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Cultural skepticism, the opposite of worldliness

Conservatism will have little attraction for those who fail to be skeptical of their own culture. The skepticism of which I speak must run deep; there is a sort of piecemeal skepticism that is insufficient for the task. A pack of these two-bit skeptics is currently busy occupying various cities.

It is comparatively unusual for anyone to view his own cultural order with the detachment which makes ethical judgments possible. A person may sporadically condemn this practice or that institution, but it will done in a spirit of pique or irritation. Resentments do not make one a philospher of his culture.

Rigorous criticism of ones own culture is a first step to avoiding worldliness. We can usefully think of worldliness as the unswerving dedication to the assumption that this world provides the rules for normal life. An illustration may be useful; Richard Weaver’s Visions of Order (also the source for the above quotation) offers the following:

A society should have very strong reasons for being willing to sacrifice 40,000 lives a year and take care of several hundred thousand wounded. It certainly does not regard each human life as infinitely precious if it is willing to trade 40,000 annually for something that is not infinite. It would seem…that comfort and convenience, to which we should add a love of mobility, have made themselves a new Moloch; and the idol demands of his worshipers not only the annual toll of life but also a restlessness and superficiality of spirit.

Weaver here observes that Americans have de facto decided that the conveniences of the automobile are worth 40,000 lives annually. (While the number of deaths per mile driven has dropped enormously since Weaver’s day, the total number of fatalities per year has remained between 30,000 and 50,000.) From a Christian perspective, is this a worthwhile trade?

Your final answer to this question is less my concern than the immediacy of your answer. If your first inclination is to spout a semi-indignant, “Of course we must have cars!”, as though the use of the automobile is a non-negotiable element of human existence, I’d like to suggest that modern society and culture are rooted quite deeply in you. What comes out of us as a matter of unthinking reflex is the surest indication of our most unquestioned assumptions. When our most unquestioned assumptions are those we have swallowed undiluted from our culture, we are worldly.

Michael Riley

About Michael Riley

Student of theology, apologetics, and Christian affections. Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Wakefield, Michigan.

7 Responses to Cultural skepticism, the opposite of worldliness

  1. Excellent and thought-provoking observation. Should I stop using an automobile? (Seriously.) That is, given this aspect of our culture and its implications, should I be a non-participant? Are you? Was Weaver?

    From another angle, many people today are eschewing automobiles for "green" reasons…which points up the fact that (as in the case of the ubiquitous automobile) cultural critique can come from various standpoints, and the cultural critic may highlight a problem without highlighting all aspects that are problematic.

  2. Re: the automobile question, Weaver's statistic is partial, perhaps prejudicial. To judge the matter on his terms, I'd say one, at the very least, would have to know the net increase or reduction in deaths resultant from automobile travel.

    But I greatly appreciate the main point here.

  3. A healthy skepticism of inherited assumptions would seem to me be more closely related to an attitude of liberalism than of conservatism.

  4. Paul,

    In principle, you should be correct. However, given the modernist, antitradition, antihistorical tendencies of our time, conservatives tend to be stuck in the difficult situation of calling on people to repudiate what they've inherited because we're convinced that their forebears abandoned their inheritance.

  5. For most of my life, I've had the nebulous impression that the unquantifiable and unqualifiable price we pay for even the most unassailable benefits of our day (e.g., medical advancements) may not be worth it in the biggest picture.

    That isn't the sort of impression I share with recent cancer survivors, nor is it the sort of impression that keeps me from benefiting from these things myself…but, the impression remains nonetheless.

    Even if, as David suggests, the net increase/reduction in deaths due to automobile travel could be arrived at (which of course would require an algorithm of more factors than we could name, let alone provide), might there still be "fates worse than death"?

    But then, if asked what those fates might be, I could only remind my inquirer that I chose words like "impression" and "unqualifiable" advisedly.

    Anyway, kudos to Michael for this line:

    "…conservatives tend to be stuck in the difficult situation of calling on people to repudiate what they’ve inherited because we’re convinced that their forebears abandoned their inheritance."

    That indeed is the sticky wicket.

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