Friday, December 24, 2021

Some Thoughts on George Bailey and the Incarnation

Blogging has been scarce since I've been a bit burned out but I thought I should make an effort for Christmas.

Protestantism gets a bad rap among many on the right and I think some of the traditional criticisms of it are justified. However, as I've mentioned before most analysis of Protestantism lack quite a bit of nuance and I don't think that Protestantism is as much of a bogeyman as some traditionalists make out.  Many Catholic traditionalists tend to draw a straight line from Protestantism to liberalism and while this may be theoretically plausible real world observations are a bit more complicated.

Most of the readers of this blog know that I am a Catholic, so it may surprise many of you when I say that the main reason why the West is imploding in the moment is primarily due to the numerical collapse of "sound" Protestantism, Catholicism largely being irrelevant in the West's fate.  And the reason why I have come to this view is based up my reflections on modernity and how each religion handled it.

Executive Summary: Protestantism was able to tame modernity, Catholicism wasn't able to engage it at all. The "slouch to Gomorrah" happened when sound Protestantism collapsed.

Richard Weaver was famous for advocating that ideas have consequences but he neglected to mention that so do have material circumstances. The problem with most approaches to understanding modernity is in thinking that modernity is primarily an intellectual phenomenon. This ignores the "carnal" dimension of it. Modernity isn't simply the habit of thinking according to certain ideas, it's also the mode of existence that is generated when the practical application of technology transforms life from an agrarian mode of living to that of an industrial one. What destroyed the old world wasn't just "enlightenment ideas" but fertilizer, the electric motor, railways, radio waves, sewerage etc. Modernity is just as much about "things" and services as it is about ideas.

Modernity's ability to provide goods which satisfy human nature are what powers it.  Modernity's ability to deliver carnal goods such as better foods, pharmaceuticals, comfort and transport make pushing back against it a fools errand,  because in the end human nature wins. Even the Amish go to "modern" doctors. The Taliban use AK-47's and mobile/cell phones. No matter how "traditional" there's always the concession to modernity.

The human demand, and reward, for technological advancement which provides benefit to human nature  is limitless and given the more two centuries since the beginning of the industrial revolution an incredibly vast and complex logistical, economic, academic and legal infrastructure exists to provide the "fruits of modernity" All of this is staffed by  hundreds of millions of highly specialized individuals who need to be trained for their tasks. These people and the institutions they man are the infrastructure of modernity.

The key point here is that modernity can't happen without this infrastructure,  and who controls this infrastructure controls modernity.

When Max Weber wrote his, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism it was well recognised that Protestant led countries were richer and technologically more advanced than the Catholic ones, they were effectively more modern, they still are. Interesting too, was the fact that the flow of immigrants were from Catholic to Protestant lands and not in the other direction.

Weber felt that religious reasons were the main drivers of this divergence in economic performance and I agree. Weber dwelt a lot on the Protestant virtues, I want to dwell a bit on the Catholic vices.

Charles Peguy felt that one of the reasons that the Catholic Church had lost its grip on the modern world is because the clergy "had reversed the operation of the Incarnation". Whereas God wanted to bring himself into the world, the Clergy reversed this operation and was trying to keep God out of it. And I think the Peguy was right. The issue is how each church viewed holiness.

Holiness, particularly in the Catholic Church is strongly tinged with a sense of asceticism, clericalism and monasticism. As Catholics materially understand it, the practice of a deepening of the relationship with God involves a "renunciation" of this world: a turning away from it. More asceticism, more poverty, more prayers and the assumption of holy orders: monasticism and it quasi equivalents. There even a ranking system, with the saints and martyrs on top, clergy in the middle and laity-those involved in the day to day operations of the world--on the bottom.  The conception of holiness, as Peguy correctly sensed, was an operation away from the day to day affairs of the world.

Culturally, this produced a society which was strong in reasoned argument, great art, deep philosophy but with poor roads,  minimal industrial infrastructure, widespread grinding poverty and lessening real world influence.

Contrast this with the Protestant world,  which emphasised the role of the laity and holiness of a honest vocation, be that in plumbing or philosophy. Protestantism where it was honestly practiced, sought to bring a Christian spirit, be it to education, science, engineering or banking. Protestantism christianised the carnal world. It kept alive the operation of the Incarnation, the bringing of God's love into the material being of day to day life. The result was the world that Max Weber noted.

Protestantism ended up being the custodian of  modernity and subjugated it to it's version of Christianity, Catholicism was left in the lurch because its theology made it unable to do so.

Which brings me to the movie It's a Wonderful Life. I've always enjoyed the movie but only recently have seen some of its deeper theological significance. While Catholicism has been a factory of saints, Protestantism has been a factory of George Bailey's. (Casting Jimmy Stewart was perfect) It is true that he is fictional character, but he is also an archetype of the a type of man that we all know, and the type of high minded Protestant man who is slowly disappearing due to the cultural forces that have been unleashed since the sixties. Although the movie is fictional it, unnervingly, is beginning to resemble real life.  Bedford Falls may be a fictional town but I remember the world I grew up in strongly resembling it, the world I live in now is slowly turning to Pottersville. The genius of the movie is the depiction of what world would have looked like without Protestant George Bailey. The irony of it is that is was made by a Catholic.

Now I do have disagreements with Protestantism, but my intention here is to praise one of its strengths. And its strength was to produce thousands of George Bailey's, who in various fields and in their own small way were able to transform the world. Catholicism may have a great theology of the Incarnation but Protestantism, at its best, produced the goods, and bought Christianity to the day to day affairs of men.

Unfortunately, Protestantism, like Catholicism was gutted in the sixties and its drift toward radical liberalism is far more catastrophic since it controlled the infrastructure of modernity, the mantle of leadership has now been past to men who see George Bailey as a quaint anachronism, not someone to emulate. Catholicism is unable to fill the void.

That's why I think the only way out for the West is for Catholicism to protestantise in such a way to incorporate the legitimacy of the archetype of George Baily or for Protestantism to Catholicism i.e gain some central authority to stop its drift to the left and recapture control of modernity. But discussions about this are for another time.

But on this Christmas Eve, the night before the celebration of the Incarnation, I want to celebrate the George Bailey's of the world, who each in their small way transformed the world. They represent what I consider the best in Protestantism and I would like to wish them all, and all men of good will, a very Merry Christmas.