In a discussion of a recent speech by President Trump, Robert Merry gives a short summary of one aspect of our current political mess—see Trump’s Warsaw Speech Threw Down the Gauntlet on Western Civilization: Is America just `an idea’?.
In Merry’s discussion, we can read:
In his Warsaw speech on Thursday, Donald Trump threw down the gauntlet on the meaning and essence of Western Civilization, and it fell at the feet of two writers for The Atlantic—Peter Beinart and James Fallows. They avidly took it up, and in the process distilled a fundamental debate of our time. Of course, Beinart and Fallows don’t see it as a legitimate debate, and they want to snuff it out. But it will continue to roil politics in America and Europe, much to the consternation of media elite figures such as these two writers.
The debate centers on whether American values, however they may be defined, are a legacy of the Western heritage or whether America is “an idea,” as Fallows puts it, that transcends any concept of civilization or the people who created it. Indeed, in the Beinart-Fallows view, merely an overly abundant mention of “the West”’ or “our civilization” constitutes a kind of white nationalism or tribalism.
In recent essays published here on my blog ( Acts of Being), I’ve proposed a better way of thinking about this general need to form morally well-ordered and sustainable communities, from families and friendships right up to civilizations. The three most recent and most relevant essays are:
- What is the Totality of a Human Life?: Individuals and Communities.,
- What is the Totality of a Human Life?: Individual and Communal Intent, and
- What is the Totality of a Human Life?: Unity, Coherence, and Completeness.
Much of the problem relates to the secularization of the West and to a particular aspect of that secularization; we have forgotten that Christian communities, especially the ultimate Christian community which is the Body of Christ, are not just voluntary gatherings of individuals who are alleged to be the only real form of human being nor are they communities which absorb the individual so that only the community remains. Following St Paul, the Body of Christ is an entity with real existence and yet the members fully retain their individual identities.
In recent centuries, the individual parts and members of the West viewed as the Pilgrim Body of Christ were struggling to define themselves and to prevent other parts and members from wrongful intrusions. Parts and members include various communities at various scales, political and economic and artistic and athletic and other communities, as well as individuals. The struggles between these various human beings—communal and individual—can, and seemingly did, result in great damage to the global entity—the Body of Christ in this case. Many men and women of good-will can’t even see that Body in the resulting mess which is the West.
As I discuss in more detail in the above-referenced essays, there is only one way to be a true Christian: to intend to do so, where “intend to become a true Christian” is used in the Thomistic sense of a process of growing and developing toward the state of being Christlike, a process as necessary for Christian communities as for Christian individuals. In this, I’d go a lot further than Merry, further than the public commentary of even Pat Buchanan who is clearly a devout Catholic. If we wish to rescue the Christian West, we must intend to be Christians. We must aim for a Christlike state of being for our individual selves and also for our communities, aiming to be both individuals and communities who will be members and organs of the Body of Christ. In fact, the West isn’t at issue. To those who understand the foundations of the Christian West, what is at issue is the growth and development of the Body of Christ. That Body doesn’t exist for the sake of the West and its power and wealth; the West once seemed to be truly intending toward a Christlike state where it would have been a great servant, and also the largest and most complete this-worldly manifestation, of that Body. The Pilgrim Body of Christ in a way of thinking.
Christ will support and nurture what is legitimately human but that is different from thinking of Christ as the founder of human institutions which are the real things. The Lord doesn’t play second fiddle to even an ambitious Christian ruler such as Charlemagne, let alone to the likes of Western leaders over the past few centuries. The Church Herself is not the entirety of the Body of Christ, as St Paul himself seemed to claim in a much different situation. The Church is the central organ which teaches us what it means to be Christlike and leads us in our worship of God.
In Christian terms, taking Pauline views of the Body of Christ seriously, modern efforts to understand the United States or the entire West as either “values” or “idea” puts individual Christians in a position of trying to be Christlike while living as members of a variety of communities which are non-Christlike. Unity and coherence and completeness of Christian forms of human being at all scales become impossible under these circumstances.
We need to view our human selves, individual and communal, as engaged in the intentional processes which will bring us to a more Christlike state, one which ideally (and impossibly in this world) lead us to become truly Christlike. So long as we live major parts of our lives, such as our political and economic parts, separately from these Christian processes, we will fail to recover the fullness of truths, though we may recover some parts of the West which were manifest in the glorious pagan civilizations and smaller-scale cultures from which we come or from which we have borrowed. The problem with that, at least to Christians, is that Plato didn’t take on our sins and Caesar can’t bring us to Heaven.