliation.

Francis Cardinal George, a smart fellow if ever there was one, once said, “The children of those who leave the Catholic Church for a one of the “non-denominational” churches more often than not end up in no church at all. The first generation is Catholic, then the next generation “non-denominational, then the next generation is nothing.”  I have a theory as to why this has happened, which, I warn you, may be absolutely wrong, but it may be an interesting thing for sociologists to ponder. I suspect that the worst thing to happen to evangelical Protestantism was the influx of post Vatican II ex-Catholics. The big box non-denominational churches were swollen with former Catholics as well as former mainline Protestants. Evangelical Protestantism in the first half of the 20th century had a very developed and cohesive theology, though it is one with which I, in large measure, disagree, but it was a theology by which one could live. Catholicism, too, had a very well developed theology, 2000 years in the making. A false interpretation of the Vatican Council n the late 60's was “Yahoo! No more rules!”  

I remember the weekend they cancelled all the rules in the seminary I attended. It happened at a weekend conference. Four hundred adolescent males and no rules. It made the film “Animal House” seem tame. I still reminisce about the great seminary food fight of ‘68, but I digress. If there were no rules, some people went looking for rules and found them in the strict evangelical churches of the mid 20th century, but more commonly, people went looking for church that they could “feel good about.” It was not a matter of reason or truth. It was about how the whole thing felt. Catholicism didn’t feel very good. Other churches felt better.  

Catholics left in busloads. And here is my controversial theory: ex-Catholics swamped the evangelical boat. Huge numbers of people joining your church, not because it was true or reasonable, but because the music is livelier is not necessarily a good thing. If you are bored in one church, you, or your children, will be bored in another church sooner or later. I think we have arrived at that point. The religious engine of traditional Protestantism which motivated the nation has finally succumbed to the dead weight of people who don’t like anyone telling them what to do, or how many times they can be married, or how many children they should have, or when they can have sex and with whom. 

There are still some people in the Catholic Church who are all upset about the new translation, or the old pope or whatever, but these young liberals are now colliding with senility and in a few years the only people still in the Catholic Church will be people who want to be Catholic because they think it’s the truth. So the saying still applies, “One man’s loss is another man’s gain.” Who is gaining and who is losing is for you to decide. Go ahead and change churches. It’s a lot easier than changing tattoos.

Yours inscrutably,
the Rev. Know-it-all

1 comment:

  1. Indeed, though the fertility rate in the US is 2.1 children per woman, yielding a stable population, the fertility rate among Americans citizens is just 1.6 child per woman, not only below the replacement rate, but below the rate at which the populational decline has historically never been reversed. Therefore, one could argue that the WASP culture is destined, literally, for death. Given that the ethnicity making up most of the difference in the fertility rate, at 3.0 children per woman, is Latin American, we'd better polish up our Spanish and be even more devoted to Our Lady of Guadalupe. And America will finally have a cuisine!