The River vs. the Open Road
…the innate conservatism of youth asks neither poverty nor riches, but only immunity from change. – The Golden Age by Kenneth GrahameIf we can judge by the literature of that century, and we can, the 19th century was the century of war between principalities and powers. God and the devil were going at it hammer and tongs. Melville put it quite well: “The light is greater hence the shadow more.”
European man entered the 20th century spiritually exhausted and very much under the spell of satanic ‘isms. The first world war was one of the most startling proofs of Satan’s new dominance over the hearts and minds of the European people. In sheer number of adherents and societal influence, Satan had triumphed over our Lord. The old Faith still had an influence; it had not been thoroughly eradicated, but it would no longer be the centerpiece of Western Civilization. It would now be an underground faith, hidden in the subterranean vault of the European heart.
In every Christian century preceding the 20th century, there were the Athenian intellectuals who treated the Christian faith as foolish or childish, but the sneer of the intellectuals did not affect the Christian faith of the great mass of European people. In the era of the Enlightenment, for example, despite the deism of the philosophers, the faith of the common people remained intact. It is in the 20th century that we see, for the first time in European man’s history, the great mass of people adopting the faithless faith of the intellectuals.
What does it mean when we say a man has a faithless faith? It does not mean that he flat out denies Christ. What it means is that he hedges on all the crucial doctrines of Christianity. Nikos Kazantzakis, in The Last Temptation of Christ, gives us an example of Western man’s faithless faith. In the novel (I didn’t see the movie, but I suspect it was quite different from the novel), Kazantzakis, who revered the person of Christ, presents us with a Christ who is something more than man but also something less than God. Christ does bring Lazarus back to life, for instance, but as a scarecrow Lazarus, not completely alive, and not quite dead. Such is the faith of the modern European.
One doesn’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of ancient civilizations, just a little commonsense will do, to see that when a particular people loses their faith their civilization declines. European civilization retained its vitality when Athenian skepticism was confined to a few intellectuals, but when that skepticism became part of the common culture, the civilization that was once an all-consuming fire became a dying ember.
Of course we can’t artificially recreate the old European faith in order to restore European civilization. That’s not how things work. First comes faith, after which all those things are “added unto” us. But if the European were to embrace Christianity, full and free without let or hindrance, it would not entail the acceptance of a way of life or mode of being that was completely alien to him. It would merely entail the opening of the subterranean vault of his heart and letting his childlike faith in Christ back into the light of day.
It is painfully clear, however, that European man does not want to bring Christianity back into the light. He wants it to remain in the cellar. Yes, occasionally he’ll refer to Christianity when it supports his liberalism, but it is not his guiding light; reason is. And he persists in the belief in his own reason, despite the fact that the evidence is in. Man cannot live a moral life, or any kind of life, when reason alone is his guide.
If, in modern times, they who own the restraint of philosophical discipline alone have not given way to such grossness of conduct, it is because those principles of religion, which they affect to despise, have impressed on the public mind a system of moral feeling unknown till the general prevalence of the Christian faith; but which, since its predominance, has so generally pervaded European society, that no pretender to innovation can directly disavow its influence, though he endeavours to show that the same results which are recommended from the Christian pulpit, and practised by the Christian community, might be reached by the unassisted efforts of that human reason, to which he counsels us to resign the sole regulation of our morals.The delusion that reasoning man can function quite well without Christianity was always the delusion of a segment of European intellectuals. And they never were forced to see it for what it was: a delusion. But now that European man en masse has fallen prey to the same delusion, we must look at it. Why, if reason is sufficient, does European man want to prostrate himself before the gods of color? What is missing in his rational self-sufficiency that makes him go whoring after the savage races? He misses a vital faith and he thinks that the blood orgies of the heathen can provide him with the vitality that he lacks. He thinks this because he has cut himself off from the wisdom of his race. The white man rejected the pagans’ faith because they saw God only in nature. In contrast, the white man saw that God was the animating force behind nature and His motivating principle was mercy and not sacrifice. When Christianity becomes a philosophy, the neopagan is right: it lacks vitality. But when it is a faith, it has the vitality to renew lives and the world. Let the neopagan who doubts the vitality of Christianity ask himself this question: Who fights the more fiercely for the fair maiden – the Christian knight who loves her or the pagan warrior who wants to possess her for a night?
In short, to oppose one authority in the same department to another, the reader is requested to compare the character of the philosophic Squire in Tom Jones, with that of Bage’s philosophical heroes; and to consider seriously whether a system of ethics, founding an exclusive and paramount court in a man’s own bosom for the regulation of his own conduct, is likely to form a noble, enlightened, and generous character, influencing others by superior energy and faultless example; or whether it is not more likely, as in the observer of the rule of right, to regulate morals according to temptation and to convenience, and to form a selfish, sophistical hypocrite, who, with morality always in his mouth, finds a perpetual apology for evading the practice of abstinence, when either passion or interest solicit him to indulgence.
--from The Lives of the Novelists by Walter Scott
What the European liberal finds out when he goes a whoring with the “vital natural races” is that “where man is not, nature is barren.” He needs the Christian fairy land, not heathendom. Take a walk through the forests of Arden or share the oars with Ratty on his river. In those worlds, blood is sacred because it is animated by His spirit. And nature is revered because it houses His Kith and Kin.
It is sad that with our Lord’s words before us, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven,” we still turn to “adult” theologians and philosophers for guidance. It would be much better for our souls if we turned to those poets of the West who retained, in the face of the emerging atheism of the 20th century, their childlike faith.
In The Wind in the Willows (1908), Kenneth Grahame writes a poetic defense of Christian Europe. The white Europeans in The Wind and the Willows are Ratty, Mole, Badger, Mr. Toad, and all those animals who adhere to the same code as the four heroes. In the outer wood are the weasels and the stoats, the savage hordes of color, who do not see, when they view the ancient dwellings of the Europeans, home and hearth. They see only something to be plundered. And they get their chance when Mr. Toad, obsessed with his “cleverness,” decides that “the plowed furrow, the frequented pasture, the lane of evening lingerings,” cannot compare to the open road. And what Toad abandons, the weasels and stoats take. But they can do nothing but destroy, like the blacks in Rhodesia and South Africa; they can’t maintain or restore an ancient European dwelling. It is Ratty, Mr. Badger, and the Mole, who help Toad regain his ancestral dwelling. They face the barbarians of color and defeat them. They are greatly outnumbered, but they prevail because they fight for the homely virtues which only the European knows and treasures as his source of strength. The antique European has no magic talisman. He possesses something of infinitely greater value: a faithful heart. When Ratty declares his love for his river, he describes my love for antique Europe:
“I beg your pardon,” said the Mole, pulling himself together with an effort. “You must think me very rude; but all this is so new to me. So—this—is—a—River!”Toad’s open-road philosophy leads us to the savage horde barbarism of the stoats and weasels. Ratty’s river leads us back to His Europe.
“The River,” corrected the Rat.
“And you really live by the river? What a jolly life!”
“By it and with it and on it and in it,” said the Rat. “It’s brother and sister to me, and aunts, and company, and food and drink, and (naturally) washing. It’s my world, and I don’t want any other. What it hasn’t got is not worth having, and what it doesn’t know is not worth knowing.”