Anthony Esolen, a highly-regarded, scholarly translator of Dante’s Divine Comedy, has written a number of general interest works, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization—a stirring defense of Christian Culture as well as the civilization derived from Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, which developed in Europe during the Middle Ages. For 25 years Esolen taught courses in English and Western Civilization at Providence College, though he was just recently forced to leave after writing an article entitled “My College Succumbed to the Totalitarian Diversity Cult.” (He’s learned that one dare not challenge the secular dogmas now reigning in academia, even in allegedly Catholic institutions!)
Many of Esolen’s core convictions give structure to his just-published Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, c. 2017). He begins with a caveat, promising to “indulge myself in one of civilized man’s most cherished privileges. I shall decry the decay of civilization” (#56 in Kindle). Doing so, he identifies with the ancient historian Livy, writing at the time of Christ, who lamented Rome’s moral collapse, “with duty and severity giving way to ambition, avarice, and license, till his fellow Romans ‘sank lower and lower, and finally began the downward plunge which has brought us to the present time, when we can endure neither our vices nor their cure’” (# 59). Though both Livy and Esolen doubtlessly exaggerate the cultural decay of their eras, both merit careful reading and reflection regarding their concerns, for: “Sometimes entire civilizations do decay and die, and the people who point that out are correct” (#107). In fact: “Winter comes and goes in the affairs of men and nations and cultures, and if they are to survive at all they must plant seeds: they must remember. What happens if they neglect the planting” (#131). So along with alerting us to the culture’s decadence, Esolen wants to challenge us to faithfully plant good seeds in well-tilled, healthy soil, patiently awaiting their flowering.
To do we must implement the title of his first chapter: “Giving Things Their Proper Names: The Restoration of Truth-Telling.” Created in God’s image, Adam was tasked with seeing the essence of and accurately naming other creatures. Confucius rightly noted “that the beginning of wisdom is to give things their proper names” (#259). Nevertheless, the history of our race reveals a perennial proclivity for lying! In our day, for example, “pro-choice” devotees routinely lie when describing the unborn babies they want to kill—they endlessly talk about “reproductive rights” and female freedom. Then we’re told anyone can choose any “gender” he desires and that “a woman can make as good a soldier as a man” (#311). Given such wide-spread deceits, we must become counter-cultural and honestly describe things as they are. “Things, in their beautiful and imposing integrity, do not easily bend to lies,” says Esolen. “A bull is a bull and not a cow. Grass is food for cattle but not for man. A warbler is alive but a rock is not. The three-hundred-pound stone will not move for a little child or a boy or a feminist professor. Water expands when it freezes and will break anything unless you allow for that. Things are what they are. They know no slogans, and they do not lie. And they give witness to the glory of God” (#487).
Further witnessing to the glory of God, we must restore a “sense of beauty.” In The Strange Death of Europe, Douglas Murray laments the state of modern art, which “nearly all has the aura of a destroyed city.” Forsaking transcendent meaning or truth, today’s artists “stop aiming to connect to any enduring truths, to abandon any attempt to pursue beauty or truth and instead to simply say to the public, ‘I am down in the mud with you.” In particular,” he says, modern art “has given up that desire to connect us to something like the spirit of religion or that thrill of recognition—what Aristotle termed anagnorisis—which grants you the sense of having just caught up with a truth that was always waiting for you” (#4783).
Though highly advanced in many ways, we are literally starved for beauty. Esolen seriously ponder the example of Henry Adams—the son of President John Quincy Adams. Visiting the Great Exposition in Paris in 1900, where he pondered the panoply of technical marvels on display, he fled a few miles west to take refuge in Chartres’ glorious medieval cathedral. The difference between the artistry evident in Chartres and the mechanical genius on display in Paris moved him to write his classic study— Mont St. Michel and Chartres. Though very much a skeptic in regards things theological, Adams sensed the almost infinite distance between the beauty of an edifice devoted to God and the whirling machines devoted to human consumption. “‘Four fifth of [man’s] greatest art,’ said Henry Adams, was created in those supposedly dark days, to the honor of Jesus and Mary. The Enlightenment destroyed more great art than it produced, and what the harbingers of the novus ordo saeclorum did not get around to destroying they slandered” (#624). Recognizing this, we must begin patiently planting the seeds of beauty, especially in our churches. Truly beautiful poetry and music must be reinstated in our “worship” centers, where too often the tawdry, tasteless, and momentarily fashionable hold sway.
Persuaded that “a mind is a terrible thing to baste,” Esolen urges us to set about “restoring” schools and colleges to their rightful place in our culture. This is not to say he favors funding the public schools, which are beyond reform! Indeed, he argues the one-room schools a century ago did a better job of educating youngsters than do today’s massive consolidated training centers. “A monstrous thing has taken its place—not just a parasite or a cancer feeding off the host, but a disease that has slowly transformed the host into itself, like an all-eating and all-digesting alien. The word school remains, but not the reality” (#861). Distressed at the impoverished language skills of his university students, he concludes they have learned “no grammar in grammar school,” so it’s evident “there is not much school there, either” (#854). Failing to teach grammar, our schools rob our students of the chance to master the English language. Failing to emphasize the names and dates of history, our schools graduate youngsters without any knowledge of the past. And most importantly, by eviscerating religion from the curriculum, the schools are trying “to win a temporary consensus by sacrificing what the education of a human being ultimately is for. We avoid religious questions at the cost of avoiding the most human questions. And thus education, which should be human, is reduced to the mechanical and the low” (#1178). Similarly he finds the nation’s colleges little better than the schools. Institutions once dedicated to the pursuit of truth through free inquiry now serve as censors, enforcers of political correctness. In prestigious universities, such as Princeton, students who once studied Shakespeare now slouch through courses on Young Adult Fiction! The motto of both Harvard University and the author’s own Providence College is Veritas: Truth. “The old mottoes assumed the existence of God, the moral law, and the beauty of pursuing truth” (#1266). While still engraved in stone, such mottoes no longer describe the modern universities. They no longer attain their ends. Consequently, if we want to rightly educate our children we must build new schools and colleges, clearly committed to the treasures of Western Civilization that will nourish youngsters’ souls.
Much Esolen desires can be attained through “repudiating the sexual revolution: restoring manhood.” Indeed, Esolen insists, “Christians must repudiate the whole sexual revolution. All of it” (#1582). Recovering the biblical distinction between men and women and restricting behaviors in accord with their natures will prove difficult in 21st century America, but it simply must be done. “We have to recover a strong sense of the beauty of each, and of their essence as being-for the other; man is for woman, and woman is for man, and both are for God” (#1635). Countering our gender-bending society, determined to sanction something without precedent in human history, we must create ways for boys to become men. Without strong, masculine, patriarchal leaders, our culture cannot be revived. Esolen urges us to “take an honest look at what happens when men retreat from the public swuare. You do not get rule by women. You get anarchy” (#1763). To see this up close, simply visit sections of Chicago any day of the week!
Manly men, virtuous men who know that “truth is more important than feelings,” are in short supply these days! In 1886, penning The Bostonians, Henry James envisioned the disastrous impact of “the most damnable feminization” that would result if feminism prevailed. Speaking through his protagonist, Basil Ransom, he said: “‘The whole generation is womanized; the masculine tone is passing out of the world; it’s a feminine, a nervous, hysterical, chattering, canting age of hollow phrases and false delicacy and exaggerated solicitudes and coddled sensibilities, which, if we don’t look out, will usher in the reign of mediocrity, of the feeblest and flattest and the most pretentious that has ever been. The masculine character, the ability to dare and to endure, to know and yet not fear reality, to look the world in the face and take it for what it is . . . that is what I want to preserve, or rather, as I may say, to recover’” (#1886).
And good men will restore the womanhood needed to make homes for families. Men build houses, but women transform them into homes, the most human of places. Countering a culture that urges young women to ape men, Esolen urges them to be thoroughly feminine, but not feminists! Their naturally compassionate, nurturing hearts thrive “best at the hearth, the bedside, the table. It is the passionate self-giving that makes the home” (#2065). Women’s home-work, especially rearing children, has a limited focus but unlimited value. Always remember: “The world hates the family. The state is the family’s enemy. The state grows by the family’s failure, and the state has an interest in persuading people that the family can do nothing on its own. It hates fatherhood, and makes little pretense otherwise. It hates motherhood, though it makes a show of championing the unwed mother as well as the mother who, as the ugly phrase puts it, ‘has it all,’ though a moment’s reflection should suffice to show that no one can give his or her all to a career and a family and the local community” (#2188).
Following discussions of work, leisure, and politics, Esolen finishes his treatise by proposing we embrace the life of “pilgrims, returning home,” singularly intent on reaching heaven. “The pilgrimage was the way of the Cross”—quite different from the current progressives’ endeavors to construct a heaven-on-earth; it requires “you to bend your knee in penitence for your sins” rather than blaming others (past and present) for whatever’s wrong with the world (#3050). Christians must acknowledge that the world is not our home, and we can help it only by being truly Christian, marked with the Character of Christ. “He who would save a culture or a civilization must not seek first the culture or the civilization, but the Kingdom of God, and then all these other things, says Jesus, shall be given unto him as well” (#3163).
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Currently the editor of First Things (my favorite journal), R. R. Reno has written extensively for both scholarly and popular audiences. As this century dawned, he published In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, c. 2002), seeking “to provide spiritual guidance to Christians seeking faithfulness within increasingly dysfunctional churches” (p. 13). Like Nehemiah of old, he argued we must settle into the ruins of Jerusalem (or the Church) and rebuild her walls. Reared an Episcopalian, he wrestled with the somber truths regarding his denomination’s disunity and decay. What was needed was “ressourcement, a return to the sources” (p. 94), preeminently the Scripture, Richard Hooker and the ancient Fathers. But despite his yeoman-like effort to propose reform within his denomination, there was a latent pessimism underlying his words, leaving the reader wondering if the faith could be sustained. Thus it was not particularly surprising when Reno was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 2004, explaining: “as an Episcopalian I needed a theory to stay put, and I came to realize that a theory is a thin thread easily broken. The Catholic Church needs no theories.”
Reflecting Reno’s recent position, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society (Washington: Regnery Faith, c. 2016) acknowledges a “dark side to our national character,” a poverty that is spiritual and ethical rather than economic. “Many now live without a Father in heaven. Political correctness denies the patrimony of a workable cultural inheritance. For an increasing number of young people, there’s not even a father at home. A nation of orphans, literal or metaphorical, will not long endure” (#55). Surfeited with “health, wealth, and pleasure,” many of us have little interest in either transcendental realities or the needs of our fellow men. But we desperately need a society that “encourages human flourishing to the degree that the supernatural authority of God’s revelation is proclaimed and the natural authority of his creation sustained” (#97). Without seeking to legally establish our convictions, Christians should “say, out loud and with confidence, that we’re best off when we live under the authority of the permanence of marriage, accept the duties of patriotism, and affirm the supernatural claims the church makes on our souls” (#97).
Thus there is, as Reno titles his first chapter, “The Need for a Christian Society.” To understand this need in America, we must first understand what distinguishes this nation. To Reno, what most Americans value above all is the freedom long celebrated by frontiersmen—whether cowboys in Wyoming or the “New Frontiersmen” in John F. Kennedy’s White House. “Live free or die!” To “make something” of ourselves, to become “whatever we want to be,” rather defines the American way. While restricted (as it was in the 18th and 19th centuries) to economic and political realms, such freedom incubated much good; it was primarily a positive “freedom for” human flourishing. But it took unexpected turns—following a negative “freedom from” recipe in the 20th century—as increasing numbers of persons and groups declared their determination to secure various kinds of “rights.” Increasingly, folks justified licentiousness (e.g. fornication) and violence (e.g. abortion) while mouthing relativistic and reality-defying slogans. Yesterday’s “liberals” have become “progressives,” promoting same-sex marriage and “transgender” rights, thus seeking “freedom from human nature itself, a goal that fosters a Jacobin spirit determined to destroy all that stands in its way” (#325). “The moral relativist is defending freedom, the freedom to define moral truth for oneself” (#308).
However alluring—however embedded in our national consciousness—such “freedom” is fundamentally false. “Freedom properly understood is based in a pledge of loyalty, not a declaration of independence. Our country’s freedoms arise from eternal verities affirmed, not ties severed. As the Declaration of Independence says, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident.’ The first and fundamental act is holding, not choosing, standing fast in truth, not making it up. We are freest when we acknowledge the authority of the truth, not when we seek a god-like independence from all limits” (#408). Rather than trusting ourselves, we need to listen to seasoned authorities who prescribe wholesome ways to live, for “Our American dream of freedom will become a nightmare if we do not put it in the loyal service of something greater than ourselves” (#479).
That “nightmare” stands revealed in Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, wherein he describes ominous cultural trends, including the abolition of marriage, the scarcity of good jobs (especially for men), and the absence of religion in working class communities (deemed the “weak” by Reno, since they have been mistreated by the elites ruling the nation). We’re witnessing a class-war between highly-educated elites who control the nation and ordinary folks who must suffer their policies. Importantly: “The weapon of mass destruction in our war on the weak has been moral relativism, heedlessly deployed by an elite culture in love with critical strategies for disenchanting old, inherited moral norms” (#629). More desperately than food stamps and unemployment benefits, America’s working class needs “clear rules that direct them toward decisions that help them lead dignified lives” (#807). But our academic and cultural elites, determined to impose their toney nonjudgmentalism on the nation, refuse to sanction such rules.
Confronting the plight of the nation’s poor, Christians must respond appropriately. Above all this means: “A Christian society judges nonjudgmentalism unjust” (#808). A century ago, when the “poor” were economically deprived, many Christians embraced the “Social Gospel” and sought to improve their material conditions. “Today’s social gospel movement must have the courage to be judgmental” (#1051). With today’s “poor” suffering from nonjudgmental moral relativism, lacking social capital rather than financial capital, Christians face a more cerebral task, needing to craft a cogent rationale for spiritual renewal. We “who care about the teaching of Jesus must reckon with a singular fact about American poverty: its deepest and most destructive effects, its most serious deprivations, are not economic but moral” (#871). If you’re so inclined, give money to rescue missions or volunteer with Jimmy Carter in building a house with Habitat for Humanity, but “you will do more for the poor by resisting nonjudgmentalism. Exercising the preferential option for the poor means having the courage to use old-fashioned words such as ‘chaste’ and ‘honorable,’ putting on a tie, turning off trashy reality TV shows, and maintaining standards of deportment. It means restoring a public culture of moral and social discipline” (#900), including pro-marriage legislation and back-to-basics curricula in the public schools.
Most fundamentally, Christians rebuild the culture by supporting the Church. Church-going folks promote a good society. Religious people donate more time and money to community endeavors than their secular counterparts. Their generosity flows from their theological convictions. Loving God and their neighbors, they inevitably promote the commonweal, for they care for both the local congregation and the world-wide Christian community. They are both appropriately patriotic and concerned for global needs (amply evident in missionary and humanitarian endeavors). Christians following Jesus in our materialistic culture must commit to openly seeking more than health, wealth, and pleasure. Confronting a materialism that “denies the existence of higher things, and relativism denies we could know about them even if they did exist” (#1849), we must defend those “higher things” basic to a truly good life.
Doing so, there’s “the possibility of a Christian society.” Despite the many laments regarding the decline of religion in America, there remains a “committed core” of Christians—roughly one-fourth to one-third of the populace—who can provide the needed leaven for a resurgent, deeply Christian culture. These church-going, bible-believing folks repudiate the sexual revolution, reject same-sex marriage, oppose divorce, and condemn the notion that “as long as we don’t hurt others, we should be able to live however we want.” In short: “Because they have a culture, the Faithful can be countercultural” (#2220). Consequently they generally must live “on the peripheries of cultural and institutional power” (#2250). But throughout history creative minorities have been the salt and light of the world, and there’s a world of potential in these faithful followers of Jesus.
Concluding his treatise, Reno admits that: “It’s easy to be demoralized. Many powerful forces want to make us ‘dhimmis,’ the Muslim term for non-Muslims who are tolerated as long as they don’t evangelize or challenge the supremacy of Islam” (#2344). But we must take heart—the Church of Jesus Christ has endured for 2,000 years, and there’s good reason to hope she will continue to thrive, in various ways and various parts of the world, until He comes again.
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