National Geographic made headlines last week out of my favorite object lesson in human frailty, namely the extinction of half the world’s languages by the end of the century (some other estimates are even more alarming). But it is not just the Nivkh of the Siberian tundra or the Kapayo of the Amazon rain forest who will disappear. At present fertility rates so will the Russians, Japanese, Germans and Italians, not to mention the Persians.

The death of a culture is an uncanny event, for it erases not only the future but also the past, that is, the hopes and fears, the sweat and sacrifice of countless generations whose lives no longer can be remembered, for no living being will sing their songs or tell their stories.

When nations go willingly into that dark night, what should we conclude about human nature? Unlike extinctions of the past, today’s cultures are dying of their own apathy rather than by the swords of their enemies. People of dying cultures kill themselves at a frightful rate, as in the case of Brazil’s Guarani Indians, who after their displacement from traditional life have the world’s highest suicide rate. I long have argued, for that matter, that the Arab suicide bomber is the spiritual cousin of the despondent aboriginal of the Amazon rain forest (Live and let die, Asia Times Online, April 13, 2002).

In the ancient world of perpetual war, nations perished by violence, and it was assumed that they would have preferred to survive. The modern world, with few exceptions, removes the violent threat to the national existence of small peoples, yet the rate of their extinction by strictly voluntary means is faster than ever before in history.

We find it hard to come to terms with the suicide of an acquaintance; how do we come to terms with the suicide of a nation? In the aftermath of World War I, Sigmund Freud claimed that human beings possessed a death-drive as much as an instinct for self-preservation. If we judged by the numbers alone, we would have to agree with Freud, given that most of the world’s cultures, advanced as well as aboriginal, seem likely to annihilate themselves.

Freud offered in effect a Satanic parody of the old-fashioned Catholic view of “natural law” (today’s Catholic view is more nuanced). The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1911 defined it as “those instincts and emotions common to man and the lower animals, such as the instinct of self-preservation and love of offspring. In its strictly ethical application – the sense in which this article treats it – the natural law is the rule of conduct which is prescribed to us by the Creator in the constitution of the nature with which He has endowed us.” Sadly, most human societies evince no instinct for self-preservation, and certainly no love of offspring, for they do not bother to have sufficient offspring to survive.

No matter what assumption we make about God and human nature, we land in logical trouble. If our nature inclines us toward the moral law without the help of revelation, it is not clear why God is strictly necessary. That was the position of the Catholic Church as of the First Vatican Council (1870), which proceeded from the view of St. Thomas Aquinas. Again, the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Theoretically speaking, man is capable of acquiring a full knowledge of the moral law, which is … nothing but the dictates of reason properly exercised. Actually, taking into consideration the power of passion, prejudice, and other influences which cloud the understanding or pervert the will, one can safely say that man, unaided by supernatural revelation, would not acquire a full and correct knowledge of the contents of the natural law (cf Vatican Council, Sess III, cap ii). [1]

In this system, God isn’t strictly necessary, merely convenient, because humankind is “capable of acquiring a full knowledge of the moral law,” although prone to mistakes without the aid of supernatural revelation. That helps explain why a certain kind of Marxist philosopher always has found it easy to become a certain kind of Thomist; in both cases, nature is in the driver’s seat. [2] Either human reason can work everything out on its own, or it can’t. Natural theology leaves humankind half-pregnant with reason.

It does not help much to reject natural theology and argue instead for “divine command ethics,” in other words, to assert that what is good is simply what the Bible (or some other preferred scripture) tells one to do. That was the view of Karl Barth, the great Reformed theologian of the 20th century. Whatever the Bible might require, humankind still is God’s creation, and if God intended us to hearken to his revelation, he must have made us capable of responding to it in some fashion.

There must be some correspondence, in other words, between the nature of human beings and any divine revelation that makes it possible for humans to accept Grace. We know that there is a correspondence between nature and the human imagination, or we would not have discovered planetary orbits or split the atom; why should there not be a correspondence between nature, that is, Creation, and the imagination of our hearts? If it is divine love that elicits from us a response to Grace, how can we separate our capacity to respond to love from our nature?

Thus the debate between “natural theology” and “command ethics” continues around the circle, and I see no end to it. Of course, we can argue that some people are pre-programmed to receive grace and others are pre-programmed to reject it, but that is no more satisfying than Freud’s contention that some people follow eros while others follow a death-drive. We are left watching a majority of the world’s cultures simply will themselves out of existence, largely through the individual decision of their members not to rear offspring, and wondering why this should be the case.

I cannot answer the question, but I will offer another question: What is it that makes human beings different from animals? Unlike humans, healthy animals universally show an instinct for self-preservation and the propagation of their species. We do not observe un-neutered cats deciding not to have kittens the better to pursue their careers as mousers, nor do they abandon their kittens at the church door. Nor is it quite true that humans are the only species that is sentient of death. Elephants evidently grieve for their dead, and domestic animals grieve for dead human companions.

Humans may not be the only animals who are sentient of death, but they are the only animals whose continuity depends on culture as much as it does upon genes. I do not mean to suggest that humans of different cultures belong to different species – on the contrary, the child of a Kalahari Bushman will thrive if raised in the family of a Glaswegian ship’s engineer. I consider secondary, if not trivial, the genetic differences among the races of Homo sapiens sapiens.

But culture performs a role among humans similar to the role species does among animals. An adult Bushman never would make sense of industrial society, any more than a Glaswegian ship’s engineer would last a fortnight in the Kalahari. Individual human existence has no meaning outside the culture that nurtures, sustains, and transmits our contribution to future generations. Culture is the stuff out of which we weave the hope of immortality, not merely through genetic transmission but through inter-generational communication. That communication, I hardly need add, ends with the extinction of language.

That is why I keep returning to Franz Rosenzweig’s remarkable insight that humans are sentient of the death of their cultures as much as they are of their own physical death: Just as every individual must reckon with his eventual death, the peoples of the world foresee their eventual extinction, be it however distant in time. Indeed, the love of the peoples for their own nationhood is sweet and pregnant with the presentiment of death. Love is only surpassing sweet when it is directed toward a mortal object, and the secret of this ultimate sweetness only is defined by the bitterness of death. Thus the peoples of the world foresee a time when their land with its rivers and mountains still lies under heaven as it does today, but other people dwell there; when their language is entombed in books, and their laws and customs have lost their living power.

A sick cat or dog will crawl into a hole to die. The members of sick cultures do not do anything quite so dramatic, but they cease to have children, dull their senses with alcohol and drugs, become despondent, and too frequently do away with themselves. This is not due to an inborn death-drive, contrary to the odious Freud, but rather a symptom of a culture’s mortal illness.

That is why pagans become Christians. That is, individuals embrace Christianity when their pre-Christian culture no longer can transmit their memory as well as their genes to future generations. Christianity, in that sense, succeeds precisely where “natural law” fails. Self-confident and secure pagans do not seek life eternal through belief in Jesus Christ, for they are quite happy to believe in themselves. It is when they have reason to cease to believe in themselves, when the depredations of the empires, or the great tide of globalization, overrun their defenses and expose their mortal fragility.

We observe two great and related phenomena in the global South: the fastest rate of cultural extinction in history, as well as the fastest rate of Christian evangelization in history. I do not mean to minimize the tragedy of declining cultures, but it is only because of the terrible depth of that tragedy that hundreds of millions of souls turn in fear and trembling to a religion that represents itself as standing above all human cultures: the ekklesia of individuals called out from amongst the nations to the Kingdom of God.

Whence come the fear and trembling? Christians are the adoptive children of the Jewish patriarch Abraham, in the interpretation of St. Paul proposed by Michael Wyschogrod. In an important sense, the new Christians of the global South relive the life of Abraham, who left behind clan and kindred at divine command in the world of 4,000 years ago, when clan and kindred were everything. Given a son in old age, Abraham was told to sacrifice that son, thereby destroying his links to the future.

Among peoples facing the erasure of their links to the past and uncertainty about their future, Abraham’s frame of mind on Mount Moriah must seem much less remote than it does to the comfortable Christians of the North. The Hebrew Bible has a personal meaning for the new Christians of the South (as Philip Jenkins reported in The New Faces of Christianity) because in a sense they relive the experience of the patriarch.

The linguists at National Geographic have my sympathy. It is wise to document the endangered languages before their sounds die away forever. Even the meanest and poorest form of human culture evokes grandeur greater than that of any galaxy. Like the myriad tribes of the Roman Empire and the barbarian invasions of the Middle Ages, hundreds of peoples will give up their tribal identity and in compensation receive Christianity. Opinions will remain divided as to whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it very well may be the main thing occurring in our present century.

1. Many Thomists consider this simplified view to be a distortion of the views of St. Thomas Aquinas.
2. There is a large class of paradoxes that follow the same pattern. Another example is reported by Engelhard Weigl of Adelaide University (in Messianism, Apocalypse and Redemption in 20th Century German Thought, editors Wayne Cristaudo and Wendy Baker). The 17th-century philosopher G W Leibniz in his Theodicy apologize for God’s goodness by attempting to show that we live in the best possible world that God might have created. But if this were the case, why would God ever bring the world to an end through an Apocalypse and Last Judgment?