Friday, June 16, 2006

The 19th Century Counter-Attack, Continued

Since Oswald Spengler wrote his epic book, The Decline of the West, there has been enough 'decline-of-the-West' books written to fill up the rooms in which the miller's daughter was required to turn straw into gold. Books by Thomas Molnar, Plinio Correa de Oliveira, James Burnham, Richard Weaver, Romano Guardini, Max Picard, and Hilaire Bello come to mind, but there are countless more. Although none of the death-of-the-West authors cockeyed optimists -- after all, they are writing about a death -- they are still more optimistic about the prospects for a revival of the West than subsequent events warrant. Why -- despite no lack of men willing and able to delineate the causes and the cures for the West's decline -- has the West continued to decline? Is it simply that the prophetic voices have gone unheeded? Yes, to a certain extent. But there is also something missing in the analyses of the death-of-the-West authors. What is missing is a sufficient comprehension of the limits of rational analysis. Dostoyevsky wisely depicts Stavrogin in The Devils as "rational to the end" as he hangs himself. And the 20th century death-of-the-West authors with their overly analytic and rational examinations of the West's decline simply tighten the noose around the gasping-for-breath throat of the West.

The Christians of the last Christian century -- the 19th -- knew something that eluded the 20th century death-of-the-West authors; they knew that we are created and sustained by God's love. Outside that love, we cease to exist in a form that is even remotely human. We become ugly caricatures of human beings. The culture that Western man created in response to Christ's love was sustained because we loved it, as a parent loves a child created from a marriage of love. But when the marriage became a marriage of convenience, we ceased to care about the child of that marriage. The child didn’t die, but it became, deprived of love, an ugly, depraved monster.

The decline of the West then is at once a simpler issue than the death-of-the-West authors perceived and a more complex issue. It is simpler in that the West’s decline can be easily summed up: We ceased to love it. But the problem is also more complex because it is much easier to analyze the death of a culture than it is to rekindle a love for that culture, which is why I once suggested that we look at the 19th century Christians. They faced the same cold, scientistic, Godless void that we now face, but they reacted to it differently. They responded to modernity by going deeper, by living the Pauline Christianity of “if I have not charity.” Our century, on the other hand, went cosmic, caving in to the old Greek notion which Christians of every century have had to fight, namely, that the more non-human and cosmic our concept of God is, the more religious we are.

It seems to me, when I read an author such as Walter Scott or George MacDonald, that the 19th century Christians were the last Christians to believe unashamedly in Christ’s humanity. And I say this because they were not ashamed of the ideals, such as chivalry and the cult of the Christian hero, which sprang from a belief in Christ’s sacred humanity. Therein, I think is the reason for the gulf between us and the 19th century Christians. We are ashamed of Christ’s humanity and therefore embarrassed by the older European culture which reflected that sacred humanity. It is more than just a slight fault, this turning away from the human Christ toward a more cosmic Christ. It is a sickness that leads to the death of the soul. Christ warns us about it in Mark 8:38:

Whosever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words, in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.

And again in Luke 9:26:

For whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words, of him shall the son of man be ashamed, when he shall come in his own glory, and in his Father’s and of the holy angels.

In both passages Christ refers to himself as the Son of Man. Why the emphasis on His humanity? And why the Incarnation if not to emphasize that it was through humanity that one touched the living God.

The 21st century Christian responds to criticism of modern Christianity by saying nothing has changed. “It all goes on as before. People regularly watch the Christmas Carol and read the old fairy tales to their children.” But things are not the same. The 19th century Christians read Grimm and Dickens because they loved the stories; they didn’t study them for psychological insights. They believed in the One who inspired the stories. We study the stories along with the stories of the non-European countries just as we study the other religions along with His religion, but we have no personal connection to the stories of the European culture or to the divine Person who inspired the stories. Our approach is more cosmic and cosmopolitan than the old provincial approach of the 19th century Christians, but is it more Christian? Well, if to be more inhumane and devoid of passion is to be more Christian, then it is more Christian.

And it is the Catholic old guard, those great defenders of the Faith in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who remain the greatest obstacle to a full-blooded Christianity and, hence, a restoration of the West. The great defenders were all, so they claimed, great despisers of modernity and great advocates for the ‘Thing,” which was, of course, Catholicism. But the great defenders were also modernists. Their jeremiads against modernism were merely against the results of modernism. They were like liberal parents who draw back, appalled, when their children put into practice the principles they had been espousing but not practicing.

What is the essence of modernism? The poets and the folk, before the folk became intellectualized, have always known what the essence of modernity is. It is the disembodied brain, the angelic, satanic presence standing aloof from humanity and sneering at humanity. The old guard modernists didn’t sneer as openly as their children, but the sneer was there. They were infected with the notion that the reasoning power of the mind was pure, and the heart was defiled. They believed this despite the fact that the reality of life and the Old Testament prophets as well as Christ Himself all testified to the fact that it was the wisdom of the blood and of the heart that counted.

Most of the old guard are dead now; why not let them rest in peace? After all, they meant well. Whether they meant well or ill is more than I know. What I do know is that their heirs in the Platonic Novus Ordo and the Aristotleian traditionalist ranks still live and still perpetuate the lie that Christianity is merely a transmutation of Greek philosophy. Christianity didn’t die out because people no longer yearned for a personal savior; it died out because people yearned for a personal savior whom they could not find in the Church. When the 20th century Church ceased to resist the Greek separatist heresy, their church became a Christ-less church. And the old guard was so intent on defending the Greco-Roman walls of the Church that they neglected to check if Christ was still within those walls. It would sound nicer, but it would be a lie, if I said I harbored no resentment against the Catholic old guard. I resent them because I and countless others followed the path that they had laid out and yet never followed themselves, ending up in a dark dungeon with no light, no air, no anything.

Permanently etched in my mind is a conversation I once had with one of the Catholic old guard. I had asked the great man why he quoted St. Thomas so much and what he actually thought of St. Thomas. “Personally,” I told him, “he leaves me cold.”

The gist of his reply was that the great thinker did not think very much of St. Thomas, and he would not read him if he was trying to learn about the Christian Faith, but he quoted from St. Thomas all the time because St. Thomas was the reigning king in conservative and traditionalist Catholic intellectual circles, the main audience for the great man’s books and articles. So much for the old guard.

At the end of the day there is only one, absurd, archaic hope left for the West, and that hope is the Christian hero. He is a man so blinded by love for the old European culture and the One who inspired it that he doesn’t pay any heed to the new, false, Christless versions of Christianity and the new, emerging cultures of darkness. He is not a Nietzscheian Übermensch, a man of the future; he is a man of the past, the European past. And he endureth all things and hopeth all things because he has that burning flame in his heart that the 19th century Christians and St. Paul called charity.

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