(This is Neil) As I promised our frequent and much appreciated commenter Liam, I’m posting here on narratives of Western Civilization. (Sorry about the title.) More specifically, I’d like to use a recent article (link is to abstract) by the Anglican theologian Owen C. Thomas to identify two narratives – a secular narrative A and a more “Protestant” narrative B, respectively – that many of my readers will find both familiar, and, I trust, problematic. I realize that this talk of “narratives” might seem recondite. But our identification of the present context of the church usually depends upon some narrative of “how things came to be this way.” Furthermore, whenever we speak of “modernity” or the “modern” world – whether positively or negatively, and with or without great erudition, we usually do have a particular narrative in mind. Thus, like it or not, narratives …
I should note that we can speak of problematic Catholic declension narratives of Western Civilization, recognizable, perhaps, by the spotlights on nominalism, supposed Protestant individualism, and other such culprits. But, here, following Owen Thomas, we will just speak of narratives A and B. Narrative C might eventually have its day, but not today.
First, then, narrative A. Reverend Thomas encountered this narrative (he calls it “the academy narrative”) while studying with the philosopher John Herman Randall, Jr., at Columbia University in the late 1940s. Narrative A begins in the Golden Age of Athens, between the sixth to fourth centuries, BCE. This is a “Golden Age” because philosophy (Socrates, Aristotle), history (Herodotus, Thucydides), literature (Pindar, the tragedians, Aristophanes), science (Aristotle again), and democracy are all born. But, eventually, there is what the Oxford classicist Gilbert Murray termed a “failure of nerve,” namely, the “rise of asceticism, of mysticism, in a sense, of pessimism; a loss of self-confidence, of hope in this life and of faith in normal human effort; a despair of patient inquiry, a cry for infallible revelation; an indifference to the welfare of the state, a conversion of the soul to God.” Narrative A follows the judgment of Petrarch that, before 1340, the West experienced a nine hundred year “Dark Age.”
After nine hundred years of night, during the Renaissance, classical antiquity was finally reborn. We see once again, Randall writes, “an increasing interest in human life as it can be lived upon earth … and without necessary reference to any other destiny in the beyond or the hereafter.” Randall goes on to say about the Renaissance, “All this meant, of course, a revolt from the Christian ethic: in place of love, joy in the exercise of man’s God-given powers; in place of faith, it became more and more clear, the fearless quest of the intellect.” The western world finds its nerve again. But this Renaissance is not merely the rebirth of classical antiquity; it is the birth of the modern world. The Renaissance matures in the Enlightenment, which is distinguished by the idea of progress – the main figures in the Enlightenment, Randall says, “hoped for a veritable millennium.” And, if we turn from Randall’s The Making of the Modern Mind: A Survey of the Intellectual Background of the Present Age (rev. ed., 1940) to Crane Brinton’s Ideas and Men: The Story of Western Thought (1950), we read, “This eighteenth-century view of life, though modified in the last two centuries, is still at bottom our view of life, especially in the United States.”
Thus, we see the outline of narrative A. Its secularity is clear and unavoidable.
Second, we have narrative B. Owen Thomas learned this narrative from Paul Tillich. Here we begin before the sixth century, BCE, and well east of Greece. We begin with the eighth century Hebrew prophets, who spoke of God above gods, the creator of a world that is “very good” – a world that includes bodies, sexuality, individuality and community. This God called Israel to be a light to the nations, condemned its injustice, and, through Amos, proclaimed, “I spurn your feasts, I take no pleasure in your solemnities … [L]et justice surge like water, and goodness like an unfailing stream” (5:21, 24). Jesus is the Incarnation of God and intensifies the Hebrew Bible’s critique of injustice and idolatry in his own critique of Pharisaic hypocrisy and legalism.
But, just like narrative A passed into a centuries-long Dark Age, narrative B also has its times of shadows. As Christianity moved into the Hellenistic world, it was reinterpreted in Platonic categories. This Platonic Christianity, it is said, can be seen in Clement, Origen, Augustine, Eastern Orthodox thought and Aquinas, and was only somewhat banished in Protestant thought. The biblical God, according to Owen Thomas’ summary, is here confused with the “divine, nameless, ineffable, impersonal One,” and the world is seen as a “hierarchy of levels of being stretching from the divine down through the spiritual, the psychic, the organic to the inorganic.” Humanity is a microcosm and our highest level is also divine. We are called to recover this divine nature and reunite with the ineffable, impersonal One by escaping through asceticism from the drag of our lower levels. Physicality and community become meaningless, unreal. The fall of Adam becomes the sad story of the defiled body placing the soul in exile – concupiscence ruins contemplation. The influence of Middle Platonism, says, narrative B, is not a good thing at all.
The anti-Platonic proponents of narrative B claim that narrative A’s diagnosis of a “failure of nerve” does not apply to biblical Christianity, only to the Platonic Christianity described in the paragraph above.
Narrative B, then, sees the Renaissance as positive, but essentially Christian. Paul Tillich, in his 1961 lectures on the Renaissance at Harvard University, claimed that the Renaissance was not a recovery of classical antiquity, but neglected Christian doctrines – the medieval and Greek negative attitudes towards reality were replaced with a renewed understanding of creation (especially the imago Dei), incarnation, and the resurrection of the body. Tillich noted that there is no doctrine of creation in Greek thought, not even in Plato’s Demiurge, and no possibility of seeing the world, embodied and finite, as good. (In this context, Owen Thomas mentions the Anglican Archbishop William Temple’s oft-quoted remark, made in his 1934 Nature, Man and God, that “Christianity … is the most avowedly materialist of all the great religions.”)
Furthermore, the proponents of narrative B also see the idea of progress as coming from Christianity. Platonism, they say, sees time as a circle; history is no more than eternal return. On the other hand, the hope of Israel for a Messiah was the hope for something new. And, then, in the medieval period, as Albert T. Mollegen (a longtime professor at Virginia Theological Seminary) writes, “In Joachim [of Fiore] and his followers was born the idea of progress, a radically new idea that, apart from the prophetic religious tradition, had never existed on the face of the earth before.”
Even secularity itself, we read in narrative B, comes from Christianity. Didn’t Christianity, since only God could be seen as holy, oppose idolatry? Wasn’t Polycarp told to look at his fellow Christians and say, “Away with the atheists”? Narrative B would make us ask about modern science: Wasn’t it biblical religion that taught us to study nature through observation, not some sort of impossible deduction from the divine nature? Didn’t, as Robert Merton taught us, the Puritans support modern science? Here Owen Thomas quotes the exiled Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev:
It is impossible to build railways, invent the telegraph or telephone, while living in fear of the demons. Thus, for man to be able to treat nature like a mechanism, it is necessary for the demonic inspiration of nature and man’s communion with it to have died out in human consciousness. The mechanical conception of the world was to lead to a revolt against Christianity, but it was itself the spiritual result of the Christian act of liberating man from elemental nature and its demons.
And what of democracy? Narrative B locates its development within radical Protestantism. Thus, the historian R.H. Tawney: “The foundation of democracy is the sense of spiritual independence, which serves the individual to stand alone against the powers of this world … and it is probable that democracy owes more to Nonconformity than to any other single movement.” (Here, interestingly, Thomas quotes the Catholic historian Christopher Dawson’s claim that the “first appearance of genuine democracy in the modern world” occurred in England, under the aegis of Calvinism and Anabaptist and independent sects.)
But narrative B is not necessarily optimistic. To be sure, the distinguishing characteristics of modernity have been the fruits of Christian doctrines, but modern men and women do not understand this lineage, because they have taken Platonic Christianity to be authentic Christianity. Thus, they have sought to leave Christianity behind altogether. And, this, narrative B suggests, has and will have disastrous consequences. Here Thomas quotes Dawson again, along with Arnold Toynbee, and Auden’s “For the Time Being,” alongside St Paul’s threat of the “wrath of God” against those who exchange “the glory of the immortal God for images resembling moral man or birds or animals or reptiles.”
Narrative B, especially in its reading of the poisonous effects of Middle Platonism throughout most of Christian history, seems to be a decidedly Protestant narrative. (Thomas finds this narrative persuasive.)
The question for us, here, is whether we see the influences of narrative A and/or narrative B around us today. And, if so, how do we respond to them?