Samuel Gregg’s “Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization” is a brilliant meditation on the reasons for the rise of the West, more triumphantly known as “Christendom.” He argues that for the West to survive, we must first acknowledge and then return to valuing its Christian foundation. But does history indicate that going back is really the way forward?
Having just returned from two weeks in Italy where I tromped around Rome, Norcia, Assisi, and more with two college-aged sons, it seemed a good time to finish Samuel Gregg’s new book Reason, Faith and the Struggle for Western Civilization. The dust and heat of summer mingled with the ruins of ancient Rome, the weight of Christian history, the echoes of popes and saints, conquerors and the conquered, sweat and sore feet.
Civilizations rise and fall, and Dr. Gregg’s book is a brilliant meditation on the reasons for the rise of Western civilization—more triumphantly known as “Christendom.”
One of the magnitudes of history hit home more than ever on my visit to Italy: that the Catholic Church embraced the inheritance of Rome. When the city of man crumbled, the city of God took its place. Christendom flowered in the Middle Ages, and by the Renaissance, the popes saw themselves and the Catholic Church as the rightful heirs to the greatness that was Rome.
Samuel Gregg is the research director at the Acton Institute. With a D.Phil from Oxford, he writes on history, politics, and economics. In this volume he has turned to a wider perspective to analyze both the amazing rise of Christendom and the challenges Western civilization faces today.
After an opening chapter which uses Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg address to introduce the threats to Western civilization, Dr. Gregg goes on to explain the unique cultural chemistry that brought about the triumph of Christianity. I found this analysis most intriguing and helpful. In a nutshell, pagan religion in the ancient world had reached a dead end. Stale and superstitious, it was a religion of magic and myth that failed to keep pace with the advances of philosophy.
Meanwhile, the thinkers of Greece and Rome admired the religious genius of Judaism, but disliked the Jews. Why did they have to be so obnoxiously exclusive and so darned legalistic? The philosophers recognized the brilliance of monotheism and the contribution Judaism brought in linking morality to religion, but found it a stretch to actually convert. What? And be circumcised? I think not.
The writers of the New Testament and the early Christian apologists, however, were able to meld the monotheism and morality of Judaism with the insights of the philosophers. They were also able to draw out what was best from the mystery religions and maintain a liturgy and cult that remained an attractive and useful aspect of the ancient paganism. In the mobile, multi-ethnic atmosphere of the Roman Empire, Christianity provided a synthesis. In addition to bringing together the best of the different belief systems, it was socially, culturally, and ethnically flexible. It provided a clear doctrinal and moral framework that was also reasonable. Furthermore, it was a revolutionary religion because it taught personal choice, and with volition came personal responsibility.
It changed the world, and Dr. Gregg charts how the triumph of Christianity in ancient Rome became the foundation for all the achievements that we call Western Civilization. He moves on to show how this foundation of faith was undermined by the development of anti-Christian rationalism and the Enlightenment, culminating in what Dr. Gregg rightly recognizes as the materialistic new religions of destruction: the economic totalitarianism of Marx, the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill, and the nihilism of Nietzsche. The materialistic erosion of the Christian foundation continues into the present day with the “dictatorship of Relativism,” the essentially materialistic creed of liberal Christianity and the fatalistic devotion of radical Islam in the form of jihadism.
Dr. Gregg concludes by pondering a way back. For Western civilization to survive we must first acknowledge and then return to valuing its Christian foundation. It is impossible to maintain Western values that came from a Christian philosophical and theological foundation while denying the truth and reality of that foundation. He analyzes this devastating intellectual poverty and rightly concludes that “the center cannot hold.” There is too much blatant intellectual contradiction. We cannot run on the fumes of Christianity much longer. If the foundation crumbles completely, then the freedoms we enjoy (which are rooted in these Judeo-Christian values) must also eventually fall.
Samuel Gregg is to be congratulated for writing a concise, accessible, and clear explanation of our present situation. His book is uncluttered with intellectual jargon, academic posturing, and obscure argumentation. It’s the kind of book that should be required reading for any liberal arts college student because it gives the historical background that explains where we are today and why. This sort of book provides the context and matrix for current trends in philosophy, politics, economics, the arts, media, religion, and popular culture.
While one laments what seems to be the imminent death of Western civilization, does history indicate that going back is really the way forward? C.S. Lewis has pointed out that if one makes a wrong turn the only way to correct it is to go back and take the right road. Really? Usually one finds a detour—a new way to the destination which sometimes turns out to be the scenic route.
A return to the faith? Certainly there have been religious revivals. The Great Awakening in the United States and the Evangelical and then Anglo-Catholic renewal in the United Kingdom are good examples. These examples, however, are renewals from within a particular cultural context in which the remnants of a real Christianity were still vital within the culture. The vocabulary and underlying theism were still there. Who would evangelize in our culture when the majority of Christian groups have either fallen into moralistic, therapeutic Deism or the ersatz religion of liberal modernism.
Some other reading this summer makes me wonder about a more realistic and outrageous future. What if Western civilization as we know it has simply reached the end of its lifespan? Christian culture has been decimated by rationalism, scientism, utilitarianism, relativism, skepticism, materialism, and nihilism. The rot is terminal. Is there any way a culture that has become so anti-Christian could ever return to value the faith that is its own foundation?
I think not.
Instead I see the Spirit moving in other directions. I am producing a podcast series this summer on John Allen’s book The Future Church. Mr. Allen’s volume is now ten years old, so it has been worth assessing his prognostications to see how good a Nostradamus he has been.
Mr. Allen analyzes various global trends and their practical impact on Christianity—especially on Catholicism. One of most important trends is demographic. Already global Christianity is dominated by the people of the developing world. There are more Catholics in Latin America, Africa, and Asia than the countries of Western civilization by far. Furthermore, birthrate and conversion trajectories indicate that by the middle of this century the dominance will be overwhelming.
While Latin American Christians have assimilated Western culture for the last five hundred years, the conversion of the African and Asian peoples has been more recent. The Christians in the developing world have been converted directly from paganism. This means they have not been tainted by the intellectual legacy that has rotted Christianity from the inside out for the last five hundred years. They are a unique, new breed of Christian. With a vital belief in the supernatural, they believe the historic Christian faith without all the burdens of rationalism, skepticism, and modern Western angst.
This new Christianity will bring its own set of problems. The problems Dr. Gregg outlines with such precision and intellectual acumen will be largely irrelevant to them. We may find ourselves not having to contend with same sex marriage, but with bigamy. We may not be struggling with the challenge of scientism, but with the challenge of shamanism—not with atheism but polytheism.
This new Christianity will be uploaded with a fervent, youthful spirit which simply sidesteps the modern, secularist conflicts. The Christians of the global South who will take over will have been evangelized and educated by Western civilization, but the blend of European thought and religion and African and Asian culture will be a fresh and invigorating incarnation of Christian truth. It will be Western Christian culture in African or Asian dress.
This new Christianity is already among us. In my visit to Italy this summer I observed to my sons that nearly all the priests, religious, and sisters we saw in their habits on the streets of Rome were Asian and African. I’m reminded of a recent visit of Pope Francis to Africa in which he was seated on the dais with all his bishops and the people were dancing with joy. They laughed and shouted to the bishops, “Come dance with us!” Gradually and gingerly the bishops descended from the platform and joined in the tribal dance of joy. Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea—the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments—was asked once whether liturgical dance was permissible. He replied in effect, “In the West, no, because dancing is lascivious. In Africa, yes, because dancing is communal.”
Another of my reads this summer has been An End to Upside Down Thinking by Mark Gober. Mr. Gober challenges the materialist dogma that the brain produces consciousness—arguing that human consciousness that transcends the material world. Mr. Gober uses quantum physics, near-death experiences, clairvoyance, and experiments in brain function to marshal the evidence that human consciousness is greater than mere physicality. His conclusions are predictably New Age: We all need to meditate to open up to our shared human consciousness… and may the force be with you.
What interests me most about Mr. Gober’s book is that he would agree with Dr. Gregg and with all orthodox Christians—and for that matter with all historically connected believers of any religion—that materialism is an outdated, unworkable, inconsistent, and inadequate philosophy. As Dr. Gregg argues, science itself undermines the materialist philosophy. Mr. Gober is on his side.
But Mr. Gober scarcely mentions religion. The discoveries of the mystics of all religions, the non-materialistic philosophical and theological foundations of all religions would affirm Mr. Gober’s findings. New Age writers are content to ponder the question of the paranormal and explore alternative beliefs to the prevailing materialistic dogmas, but they are ignorant or blind to the religious beliefs, practices, and traditions that would offer support to their theories.
This leads me to conclude that their understanding of contemporary Christianity is that it is simply a conventional expression of moralistic, therapeutic Deism. It is an outmoded cultural convention about as relevant and necessary as the Girls Scouts of America or the Rotary Club. Contemporary Christianity is therefore irrelevant to the questions that press on their own minds about the transcendence of consciousness and human immortality. If this is so, then rationalistic, secular materialism is being challenged not only by orthodox Christians, but also by young, scientifically savvy New Age searchers.
Dr. Gregg’s contemplation about the survival of Western civilization, while very helpful, may be too limited in its scope. I realize that one book cannot do everything, but perhaps Dr. Gregg’s book could lead to further discussion and speculation. If Western civilization is in its death throes, what will take its place? It could be that a new form of Christianity is about to surge forth in the twenty-first century as it did in the first.
The new synthesis will gather up the discoveries and yearnings of the New Age as the first theologians gathered what was true from pagan and gnostic belief systems. This new expression of the timeless faith may gather up what is beautiful, good, and true from the African and Asian cultures while also retaining what was enlightening and true from rationalism and science just as St. Paul and the early church fathers gleaned what was true from the philosophical systems of Greece and Rome. This synthesis would be impossible without including all that is eternally revealed and held in trust by the caretakers of Christendom. If so, we may not be witnessing the death of Western civilization, but a stunning reincarnation.
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The featured image is “View of Rome” (1862) by Johann Hermann Carmiencke (1810-1867), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.