Friday, July 31, 2015

Cut-Flower Civilization

David Elton Trueblood, a Quaker theologian, wrote in his 1969 "A Place to Stand,"

"A quarter of a century ago a few of us began to say that faith in the possibility of a cut-flower civilization is a faith which is bound to fail. What we meant was that it is impossible to sustain certain elements of human dignity, once these have been severed from their cultural roots. The sorrowful fact is that, while the cut flowers seem to go on living and may even exhibit some brightness for a while, they cannot do so permanently, for they will eventually wither and be discarded. The historical truth is that the chief sources of the concepts of the dignity of the individual and equality before the law are found in the Biblical heritage. Apart from the fundamental convictions of that heritage, symbolized by the idea that every man is made in the image of God, there is no adequate reason for accepting the concepts mentioned. Since human beings are often far from admirable in their actual behavior, man's dignity is fundamentally derivative in nature."

This metaphor of a "cut-flower civilization" severed from its cultural roots and left seeking a moral center remains a powerful image of contemporary American society.

I am not advocating an unthinking portrayal of the founding of the United States as an intentional Christian nation. Rather I am simply observing that Western civilization - in both its European and American expressions - is rooted in Greco-Roman culture and Judeo-Christian religion. Even with the sea change of modernity in the Enlightenment and industrialization and now with the "post-modern turn" away from the "Enlightenment project", American values, laws, and institutions have continued to reflect - sometimes in a thoroughly secularized form - "the fundamental convictions of that [earlier] heritage" that at least historically have provided "the chief sources of the concepts of the dignity of the individual and equality before the law."

The Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, wrote in apocalyptic terms of a time when "anarchy is loosed upon the world" and "the center cannot hold" - when "the best lack all conviction" and "the worst are full of passionate intensity."

This description does not sound too foreign in our world of sound bite truths, partisan punditry, and polarizing rhetoric.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Joe, for such a pertinent reflection. The cut-flower metaphor is powerful, and the language of Yeats in "The Second Coming" is apropos. Our present culture is still being carried by the inertia of previous generations, but that inertia is running low and in danger of becoming a spent force. Similar powerful images are present in Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach", where the world has been emptied of love, light, joy, peace and certitude, and Arnold, while be seems to bemoan the condition, has nothing final to offer except a rather ambiguous "let us be true to one another". Ivan Karamazov was surely right when he said, "If God does not exist, everything is permitted."