Despite the secularist’s attempts to lay claim to the word “humanism,” there’s nothing intrinsically secular about it. Using “humanism” as if it were in opposition to “theism” is to create a false dichotomy. Bradley Birzer’s “Beyond Tenebrae” serves to clearly illustrate that good theists can be good humanists—and are sometimes the best.
Beyond Tenebrae: Christian Humanism in the Twilight of the West, by Bradley J. Birzer (258 pages, Angelico Press, 2019)
This simple but profound quote from C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength leads off the sixth chapter of Brad Birzer’s Beyond Tenebrae, and I think it not only encapsulates much of Lewis’s understanding of humanity, but is a key to grasping Dr. Birzer’s excellent work. Ironically, those words are spoken by William Hingest, a minor character who passes quickly out of the story. Hingest is a rationalist skeptic in the classic nineteenth century mold, closer in outlook to Lewis’s antagonist Weston than he would be to his protagonist Ransom. Why would Lewis have such a character utter such wisdom? Possibly to illustrate that the view of humanity held by classical scholarship stood closer to the Christian view than does the mechanistic, postmodern attitude embraced by Lewis’s NICE—which Hingest rejected—and by our time.
We will return to this point shortly. Brad Birzer’s Beyond Tenebrae is subtitled Christian Humanism in the Twilight of the West, which lets the reader in on the main thrust of the work. As Russell Amos Kirk Professor of History at Hillsdale College, Dr. Birzer’s breadth of knowledge is more than equal to the task. Much of the book reads like a sophomore survey course, with Dr. Birzer taking the reader on a tour of people who express what he is trying to convey. He covers a lot of terrain in this survey, including characters expectable and unusual. There are scholars (Christopher Dawson, Eric Voegelin) and artists (Willa Cather, Flannery O’Connor, Ray Bradbury); social critics (Russell Kirk, Alexander Solzhenitsyn), and politicians (Ronald Regan, Edmund Burke); the prominent (J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis), and the obscure (Dr. Birzer’s own grandparents, as well as one of his Notre Dame instructors). All are chosen because each exemplifies some aspect or principle of the true humanism that Dr. Birzer is trying to convey. The examples are woven into a tapestry to illustrate his points—indeed, if the book has a weakness, it is that the weaving is at points not as smooth as it could be. But even that serves to illuminate the point that comprehending humans as human means surrendering the wish for everything to work out as smoothly as a mathematical formula or well-designed computer algorithm.
For me, the greatest virtue of the work is the reclamation of words. There are at least two, and I’d argue three, critical terms that Dr. Birzer wants to clearly define so as to rescue them from misuse. The first he acknowledges explicitly: humanism. He devotes an entire chapter to explaining how this word became corrupted, and eloquently argues that it needs to be properly understood. As implied by the subtitle, “Christian humanism” is a valid term. Despite the secularist’s attempts to lay claim to it by means of things like the Humanist Manifestos, there’s nothing intrinsically secular about humanism. Using “humanism” as if it were in opposition to “theism” is to create a false dichotomy. Dr. Birzer’s examples serve to clearly illustrate that good theists can be good humanists—and are sometimes the best.
Another word Dr. Birzer seeks to reclaim is “conservative.” It is a sign of the cultural anemia of our times that this term has been reduced to the ranting, canting denizens of the political “right” (however that’s defined), or to a vague nostalgia that is full of sentimental imagery but short on content. What, precisely, does “conservatism” conserve? Drawing on sources as far back as Burke and de Tocqueville, Dr. Birzer devotes an entire chapter to the topic, bringing us back to essentials: “The first principle of the conservative, then, is the preciousness of each individual human person.” Lest that be construed as an open door to radical individualism, he continues: “The second principle of the conservative is the necessity of communities.” Not, mind you, well-paying employers, or political parties, or investment vehicles, but communities. Dr. Birzer defines several other principles, all of which round out and clarify what true conservatism is. In this, he performs the vital service of reclaiming the term.
Yet another word that Beyond Tenebrae seeks to implicitly reclaim is one that doesn’t appear within its pages, yet I think central to the thrust of the book: anthropology. This is a term long lost to secularist definition, placed alongside “sociology” in most college course handbooks. It has come to embody the very thing William Hingest said could not be done, i.e. studying humans as objects, separated from them, as if the observer could stand at a dispassionate remove. This illusion of detachment, this arbitrary and artificial distancing, seems to me to lie at the heart of many of our modern ills. Once we begin dealing with one another as lab specimens, as objects of study rather than as fellow humans, we introduce fissures that grow and increasingly separate us. Furthermore, detached from the wisdom of divine revelation and human experience, we begin to introduce our own theories and rationalizations into the supposed knowledge we gain from our observations. This leads to a distorted understanding of ourselves and those around us: false anthropology.
From what I can see, false anthropology is one of the greatest dangers facing society and the Church today. One might think that the proper domain of the Church is true theology, and indeed it is, but it is not the sole domain. Christians hold that revelation offers not only the truth about God (theo-logos), but also the truth about man (anthropo-logos). And since truth is a unity, to damage or discard one is to affect the other, and that is exactly what I’ve seen unfold in my lifetime. Everyone from self-help book authors to talk show guests to online bloggers all have their own theories about what makes humans tick, and most of the theories are detached from any wisdom of the past, because who needs all that stodgy old stuff? Our society is convulsing and dying because of false anthropology, yet hardly anyone sees that as the problem.
It’s hard to appreciate just how deeply false anthropology has become embedded in our society. I got my own experience of this with the reception of my novel The Accidental Marriage. The protagonists, Scott and Megan, have so deeply imbibed the false anthropology of the age that they know of no other way to think. Because they’re both same-sex attracted, that makes them “gay,” and they just accept that identity. But as the events of the story put them in touch with the bedrock elements of their own humanity, lessons in friendship, loyalty, parenthood, and sacrifice teach them truths about themselves that the culture has denied them. The story closes with both characters forced to either embrace the truths they’ve learned or turn back to illusion.
Despite the fact that the story was supposed to be a lesson in the emptiness of false anthropology, especially in the face of human experience, I was stunned at how many readers completely missed the point. Intelligent critics whose judgment I respect discussed the work as primarily “a story about gays.” It was panned by many, some objecting because it was too sympathetic to “gays,” and some objecting that it wasn’t sympathetic enough. Almost nobody grasped the point it was trying to make, which was that the whole identification as “gay” rises out of a false anthropology, and should be rejected.
It’s easy to spot false anthropology at a distance, such as the racial superiority theories popular in the nineteenth an early twentieth centuries. It’s harder to spot false anthropology in the culture in which you’ve been raised, whose assumptions you take in with every headline and conversation. This is one reason why Dr. Birzer’s work is so timely: by reacquainting ourselves with true humanism, we can reclaim true anthropology. Lewis, speaking through the character of William Hingest, is right: we cannot study men as we would study minerals or insects. We can only get to know them, because we are them. Christian humanism has the additional advantage of divine revelation, wherein our Creator Himself enlightens our understanding with truth about humanity.
If you’re like me, a work as rich as Beyond Tenebrae is a mixed blessing, because it will make you want to go out and acquire several dozen other books to complete what Dr. Birzer is only able to present in outline form. My “to read” stack is already far too tall, and now I find there are volumes of Dawson and Kirk and Voegelin I want to add. Perhaps I’ll get to some of them, but thanks to Brad Birzer’s effort, at least I’ll know they’re there.
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The featured image is a detail from “Children Reading,” which is in the public domain and courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.