What is civilization and why is it important? Civilization is many things, but at its heart, it is both the inheritance of societal ideas, customs, and traditions which inform the body, and it is how that body is structurally organized based on that inheritance coupled with the ongoing changes of socio-political development. Western civilization, for all of its imperfections, is, nevertheless, Christian in its inheritance and still Christian in its current state of composition (needing to be awakened to be sure).
Political theology, as an academic sub-discipline of political philosophy, is the study of how religious and theological ideas and systems have influenced the concept of the political. It is not “faith-based” politics as many people might think or otherwise claim. In fact, it is a discipline that is otherwise fairly secular; but one that recognizes the profound and tremendous importance of the theologico-political question as foundational for civilization itself.
One of the most important developments of the late “Enlightenment,” one that Christians of all people need to understand, is the sudden and venomous attack on civilization launched by everyone from Rousseau to the German romantics—albeit for very different reasons. Rousseau, who has been described as the “Moses of the Romantics” by historian Tim Blanning and is the spiritual godfather to the postmodern movement whose greatest representative is Michel Foucault, was the first to assail civilization as oppressive, corrupt, and based on dominance hierarchy. His solution, which might sound familiar to us today, was to tear down the edifice of civilization whereby—in civilization’s destruction—greater equality and freedom for all would be achieved for individuals.
The German romantics, on the other hand, were much more complex in this game of civilizational struggle. The German anti-nihilist tradition of philosophy, from Hegel to Nietzsche, and Spengler to Heidegger, shared with Rousseau the concern that civilization was oppressive, sterilizing, and ultimately nihilistic (and therefore needing to be fought against). However, unlike Rousseau, they got very specific as to what the disease infecting genuine civilization was: the materialistic, hedonistic, utilitarianism of Anglo-French liberalism.
The German romantics augmented Rousseau’s ideas to include that oppressive, corrupt, and domineering civilization was also nihilistic and would bring about the death of true civilization; this is the totalizing death which emerges from the end of the struggle that is life, the consummation of Hegel’s “Victim” or Nietzsche’s “Last Man” who lives for nothing but materialistic gain and bodily pleasure while Mars is sounding forth the trumpet of struggle. For the romantics the new dichotomy was one between authentic civilization (pure, free, and fertile) and nihilistic civilization (corrupt, decadent, and oppressive). For the Germans, unlike with Rousseau, they still wanted to defend their version of authentic civilization while Rousseau saw all civilization is bad. One might find familiar overtures in this basic dialectical dichotomy as well in the destruction of the oppressive civilization and the hopeful birth of that pure civilization in its stead.
Of course, the children of Rousseau and the romantic tradition—the postmodernists first and foremost and synthesized Rousseau and elements of broader Romanticism—understand that Western civilization is intertwined with that Christian inheritance from the past. But because Western civilization is oppressive, corrupt, and domineering, its destruction—which the postmodernists think will be a good thing—also necessitates the destruction of Christianity in the process so that the new civilization to replace it does not retain any of the residue of its original sin so to speak. Part of the problem with Western civilization’s societal organization, postmodernists think, is from its Christian wellspring. The true alliance between the radical left and Islamists is that both are fighting a mutual civilizational enemy moreover than the hollow proclamation of being in favor of feminism, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights, which are really only meant for those living in this future utopian civilization built on the ravaged carcass of Western civilization and the now deceased Christianity that were the veins of Western civilization.
Islamists, from the pen of Sayyid Qutb—author of the magisterial and terrifying commentary of the Qur’an In the Shade of the Qur’an—were also influenced by the European Romantic tradition. Qutb asserted that Western civilization was nihilistic and materialistic and represented a clear and present threat to genuine Islamic civilization (and that Christianity was the principal agent of the nihilism and materialism now permeating Western civilization and threatening Islamic civilization). Muslims could not tend the garden, as it were, and expect to be left alone. The acidic rain of Western civilization would eventually come unless it was confronted first—which necessarily meant a confrontation with Christianity since Christianity was the corrupting agent that allowed for secularism, materialism, and nihilism to take root (in Qutb’s reading).
Today, there is a wholesale assault against civilization from all directions: from the benign and “permissive nihilism” of political hedonists, libertines, and individualists who are completely blind to this struggle based on their faulty anthropology of consumeristic individualism and economic agency (homo economicus), to the revolutionary postmodernists who have embraced Rousseau’s critique of civilization, and the Islamists petrified of the encroachment—rightly or wrongly imagined—of Behemoth unto their spatial geography. Meanwhile, Christians remain shackled and muzzled by the liberal Leviathan and told to keep their concerns “private.” Which is to say that good Christians cannot be good public citizens since the good public citizen is only ever a private Christian who never brings his Christianity into the public square.
Christian support for Donald Trump has recently been excoriated from clerical leadership of all stripes (Protestant and Catholic). And while one can easily be uneased by President Trump’s supposed lack of stern morals to many other things, what these critics who charge Christians supporting Trump to be supposedly forsaking the gospel message miss—because of the logs in their own eyes—is that we live in a complex, unsettling, and angst-filled world marred by the residue of Original Sin from the Fall. This is the great Augustinian insight: we do not live in a perfect world even in the aftermath of the death and resurrection of Christ. We still live in the plane of uneasy ambiguity, conflict, and shifting movements of peoples who may very well intend to do us harm. For all of his criticism against the violence and domineering of the Roman Empire, when the Barbarians came flooding across the border, Augustine thought it was right and proper for the Romans—Christian and pagan alike—to man the defenses and preserve that imperfect modicum of peace, justice, and order that the Roman Empire did, in fact, provide (however imperfect it was). Augustine did not see the Vandals and Goths as the face of a refugee Holy Family fleeing persecution.
President Trump may not know what he is doing in all things. But that is not altogether important. On the critical issues, he is, knowingly or unknowingly, acting as a katechon against those who seek to tear down the edifice of what remains of Western Civilization and its Christian inheritance. Perhaps we should listen to Jeremiah who says that many fools, however well-intentioned they are, are filled with destructive folly as they proclaim “peace” when there is no peace.
Christians, in this civilizational struggle, need to be awakened from their slumber, moral malaise, and decades of being driven into oblivion by political elites who are destroying the spatial revolution from which 2,000 years of Christian fertility has nurtured and guided Western man. Like Frederick Barbarossa entombed at Kyffhäuser waiting to be awakened, so too is the body of Christ waiting to be awakened from its long slumber and retreat. Politics is about how to organize a body, and religion—but especially Christianity—is also about how to organize a body. Christianity is political because man, as Aristotle knew, is a political animal. The abdication of political responsibility by Christians is the great tragedy of our age.
This returns us to the tragedy of the German anti-nihilist tradition which suffered from this Christian abdication of responsibility. The German anti-nihilist brushed aside Christianity as a possible answer to the crisis they saw and concerned themselves with. Nietzsche, in saying yes to life, ultimately said no to life. For Nietzsche the only thing about life is the struggle for life. But one can never gain more life on his own. One cannot gain more being either. One, then, must ultimately destroy everything he loves and makes because in failing to do so he becomes attached to such things and ceases the struggle of self-overcoming. Nietzsche’s anti-nihilism ultimately exhausts itself into nihilism.
Heidegger, who understood the problem with Nietzsche’s humanistic anti-nihilism, attempted to resolve the problem by creating the metaphysics necessary to avoid the fall into nihilism as one is simply moved chaotically by the zeitgeist. The problem with Heidegger’s metaphysics of being in Being and Time is that the deep roots he claims we can attach ourselves to do not exist. Heidegger knew we needed rootedness, but the rootedness he claims to be available ends up leading us down the path of radical relativism—not to mention that there is no substance to his Bodenständigkeit as it is just abstract re-mythologizing from the dead corpse of Norse-Teutonic mythology.
The one body that has those deep roots, the one body that you can attach yourself to, and the one body that has an inheritance stretching back to the formation of man, and will continue existing into the future until the death of Death, is the Body of Christ. The eternal community that humans seek is the community of the saints we are all called to be part of. The happiness we seek is found in the wellspring of life itself; not devotion to some temporal utopian cause or the prevailing spirit of the zeitgeist. And where the Body of Christ flourishes civilization also flourishes.
The attack against Western civilization is, in some way, an attack against the Body of Christ. And Christians need to understand that. The postmodernists certainly understand that the end of “oppressive” Western civilization includes the end of Christianity. The abdication of Christian responsibility in these crucial times will only lead to a self-exhausting nihilism from those claiming to be fighting against nihilism; it will lead to a passing over of the Church because people see the Church laying down and subjecting itself to misery, abuse, and, quite literally, destruction. It is also a missed opportunity for evangelization too. This is a time for Christians to defend civilization, however imperfect—like Augustine did in the fifth century—not join the destructive crusade against it, which would include tearing down what the Body of Christ has bequeathed to Western civilization.
Editor’s note: Pictured above are the remains of Melrose Abbey, Scotland.