Maybe it takes a Torah scholar and religious Jew to help us understand the roots of the inverted values that animate Western civilization. For over ten years, author and radio talk show host Dennis Prager taught the first five books of the Bible verse-by-verse at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. According to Prager there is no greater concept in the Torah than that of “distinction,” or, put another way, the clear separation God makes between certain things: God and man, animal and human, life and death, sacred and profane, good and evil, male and female. He even goes so far as to call these distinctions “God’s Signature” on the created order. Like six pillars holding up a great house, when the structural integrity of those columns becomes significantly compromised, the whole house comes crashing down.
Of the six distinctions listed, the one between God and man is antecedent to all the others: once it is compromised, the others will fall too like so many dominoes. When Adam and Eve succumbed to the serpent’s temptation, they switched places with God and made themselves the arbiters of truth and morality. The seeds of their godship that were sown in Eden are coming to full flower in our age. In his magisterial work, The Study of History, the eminent historian Arnold Toynbee divides world history into twenty-one ages and makes the case that our present age is the first one whose prevailing ethos does not appeal to a divine text or a holy tradition for guidance in the major areas of life. To say that we are living in a post-Christian age is as obvious as saying that the sun rises in the east.
What’s sometimes overlooked is that this godship is not exclusively driven by agnostics and atheists, but receives major contributions by those calling themselves Christians. I can’t help but think of the recent effort by Catholics for Choice to overturn the Hyde Amendment thereby allowing taxpayer-funded abortions. Their position on this issue rejects two thousand years of Church teaching.
Then there are large sectors of the mainline Protestant denominations who have become so accommodating to the Zeitgeist that they are actually just the cultural ethos dressed up in religious vestments (e.g., the United Church of Christ). Chesterton was right that only dead fish swim with the current. Without guilt I admit that I am encouraged each time I read about their precipitous decline in membership and finances and look forward to their eventual placement on the slag pile of history. As the late, great Richard John Neuhaus used to say, “The mainline has become the sideline.”
When man becomes God, the other distinctions that Prager identified become blurred and introduce toxins into the cultural bloodstream. If people are not created in the image of God, then it follows that they are no different than animals. Prager cites the example of animal rights groups like the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who call the slaughter of chickens a “Holocaust on a Plate,” thereby equating such an act with the slaughter of Jews during the Holocaust.
For over thirty years Prager has asked high school seniors the question, “If a stranger and your pet were both drowning and you could only save one, who would it be?” In this informal poll, about two-thirds of the students chose their pet. An Associated Press pollrevealed that half of American pet owners consider their pet just as much a member of the family as anyone else. Prager is right to say that we live in the Age of Foolishness with our folly being rooted in a lack of reverence for God: the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.
No reverence for God = no wisdom. No wonder our secular universities have become institutions where great knowledge (e.g., the hard sciences) is juxtaposed with great foolishness. In recent years, at Swarthmore College, a course was offered called “Interrogating Gender: Centuries of Dramatic Cross-Dressing.” Examples like this are plentiful. And practicing Catholics will be embarrassed to learn that the University of Notre Dame has twice hosted the Queer Film Festival.