When I was in my teens I would sometimes swim in two large flooded quarries just outside Augusta, Maine in the city of Hallowell. Despite the eerie effect of the sheer walls disappearing into murky depths, the water was refreshing on hot summer days, with the irresistible added attraction of “cliff diving” (jumping, really) from heights of up to sixty feet from various points along the hewn walls (although I myself never attempted a jump over 30 feet). Sometimes we would swim out to the immense broken shafts of two ancient wooden cranes rising from some unseen anchorage far below to protrude above the surface of the water; they would sway slightly when we climbed upon them.
I haven’t seen the quarries in almost thirty years, but a recent news item has brought them back to mind. It seems the owner of the property is draining the larger of the two, the Stinchfield Quarry, and arranging to sell its granite for the first time in eighty years. There are certainly customers: New York State, for one, which is planning a restoration of its State House Plaza, built with Hallowell granite back in the 1890’s.
You will notice I said “arranging to sell”, not “to quarry.” The owner, Lenny Nason, is selling stone quarried and then abandoned by long-departed stone cutters in the 1920’s, some of which was left randomly piled on the grounds, and more of which has now been given up by the receding waters.
That’s what interests me most about the story: the difference between then and now. Let me say at the outset that I am in no way criticizing Mr. Nason, who does not seem to be interested in running a full-fledged quarrying operation. In an article in June 15th’s Waterville Sentinel, he says “All I want to do is make a comfortable living. I like people . . . I have a lot of interesting people coming to see me. There’s lots of money here, but I really don’t care . . .” He gets the pleasure of conducting a little business and, perhaps, indulging a little archaeological curiosity. I would be happy to do the same in his place. Nevertheless, the contrast is striking. A century ago the Hallowell Granite Works was a powerful engine in the local economy, and one of the largest employers, its quarries bustling with vitality; a special rail line was built for the sole purpose of carrying the slabs pried from its pits two miles to the docks on the Kennebec river; those same blocks of stone built not only the New York State House Plaza and the State House in Augusta, but also the Pilgrim Monument in Plymouth, MA, the Pullman Monument in Chicago, structures at Gettysburg, the Naval Academy and other buildings and monuments around the country. Today, Mr. Nason engages two part-time employees, and his wife keeps the books. And while he has financed the admittedly substantial task of draining the Stinchfield Quarry, the back-breaking labor of splitting a granite hillside into blocks and prying them from the earth was all done by workers long since gone, most (if not all) of whom have themselves returned to the earth.
I can’t help but think that the story of the Stinchfield Quarry is, in certain respects, a reflection of the state of our culture. Our civilization has been shaped by Christianity for almost two thousand years. Christian beliefs, attitudes and moral convictions (commonly referred to as the Judeo-Christian worldview) are woven into all of our customs and institutions. It is true that we have never realized the Christian ideal; one could say that we haven’t even come close. Nevertheless, anyone raised in the West over the last two millenia has been formed, to a large degree, by that Christocentric worldview, whether they consciously embrace it or not. More than one commentator has remarked that even the “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have not jettisoned principles such as the dignity of the human person (not a universal value by any stretch) or a Judeo-Christian concept of justice — they employ these very ideas, in fact, as weapons against Christianity. This is confirmed by my personal experience: most self-proclaimed atheists with whom I am personally acquainted still adhere to a mostly Christian ethical code (even though they can’t give an authoritative reason why), with the usual exceptions involving sexual morality — which doesn’t do much to distinguish them from most professed Christians.
Without its source and foundation of Christian belief, however, the worldview itself will quickly wither. Just as the Stinchfield Quarry rapidly filled with water after work was abandoned and nobody was manning the pumps, a society that abandons faith will soon be resubmerged in paganism. There’s no need to go through all different ways in which we have seen this process working itself out over the past few decades; we need only to look at how quickly the rejection of traditional sexual morality has led to the dissolution of the family, and in turn to all the various pathologies that follow in its wake. A good illustration is the recent poll in which more than nine out of ten Canadian women believe that sex before marriage is morally permissible; who doubts that fifty years ago ninety percent held the opposite view? And who has any confidence that a future Dawkins or Hitchens, raised in our increasingly amoral, relativistic culture, will retain the sense of justice, or just plain decency, of the Dawkins and Hitchens raised in the flawed but nevertheless Christian culture of half a century ago?
And that’s not all; the problem is not only with unbelievers or nominal Christians. We live in a society that tells us in so many ways that religious belief is fine as a personal indulgence, but that it is fanaticism (either ridiculous or dangerous) to build our lives around it, or even to let it guide our decisions. How easy it is to leave our active faith at the church door, or to follow only those tenets that are convenient, or don’t ruffle feathers. How easy to rely on the hard work of our forefathers in the faith, and whatever fragments of their labors that lay within easy reach; how hard to carve out the foundation stones for the Christian culture of the future.