Unpublished Article: Modernism as Colonialism

This is an article I submitted that seems to have been rejected. Therefore, I offer it to you my few readers for your consideration.

When I teach my “Great Books” Western Civilization courses, I give them a theme. For the modern half of the survey, the theme is “revolution.” One book I assign in that course is the novel Things Fall Apart by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. It tells the story of Okonkwo, a great man among the Igbo people of what is today Nigeria. Okonkwo’s life is turned upside down when he accidentally kills a kinsman, and is exiled from his village. When he returns several years later, he finds Christian missionaries have become a presence there, drawing villagers away from their traditional ways of life. When Christian converts disrupt a traditional ceremony, villagers retaliate by burning down the church. The British colonial authority then steps in, but when Okonkwo attempts to organize resistance, he finds the people of his village unwilling to fight. The novel ends with his life becoming a footnote in a report which an oblivious British bureaucrat plans to write about the pacification of Nigeria.

From my description, you can see why I chose the book, for the British effected a revolution in Igbo society. Achebe himself was the son of converted Christian missionaries, and rose to fame even before Nigeria became independent from British rule in 1960 and experienced civil war in the 1960s. Achebe never abandoned his Christian faith, but in his writing, he attempted to recover the traditions of his Igbo ancestors from the oblivion to which British colonization had condemned them. What makes Things Fall Apart so compelling is that Achebe was aware of the evils present in Igbo society before the British came. In the novel, missionaries rescue abandoned twins, whose birth the Igbo regarded as an evil omen, and their compassion for outcasts is how they gain a foothold among them. It is also how the dissolution of the village begins, as the missionaries begin to alter their customs. Achebe never depicts them as thoroughly evil, though some are harsh and dismissive of the Igbo. Even the British colonial administrators are depicted less as militant imperialists bent on domination than self-absorbed drones, who think they are bringing enlightenment and civilization to savages, and so destroy what they do not understand.

It is easy to sympathize with Okonkwo, but it was Achebe’s insight to recognize that traditional societies are often at variance with Christian revelation. The Church, in spreading the Gospel, has oscillated between the approach of St. Boniface, destroying pagan idols without remorse, and baptizing parts of non-Christian cultures, as did Mateo Ricci. The Church shares much in common with traditional societies like that of the Igbo, but it must be admitted that bringing the Gospel to such societies changes them irrevocably. This is an important point to remember, as modern ideologies, like Marxism, often imitate Christianity’s impulse to transform the world without recognizing the truth that it brings.

The late René Girard observed how modern society turns Christian compassion for victims on its head, making Christianity the “scapegoat of last resort… by “radicalizing” the concern for victims in an anti-Christian manner.” By doing so, it tries to put the Church in the same position as the Igbo: a backward society that needs to be “civilized” and updated by the new gospel. The phenomenon we call “modernism” is some respects an internalization of this attitude on the part of Catholics, especially intellectuals. This is not surprising, as modernism emerged in the same historical context as colonialism, Darwinism, and progressivism. The sense that the Church is behind the times and needs enlightened saviors to bring her out of her slumber motivated Alfred Loisy, George Tyrell and other modernists, like the Europeans who felt it was their duty to bring civilization to benighted places such as Africa.

Such concerns outlived the modernists of the early twentieth century, as several partisans of the nouvelle theologie took up their historicism while trying to avoid their heresies. Unsurprisingly, some of them perceived non-Western religions and cultures in similar terms to the way they viewed the “unenlightened” Church of their day. Several of these theologians taught courses on world religions, such as the young Joseph Ratzinger, and one, Henri de Lubac, even made himself a scholar of Buddhism. His comments on non-Christian notions of eternity in Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man (1938), are revealing in this regard: “the “eternal return,” from which nothing can be expected…with never a forward movement, how monotonous it all is!… Yet in its toils the human mass thrashes about vainly in the same unchanging state of servitude.” What made Christianity different to other religions was its historical nature, its ability to change, compared to the static understanding of the world in Eastern religions. Likewise, his friend, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, gave a talk in 1947 on “The Spiritual Contribution of the Far East,” voicing similar sentiments. In contrast to the religious spirit of nations such as Japan, whose racial solidarity produced “an exclusive, closed mysticism,” the West was in the vanguard, “the West is the starting point for an advance, a general breakthrough, of spirit,” which the “East” was now catching up with, “yielding from within to an emancipating instinct, and slowly getting under way with its whole spiritual mass, to join up, not only technologically but mystically too, with the road of the West.”

These attitudes became verboten in the 1960s, with the final break up of European empires. But forward-thinking theologians still evinced the same contempt for cultural backwardness, only now they aimed it at the Church. Just before the opening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, Cardinal Suenens of Belgium, one of the leaders of the progressive bishops, warned his confreres of the “dangers of immobilism,” a French term denoting opposition to progress. After the council, liturgists seeking to reform the mass disparaged “‘mythical’ symbols which lend a magic superstitious character to public prayer and devotion,” while others rejoiced “that once familiar features of the preconciliar rite are now as remote to us as some obscure aboriginal ritual.” The Church as it existed before the council was now unfit for Modern Man™ and so, taking up “The Modern Man’s Burden,” liberal clergymen and theologians proceeded to colonize the institutions of the Church, from the Vatican curia down to parish councils, daring to risk “the blame of those ye better / the hate of those ye guard.”

Dietrich von Hildebrand recognized the philosophical vacuity that underlay such attitudes. He critiqued the idea that change equals life and that stasis is death in his post-conciliar works such as  The Devastated Vineyard. Most people today recognize the crude and simplistic nature of such ideas when directed toward other cultures around the world, but somehow not Western culture. The Western past is uniquely backward, apparently, and whether it be the removal of statues, banning the traditional Latin rite, or the burning of books, it must be wiped from the earth, in a sort of modern inversion of St. Boniface destroying Donar’s Oak.

No one exemplifies this contradiction better than Pope Francis. Francis’ and his ecclesial allies have often inveighed against what they call the “ideological colonization” of the developing world by proponents of the sexual revolution under its various guises. But with regards to the Church, the message is quite different: Francis has repeatedly attacked “immobilism” within the Church, even warning against a “restorationism” that “kills us all.”  The only time I can recall this contradiction being abandoned was when Cardinal Walter Kasper made disparaging remarks about African bishops during the 2014 Synod on the family, saying “they should not tell us too much what we have to do” about questions of sexuality. Some complained that Kasper’s remarks were racist, but I doubt this. Africans are a protected minority in the liberal pantheon, but only if they follow the template which Kasper’s generation of Church leaders use to understand their world: that they are the vanguard of history, and so superior to those they have “left behind.” And anyone who won’t get on board with the “march of history” is cast into the outer darkness, deserving to have their culture destroyed.

This view of the world, that ceaseless change, even if and perhaps especially if, it erases one’s own heritage, is a sign of vitality and moral rectitude, perhaps made sense in the 1960s, when the Baby Boom cohort was demographically ascendant. But now that those who still dominate the Church comprise a greying, geriatric empire, it is simply absurd. “No dominion is everlasting,” wrote Salman Rushdie in his novel Midnight’s Children. Rushdie was writing about the end of the British Empire and the independence of his native India in 1947, and in earthly terms, he was quite correct. God’s dominion, however, never ends. As with the Igbo and the peoples of India, faithful Catholics will have to pick up the pieces of their broken heritage and find a way to reconnect with it, whenever the dominion of the colonizing power comes to an end, as it always does. As Catholics, we hold fast to our tradition not because that alone will save us, but because it is our living link with Christ, the Son of God. And we know that if we are faithful to that inheritance, it can lead us into His everlasting kingdom.

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