What Happens When Civilizations Die?

Jonathan Sacks is the erudite chief rabbi of Great Britain. He was educated at Oxford under Bernard Williams, the famous moral philosopher who also happened to be an atheist.  In his volume, The Great Partnership: Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning (Schoken, 2012), Rabbi Sacks assesses what happens when religious faith collapses under the weight of secularism.  The impact need not be explosive. In fact, Sacks argues that “civilizations can end not with a bang but with a whimper.” They can die slowly, gradually, almost imperceptibly.  According to the Rabbi, five things happen in a culture when religious faith departs. How many boxes can you tick?

  • First, belief in human dignity and the sanctity of life is eroded. “This is not immediately obvious, because the new order announces itself as an enhancement of human dignity. It values autonomy, choice and individual rights . . . But eventually people discover that in the new social order they are more vulnerable and alone. Marriages break up. Communities grow old and weak. They become members of the lonely crowd or the electronic herd.”  Ultimately, Sacks says, “life itself becomes disposable, in the form or abortion and euthanasia.”
  • Second, politics loses its covenantal quality where we understand society as a place where we undertake collective responsibility for the common good. Citizenship “involves loyalty and the willingness to sacrifice for the sake of others.” But as civilization collapses, individualism trumps covenantal duty. “Society dissolves into a series of pressure groups and no longer deeply enters our identity. Being British or French or Italian comes to seem more like where you are than who you are.”
  • Third, morality is lost. “This does not mean that people become immoral. Some people do that, whether they are religious or secular; most do not, whether they are religious or secular . . . What happens, though, is that words that once meant a great deal begin to lose their force—words like duty, obligation, honour, integrity, loyalty and trust.”
  • Fourth, when a civilization is dying the institution of marriage dies. “The idea of marriage as a commitment, a loyalty at the deepest level of our being, becomes ever harder to sustain. So fewer people marry, more marriages end in divorce, fewer people—men especially—have a lifelong connection with their children, and the bonds across generations grow thin.”
  • Finally, people lose the belief in the possibility of a meaningful life. People see life as a personal project but there is no sense of vocation, calling and mission. “The universe is silent. Nature is dumb. Life makes no demands on us. The concept of ‘being called’ is one of the last relics of religious memory within a secular culture. A totally secular order would not have space for it or find it meaningful.”

It is not partisan politics to believe what the psalmist said in Psalm 33:

The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing;
he frustrates the plans of the peoples.
The counsel of the LORD stands forever,
the plans of his heart to all generations.
Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD,
the people whom he has chosen as his heritage!

 (Psalm 33:10-12 ESV)


Originally posted Oct. 2012

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