The Roots of the West, its Decline, and its Possible Renewal
A topic as broad as the one suggested by my title is of course far too much to do justice to in a short article. But I can highlight a few brief themes here. And let me try to tie in a few recent specifics (such as the war on marriage) with the overall bigger picture
I have written often about the death of the West, and about how civilisations die. As I have repeatedly noted, it takes a long time to build a culture or civilisation, but their collapse can happen relatively quickly. We are now seeing this being played out in the West.
Much of the West is the direct result of the Judeo-Christian worldview. Of course other earlier influences would include ancient Greece and Rome, and more recently, things such as the Enlightenment. But to speak of Western civilisation is by and large to speak of Christian civilisation.
However as should be apparent to all, those religious roots of the West have been eroded, undermined and outright rejected by many, if not most, Westerners. Now the West is living on the borrowed spiritual capital of days long gone by. That cannot last much longer.
A building deprived of its foundation is living on borrowed time, and that is true of cultures and civilisations as well. While the collapse may take some time to reach its final and inevitable result, we are certainly nearing the tail end of the West’s decline.
And daily we see this at work. As I type this, the federal lower house is putting its finishing touches on a bill which signals the death of marriage in Australia. Not to be outdone, one politician from the so-called conservative party just proposed to his male lover from the floor of Parliament.
While some might get warm, fuzzy feelings over this, anyone with even a remote understanding of history and culture will see this for the utterly unique, novel and radical step that it really is. This is just mind-boggling in the extreme, as is the spectacle of these politicians stumbling over themselves to remove any religious protections for the millions of no voters.
They are mocking marriage and civilisation just as profoundly and radically as the revolutionaries in France did two centuries ago. Back then they trashed churches, killed religious leaders, and guillotined plenty of opponents. And recall that the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was desecrated by the militants with a Goddess of Reason set up in its high altar in 1793.
The secular war against faith and freedom witnessed back then is being played out once again, albeit in somewhat more subdued fashion. Politicians celebrating the death of marriage with homosexuals proposing in these august chambers is not all that dissimilar to what we saw in France.
It is certainly just as outrageous, as revolutionary, and sacrilegious as what happened back then. And our media and elites love it so. They even love the fact that religious freedom is taking the same hammering that marriage is. And they are clueless as to the fact that they are sawing off the very limb they are now sitting on.
The very freedom to declare war on marriage and religion is itself a product of religion – specifically Christianity. They are using the fruits of the Judeo-Christian worldview to smash that worldview. But they too will be taken down with it.
Speaking specifically about this contempt for religious freedom, one Australian commentator, Stephen McAlpine, just wrote this:
True, we still have relative freedoms compared to Christians around the world, so let’s be careful not to claim a persecution Richter scale number that we don’t own; in reality it’s an earth tremor at this stage. But it’s not an aftershock. It’s the presence of something bigger to come.
And there’s nothing ho-hum about losing those freedoms. They do matter. They were hard fought for over a long period of time in the West by Christianity itself, and for the sake of others too. And now they’re being whittled away in next to no time.
The great irony is that the culture that so enjoyed the fruit of this gospel for so long is, bit by bit, dismantling the very structures that enabled it to flourish in the first place. And now, suicidally, it assumes it can hold itself up in thin air. If you can’t see Wylie Coyote in your mind’s eye, just before gravity pulls him down over that cliff, then take a moment to picture it. It’s the look of “too late” in his face that nails it, isn’t it?
He sees the bigger picture. And we all need to do the same. Let me tie in two other writers on all this. A former justice of the High Court of Australia, Dyson Heydon, gave a talk a few months back and the Australian printed an edited version of it.
He reminds us of some basic truths that we must not forget. The emphasis on individual worth and value is directly a result of the Christian vision of things. He writes:
Modern elites call themselves “liberal” and “tolerant”. Genuine liberalism and tolerance is the product of a long historical process. Modern liberalism in any genuine sense rests on a belief in individual liberty, in the moral equality of individuals, in a legal system based on equal treatment of like cases, and in a representative form of democratic government. How did this modern ideal of liberalism arise? Out of the religion that is now the most despised: Christianity.
From the time Christ walked the earth trends began that, though at varying speeds and in different ways and subject to various setbacks, caused the modern age to develop.
The process has been finely traced by Larry Siedentop in Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism. He points out that before the Greek and Roman republics emerged, society was based on families run by patriarchs. The Greek republics were in effect tyrannies or oligarchies. Rome originally was run by kings, then by a republican oligarchy, then by emperors whose power in the first and last resort rested on military strength. In these societies “citizens” were generally few in number. In different ways women, younger sons, slaves, captives and foreigners could enjoy only debased and limited roles. Even a genius such as Aristotle viewed slavery as inevitable: “Some are free men, and others slaves by nature.” Thus natural inequality, and the natural superiority of the few over the many, were basic assumptions. The world was seen as dominated by many inscrutable deities and an uncontrollable and immutable fate.
Christ revealed a different vision. He showed a concern for the ill, the socially marginal, the outsider, the destitute. He opposed self-righteousness and hypocrisy. He had no concern to associate with wealth, power or celebrity. His associates were humbler. Many of them were women. He saw little children as heirs to the kingdom of heaven. He encouraged a search for the beam in one’s own eye before identifying the mote in someone else’s. He encouraged his followers not merely to love their friends and neighbours but also to forgive their enemies. He urged them not to meet violence with violence. His social teachings were reflected, for example, in the monastic tradition later. Thus in the fourth century, St Basil of Caesarea said: “It is God’s will that we should nourish the hungry, give the thirsty to drink, and clothe the naked.” They live on in religious charities even to this day. But above all Christ taught that all human beings were equal before God, and all could enter the kingdom of God.
His followers came to treat his life as a revolutionary and dramatic intervention of the divine into secular affairs. His enemies saw him as a rebel against unsympathetic religious leaders and Jewish puppets of Roman governors. His followers, however, saw him as having universal significance for each individual human being.
As Paul told the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Paul advocated relying on conscience and good intentions and abandoning the ritual behaviour of the ancient world and the Jews, with its mechanical following of rules and -immemorial customs. He urged the exercise of free choice in accepting the gift of grace attained through faith in Christ. Salvation was a matter of personal decision to be resolved between each individual and God. In that sense all were equal. Those equal in the eye of God came to be seen as equal in the eye of the law.
For this reason Siedentop asks: “Was Paul the greatest revolutionary in human history?” And he states: “Through its emphasis on human equality, the New Testament stands out against the primary thrust of the ancient world, with its dominant assumptions of ‘natural’ inequality. Indeed the atmosphere of the New Testament is one of exhilarating detachment from the unthinking constraints of inherited social rules.”
What made the West great was the Christian emphasis on individuals – men, women, and children – being made in the image of God, and souls for whom Christ died. That has been one major platform of the success of the West. But as the West spurns its Christian roots, it also spurns the uniqueness and special importance of the individual. Witness the rise of bloodthirsty Statism.
Europe especially has all but lost any recognition of its Christian heritage, leaving millions wandering aimlessly with no sense of purpose or meaning. And that vacuum will always be filled somehow. I like very much what I just read in the new volume by Douglas Murray.
In The Strange Death of Europe (Bloomsbury, 2017), he looks at how Islam is filling the void. Modern secularism just cannot satisfy mankind, so something has to take its place. He speaks to the problem that “life in modern liberal democracies is to some extent thin or shallow and that life in modern Western Europe in particular has lost its sense of purpose.”
Couple that hole in the soul that has been brought about by secularism and the failure of the Enlightenment project with the arrival of millions of foreigners who do not share the Judeo-Christian worldview, and you are asking for trouble.
And that is just what Europe now finds itself experiencing. Modern secular Europeans have forgotten that “Western liberal societies may in fact owe something to the religion from which they arose.” This historical and religious amnesia is causing all sorts of problems, with newly-arrived Islam rushing to fill the gap.
In an interesting discussion, he asks why so many young Europeans are now converting to Islam. He says their stories are all so very similar:
They generally go something like this: ‘I had reached a certain age [often their twenties or early thirties] and I was in a nightclub and I was drunk and I just thought, “Life must be about more than this”.’ Almost nothing else in our culture says, ‘But of course there it is.’ In the absence of such a voice young people search, and they discover Islam. The fact that they choose Islam is a story in itself. Why do these young men and women (very often women) not reach out and find Christianity? Partly it is because most branches of European Christianity have lost the confidence to proselytise or even believe in their own message. For the Church of Sweden, the Church of England, the German Lutheran Church and many other branches of European Christianity, the message of the religion has become a form of Left-wing politics, diversity action and social welfare projects. Such churches argue for ‘open borders’ yet are circumspect about quoting the texts they once preached as revealed.
Yes exactly. A politicised, secularised and leftacised (to coin a phrase) church will not attract people out from a political, secular and leftist culture. It needs to be different. But that is the stuff of another article. The point is, Europe and the West have a spiritual void which must be filled one way or another.
And Islam is one way this void is being filled. The way to turn around the misfortunes of the West will not be by making it Islamic. Nor will more of the same secularism, hedonism, materialism and relativism suffice. Only a return to its roots will do.
Only a return to what made the West possible in the first place will do any good. But that will take decades, indeed centuries. Whether people are up for such a long-term rebuilding project remains to be seen. And any such cultural and political reformation must follow downstream from spiritual revival.
For that God’s people must get desperate, and on their knees. These are big asks indeed. But we serve a big God.
For a more comprehensive treatment of the Christianity’s role in Western culture, please click here to read ‘A Brief Overview of Christianity’s Influence in Shaping Western Democracies.’
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