cover 28 04 233x300 Knowledge and Truth from Beyond OurselvesA short excerpt from The Prophetic Preacher—In Memoriam: Father Thomas Hopko by Ralph C. Wood from the current issue of Touchstone.

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Hopko’s poignant query—”What went wrong?”—referred to the collapse of this venerable national experiment in democratic pluralism. The macabre evidence was not hard for him to find. He cited a book he had recently seen on display at the American Academy of Religion. It was entitled The Sacrament of Abortion. Written by Ginette Paris and published in 1992, it claims that abortion is a sacred act, a noble sacrifice to the goddess Artemis. Abortion is “an expression of maternal responsibility and not a failure of maternal love,” Paris declares. “Artemis stands for the refusal to give life,” she continues, “if the gift is not pure and untainted. . . . As Artemis might kill a wounded animal rather than allow it to limp along miserably, so a mother wishes to spare the child a painful destiny.”

No wonder Paul’s preaching excited a riot in Ephesus, as a vast pagan crowd sought to shout him down by crying out for two hours, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19:34). The time would soon come, Hopko predicted, when Christians would no longer be tolerated but would be shouted down and silenced, all in the name of the new Artemis. She joins other pagan deities—of commerce and profit no less than sexuality and entertainment—to rule contemporary America with an iron fist beneath a velvet glove.

The other repulsive example concerned a student who had decided that he, no less than his wife, should be able to nurse their infant, since the divide between male and female is an arbitrary social construction. Thus did the man have a tube implanted beneath his skin, so that it ran from a container of milk to one of his nipples. This gimcrack device enabled the baby to feed from his father’s breast, and so to gain a great victory for the virtual identity of what were once regarded as the complementary sexes.

What Fr. Tom saw coming, long before most others detected it, is what Walker Percy called “a tempestuous restructuring of human consciousness,” a tectonic shift in our conception of our species. The legitimate and hard-won freedoms of the Enlightenment, beneficial to democratic states and confessing churches alike, are now being construed as a call to re-fashion ourselves into whatever creatures we desire ourselves to be. Our clamant racial, economic, and military ills continue to fester, yet we are virtually bereft of any transcendent means for treating them.

Hopko first alerted me to this impoverishment. We are rapidly abandoning the ancient conviction (embraced by ancient Greeks and Romans no less than Jews and Christians) that all knowledge and truth are disclosed to us from beyond ourselves. They constitute a moral and spiritual reality that, over the long haul of history, we have constructed in deep accord with our divinely ordered humanity. The way to freedom and happiness—through traditional structures and symbols and ceremonies—lies in both discovering and conforming ourselves to this objective order. Whether for good or ill, we are subject to it—not it to us.

When we abandon this vital, multi-millennial, vigorously contested, and thus ongoing tradition, we either sink below ourselves into demonic bestiality or else rise above ourselves into demonic angelism. Walker Percy feared the former, but Tom Hopko was more frightened by the latter. With the near-total collapse of the American pluralist project, we are now devising a creature drastically unlike anything known before.

In a remarkable recasting of an aphorism from H. Richard Niebuhr, Hopko proposed that “deities without sovereignty bring humanoids without dignity into lifestyles without responsibility through the exploitation of a god or goddess of one’s own choice and making.” Family and marriage, political and educational institutions, and indeed sociality itself are increasingly deracinated. They have been uprooted from their material conditions, their moral and religious limits, indeed from the glories and boundaries of God’s good creation. Hence the frightful emergence of discarnate beings defined in terms that have little if any relation to our blessedly incarnate condition.

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