The Death of Christian Culture,
by John Senior.
Arlington House, Publishers, 1978
[Revised edition, IHS Press, 2008].
Paperback, 192 pages, $29.
The last year has brought us a number of books that ought to serve as town criers to the West. While we have had a veritable tradition of such warnings throughout the modernist era—Chesterton, Benda, Ortega, Eliot, Tate, Voegelin, Burnham, et al. I don’t believe that there has been a time since the Thirties in which alarums have been sounded more insistently or in such happy profusion. The recent crop, taken together, is reminiscent of the coalition that formed the American Review (1933–37); it includes the subject of this review, John Senior’s The Death of Christian Culture; Jacques Ellul, Betrayal of the West (Seabury, 1978); Arianna Stassinopoulos, After Reason (Stein & Day, 1978); Joan Colebrook, Innocents of the West: Travels Through the Sixties (Basic Books, Inc., 1979); and Russell Kirk, Decadence and Renewal in the Higher Learning (Gateway, 1979). The points of view differ greatly. Senior is a Catholic with medieval foundations, Ellul a French Calvinist, and so forth, but each has glimpsed the future that is already here, and seen its desolation of spirit, and each calls for a return to the values of the West.
Ordinarily, such a statement might seem jejeune, to be marked by the teacher as “generalization! which West?” But the point is that in these extraordinary times, when the threat is to the very existence of the West, with all its inner contradictions, the crisis must be stated in Tolkien’s terms: the Men of the West v. Eastern Mordor. Though he disagrees with them radically, Senior can find Hume and Voltaire closer to his basic assumptions than Kung or Russell. The question is, can the West survive? Have we gone so far that we cannot return? In To Jerusalem and Back, Saul Bellow wondered whether we do not all “go about lightly chloroformed,” while a “dark power” enslaves our thinking. This loss of perception of what we are now in relation to what we have been exercises the wits of each of the authors, and summons apocalyptic moods and rhetoric. Belloc had laid it down that “Europe is the Faith, the Faith is Europe.” The New Humanists were willing to reform the proposition to “the West is a set of moral standards and limitations,” though they were mightily excoriated by the late Allen Tate for this reduction. But even this rarefied formula has become increasingly repugnant or incomprehensible before the triumph of a nightmarish modernism which seems, as both Senior and Ellul observe, to have seized the minds of even the best thinkers with a perversity that looks upon everything Western as outmoded and discredited. Colebrook and Stassinopoulos join Senior and Ellul in wondering at what James Burnham called “the suicide of the West,” while Kirk drolly reviews the self-destruction of the intellect in a disintegrating culture.
It is against this background that Senior writes, his academic concerns at one with his life as a teacher. Since the book first appeared last January, it has been taken to task by several reviewers, as well as some readers, for what is perceived as a difficult, annoying, even perverse style. I confess that I have not had this problem in reading him, perhaps because I can identify so readily with the spirit of anger and exasperation which informs his lively prose: Daily in my teaching I encounter the same problem which exercises both his and Ellul’s wrath—a matter-of-fact assumption that “all that” has been left behind us in the kitchen midden of the West, that now we are embarked on a new journey in spaceship earth or in a new lifestyle in the global village commune, where all the moral, religious, and epistemological assumptions of the past are obsolete or quaint. Perhaps some of my readers can identify with the urge to clenched fists and battle cries in the spirit of Roland.
In The Way Down and Out, a much earlier book by Senior, he wrote “perhaps in the end we shall be reduced to a set of clenched teeth.” While he has by no means been so reduced, he has (like Ellul) been angered, and his prose has an urgency about it born of trying to contend with epidemic error and general fog. When one is encircled by Dark Riders, it is no time for the polite nothings of the university presses.
Nevertheless, Senior’s book is not hysterical; quite the contrary, its arguments are cogent and sound—it is what he has the audacity to say that is unpalatable to reviewers. He commonly returns us to first principles in the spirit of his mentors, Belloc, Cardinal Newman, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Plato. In relation to the seriously confused ecumenical movement, he offers Aristotle’s Principle of Contradiction; to those hankering after Eastern mysticism, a clear discussion of the metaphysical opposition of East and West; to those confused about Church and State in education, a refreshing discussion of the difference between true and false liberalism. Beginning with a question, “What is Christian Culture?,” Senior examines the idiocies of the current scene for topsy-turvy revaluations of all values and a perverted sense of compassion, and begins a contrast which he uses effectively throughout the book, between the jaded decadence of fashionable thinking and the basic premises of Christian Western man, grounded in love, work, family, realist metaphysics, prayer, and God.
Perhaps the best and most needed section of the argument is the pursuit of the “modern” at its roots. For Senior, the Modernist movement in literature and culture begins precisely where it ends—Rimbaud and Baudelaire do not differ essentially from Ginsberg and Co.—for they commence by rejecting and hating the West and, with inexorable predictability, proceed to a love of the East which, as Senior analyzes with skill, is nothing but a love of the nothingness that is not there. Historically, we may observe the accuracy of Senior’s thesis, from Plato’s struggle with the sophists to Paul’s with the Corinthians to the romantic’s pursuit of the lotus to the streetcorner gurus and befuddled theologians of the 1970s. What is characteristic of the East is gnosticism, and disbelief in the concrete individual thing or person, and when the West falters in its first principles, it opens itself to that invasion of that spirit in every dimension of its existence—religion, family, art, education, work, language—which men like Augustine and Voegelin have fought so well. Senior challenges the comfortable orthodoxies of the “modern tradition,” and the scriptures (Joyce, Proust, Lawrence, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Rimbaud, etc.) on which it founds its anti-church. We have not seen such literary irreverence since Chesterton: it is delightful to have it from a professor of classics who knows the modern world very well indeed.
Senior’s attack on the popular assumptions of the time proceeds through many topics, but his progress is also a regress—to the first principles of philosophy and the Christian Catholic Faith, and its greatest exemplification in the medieval period, which he opposes to the current corruption in the Church as in the “philosophical imbecility of Hans Kung.” The cure for this latter-day nonsense Senior sees as no different, for church or society, from what it has always been when the Dark Ages threaten—monastic centers of contemplation and education. Drawing on the basic principles of monastic education, he makes an eloquent plea that centers based on these principles be at least permitted existence in the modern university, a gentlemanly allusion to his own embattled Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas (see Russell Kirk’s report in Decadence and Renewal, pp. 325–328). As for the church, it too must return to its monastic center. In “Dark Night of the Church,” he remarks that there is little hope at present for the Visible Church these days, that we have no reason now to be Christians except the right ones, the true ground of hope.
While I agree generally with the conclusions as with the mood of the argument, I wonder if the bulk of the book was not written before the accession of John Paul II. As I write, the Pope is in Poland, that beautiful country that has survived Munich, Yalta, Potsdam. Addressing his fellow countrymen, John Paul argued that Poland is of the West because it is Christian, and he called for a reuniting of the Christian West. Turning from the TV, I found this passage in GK’s Weekly, No. 2, March 28, 1925:
Certainly that nation has proved itself perpetual under conditions when it was thought that anything would have perished. And if indeed we come to a chaos in which it seems that everything has perished, if this Semitic sophistry does link up the Teutons with the Slavonic hordes, if there returns that welter of barbarism which Europe has often seen, many who do not now understand may find themselves saying, if only under their breath, “there is always Poland.”
Thus Chesterton. We may observe that, as far as Poland was concerned, the Germans and Russians did unite to crush it, and crush it again. To Senior’s witty chapter, “Black is Beautiful,” in which black becomes symbolic of the real thing, we may add the hope of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. Malachi Martin has written that the future of the church is in the East, not in the West, where Christianity has been trivialized or diluted, to which Senior would, I believe, reply, “of course, where the West is clearly understood to be on the front lines, and knows its enemy.”
Dr. R. Kenton Craven was at the time of writing administrative director of the Human Life Center, St. John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota.