Marks of the Death of a Civilization

This is a fitting follow up post from yesterday, which focused on the importance of faith in the public square. If yesterday’s post emphasized what is important to enable the public square to flourish, this post focuses on the steps towards the demise and death of a civilization.

Ben Mitchell, “What Happens When Civilizations Die?,” The BibleMesh Blog (October 18, 2012), refers to a recent book by Jonathan Sacks, The Great Partnership: Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning (Schoken, 2012), in which he spells out the implications of a public square without faith, or when religious faith is swallowed up by secularism. He notes five key entailments when religious faith is marginalized or absent:

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.”

This, once again, reveals the importance of religious faith to and for the public square. Based on these five implications, how many would you identify as a reality here in the United States?

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