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Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe: Toward the Revival of Higher
by Jeffrey Hart
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001
(271 pages; $26.95, hardcover)
reviewed by Preston Jones
So, what do you want to do when you grow up?” The question was put to me by a professor at the California State University, San Bernardino, when I was an undergraduate. This was several years before Samuel Huntington wrote his Foreign Affairs article and ensuing book on the “clash of civilizations” and long before I would read things like the article in the November 2002 Atlantic Monthly, where Charles A. Kupchan wrote that “the coming clash of civilizations will . . . be . . . within a West divided against itself.” Probably sporting a dumb smirk, I said, “I want to drink a lot of coffee and narrate while Western civilization implodes.”
Looking back, it’s hard to believe that in those grim, pre-Starbucks days, Maxwell House was sufficient to meet a kid’s needs. And I also see now that my conception of Western civilization was simplistic. I knew that the days of the week were named after pagan gods and that Christmas and Easter, as “celebrated” in the general culture, contained pagan and Christian elements. I also knew that Plato had no problem with homosexual pedophilia and infanticide and that, according to the Baptist church I attended, Socrates had gone to hell.
But I hadn’t reflected on these things or come to see the extent to which Western civilization carries within itself some fairly serious tensions. At that time, I thought that proponents of the “gay agenda” were enemies of Western civilization; now I see that they are simply bringing an ancient, deeply rooted element of it back to the surface. What I didn’t see then was that it wasn’t really Western civilization that was at risk but only the Christian part of it. The pagan and Greco-Roman components of Western culture seemed, and seem, to be doing just fine.
Jeffrey Hart, a senior editor at National Review, understands (as have many before him) that “the core of Western civilization consists of an irresolvable tension between Athens and Jerusalem.” On the one hand, he writes, there is Socrates in pursuit of “heroic philosophy”; on the other, there is Jesus on the trail of “heroic holiness.” Hart thinks that the genuine diversity at the center of Western civilization accounts for much of its strength and vigor.
Sometimes classical and Christian visions clash, as Tertullian’s famous query—”What, indeed, has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”—indicates. But sometimes they seem to synthesize nicely: Christian theology has incorporated aspects of Greek philosophy (e.g., Aquinas’s Prime Mover); the Church saved civilization after the collapse of the Roman empire; and the philosophes helped to save the Church from the barbarism that fed the seventeenth century’s wars of religion. And St. Paul, “a contemporary of Jesus, Roman citizen, Jew, rabbi, Christian, and a Greek speaker,” carried within his person “the polarities” at Western civilization’s core.
And those polarities show: If I want to reject “the world,” I can cite Paul for support. But if I want to “engage” or participate in culture for evangelistic purposes, I can also cite Paul. If, in the words of my childhood Sunday school teacher, I want to advocate shunning the “learning of men,” I can quote Paul; if I want to justify immersion in classical philosophy, I need only point to Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill for biblical assistance. When Paul said that he wanted to be “all things to all men that some might be saved,” he wasn’t (pardon the cliché) whistling Dixie.
As Hart indicates, the great thing about the mixed composition of Western civilization, not only in its origins but also in its development, is that it makes life interesting and offers people a wide range of, shall we say, alternative lifestyles. Christians have been socialists, Communists, capitalists, and communitarians; they’ve been pacifists and stern proponents of just-war theory; they’ve advocated rejecting the world and “winning this city for Christ”; and they’ve been mystics and rationalists—and in every case, they have been able to find support from within Western tradition.
Focusing on the works and persons of, among others, Moses, Socrates, Jesus, Paul, Augustine, Shakespeare, Voltaire, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hart suggests that Western civilization as a whole is far superior to any of its parts. The Greeks sought “excellence” and the Hebrews and Jesus demanded righteousness. Both excellence and righteousness, Hart implies, are necessary to good lives.
The implication, of course, is that Christianity by itself cannot create—or up to now has not created—a civilization. The term once heard—“Christian civilization”—is a misnomer, as is clear to anyone who knows what Western civilization is made of. Christianity is now growing fastest in some of the most politically dysfunctional regions of the world, and the fact that many African nations are populated by large numbers of Christians seems not to be making much of a political difference. Of course, this isn’t a problem for Christians; Jesus never told his disciples to make civilizations, and everyone knows that first- and second-century Christians were outsiders—just as many Christians throughout the world today are outsiders within their own countries. So while Western civilization couldn’t have existed without Christianity, there’s no reason to believe that any civilization needs to be predominantly Christian.
As readers of Hart will discover, Christians can—and should—appreciate many of the non-Christian achievements of their civilization. But at the same time, it’s important for Christians to distinguish between explicitly biblical truths and civilizational values. Handel’s Messiah lifts my spirit without fail, the religious disinterest of its composer notwithstanding. But the Psalms tell me that I can also praise God by pounding on a drum. So far as I can see, there’s not much of a scriptural case to be made for the idea that God prefers complex music to noise: What matters, as the Scriptures say, is the intention of the “heart.”
The “cultural catastrophe” Hart encourages us to “smile” through as we draw strength from the great works of the Western tradition is also its current political and aesthetic catastrophe. It’s the occupation of the Internet by porn peddlers and the TV addiction and accompanying semi-literacy and sloth that pervade American life. It’s the lying that permeates political speech. And it’s the media’s constant incitement of racial animosity. But as much as this catastrophe irks Christians who care about their country and the world’s future, it isn’t a problem for Christianity itself. Christians can live under Nero and George Washington (and even, as we learned, under Bill Clinton). Christians can live in functional democracies and dangerous dictatorships. Christians can play the cello and the bongos.
Like Jeffrey Hart, I hope that the West can regain some balance between its constitutive elements. But if the Christian part of Western civilization continues to be eclipsed (or, as in Canada, forthrightly persecuted), or if by some means the West’s external enemies (with the assistance of our university professors) cause it to fall altogether, then I will need to hold tightly to a truth I maintain now, in the comfort of my home, chiefly as an abstraction—namely, that my first loyalty is to a kingdom not made with human hands.
Preston Jones teaches at the Cambridge School of Dallas and has contributed to Touchstone since 1998.