Show me a person who cannot distinguish cleverness from wisdom or a good brain from a good heart, and I will show you somebody who is a fool.
These words to live by returned to mind a few weeks back when I read a complaint piece on Apocalypto by a scholar specializing in Mayan civilization. She protested: “They’re shown as these extremely barbaric people, when in fact, the Maya were a very sophisticated culture.”
A quote like this can only mean that somewhere in higher education impressionable minds are being formed by somebody who knows all about the Mayans — and nothing about elementary common sense. For, of course, barbarism and sophistication are not mutually exclusive. Hitler enjoyed Richard Wagner’s work; SS troops in his death camps listened to great classical music to unwind after a hard day of slaughter.
Nazi Germany, Stalin’s U.S.S.R., and Mao’s China were none of them Stone Age societies just past the level of bear skins and cave paintings. They were all highly sophisticated, technologically accomplished, scientific civilizations with a developed literature, a huge legacy in the arts, law, philosophy and architecture, and an extremely complex and well-functioning governmental structure. All of that enabled them to, among other things, handle the complex and difficult task of putting to death millions and millions of innocent people. Indeed, the fact that civilizations can be both highly sophisticated and utterly barbaric is the whole point of the film.
How do such civilizations get that way? The scholar on Mayan civilization unwittingly points us to an important clue when she declares, “It’s offensive to those of us who try to teach cultural sensitivity and alternative world views that might not match our own 21st-century Western ones but are nonetheless valid. … We have evidence to suggest that there were group sacrifices. But it would probably have been done as a pious act with solemnity.”
In the dictatorship of relativism that Pope Benedict warns against, tolerance tends to mutate into moral idiocy. That’s because the relativist is forced, by his own principles, to abandon the notion of the good (except in the sense of “what I happen to like personally”).
In the old days, it was possible to say that because God is good and human beings are made in his image, then acts which respect the dignity of the human person are good and acts which do not are bad. The goal of life was to “approximate his perfections” and to guard the fact that every person, no matter how poor or weak, was likewise a creature in his image.
So, for example, liberty and justice were good things, not just for rich robber barons but for poor widows, too. That was not “imposing values.” It was “defending the alien, the orphan and the widow” because the Lord their God was their special friend and avenger.
Of course, even people who professed to live in that moral universe did not always live up to their principles. Such violations were called “sin.”
But when we embrace relativism, the first thing to go, of course, is our belief in God’s goodness — because God himself is a mere construct of Western culture.
The next thing to go is belief in human dignity. After all, that is simply one more relic of a Christian civilization that has no more or less merit than any other.
And so, suggesting that group human sacrifice might be intrinsically evil is “privileging 21st century Western culture.” All moral judgments — all attempts to condemn a particular act as evil (such as, say, solemnly and piously cutting open an innocent man’s chest and ripping his beating heart out while he breathes his last) — are out.
We cannot impose our values.
We cannot say that anybody “ought” to do anything, because that would imply we are subject to a judge who blesses or condemns certain acts. We must give up all pretense that God exists and that our duty in life is to approximate his perfection. Our duty — our sole duty — is not to make value judgments.
The problem with all this, as C.S. Lewis points out, is that when all that says “We ought” is silenced, what says “I want” remains, for it has no pretensions to transcendent authority. It simply asserts naked force against the weak.
And so, once conscience is silenced by relativism, those without consciences will be only too happy to shout down all remaining opposition to their designs.
They may even cloak their worship of power as a kind of piety. For as we have already seen, Nazi, Stalinist and Maoist civilizations also engaged in group sacrifice (of extremely large groups), and they too considered it a pious act of devotion to, variously, the sacred purity of the Volkish blood and the sacred glory of the proletariat.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Mark Shea is senior content editor