Posts tagged with: western civilization

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Dan Clements, an American student studying at the University of Leuven, and I help greet conference attendees

Last week, an exciting new organization called the Transatlantic Christian Council (TCC) hosted its inaugural conference. The theme of the conference was “Sustaining Freedom”, which aligns well with the Council’s mission “to develop a transatlantic public policy network of European and North American Christians and conservatives in order to promote the civic good, as understood within the Judeo-Christian tradition on which our societies are largely based.”

What I find most exciting about this Council, for which I commend Todd Huizinga and Henk Jan van Schothorst on their vision and initiative in founding, is this: like the Acton Institute, the TCC is not exclusively devoted to just one aspect of life, but rather aims to provide a forum for conversation on a broad range of life’s many important and fundamental human questions.

The starting point for these conversations is with a basic concept of human dignity. This concept is rooted in an openness to the idea of man as an image of God — endowed with the capacities for willfulness and reason, a creature and a sub-creator. And it is this understanding of the human person that serves as a point of departure for working through all sorts of interesting questions of politics, economics, liberty, government, religion, and family.

When I mentioned to a friend that I would be travelling to Belgium for this conference, he said to me: “Be sure they don’t euthanize you and harvest your organs!”

“Well,” I thought to myself, “that’s certainly a novel way to wish someone a good trip.”
(more…)

Painting of 'Render Unto Caesar' by Peter Paul Rubens.

Painting of ‘Render Unto Caesar’ by Peter Paul Rubens.

Richard Weaver, one of the great intellectuals of the 20th Century, and author of Ideas Have Consequences, published an essay in the early 1960s on Lord Acton (pdf only). Much of Weaver’s essay is worth highlighting, but one excerpt in particular reminds us of the central significance of Christianity in the battle for freedom. It reminds us too of the dangers of secularism and where our indifference to God is inevitably leading us.

It was inevitable that, lacking one vital element, the ancient governments should have collapsed into despotism. That vital element was introduced by Christianity. This was belief in the sacredness of the person and thus in a center of power distinct from the state. What the pagan philosophers in all their brilliance had not been able to do, that is, set effective barriers to the power of the state, was done in response to that injuction: ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.’ This instituted a basis of freedom upon which the world since that time has been able to build.

In Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of our Time, published in 1964, Weaver noted the cure for the ailment of the decline of Western Culture,

But the road away from idolatry remains the same as before; it lies in respect for the struggling dignity of man for his orientation toward something higher than himself which he has not created.

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Thursday, October 31, 2013

Luther before the Diet of Worms in 1521.

Luther before the Diet of Worms in 1521.

Martin Luther “did more than any single man to make modern history the development of revolution,” declared Lord Acton. (Lectures on Modern History) The Protestant Reformation profoundly changed the trajectory of Western Civilization. While the Reformation changed every facet of society, it is important to remember that the Protestant Reformers were of course, primarily theologians. In their view, they believed they were recovering truth about God’s Word and revelation to the world.

Today is Reformation Day and many Protestants around the world already have or will celebrate the roots of their churches. But there is also a crisis going on in the West that needs our attention. Whittaker Chambers put it well in Witness , when he declared, “The crisis of the Western world exists to the degree in which it is indifferent to God.”

Secularism, but beyond that a general doctrinal disinterest, is not serving Protestants well. Many churchgoers seek out churches according to their ability to entertain. Many are often much more interested in the facilities, its programs, or seeker-friendly style of worship over what the churches actually believe and teach. The Reformers were prepared to die or be martyred for what they believed and taught. It was of primary importance to them. It would certainly seem that especially today, the West, and especially Protestants, have much to learn from these great thinkers and leaders in the Church.

“Western Civilization has begun to doubt its own credentials,” brooded the French novelist, André Malraux (1901-1976). It was men and women of faith who were responsible for a resurgence of Western Civilization. Reformation Day powerfully reminds us that if there is going to be another resurgence of the principles of freedom, liberty, and truth in our society and culture, it will have to come by way of revival and through people of faith. It is the only cure more powerful than the disease of indifference and secularism that is ushering in our demise as a people and culture.

whitefieldOften many on the political right believe that reform or change in the country is just one election or another president away. Some declare another Ronald Reagan can fix America’s problems, but entirely miss that there may be no culture left to support a president like Reagan. For almost every problem in this nation, there is not a political solution that will make any lasting impact or change for the better. This point is entirely missed by so many during all the political debates and shouting matches today. Politics is becoming a mere distraction from the deeper problems. Washington D.C. is the obvious and best example of this fact.

Today we are living through the dissolution of the greater truths that once permeated Western Culture. We are living through a repaganizing of the West that was transformed and lifted up by Christendom. It’s odd to think about the fact we are living through this very monumental time in history and most people are missing it or unaware of it entirely.

Only spiritual enlightenment and a recovery of these truths can transform society and culture today. The evangelistic and holiness revivals in 18th century England completely reformed an amoral and unjust culture. Many historians have concluded that it alone prevented another bloody revolution in that nation.

Below are excerpted remarks from then Vice President Calvin Coolidge to the New York State Convention of the Y.M.C.A. in Albany, New York in 1923. The title of the address is “The Place of Religion in National Life.” There is not a full copy of the address online but you can find it in The Price of Freedom: Speeches and Addresses by Coolidge.

If you follow national politics closely today you may find it odd to hear a political leader speak confidently about universal truths when it comes to government, man, and society. Unfortunately, we don’t normally hear this kind of language from American leaders today. But it’s a valuable reminder of the significance of religious revival if there is going to be any change in the culture, institutions, or government. Coolidge powerfully makes the point that culture drives law and politics. Change and progress ultimately is born in the human heart and does not emanate from the halls or palaces of power.

Coolidge:

When we explore the real foundation of our institutions, of their historical development or their logical support, we come very soon to the matter of religious belief. It was the great religious awakening of the sixteenth century that brought about the political awakening of the seventeenth century. The American Revolution was preceded by the great religious revival of the middle of the eighteenth, which had its effect both in England and in the colonies. When the common people turned to the reading of the Bible, as they did in the Netherlands and in England, when they were stirred by a great revival, as they were in the days of the preaching of Edwards and Whitfield, the way was prepared for William, for Cromwell, and for Washington. It was because religion gave the people a new importance and a new glory that demanded a new freedom and a new government. We cannot in our generation reject the cause and retain the same result.

If the institutions they adopted are to survive, if the governments which they founded are to endure, it will be because the people continue to have similar religious beliefs. It is idle to discuss freedom and equality on any other basis. It is useless to expect substantial reforms from any other motive. They cannot be administered from without they must come from within. That is why laws alone are so impotent. To enact or to repeal laws is not to secure reform. It is necessary to take these problems directly to the individual. There will be a proper use of our material prosperity when the individual feels a divine responsibility. There will be a broadening scholarship when the individual feels that science, literature, and history are the revelation of divine truths. There will be obedience to law when the individual feels the government represents a divine authority.

It is these beliefs, these religious convictions, that represent the strength of America, the strength of all civilized society.

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Our changing culture and society has now largely pushed Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s notable and resolute prayer over to the side of partisan politics. Today is of course the 69th anniversary of American, British, and Canadian forces landing at Normandy, a day Roosevelt declared in 1944 would preserve our way of life and “religion.”

But tributes and recognition of FDR’s prayer are often regulated to conservative blogs, news sources, and politicians now. There is even a bill that was passed by the House of Representatives during the 112th Congress to add the prayer to the WWII Memorial. It did not pass the U.S. Senate. The first House bill had 26 votes against the legislation. It is being reconsidered for this current 113th Congress, but seems to be languishing in committees in both legislative bodies.

It has been widely reported that the Obama administration rejects adding the prayer to the memorial.

The prayer strikes an outdated tone when compared to the cultural and religious worldview in much of our society today. Sure, some of those differences are striking for the reason of the seriousness and justness of the cause of the conflict, but it’s undeniable the firm and resolute worldview of FDR’s words are now considered controversial by many. FDR’s words ask for blessings and pay homage to the one true God and our beliefs and heritage in Western Civilization. His prayer begins with the words, “Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.”

Many conservative writers and thinkers praise FDR for the strength of his prayer. He reminded the listeners of who the enemy was and why, and what ultimate fate they would meet. He uses the word “righteous” to describe the efforts and cause of the Allied forces. The fact that his prayer now seems to be relegated to a more partisan sphere is a powerful reminder of the deeper divisions and clash of worldviews in this country.

Below is the full audio of the prayer FDR delivered 69 years ago today:

PentecostOver at First Things, Peter Leithart uses the occasion of Pentecost as a launching pad for highlighting the primary theme of his latest book: “The West has been busy building neo-Babel” and the time is ripe for repentance and revival:

We’ve dispensed with the effort to connect heaven and earth, since up above it’s only galaxies. But we share the other aspirations of Babel, as well as Babel’s humanist orientation. Classes and ethnicities can be synchronized, we think, without divine assistance. No need for a Holy Spirit to baptize into one body. We can create a universal language without the gift of tongues. The family resemblance between liberal virtues and the fruits of the Spirit is not an accident. It’s a heresy worthy of Flannery O’Connor: Hazel Motes invented the “Holy Church of Christ without Christ”; the Enlightenment created Pentecostalism without the Spirit.

The experiment has gone relatively well for some time, but the project is fraying. To many among our elites, Enlightenment universalism has been unmasked as nothing more than an effete form of tribalism. Secular defenses of liberal tolerance collapse into incoherence. And alongside these theoretical challenges is the immense practical problem of harmonizing the spirits of the myriad subcultures that occupy the West. I don’t need to repeat the litany of multicultural challenges yet again. Everyone knows that it’s an open question whether we have the intellectual and moral resources to sustain the experiment in secular Pentecostalism much longer. Like other Babels, this one will eventually crumble and its denizens will scatter.

Without the Spirit, such an “experiment in secular Pentecostalism,” will never flourish in that peculiar harmony so characteristic of the upper room and the transformation thereafter — diverse and unified, spontaneous yet ordered. “The Church has only one antidote to Babel,” Leithart writes: “the anti-Babel and fulfilled Babel of Pentecost.” The solution, according to Leithart, is to nurture a rightly aligned, wholly devoted, and thoroughly spiritual “Pentecostal Enlightenment.” (more…)

Blog author: jsunde
posted by on Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Work: The Meaning of Your LifeI recently pondered what might come of the global economy if we were to to put God at the forefront of our motives and decision-making. The question came as a reaction to Tim Keller, whose recent book calls on Christians to challenge their views about work. By re-orienting our work to be a “servant” instead of a “lord,” Keller argues, we will actually find more fulfillment in the work that we do.

Keller’s main point in the video I discussed was to caution against our human preferences for idol carving. Although this is a valuable word of warning, it’s also worth noting that in a more basic sense, our work is already service.

The extent to which this is practically true will depend on a variety of factors — the type of work we’re doing, the type of economic system we’re engaged in, the levels of cronyism, artificiality, and misinformation in the economic environment that surrounds us — but by and large, our work is concentrated on actually fulfilling the particular needs of particular persons. As Lester DeKoster writes in Work: The Meaning of Your Life: “Work is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others.”

Through this understanding, perhaps a clearer way of expressing things is that work is less about whether we’re serving and more about who we’re serving. At the core, this simply rehashes Keller’s original point, prodding us to ask ourselves whether we’re serving God or something else (i.e. anything else). But beyond this, in those rougher, hazier areas of human discernment, it also empowers us to ask some other productive questions.

For example, in examining the ways in which trade and exchange impact human relationships across broader society, DeKoster contrasts life in the African bush with life in Western civilization, noting that the primary difference lies in work: “The bush people have to do everything for themselves. Civilization is sharing in the work of others.”

As DeKoster goes on to explain:

Our working puts us in the service of others; the civilization that work creates puts others in the service of ourselves. Thus, work restores the broken family of humankind… Through work that serves others, we also serve God, and he in exchange weaves the work of others into a culture that makes our work easier and more rewarding…As seed multiplies into a harvest under the wings of the Holy Spirit, so work multiplies into a civilization under the intricate hand of the same Spirit. (more…)

Blog author: mhornak
posted by on Friday, October 19, 2012

Is the “secular vs. sacred” worldview struggle just another first-world problem? Join us in a discussion of this topic in the AU Online series Freedom and Virtue in the Developed World. The first lecture of this AU Online series will be held on Tuesday October 23 at 6:30pm EDT. Don’t miss your chance to explore this important topic!

In the Freedom and Virtue in the Developed World series, Acton’s Director of Research, Dr. Samuel Gregg, will lead us through a theoretical and practical reflection of the far ranging economic, social, and political causes and impacts of the West’s identity crisis.

If you’re interested in participating but might not have the extra time in your schedule, don’t worry! Everyone who registers for an AU Online series will have access to recordings of the live online lectures to view at their convenience. Visit the AU Online website for more information or to register. For further questions about AU Online, please contact the AU Online team at auonline@acton.org.

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Whittaker Chambers began Witness, the classic account of his time in the American Communist underground, with the declaration: “In 1937, I began, like Lazarus, the impossible return.” The line was most of all a deep recognition of the power of God to redeem what was once dead. Witness was a landmark account of the evils of Communism but most importantly a description of the bankruptcy of freedom outside of the sacred. “For Chambers, God was always the prime mover in the war between Communism and freedom. If God exists then Communism cannot,” says Richard Reinsch II. And it is Reinsch who reintroduces us to Chambers, the brilliant intellectual, anti-communist, and man of faith in Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary.

After his exodus from the Soviet Communist spy network in Washington, Chambers then outed U.S. State Department official Alger Hiss as a communist, setting up a dramatic espionage trial played out before the nation. Chambers became a household name thanks to a trial that was wrapped in intrigue, treachery, and Cold War drama. Chambers would become a hero for many in the conservative movement. William F. Buckley, Jr. called him the greatest figure who defected out of communism. But Chambers’ pessimism about the future of the West led him to be dismissed by many others, conservatives too.

This pessimist view of the survival of the West against Marxism stems from Chambers’ understanding that the West was abandoning its sacred heritage of Christian thought, and within it, the proper understanding of man. A supposedly free but rampant secular and materialistic society still leads to the same ending as Marxism, outside of God, and unable to explain its reason and purpose for life.

One of the chief takeaways from this book is that there must be more to conservatism than free-markets and limited government. For liberty to be prosperous it must be oriented toward greater truths. Reinsch points out that Chambers understood that the “West must reject Communism in the name of something other than modern liberalism and its foundation in the principles of Enlightenment rationalism.”

Reinsch delves into Chambers prediction of the eventual collapse of the West and his belief that there was a lack of moral fortitude to combat the communist surge. The apparent unwillingness of the free world to sacrifice and suffer for freedom troubled Chambers. He also surmised that the intellectual class possessed a waning ability to articulate a meaningful defense of the ideas and value of the free society.

The United States did indeed emerge as the leader of the free world after the Second World War, rebuilding its former enemies with the Marshall Plan and other programs. Early on, the United States and Western Europe showed a stoic and moral resistance throughout the Berlin Airlift of 1948 and 1949. Future presidential administrations would pledge support for free people who toiled anywhere across the globe. President Ronald Reagan emerged in the latter half of the 20th Century, unveiling his own crusade against communism, making many of the deeper spiritual contrasts with the Soviet system first articulated by Chambers.

Reinsch also notes that while Chambers perhaps underestimated some of the spiritual will and capital to resist and overcome the Marxist onslaught, most of Chambers’s identification of the sickness of the West remained true. Reinsch declares of an America in the 1960s and 1970s:

Racked by mindless violence, strikes, rampant inflation, economic torpidity, and the rapid unfolding of sexual liberation, liberal democracy seemed to display, in acute form, the crisis of a material progress that had been severed from faith and freedom. Thus, the spirit of Chambers’s brooding over the fate of the West retained relevance.

This is evidenced in part by the immense suffering of Hanoi Hilton POWs like Admiral Jeremiah Denton, who in his captivity memoir When Hell Was in Session, described the disconnect of a man who sacrificed so much for freedom and who came out of the dark night with a deep sense of spiritual renewal only to come home to unearth an increasingly secular nation that was also retreating in its ability to defend and define its greatness.

Reinsch even points to further evidence that Chambers was right about the dangerous trajectory of the West when he cites the victory of the Cold War and how that surge of freedom did not posit any great change or realization of a higher transcendent understanding and purpose. While the superiority of markets was temporarily buoyed by the events, socialism has shown a staying power in the West.

Reisnch has crafted an important and essential book for anybody fatigued with the daily grind of hyper-partisan politics. By reintroducing conservatives to a deep thinker like Chambers, he reminds us of the limits of politics as well as the frustrating shallowness it can embody.

Just as markets and small government offer little ability in offering peace and happiness, though they certainly create greater space for a working towards that end, this account is a reminder that the best of conservatism is at its core within the ancient truths that tower above the vain materialism and individualism of secular Western democracy.

Believers can see this clearly when they look at the vanity of a society that prods, primps, and chases after meaning outside of God. Thus, as Reinsch adds, Chambers so wholly understood that “man’s problem was the problem of understanding himself in light of his fundamental incompleteness.” And that problem exists under communism just as it does in democratic capitalism, with its temptations to consumerism and selfishness.

The Marxist Utopian dream was man’s attempt at trying to fulfill its incompleteness with all the wonders and technology of modernity and materialism. The free world still is unable to relocate itself in the proper order. And, as Reinsch declares, this is a great warning to us all. Chambers so thoroughly understood and knew that “man was never more beastly than in his attempts to organize his life, individually and collectively, without God.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, September 3, 2010

Leading up to next week’s Labor Day holiday we’ve been reflecting on the nature of work the last few days. Today I’d like to conclude this little series with a note on the relationship between work and civilization, with specific reference to work in the context of Western civilization.

Yesterday I passed along the perspective on work as a formative influence on the soul of the worker: “…the soul formed by daily decision to do work carries over into eternity.”

But as DeKoster and Berghoef also note, “God so arranges that civilization grows out of the same effort that develops the soul.” What they mean is that God has providentially arranged that the work of each individual in a society, when properly oriented toward the service of others, to create a civilization, in which the needs of others are met by the work of their neighbors, whether proximate or at a greater remove.

WorkIn his little book Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, DeKoster puts these pieces together. The two definitions fit well. Work is “the form in which we make ourselves useful to others.” And civilization is “sharing in the work of others” and “good and services to hand when we need them.”

As he writes, “It is a circle we will finally see close: our working puts us in the service of others; and the civilization which work creates puts us in the service of ourselves. Thus work restores the broken family of mankind.”

You can pre-order Lester DeKoster’s Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective in hardcopy today from the Acton BookShoppe or download it to your Kindle reader and read it right away. There’s a special Labor Day discount for the pre-order (add the book to your cart to see the discounted price).

And for the broad account of the relationship between the Christian faith, including the theological perspective on work, and the development of Western civilization, see the Acton Media production The Birth of Freedom. You can view the trailer below:

You can also visit The Birth of Freedom website to get more information on the related small-group curriculum, as well as complementary video shorts, which address questions related to work and civilization, like “Why didn’t China have an industrial revolution before the West?” and “If medieval Europe was so great, why were so many medievals poor?”