Jerusalem + Athens + Rome = Western Civilization (and we’re losing them all)

Jerusalem + Athens + Rome = Western Civilization (and we’re losing them all) November 19, 2020

George Weigel is a conservative Catholic intellectual whose analyses of contemporary culture are often quite valuable even for non-Catholics.

He recently gave a lecture for a conference in Poland on the thought of the recently canonized pope John Paul II entitled Looking into the Future Through His Eyes: John Paul II, the Catholic Church, and the Crisis of the West.  He argues that Western civilization and Western democracy are going through a crisis that derives from the repudiation of their three foundations.  We can think of them in terms of three cities:

(1) Jerusalem

That is, the Bible, which has given our culture a sense of meaning, purpose, and moral significance, as well as the Christian religion, which has given us transcendence and salvation.

(2) Athens

The Greeks gave us classical thought and thus a belief in truth and the practice of reason, enabling human beings to know and to understand their world.

(2)  Rome

Rome gave us the rule of law, a political system embodied in the Roman Republic, in which human beings respect each other’s rights and govern themselves not by coercion but by laws.

To sum up, Weigel says,

the Western civilization project and its modern political expression, which we call democracy, is built on these three legs, these three foundations: (1) biblical religion – life is journey, adventure, and pilgrimage because history is going somewhere; (2) Greek philosophy – there are truths embedded in the world and in us and we can know them; and (3) Roman law – the rule of law is superior to coercion in human affairs.

But now, society has turned first against Jerusalem, assuming that we can do without the Christian faith.  That, he says, has led to the rejection of Athens, assuming that we can do without truth, with the rise of post-modern relativism and its repudiation of reason, objectivity, and knowledge.  This in turn is leading to the rejection of Rome, as power replaces both goodness and truth as the highest value.  That entails the repudiation of democracy, liberty, and the rule of law.

The West is in turmoil because the West has largely lost “Jerusalem” and is quickly losing “Athens.” And because of those erosions and losses, the West is in grave danger of losing “Rome” – the idea that the rule of law, achieved by rational debate leading to a consensus reflecting the judgment of self-governing citizens, is superior to coercion in ordering our common life.

The solution, says Weigel, is evangelism:

If the root of the cultural incoherence of the West is a loss of faith in the God of the Bible (the Jerusalemic foundation of the Western civilizational project), then the Church of the New Evangelization – the Church of the future, according to John Paul II – is critically important to the rescue of the Western civilizational project. For it is the Church of the New Evangelization, in its work of proclaiming the Gospel and in its public witness, that will help Western civilization recover “Jerusalem,” and thereby recover “Athens” and the cultural confidence that reason can grasp the truth of things – which is essential to defending the rule of law against coercion in the name of skepticism and relativism.

Image:  “The Course of Empire:  Destruction” by Thomas Cole (1836)  Public Domain,
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