Sunday, June 06, 2004

American Culture: Antithetical to the Gospel?

A couple of weeks ago I finished Tracey Rowland's book, Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II.

This was one of the most exciting reads I've had in a few years. Rowland combines the philosophical analysis of modernity by Alasdair Macintyre with the theological analysis of the Communio school (deriving from Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and today, David Schindler in particular) along with others to argue that the culture referred to by the title of "modernity" (which includes modern American culture) is not as open to the Gospel as many think, but in fact is oriented away from Christianity. Unlike the Greco-Roman culture encountered by the early Church, the very structure of modernity is antithetical to the Gospel, meaning that the mileu in which Americans live is in a systemic way hostile to the Gospel.

What this means is that the problems the Church faces in evangelizing our culture are not due simply to the fallout of the sixties, but in fact go to the core of the American way of life, which in many ways is derived in its worldview from the Enlightenment.

Now, this isn't to say that there is nothing good in American culture for the Church to engage in... that's not what these scholars are saying. Their point is that out culture is not as open to the Gospel as many theologians have heretofor believed, and that we need to take a more discerning (critical) approach in how to reach those who live in this culture.

My interest in this line of thought goes back to my grad days in Rome, when I "discovered" the debate between David Schindler on one hand George Weigel, Fr. Richard Neuhaus, and Michael Novak on the other. That debate centered on the same question: how Christian is American culture, actually but more importantly, potentially? The discussion dated back to the mid-eighties, when Cardinal Ratzinger referred to American culture as bourgeois. Weigel denied the claim, Schindler countered with a defense of Ratzinger's reference, and they were off. The debate raged in particular over the next several years, and although it has cooled off since then, it has never completely faded, as Rowland's contribution indicates.

Rowland's book is definitely not written for the layman, but I would still recommend it if you're interested in anything I've stated here, which itself is woefully incomplete, but does the job for now.

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