Perspective on Western Civilization

A response to NZPolCom: quotes from James Kurth’s essay “Western Civilization, Our Tradition

Among scholarly interpreters of the West, it has been widely understood that Western civilization was formed from three distinct traditions: (1) the classical culture of Greece and Rome; (2) the Christian religion, particularly Western Christianity; and (3) the Enlightenment of the modern era.2 Although many interpreters have seen Western civilization as a synthesis of all three traditions, others have emphasized the conflicts among these threads. As we shall see, the conflict between the Christian religion and the Enlightenment has been, and remains, especially consequential.

Christianity shaped Western civilization in many important ways. Christian theology established the sanctity of the individual believer and called for obedience to an authority (Christ) higher than any secular ruler (Caesar), ideas that further refined and supported the concept of liberty under law. Christian institutions, particularly the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church in its ongoing struggle with the Holy Roman Emperor and local monarchs, bequeathed to the West the idea of a separation, and therefore a limitation, of powers.

Today, the only Western tradition embraced by the political, intellectual, and economic elites of the West is that of the Enlightenment. For American political and economic elites, this largely means the British (or Anglo-American) Enlightenment, with its emphasis on the liberty of individuals, institutionalized in liberal democracy and free markets.

The rejection of the Christian faith by Western elites does not mean that they have rejected all faiths. Despite the claims and conceits of rationalists and scientists, every human being believes in some things that cannot be proven (and therefore cannot be established by reason) or that cannot be seen (and therefore cannot be established by science) and that therefore have to be taken on faith. Ever since the coming of the Enlightenment, Western elites have adhered to a variety of secularist and universalist faiths, which in effect have been religions without God. Kenneth Minogue has identified these ersatz faiths as (1) the idea of progress, (2) Marxism, and (3) “Olympianism,” which is the contemporary belief that an enlightened intellectual elite can and should bring about “human betterment…on a global scale by forcing the peoples of the world into a single community based on the universal enjoyment of appropriate human rights.”8 As Minogue demonstrates, each of these secular religions has identified Christianity as its enemy.

The principle enemy of Western civilization is within the West itself. The West’s great enemy today is the contemporary version of the Enlightenment, especially the French Enlightenment. Because of its universalist pretensions and illusions, its adherents have made the peoples of the West undiscriminating about other cultures and unconfident about their own. They have therefore made the West disoriented and vulnerable to assault from the East, and especially from Islam. This assault may come from sustained or catastrophic attacks by transnational networks of Islamic terrorists. Or it may come from similar attacks by members of the large and alienated Muslim communities now residing within the West, especially in Europe. However, for Western civilization, Islam is merely a disease of the skin; the Enlightenment, has mutated into a disease of the heart.9

Within the West itself, who are the conscious defenders of Western civilization in all its authenticity and fullness, and not merely of its Enlightenment universalist heresy? Certainly not the liberals. Liberals in the intellectual sector (academia and the media) are largely multiculturalists and transnationalists; those in the business sector are largely globalists; and those in the political sector (most obviously in the Democratic Party in the United States) largely represent these post-Western intellectual and economic views.

The true defenders of the Western traditions will be the traditional conservatives. They are able to recognize that the central and crucial tradition of Western civilization is the Christian tradition. The Christian religion assumed to itself and developed the best elements of the classical tradition, while subordinating them to a higher Biblical truth. The Christian religion also gave rise to the best elements of the Enlightenment tradition, while also subordinating them to a higher Biblical truth. It is the Christian tradition, in other words, that kept the other Western traditions in balance. Perhaps in our time it is the calling of those few traditional conservatives found within the educated elite to reach out to the large numbers of Christians within the wider population, to help deepen their understanding of the major issues before us, and to give voice to their Christian-and Western- convictions and concerns.

The protagonists of the contemporary version of the Enlightenment may think that they will create a global and universal civilization, both abroad and at home, but the evidence is accumulating that they have instead opened the doors to the barbarians, both without (e.g., Islamic terrorists) and within (e.g., pagan disregard for the dignity of human life). The best defense against the new barbarians will be found in the Christian religion. With the Christian tradition, Western civilization became the most creative, indeed the highest, civilization in human history. Without the Christian tradition, Western civilization could come to nothing. With a revival of the Christian tradition, Western civilization will not only prevail over the new barbarians, but it will become more truly civilized than it is today.

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