Brad Birzer’s recent monograph Seeking Christendom: An Augustinian Defense of Western Civilization was, by the author’s own admission, birthed only half-formed. For all that, it is an ambitious project:
This book, Seeking Christendom, offers an Augustinian critique of the twentieth-century and all of its ideological horrors… [with] special attention to [Russell] Kirk, [Christopher] Dawson, [T.S.] Eliot, [J.R.R.] Tolkien, [C.S.] Lewis, and [Eric] Voegelin.
As I said, this is ambitious for so short a work. For what it’s worth, I think he’s done a decent job of covering a lot of territory in a few pages.
Three things about this book.
1. I agree with some of Birzer’s criticisms, and I’m sympathetic to much of his project. Traditional conservatism is a much-needed corrective to the insanity of the modern world. And yet, I think there are still some problems here. For example, he begins with a list intended to be added to Kirk’s “Canons of Conservatism“:
“First, that the preservation of the virtues of the West, best understood through the stories of the exemplars of these virtues, is a sacred duty.”
-I’m fine with the goal of “the preservation of the virtues of the West,” and I’m fine with understanding these virtues through “stories of… exemplars” (more on this below). What I’m not fine with is the “sacred” bit.
“Second, that one must understand history in metahistorical, theological, and poetic terms as did Virgil and St. Augustine.”
-This is a very important point, because at the end of the day we understand ourselves and the world through these kinds of filters. The less reflective we are about them, the more likely we are to be swept up in false and destructive ideologies. Of course merely being “reflective” is no curative, but reflection is a necessary precondition for a cure.
“Third, one must embrace a proper anthropology, defining man by both his inherited sin and his received grace. The person, at root, is a being endowed with rationality, reason, and passion. He is higher than the animals, but lower than the angels. He must, to be fully human, balance each of these tensions.”
-No disagreement here.
“Fourth, Christians (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant)–in alliance with Jews and even virtuous pagans…”
-I’m breaking this one into two points, because this first point I generally agree with. When it comes to politics, I’m certainly willing to work with my Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Jewish friends to achieve common goals (ending abortion, for example). So, as far as it goes, sure. But, Birzer goes on to say that these groups
“must sanctify the world through the Grace of God. For men of good will to fight amongst themselves squanders precious time and resources, and it leaves the field to the Enemy.”
-Here, Birzer has done the thing traditional conservatives always want to avoid–he has immanentized the eschaton. “The world” is not something that will ever be “sanctified” in this life. We are pilgrims passing through a world bound for destruction. And to be sure we have responsibilities that involve warning the world of the coming judgment, and living well as believers in our churches, but those responsibilities do not involve the sanctification of the unregenerate cosmos. If the world is elevated by our example, so much the better for the world. If not, well, that’s the concern of Providence.
“Fifth, the real struggle in the world is not between left and right, but between Christ and anti-Christ, between that which is humane and that which is anti-humane.”
-No disagreement here.
“Finally, true remembrance, preservation, and advocacy of all that is Good, True, and Beautiful, comes from a recognition that our highest form of understanding is derived from the reflection of the light of the Logos in our souls through the faculty of imagination.”
-I think this is probably true as well. The focus on a properly formed imagination is an important one, and something that is worth more reflection on. (Irving Babbitt is a good place to start.)
2. I disagree with his Roman Catholic prescriptions, mostly because they are heretical.
As with so many faithful Roman Catholics, he looks to the Middle Ages as his guide and ideal for what a properly balanced society should be. And hey, I get it: this is the point in history when the most powerful head of state in the Western World, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, knelt down in the snow and begged forgiveness from Pope Gregory VII for exercising political authority within the borders of his own realm. Meanwhile, my guys were having their bodies exhumed, burned, and their ashes thrown in the river.
(We got the last laugh though, because besides eternity in heaven, the river into which Wycliffe’s ashes were thrown
“conveyed his ashes into Avon; Avon into Severn; Severn into the narrow seas; and they into the main ocean. And thus the ashes of Wycliffe are the emblem of his doctrine which now is dispersed the world over”)
But I certainly don’t begrudge a Catholic being a consistent Catholic. I hope to evangelize and witness to them, but not to begrudge them consistency in their beliefs.
3. Probably most importantly, I disagree with his positive prescriptions, both in their accuracy and in their being tied to Augustine.
“More than any other figure in the Western tradition, St. Augustine spoke to the twentieth-century defenders of the West for three important reasons. First, Augustine took his role as preserver of the West as a sacred duty. Second, one can readily regard him as the ‘founder of the philosophy of history.’ Third, St Augustine offered a proper anthropology, defining man by both his inherited sin and his received grace.”
The second and third points are undoubtedly true. Augustine was certainly the father of the philosophy of history. And he did offer up a “proper anthropology,” in that he was functionally expositing the view of man found in Scripture. But the first point is wrong. In fact, to say that “Augustine took his role as preserver of the West as a sacred duty” is so wrong that if this statement were handed to me out of context I’d suspect that its author simply had never read any Augustine in the first place. This is, after all, the theologian who asks in City of God whether it even matters what government we live under, so long as we’re not being forced to sin? Which isn’t to say there aren’t better and worse forms of government–Augustine happily admits that there are. But at no point does he confuse the City of God with the city of man. He in fact dedicates multiple books in City of God to existentially and ultimately separating these two from each other. The fact that they get jumbled again in the Middle Ages, often times in the name of Augustine, is just a sign of the growth of one kind of heresy in the institutional church during that time period.
None of this is to say that Seeking Christendom is without value. I do recommending reading it as a reflection on the 20th century. It just misfires right where it could have been most useful. Fortunately, there are many, many other excellent works by Birzer that I’m even happier to recommend (you should especially watch his occasional writings over at The Imaginative Conservative).
Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO