Response to reader who denies that Christianity has contributed anything to the West

A couple of weeks ago, I posted an exchange with a correspondent who said that, apart from Christianity which they have rejected, America and Western civilization have nothing of value worth preserving. His view was that our civilization simply deserves to be destroyed because of its impiety. At about the same time, I received an e-mail from the opposite end of the spectrum, arguing that Christianity and the Catholic Church have contributed nothing of value to Western civilization—that Western civilization is solely the product of Classical paganism and modern science. That e-mail is reproduced below, followed by my reply.

Dealing with attacks on the West coming simultaneously from such opposite points of view, with one correspondent totally denying the Christian aspects of the West, and the other correspondent completely denying the non-Christian aspects of the West, gave me a sense of what it must have been like to be a defender of the Nicean Creed against heresies which either denied Christ’s divinity or denied his humanity. The essence of the West is its multi-layered understanding of reality, the spiritual and material, as exemplified by St. Augustine’s idea of the City of God and the City of Man, or by the medieval order of Church and Empire, or by the distinction between the noetic and the scientific modes of knowledge. This Western Christian vision of existence is, as Eric Voegelin put it, the most highly differentiated articulation of reality that has ever been achieved, requiring effort, intelligence, and spiritual balance to maintain. Therefore there will always be people who rebel against one side or the other of the Western vision.

Here is my exchange with the Pagan Westerner.


I have read your posts and entries for quite some time, enjoying their quality and your unique opinions, which are close to mine. However, there is a brewing question I must ask you, that has been on my mind for some time. Luckily for me, you yourself have finally pushed it to the forefront and clarified what I wished to discuss with you.

You have just now referred to the Catholic Church as “once the matrix of Western civilization.” However, it seems to me that historical fact does not back this up. When we think of the beginnings of Western Civilization, for instance, who do we think of? I certainly am not made to think of the church of Rome, nor even Christ or Moses. I think of Plato, Aristotle, Archimedes, Euclid, Socrates, Euripedes, Sophocles, Horace, Cicero, Ovid, Homer. In short, I think of the Greeks and Romans, who were most decidedly PAGAN. The roots of Western Civilization came from Pagans, not Christians. Science, art, philosophy, geometry, algebra, name what you will.

This flowering of Western civilization does not continue or increase when Catholicism began to hold power; in fact, it comes to an abrupt END as Christianity began to bloom. What crowning achievements of Western civilization occurred between 300 AD and 1400 AD? I can think of very few. I am not going to harp about Crusades because I am as aware as you that they were mostly in self defense.

However, there is no escaping that these times are commonly called the Dark Ages, and for good reason.

There is no better summation of this truth than the discourse of Poggius, which we find in the last chapter of Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” He is in Rome, the CAPITAL of Catholicism, and yet he looks around him and sees nothing but desolation and ruin. It is a cliche that the best roads in Europe, even in the 1400s, were Roman roads, but it is a true cliche.

Note, sir, that when Western civilization began once more to flower, who did they turn to for advice and inspiration? Not Christian philosophy, nor Christian science, as if that existed, but once more to the Greeks and the Romans. They once more read Homer, Horace, and Euclid. Shakespeare is littered with admonitions to Jove, Jupiter, Niobe, Nero, Alexander, but very few to any Christian heroes. Is it not telling that the men who began to build modern western civilization, turned to a PAGAN civilization for inspiration?

Then, what can we say of the new flowerings of Western Civilization? What great achievements occurred? When we think of Western science, do we think of the Catholic Church? Indeed we do, because they attempted to suffocate Galileo. But we admire Galileo, not the Church. When we think of Western political rebellion, do we think of the Catholic Church? Only because they were a corrupt and barbarous institution in Europe, and without their destruction, tyranny would have continued to reign.

Is it not of some note, Mr. Auster, that the United States you claim to mourn, was created by the castoffs of a Protestant nation? Is not the great principle of Western civilization, that which allowed it to create democracies with real civil liberties for its citizens? Do you not admire freedom of speech, freedom to bear firearms, religious liberty? Here is one strange thought; you are unhappy about mass Mexican immigration, yet those immigrants are overwhelmingly Catholic. Shouldn’t this make you happy?

It seems to me that modern Western civilization, starting roughly with Dante and Erasmus, moving up through Locke, Hobbes, Galileo, Descartes, Pascal, etc, has very little to do with Catholicism. If the story of Western Civilization was written, indeed it would be the story of Catholicism, but it would be the story of the rejection of Catholicism. I can find no Pope who wrote the Declaration of Independence, nor the Constitution, nor invented the computer that you write your entries on, nor the house that you live in, the car you drive, or did any of the things that make life bearable.

Simply put, Mr. Auster, I cannot make heads nor tails of your opinions. You mourn America, but America is an overwhelmingly Protestant nation. You are unhappy that illegal immigrants are flooding America, but most of those immigrants are Spanish Catholic. You mourn Western Civilization, and hail the fundamental premise of Western Civilization, which is objectivity and reason. Yet objectivity and reason first flourished in PAGAN Greece and Rome, and when it once more began to shine on Europe, it was not Muslims or Progressives or Feminists who fought to deny that the earth moves around the sun; it was CATHOLICISM.

Wherever the Catholic Church has dominated, there has been nothing but destruction, misery, barbarity, and oppression. We can quite literally draw a rather convincing ratio between the Church’s power, and the flourishing of civilization. Is it not somewhat obvious, that there is literally a thousand year gap in civilization, between the great Roman thinkers and the great English/French/German thinkers, and that thousand year gap correlates precisely with Church power?

I have read most of your articles and cannot find a coherent answer to this problem. This is often a fault of columnists, that they make many small observations but they do so in a manner that keeps them from ever making one system out of their beliefs, or ever answering Big Questions. So here finally are my questions for you to answer. It is necessary to ask you, Mr. Auster: what are you searching for in a civilization? What is your ideal? Do you admire the Constitution? What do you think of democracy, freedom of speech, the right to bear firearms? Such questions are necessary to understand where you are coming from.

For, I am an admirer of Western science above all others, an avid reader of our Founding Fathers’ books, a memorizer of Shakespeare, a lover of our civilization; and yet nothing I admire has came from the domination of a Catholic Church, and I would say quite comfortably that they were the matrix of Western civilization only when that civilization was dormant.

I thus find it very hard to understand what you are attempting to advocate. In short, whose side are you on? Are you with Galileo or not?

LA to Pagan Westerner:

I have no wish to be rude, but I must speak very sternly to you.

There is no excuse for an intelligent person such as yourelf to have the kind of ignorance of rudimentary facts of history that you display. I cannot supply you with the basic general reading that you should have done by this point in your life, but any mainstream history of Western civilization, including even popular histories written by secularists such as Will Durant and H.G. Wells, will show the central role of the Catholic Church in forming the West. Your view of our civilization as based only on Greco-Roman culture and modern science, and having nothing to do with Christianity and the Church, is pure ignorance parading as superior knowledge.

I will give you a very brief survey answer, and then let you do some reading on your own.

The Classical civilization came to an end in the West with the destruction of the Western Roman empire by Germanic tribes in the 5th century and the utter decay of its civilization. The Catholic Church, which had become the official religion of Rome in the 4th century, was the only surviving institution of the Roman world, in a Europe given over to barbarism, violence, and insecurity. Over hundreds of years, the Germanic and Celtic barbaric nations of Europe were slowly Christianized, in the process becoming settled nations under a rule of law. The merging together of Christianity (which carried much of the classical culture with it) with the cultures of the Germanic barbarians represented the beginning of a new civilization, which we now call the West.

As a result, Western civilization is not a single thing, but an amalgamation of (1) the culture of the destroyed classical world, (2) the Christian religion, and (3) the cultures of the Northern barbarians. This amalgamation took place during the 500 years that you dismiss as the Dark Ages. Yes, they were “dark,” in that civilization had come to an end and Europe was prey to continual barbarian raids that made a safe and settled life impossible. But in this darkness a new culture and civilization was taking shape. Read the Venerable Bede’s History of the English Church about how, starting in 597, Roman Catholic bishops were sent by the Pope to Engand and began converting the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, and how that common religion made the separate pagan Anglo-Saxon kingdoms into the English nation. Or read how the Carolingians (Pippin, Charles Martel, Pippin the Short, and Charlemagne) over generations slowly subdued the barbaric German tribes and Christianized them, helped by Irish and English monks such as Boniface who spent their lives traveling and preaching and converting in the wild forests of Germany. Or read how the Benedictine Order, whose rule was obedience to God, re-civilized vast ruined areas of Europe and created prosperity by combining monastic devotion with productive agriculture. Or read of the great period of Irish Christianity (also during the Dark Ages), when the illuminated manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells—creations that are at the absolute summit of our civilization—were made, and also many classical works were preserved from barbarian destruction.

As a result of this slow Christianizing and civilizing process, and the fact that the Catholics of Europe, led by the Carolingians, were able to drive back the Arab Moslem invaders from France in the early 8th century, subdue the gangster realm of the Avars in Eastern Europe, and rescue the Papacy from the barbarian Lombards, and the fact that other barbarian invasions quieted down, Europe by the 11th century emerged as a dynamic, prosperous civilization again, no longer besieged, and the High Middle Ages (1000 to 1300) had begun. That’s what made the first Crusade possible. For the first time, the European Catholics, instead of being attacked by the Moslems, were in a position to try to re-take the once-Christian Eastern lands that had been conquered by the Moslems in the 7th century. The High Middle Ages also brought the Norman architecture and then the Gothic architecture—further summits of civilization that nothing modern can match.

The High Middle Ages were the product of the Early Middle Ages (the Dark Ages), and in turn served as the foundation of modern Western civilization.

Again, it was Christianity, specifically the Roman Catholic Church, which, over centuries, slowly turned the rough Germanic barbarian warriors of Europe into civilized, peaceful, and law-abiding men, turned barbarian tribes into Christian nations, and made possible the later achievements of the Renaissance and modernity.

An important principle of this Christian civilization was St. Augustine’s division of the world into the City of God and the City of Man. This in turn was based on Jesus’ all-important statement, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s.” This articulation of the world into the secular realm and the spiritual realm is a keynote of Western culture and distinguishes it from all other civilizations. It limits the power of the state over the individual, which makes it quite different from the classical civilization, where there was no inherent limit to political power and men belonged to the state. Classical citizenship was very different from modern Western (and Christian) citizenship.

Our very notion of individualism, of an inviolable individual self, is a product of Judaism and Christianity, in which God is above man and creates man and gives each person a potential value which no human power has the right to violate. This concept did not come from the classical heritage. It came from Judaism and Christianity. John Locke’s notion of natural rights was derived directly from the Bible. Because God created man’s nature, God wants man to live, therefore man has a natural right to that which will make his life possible, namely life, liberty and property.

Our Constitution, with its separation of powers and checks and balances, is derived from the Christian idea of original sin. Since man is inherently flawed, no man, and no human agency, should have unlimited power.

I could go on and on showing the formative Christian components of our civilization.

Yet you, ignorant of and alienated from these and many other principles of Western civilization, see the entire period between 500 and 1500 as merely a pit of darkness. You only know about the Classical and scientific aspects of the West. You have no knowledge of, or affection for, our civilization as a whole. As a result, real Western patriotism—which means not just love of the West but the ability to explain and defend the West—is not possible for you.

You need to know more. You need to do some basic reading that is not limited to a modern, secular, anti-religious perspective.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at May 01, 2005 02:49 PM | Send

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