Cultural skepticism, the opposite of worldliness

27 Oct

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 helpful; 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.

Also posted on the blog of Religious Affections


Posted by on October 27, 2011 in Conservatism, Society


6 responses to “Cultural skepticism, the opposite of worldliness

  1. Joel

    October 27, 2011 at 10:02 am

    We once had this question arise at a bash. Not cars, but the benefits of modern medicine as the accidents of the question, but the essence was there. It is a good exercise. Telling.

  2. RErwin

    October 27, 2011 at 11:50 am

    Before cars we used horses, and the death rate in horse accidents is no small thing. People die while living and moving about from place to place, whether on foot, camels, horses, boats, trains, etc.

    However, outside of Weaver’s inane illustration, I agree wholeheartedly with the premise.

    • Michael Riley

      October 28, 2011 at 10:28 am

      Here’s the issue: neither of us, I suspect, have access to any data that would tell us, on balance, which method of transportation is safer. Frankly, I don’t hope to resolve that debate at all. It may be that Weaver is wholly off the mark.

      My only point is that, should discover that cars (or whatever other element of accepted culture we would consider) are a menace, are we willing to consider the Christian ethic of employing them? Or do we feel absolutely compelled by the prevailing social norms, such that to question their employment is simply absurd?

  3. Jim Peet

    October 28, 2011 at 12:27 pm

    Not all “worldliness” is to be eschewed

    1 Corinthians 7:31-35. Specifically “use this world as not misusing it”.

    Packing the wife and kiddo up in an Amish-style cart certainly avoids the shiny thing and the expenses associated with it; but it is not “car[ing] about the things of the world—how he may please his wife.”

  4. Jim Peet

    October 28, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    By the way …. I like “orthodox Baptist”