When the rot set in

“Repudiation of Europe,” the novelist John Dos Passos once wrote, “is, after all, America’s main excuse for being.”

Luther and Calvin

This is one of my favourite aphorisms because it rings true and also lends itself to extrapolation. For if repudiation of anything is the main excuse for being, that means the repudiator is mostly driven by negative impulses.

This is true of every revolution, political, social, cultural or religious. They are all animated by the urge to cast tradition away or, for preference, to destroy it. Sometimes, as in the case of the American Revolution, a positive impulse is present too. But it’s never as strong as the negative one, nor as all-pervasive as the revolutionaries claim.

All revolutions are in essence what Ortega y Gasset used as the title of his best-known book, The Revolt of the Masses. However, the masses don’t rise in revolt until they have been sufficiently primed by educated elites possessed of the urge and energy to change things.

Such elites never plan a long way ahead. They don’t bother about the chain reactions triggered by the revolt they inspire and organise. Their claimed motive is some sort of progress, but all revolutionaries mainly use positive shibboleths as camouflage for negative urges – to enfeeble, destroy, abandon or, for that matter, repudiate.

Now, my hypothesis, one that I’ve explored in several books, is that every formative upheaval of modernity was caused by a revolt against Western civilisation and the religion on which it was based – regardless of the slogans the revolutionary banners displayed.

Some revolutions, such as the French and the Russian, also aimed their slings and arrows at Christian worship. But neither the English nor American revolutionaries sought to annihilate the faith. It was the apostolic Christian religion that they loathed, along with the civilisation the religion has spun out.

They shared that animus with all other revolutions, including the only properly religious one, the Reformation. All of them were populist, serving up different versions of the same slogan, “All power to the people”.

But power, unlike wealth, is a zero sum game. The more of it is in the hands of the people, the less is left for the traditional institutions and, more broadly, traditional civilisation.

Yet all populist revolutionary slogans are larcenous. It’s not the people who gain power, but an elite presuming to act in their name. Hence, in effect, as opposed to rhetoric, the ubiquitous slogan really ought to be “Down with the traditional institutions and the civilisation they embody”. That would be less catchy but more honest.

The groundwork for systematic subversion had been laid by Renaissance humanism, whose spread signalled the end of the Middle Ages. That was the onset of the shift so precisely described by Chesterton: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; rather, it has been found difficult and left untried”.

The Black Death (1346-1353), the cataclysm that wiped out up to half of Europe’s population, was a decisive factor. That delivered a blow to the Church, which couldn’t find a theodicy persuasive enough to explain a calamity of that magnitude.

Anti-clericalism, at the time mostly expressed as mockery, became the order of the day and so it has continued to this day. The personage of a corrupt, lustful, crooked monk, priest or nun densely populated European literature, from Rabelais and Boccaccio to Diderot and Voltaire. Even when the writers were themselves devout, as in the case of Boccaccio, the Zeitgeist made them put their pen to wicked use.

As the formulator and guardian of Christian doctrine, the Church was (and to a large extent still remains) for all practical purposes coextensive with Christianity, while the latter was coextensive with the civilisation called Christendom.

The three were like a tripod: sturdy only when all three legs are intact. But break one of the legs off, and the whole structure collapses. And the Church was the leg to which the subsequent Reformation took the sledgehammer.

Although the key figures of the Reformation thought they were better Christians, in fact they were out to destroy, not just to reform. Even though they identified their grievances against the Church as clerical corruption, graven images, indulgences and the rest, these were mere pretexts.

It was the very institution of the apostolic, hierarchical Church that they set out to annihilate, perhaps not realising they would thereby set the stage for the advent of mass atheism. Luther, Calvin and Zwingli aimed their blows at the Church, but the blows landed on Western civilisation, if by delayed action.

The typological secular equivalent of the apostolic, hierarchical Church was the aristocratic, hierarchical state. Since the two were interlinked, the state too was bound to become vulnerable. Luther et al. might not have realised that and, more critical, neither did the contemporaneous princes.

They were the ones who saved Luther’s life after he nailed his 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg. His action was blatant heresy, and under normal circumstances that would have been severely punished. But many princes shielded Luther from ecclesiastical wrath, and actually professed embracing his ideas. Their reasons were not fideistic but purely political.

By abandoning the Emperor’s confession, they could claim a legitimate reason for abandoning the Emperor. Hence Luther wasn’t their priest; he was their weapon.

The Western Church was put asunder, and it could no longer act as the ramparts protecting the civilisation against a barbarian assault. The walls had been breached, and they began to totter.

The Reformers were revolutionaries driven by the same populism that was later adopted and weaponised by their secular descendants. Luther and especially Calvin wished to remove the mediation of the Church from the discourse between God and man, effectively making each man his own priest, in Luther’s phrase.

De facto prayer leaders were going to replace priests who were no longer needed. After all, the Bible contained everything believers needed, and each of them was perfectly capable of interpreting Scripture as he saw fit.

Yet subsequent history showed that, when every man became his own priest, sooner or later he was going to become his own God. Thus Protestantism was bound to split up into the hundreds of dubiously Christian sects we see today, but that was the lesser evil.

Above all, men who approached the divine status in their own minds were bound to make God redundant sooner or later. Humility was being ousted by solipsism, liberally laced with hatred.

The Protestants were led to believe that they had lost the shackles of clerical oppression – and they were encouraged to abhor the institutions deemed responsible for their erstwhile plight.

The psychological mechanisms were exactly the same as those activated two centuries later, when the Americans and the French were tricked into believing they were tyrannised by the least despotic monarchs ever, George III and Louis XVI respectively.

We now know that a strong Church is the sine qua non of a strong religion, and a strong religion is the sine qua non of Western civilisation. Once the rot set in, atheism began to advance in parallel with the decline of a civilisation that could no longer ward off the blows raining on it from all directions.

Yet iconoclasm persists long after the icons have been smashed. The masses, encouraged to believe Western civilisation was evil and oppressive, are eager to erase its vestiges off the face of the earth.

To get the wrecking ball swinging, the Reformation and the Revolution combined to destroy some 80 per cent of all the Romanesque and Gothic buildings in France – an orgy that continued throughout the 19th century. Yet it’s not only the physical monuments of Christendom that continue to excite barbarian hatred.

Every extant manifestation of Western civilisation, from music and poetry to language and manners, is a red rag to the modern bull. That situation didn’t just appear. It has taken centuries to develop, a period signposted by the Black Death, Renaissance humanism, the Reformation and all the secular revolutions adumbrating modernity.

The rot set in a long time ago, and it has infested our civilisation the same way termites infest the foundations of buildings. And with the same result.  

10 thoughts on “When the rot set in”

  1. I think it’s fair to say that the church had introduced many heretical aspects such as the selling of indulgences, Mariology, Purgatory, the Rosary and much more that the leaders were not attempting to correct. Instead, they persisted with introducing more non-Christian teachings such as Papal infallibility. And so many popes like Pope John XII (955–964), Pope Benedict IX (1032–1048) or Pope Boniface VIII (1294–1303) should have been ousted.
    Again and again in the gospels, Christ challenges religious authority when non-traditional teachings were introduced; should not that be a template?

    1. Today’s West is the only place in history where atheism is predominant. This unique status deserves both a lament and an explanation. Since the situation has taken centuries to develop, only an historical analysis has a sporting chance of sorting the mess out. And any serious historical analysis has to identify Protestantism as the anteroom of atheism – unless, of course, the analysis proceeds from a radical Protestant position taken as an axiomatic truth.

      The Catholic Church is a human institution and, as such, liable to make mistakes and throw up unworthy leaders, such as some of those you mention. But describing things like Mariology as a heresy is simply wrong. Both apostolic Christian confessions, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy worship Mary with equal fervour if with minor theological and liturgical differences. Even the Anglican High Church, a Protestant confession that has retained some aspects of Catholicism, has several feasts of devotion to Mary.

      Lutheran Mariology also exists, and it shares with the apostolic confessions the teaching of Theotokos (Mother of God), the Virgin Birth, the Immaculate Conception and Mary’s perpetual virginity. It’s only Calvinist sects that consider Mariology heretical, which brings to mind words like ‘teapot’, ‘kettle’ and ‘black’.

      As for some other aspects of Catholicism you find un-Christian, it’s useful to remember that Christianity, unlike, say, Islam, is a living, which is to say developing, religion. Its whole revelation isn’t confined to a single book, once and for all. It took Christianity several centuries to develop its doctrine, which points at the gradual nature of the revelation. (I’d recommend Newman’s book The Development of Christian Doctrine as a sound account of that.) That process never ends. We may like some doctrinal innovations and dislike others, but they are all Christian, though manifestly not Calvinist.

      And Christ not only challenged religious authority on its “non-traditional teachings”. He also introduced some of his own. That’s a good template to follow, provided the change is good, and put forth for good reasons and with much prudence. The Reformation doesn’t qualify — any more than do the secular revolutions I mentioned.

      1. In regards to
        “Christianity…is a living…developing, religion. Its whole revelation isn’t confined to a single book, once and for all. It took Christianity several centuries to develop its doctrine…that process never ends.”
        This is precisely the problem if we don’t believe in sola scriptura! If we allow for a “developing religion” we will have homosexual and ‘trans’ priests and leaders and anything that the evolving culture wants.
        If we want celebrant priests we have to ignore biblical references to Peter’s wife, eg. 1 Cor. 9:5
        If we want to profess Mary to be a perpetual virgin then we are insisting sex within her marriage to Joseph to be not permitted, and we are ignoring the many references to their sons, Joseph, James, Jude, and Simon. (Matt. 12:46; 13:55; Mark 6:3; John 2:12; 7:3-5; Gal. 1:19)
        If the Church decides Mary is to be much more then ‘blessed’, then where do we get the information from. Who says she had the Virgin Birth, the Immaculate Conception and we worship her as if she is a goddess? Prove someone didn’t make it up. It’s like when Kenneth Copeland says God revealed something to him. Really?
        It’s just more reliable to read the Holy Bible and not add to it … Deuteronomy 4:2
        You must not add to or subtract from what I command you, so that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God that I am giving you.
        And if anyone takes away from the words of this prophetic book, God will take away his share of the tree of life and the holy city, written in this book. Rev 22:19.

        1. I can’t for the life of me see how the gradual nature of the Revelation ineluctably leads to transexual priests. It took the Church four centuries to sort out the Trinity and the nature of Christ, so does that mean neither is true? Everything attributed to Jesus in the Bible would take a couple of hours to read. Yet His ministry lasted at least two years. Surely he must have said other things as well? Christian doctrine is based on both written and oral sources, and also on church tradition. Confining the whole thing to one book is more like Judaism and especially Islam. Or, perhaps more to the point, a Christian heresy. But then again — I’m familiar with Protestant arguments, as you must be with Catholic ones, and never the twain shall meet. There goes ecumenism, right out of the window.

          1. Sorting out what’s true Revelation from what is not is the dilemma. Having just one man at the top, be it a Pope or a tele-evangelist over a mega-church, calling the shots and proclaiming “Thus saith the Lord” means there is bound to be problems. We all have the sinful nature, including leaders.
            It’s not divine Revelation that led to transexual priests but evolving decisions that accommodates the culture and violates the Holy Bible.
            I was brought up Catholic, became a disillusioned lost atheist, then agnostic, searched eastern religions and ended up a disillusioned protestant listening to self-absorbed leaders who don’t wear the glittering robes but sure do believe they float on a cloud shepherding the laity. We don’t have the solemn Renaissance cathedrals in Queensland to inspire and create the atmosphere, which meetings in school halls can’t match. So, any sense of spirituality is in text or on my knees, while I witness the Church cave in under the weight of being relevant to the world with chains of compromise.

  2. An excellent summary. The attack goes on these days, more openly than ever. Combatants clearly state they hate Western Civilization (none dare say “Christendom”), pretending it was the sole progenitor of human inequality (including, but not limited to, estates like slavery) and climate change.

    1. Paul, I understand and largely share your frustration. In this world we aren’t blessed with perfect institututions, and, alas, that goes for Christian confessions too. For example, the current pope isn’t a man after my own heart. But the previous two were, and there’s also hope that we’ll have one in the future. However, destroying or even ignoring a holy institution just because some of its functionaries are demonstrably unholy is illogical. That’s like supporting fascist dictators like Putin because you dislike your current government. Confusing the transcendent with the transient may lead one to all sorts of wrong choices. One way or the other, reducing the whole wealth of Christianity to the Bible is simply wrong any way you cut it: intellectually, theologically, historically, fideistically, you name it.

      1. Thanks for this insightful conversation. I notice you rarely mention the Orthodox Churches? They too are of apostolic origin and have preserved the Apostolic Succession.

  3. The fact that the Reformation ultimately led to secularism indicates that Christianity isn’t true. If the Bible was indeed divinely inspired then surely ‘sola scriptura’ would have sufficed.

    What you’re saying is that Roman Catholicism was/is better because it allows for a great deal more philosophical obfuscation. As if ‘The Truth’ is something that needs the protection of cloaked celibates!

    No, the Reformation was a much needed stress-test for Christianity, one which it would seem to have failed.

    1. Isaac, sola scripture does indeed suffice. Rather than repeat my points justifying this, please instead see my response to Alexander’s reply to me. Thanks.

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