Christians, in alliance with believing Jews and even virtuous pagans, must sanctify the world through the Grace of God. For men of good will to fight amongst themselves squanders precious time and resources, and it leaves the field to the Enemy…
As I noted in my previous essay on Christian Humanism, Gleaves Whitney first introduced me—at least in a serious way—to this subject. I still remember not only his excellent lectures on Christian Humanism and its various adherents in the late 1990s in Houston and Del Lago, Texas, but I also fondly remember the excellent Chestertonian discussions that followed late into the night—over good tobacco and serious drink—with Winston and Barbara Elliott, John Rocha, John Willson, Joe Pearce, Father Donald Nesti, and others, who would come and go. Gleaves would often pose a serious philosophical question, and we would tackle it from a variety of angles. In almost every one of those conversations—always lively in word and spirit, and in direction, gothic and organic—Gleaves and Winston would alternate playing (never with pretense or affectation) the role of Socrates or Jefferson, with Joe Pearce as Chesterton, Father Nesti and Barbara Elliott as Saints. John and Paul, respectively, John Willson as John Wayne, and John Rocha and I quietly listening or guffawing, depending on the moment. Those were, without question, some of the headiest and energizing nights of my life.
At the time, I was deep into my new courses at Hillsdale as well as into my researching and writing J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-Earth. The conversations with Gleaves, Winston, and others provided much of the framework for the questions I asked about Tolkien, and I was able—thankfully—to envision him beyond the mere confines of literary theory or a simple left-right political dichotomy. Additionally, equally heady conversations with my colleagues at Hillsdale—especially Mark Kalthoff, Paul and Lisa Moreno, my wife, and Ken Calvert—regarding the nature of Western civilization and the great thinkers and ideas of the West, also informed my own research and writing. I could not have asked for a better atmosphere in which to think: the Christian Humanism in Houston and the best of Western civilization in Hillsdale. My mind and soul were on overdrive in a Houstonian/Hillsdalian blend of beauty, truth, and goodness.
While I was able to place Tolkien in a Christian Humanist context in Sanctifying Myth, my own understanding was still in embryonic form throughout its writing. The great next breakthrough, at least for me, came in the fall of 2001, reading for the first time a Christopher Dawson book. I had, by chance (or Providence) found a first American edition of Dawson’s The Judgment of the Nations in Hyde Brothers Books in Fort Wayne. I devoured it over that Thanksgiving break. To this day, I cannot—nor would I ever want to—forget the exhilaration of Dawson’s thought. Never had I encountered such logical argumentation intertwined with creative intellect and devout faith as well as personal humility. Certainly, Dawson’s book was a manifestation of what Edmund Burke had so poetically called the “moral imagination.” Reading Dawson that Thanksgiving took my life in ways I could never have imagined only a month earlier. I knew—with the certainty of youth—that I HAD to write a book on Dawson. For me, it is still the book I most enjoyed writing. Every day, if not every hour, brought something new as I followed Dawson in even the most minute ways. At one time, at least, while researching his papers in the Notre Dame archives, I actually had to leave the library, as I had begun to hyperventilate. I was reacting to him not just spiritually and intellectually, but physically.
Still, I was not content with either the embryonic Christian Humanism of Sanctifying Myth, and I made two critical decisions in the fall of 2002. First, with the blessing of my wonderful department chair, Mark, I decided to teach an intellectual history course on Dawson and Eric Voegelin the following spring. Second, to prepare for that, I spent the entirety of Christmas break, 2002-2003, writing my thoughts about Christian Humanism in book manuscript form. Dedra and the kids spent that break in Texas with her parents, and I remained in Hillsdale, reading and writing. While I’m generally a fast typist and writer, I don’t think I’ve ever been as fast as I was that Christmas break. In less than a month, I wrote a roughly 60,000 word book, modeling it after Russell Kirk’s 1954 Program for Conservatives. As such, I wrote chapters on the theory of Christian Humanism; its proponents in the twentieth century; its challenge to ideologies; as well as its views on culture, economics, art, and theology. I called the book, Seeking Christendom: The Christian Humanist Mind. I’ve never been able to find a publisher for it, but it served as the basis of my lectures for the spring 2003 course on Dawson and Voegelin, and much of it, in more developed form, appeared in my biographies of Dawson and, later, Russell Kirk. Fifteen years later, it’s a bit dated, but I am still rather happy with the six canons of Christian Humanism. I modeled them after Kirk’s six canons of conservatism, but I cannot claim originality of essence, especially in hindsight. I’m certain now that the six canons were as much Winston, Gleaves, Mark, Father Nesti, and Barbara as they were me.
As a poor and inadequate reflection of Kirk’s Ideals, this book begins with the premise that Kirk’s six tenets of conservatism, as discussed in chapter one, are true. It adds six others.
First, that the preservation of the virtues of the West, best understood through the stories of the exemplars of these virtues, is a sacred duty.
Second, that one must understand history in metahistorical, theological, and poetic terms as did Virgil and St. Augustine.
Third, one must embrace a proper anthropology, defining man by both his inherited sin and his received grace. The person, at root, is a being endowed with rationality, reason, and passion. He is higher than the animals, but lower than the angels. He must, to be fully human, balance each of these tensions.
Fourth, Christians (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant)—in alliance with believing Jews and even virtuous pagans—must sanctify the world through the Grace of God. For men of good will to fight amongst themselves squanders precious time and resources, and it leaves the field to the Enemy.
Fifth, the real struggle in the world is not between left and right, but between Christ and anti-Christ, between that which is humane and that which is anti-humane.
Finally, true remembrance, preservation, and advocacy of all that is Good, True, and Beautiful, comes from a recognition that our highest form of understanding is derived from the reflection of the light of the Logos (Gospel of St. John 1:9) in our souls through the faculty of imagination. In this point, one must follow not just St. John, but the Blessed Virgin Mary: “My soul doth magnify the Lord.” Or, as St. Augustine put in it in his sermon on Psalm 58: “Of itself it hath no light, nor of itself powers; but all that is fair in a soul is virtue and wisdom; but it neither is wise for itself, nor strong for itself, nor is itself light to itself, nor is itself virtue to itself. There is a certain fountain and origin of virtue, there is a certain root of wisdom, there is a certain, so to speak, if this also is to be said, region of immutable truth; from which if the soul withdraws it is made dark and if it draws near it is made light.”*
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*St. Augustine, An Augustine Synthesis, ed. Erich Przywara, S.J. (London: Sheed and Ward, 1936), 20-21.
Editor’s note: The featured image is “The Conversation” (1935) by Arnold Lakhovsky, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.