Part of the modernist mythos has been the idea that historical clarity increases exponentially the closer one gets to one’s own time. The myth tells us that the origins of mankind, the development of civilization, the foundation of certain human institutions are all lost in the dim past. This is what I will call “the Legend of the Fog.”
The past two hundred years have not been good ones for respect for ancient memory. Tradition and collective memory have a powerful pull on the human heart. This can, of course, become malicious when a people’s traditions are infected with the result of man’s fall and prove an obstacle to fellowship with the true God.
On the other hand, the Church has usually attempted to treat the past of the cultures it encounters with as much respect as it felt morally able to do. An example of this is St. Gregory the Great’s advice to St. Augustine of Canterbury when evangelizing the pagan Saxons:
Tell Augustine that he should by no means destroy the temples of the gods but rather the idols within those temples. Let him, after he has purified them with holy water, place altars and relics of the saints in them. For, if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God. Thus, seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed, the people will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the true God.
Modern secularism, which has carried itself in recent centuries ironically like a religious system of belief, has tended to view ancient memory as impossible foolishness. Like the Christianity it often imitates, it sees one of its tasks as the judgment of a people’s tradition and memory. Unlike St. Gregory, it usually has felt no obligation to respect the past, but treats it with contempt and seeks to supplant it with itself.
A useful aspect of modern thinking in reinforcing this approach has been what I will call “the Legend of the Fog.” Part of the modernist mythos has been the idea that historical clarity increases exponentially the closer one gets to one’s own time. The myth tells us that the origins of mankind, the development of civilization, the foundation of certain human institutions are all lost in the dim past. There is no reliable human record for these ancient origin events, nor are they the product of particular human beings in particular places that are remembered. When clear and specific human memories about the past are broken or thrown out, the way is clear for modern tale-making, that is, the substitution of rival origin myths that support the “privileging of the present” that is such a key feature of secularism. The modern myth of “progress” from crude, primitive beginnings to modern enlightened complexity is much easier to believe if you induce collective amnesia about what humans actually remember.
Let’s compare, for example, two myths on the origin of cereal agriculture. Many ancient people remember that cereal agriculture was a gift that happened at one discrete, particular time from some discrete, particular god or person under divine inspiration. The modern myth paves over this memory and demands we accept “the Fog.” The particular origins of cereal agriculture are lost to us. We therefore are free to substitute a tale of blind, unguided and random human experimentation that evolved over centuries or even millennia into the “Agricultural Revolution.”
It depends on one’s worldview of course, as to what counts as a believable myth. An essentially materialist viewpoint cannot allow for sudden divine inspirations or heavenly endowments. A sudden breakthrough like cereal agriculture must be explained in purely materialist terms. Any rival myth must be broken. This is not to discount the many valuable things we have learned from such modern endeavors as archaeology. It is the modern mythical tales that fill in the enormous gaps around the very little information that a potsherd can tell us about ancient people that is the problem. As Chesterton puts it, “It discredits supernatural stories that have some foundation, simply by telling natural stories that have no foundation.” That the origin of cereal agriculture might have had an origin closer to the actual ancient memory and not to the modern myth is not considered.
I tend to take an approach that I call “mnemonic optimism.” That is, I believe the human race has been the human race ever since it first existed. It passed on its memories, and its memories were important to it. The Australian aborigines, for example, have accurately passed down stories of what Australia was like in the Ice Ages (lost islands, lower sea levels, and so on). Of course, this does not mean blind credulity—people have also been forgetful and devil-deceived liars for almost as long as the human race has existed. But it does mean that we should be prepared to see remarkable examples of the retentiveness of the memory of the human race, and coming as we are from a supernaturalist viewpoint, open to extend at least some credibility to the traditions coming down to us from ancient people. If someone tells us that a breakthrough in their culture came because a god or prophet revealed it to their ancestors, we should not immediately discount the idea that such historical breakthroughs might come through direct revelation, unless we have other sound reasons for rejecting the story. Even such hardcore modern endeavors so close to the materialist heart as science show remarkable examples of sudden vision or inspiration that make one wonder how much of scientific progress can be credited to purely human invention.
Republished with gracious permission from The Saint Constantine School (January 2020).
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The featured image is “la Moisson ou Cérès ou l’Agriculture” (1770) by Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée (1725–1805) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.