In 1974, British theologian Lesslie Newbigin returned to England after four decades of serving as a missionary to India. Back in Europe, he wrestled with a pressing question: How to preach the gospel to the West? He believed the Western church had unconsciously been captured by secular ideology. Rather than viewing the Bible’s narrative as the true story of the whole world, the church had bought into various Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment narratives. The church, Newbigin argued, must once again “soak” itself in the Bible, challenging the axioms of modernity with the axioms of Scripture.
The task of bringing the West into a missionary encounter with Scripture remains today. We must analyze Western culture to understand what is happening and why. We must attempt to discern the reigning idols of our day, how they twist the affections and thoughts of society, and how they warp our cultural institutions. This will help us better understand how to bring the gospel to the secular West.
Toward that end, I offer this list of eleven of the most perceptive cultural critics of the last two centuries. The list includes historians, philosophers, sociologists, poets, and literary critics. Some are well-known, others are quite obscure. Some are Christians, others are not. All were born before 1950 and each offers a salient evaluation of Western society and culture that remains relevant for our task today.
Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer (1801–1876)
The first is an obscure nineteenth-century Dutch historian: Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer (hereafter, “Groen”). Groen served as cabinet secretary for King William I in the United Kingdom of the Netherlands before proceeding to a career as an archivist, historian, political commentator, and newspaper owner and editor. He is best known for Unbelief and Revolution, in which he argues that the French Revolution should not be dismissed as a failed political project of a previous era. Rather, the Revolution lives on through its dangerous ideas, which continue to subject the West to social, cultural, and political convulsions and revolutions. The revolutionary spirit replaces God with man, divine revelation with autonomous human reason, and transcendent morality with immanent, self-authorized morality. In response, Groen calls for a retrieval: European societies should return to the understanding that moral order is framed in relation to creation order, that political authority is ordained by God, that law and justice are grounded in an objective moral order founded by God, and that truth is objective and rooted in God’s revelation of himself. (For my brief summary of Groen’s lectures, click here.)
T. S. Eliot (1888–1965)
The second critic is an American-turned-British poet, essayist, playwright, public intellectual, and Nobel Laureate. “We yield to the permanent things, the norms of our being,” Eliot writes, “because all other grounds are quicksand.” His commitment to the permanent things stemmed from his immersion in the biblical and classical traditions. He understood human depravity and thus was deeply skeptical of secular progressives who severed social order from religious heritage and offered social revolutions as the solution for society’s evils. In The Idea of a Christian Society, he argued that a return to Christianity was Europe’s only hope for organizing society in a way that would not lead to its ultimate destruction. Elsewhere, he warned against utopian revolutionaries who are ever “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need be good.” Eliot was a man under Authority, a man captivated by permanent things.
Aurel Kolnai (1900–1973)
In 1944, Hungarian political philosopher Aurel Kolnai wrote that Western progressivism draws upon certain Christian teachings but ultimately wishes to overthrow them. He noted that many Western progressives thought Christian virtues such as charity could be stripped of their Christianity, shorn of any transcendental reference points, and put to work to rid the world of evil. Western progressives have trouble acknowledging the fact of evil and the transcendent nature of morality—much like their forebear Auguste Comte, whose atheistic “religion of humanity” sought to weaken strong forms of religion and the nation-state (he believed that evil was primarily systemic and caused by religious belief and patriotism). This is why, Kolnai argues, Western progressives blame criminal behavior entirely on social origins and systemically corrupted institutions, and thus engage in revolutionary politics to overthrow the social and political order. Kolnai’s signal essay, “The Humanitarian versus the Religious Attitude,” is included in the back of this fine book by Daniel Mahoney.
Hannah Arendt (1906–1975)
My fourth choice is the Jewish German-American philosopher and social critic Hannah Arendt. Although she wasn’t a conventional conservative, she was, in Irving Louis Horowitz’s phrase, a “radical conservative.” One of the most compelling, controversial, and iconographic public intellectuals writing in the wake of Nazism and the emergence of communism, Arendt fiercely opposed authoritarian and totalitarian movements. The special evil of totalitarian ideologies, she argued, is not merely that they foist revolutionary change on societies, but that they seek to transform human nature itself. For this reason, “the ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.” In opposition to the totalitarian suppression of the person, Arendt envisioned a society in which politics is fostered by public spaces where people can speak freely and show who they really are. Opinions, she argued, are only formed in genuine encounters with other people, and authentic politics only exists when genuine encounters and opinions are involved. (Here are some brief excerpts from Arendt on how to resist authoritarian and totalitarian leaders and movements.)
Augusto del Noce (1910–1989)
In The Crisis of Modernity and The Age of Secularization, English speakers can access Italian political philosopher Augusto Del Noce’s incisive critique of postwar twentieth-century Western culture. He argues that the modern West has become an “opulent society” that has replaced Christianity with the twin ideologies of scientism and eroticism. Scientism, the view that empirical science is the only rational path to achieving objective knowledge, enables Western elites to throw off religion’s irritating yoke. It is especially dangerous because it is metaphysical. It feigns neutrality and forces Christianity from the public square, all the while sneaking its own metaphysics in through the back door. Scientism persecutes religion indirectly, but effectively, by privatizing it. Eroticism, the view that sex is primary to a human being’s identity and happiness, became the real engine for emancipatory (progressive) politics. The Sexual Revolution is incompatible with our cultural heritage. It attempts to radically revise, and ultimately render impotent, the very institutions—church and family especially—that protect the individual from the encroachments of the state.
Philip Rieff (1922–2006)
Philip Rieff was a Jewish sociologist whose writings I discovered shortly after returning from living in Russia in 2000. In the 1970s, Rieff was a celebrated public intellectual and a darling of the political Left. During the 1980s and ’90s, however, Rieff underwent a period of reevaluation from which he emerged as an essentially conservative mind. In the Sacred Order/Social Order trilogy, published around the time of his death in 2007, Rieff argued that the West is in the midst of a historically unprecedented attempt to sever social order from sacred order. All civilizations everywhere, Rieff averred, have recognized that sacred order shapes cultural institutions and cultural products, and that they in turn shape society. But in the mid-twentieth century, many Western cultural elites (whom he called “the officer class”) tried to sever our society and its cultural institutions from their roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The result of this exercise, Rieff concludes, has been social turmoil and cultural rot. The very cultural institutions and products that should bring life and vitality to society are now bringing death and decay. Yet Rieff was not entirely pessimistic, arguing that the West awaits “a people” who will recover the frightening beauty of the “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not.” Indeed. (I have written a brief article and a longer essay about Rieff.)
George Steiner (1929–)
Literary critic George Steiner is one of the most fascinating and perceptive intellectuals of the past century. After escaping the Holocaust with his German Jewish parents, Steiner moved to the United States but taught simultaneously at Harvard, Cambridge, and Geneva. His work centers on how the civilized West could give rise to barbaric evils like the Holocaust. In books such as Real Presences and Grammars of Creation, he criticizes Western intellectuals for severing the connection between social order and sacred order. In Real Presences, he argues that Western dismissals of God’s presence destroy the possibility of meaning; without God the Author, neither texts nor human lives have meaning. In Grammars of Creation, Steiner turns his attention to God as the Author of creation, arguing that we must reject the late modern rejection of God’s creative word. Without God’s creative word, there is nothing to fund and shape human creativity. We must resist attempts to desacralize because desacralization undermines the most basic human enterprises, such as communication and creativity. Instead, we must wager on transcendence and live as if God exists.
John Carroll (1944–)
Australian sociologist John Carroll studied Rieff’s work under the tutelage of George Steiner. He then followed in their footsteps, devoting his career to cultural criticism. His most important book is The Wreck of Western Culture, in which he argues that secular humanism has made our culture into a “colossal wreck,” divesting life and death of their divine meaning and thereby undercutting the moral order and ruining our social fabric.
Charles Taylor (1948–)
Charles Taylor is a Canadian philosopher whose writings, such as Malaise of Modernity and A Secular Age, explore the existential “feel” of living in the type of world that Rieff, Steiner, and Del Noce described. In the late modern West, Taylor argues, people imagine and manage life from within the “immanent frame,” with no reference to the transcendent. But within the immanent frame, life has no sense of mystery, and there is no higher wisdom from which to draw. There is no divine revelation, no need for grace, and no possibility of personal transformation. If God is dead, we intuitively know that nothing matters. And this is a burden too heavy for us to bear. From within the immanent frame Christianity (especially its teachings on gender and sexuality) “feels” implausible. Our social “order” therefore remains disordered, with no transcendent frame of reference to provide guidance. Taylor, a Catholic, urges Christians to find ways to undermine confidence in the secular “take” on the world, and to encourage our neighbors to be open to transcendence. (I’ve written an article summarizing and evaluating A Secular Age, a book chapter relating his writings to Jordan Peterson’s, and a book chapter analyzing his apologetic.)
Pierre Manent (1949–)
One of the most intriguing writers I’ve encountered recently is French political philosopher Pierre Manent. He believes that Europe has become spiritually and politically anemic. Its downward spiral began with the atrocities of World Wars I and II. Horrified at the blood spilled between historically Christian societies, Europe rejected not only the biblical God but also the nation-state (a political form that arose from the Christian imagination). Having thus weakened people’s religious and national identities, European elites now focus almost exclusively on the “isolated individual” as a member of the “global community.” But the elite Western project is wrongheaded in as many ways as it is right. There will never be a world without borders, Manent argues. Humans will never flourish apart from families, neighborhoods, religious communities, and nations. Humans will always be drawn to communal life, and the most dangerous forms of communal life—such as communist socialism and Nazi socialism—are those that have rejected religion. In response, Manent encourages Europe to recognize the necessity of strong forms of religion and national identity and to revive a distinctively Christian politic that envisions the common good in terms of civic friendship. Some of his best books are Beyond Radical Secularism, A World Beyond Politics?: A Defense of the Nation-State, and Democracy without Nations?: The Fate of Self-Government in Europe. (I’ve written a brief article on Manent here.)
Ryszard Legutko (1949–)
Polish political philosopher Ryszard Legutko’s The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies compares and contrasts the twentieth-century Soviet Union with the twenty-first-century West. He argues that both communism and liberal democracy are skeptical about the past and optimistic about the future. Both are deterministic, arguing that their triumph is inevitable, that they are on “the right side of history.” Both claim (either explicitly or implicitly) that implementing their principles will bring universal flourishing and harmony; they are utopian. Both think the mechanism for change is politics. Since injustice and inequality can be found in every sphere of culture, everything is politicized. Each individual sphere, and the institutions within those spheres, must be politicized. Both prefer indoctrination to persuasion. Indoctrination often takes place through political correctness and language-policing. Both treat traditional institutions (e.g. family and church) as enemies of progress. They think that human spirituality can be ignored or privatized on the way to implementing their social, cultural, and political postulates. And once the public square is severed from religion, the totalitarian temptation for both the communist and liberal-democrat is unrestrained. (I’ve summarized The Demon in Democracy here.)
I’ve limited the list to people born before 1950, thus leaving out significant younger analysts like Daniel Mahoney (The Idol of Our Age), Mary Eberstadt (Primal Screams), R. R. Reno (Return of the Strong Gods), Steven D. Smith (Pagans and Christians in the City), and Carl Trueman (The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, soon to be published). But if one were to read these contemporary writers, along with the eleven older thinkers above, several common threads would stand out.
First, the malaise of the late modern West is inescapably connected to the denial that God or transcendent reality exists. Second, social order has become severed from sacred order, and therefore the transcendent moral framework that used to undergird societal and cultural institutions is now considered mere convention. Third, when God’s creation order is thus rejected, the chaos that ensues stems from human attempts to remake creation according to their own desires—a herculean effort requiring totalitarian control and destined for disaster. Though each of these thinkers tells the narrative of the West’s demise in a unique manner, they nonetheless agree that the circumambient imbecility of our age stems from the West’s unprecedented attempt to sever social order from sacred order.
As Christians, we know the end of history’s story. Thus, we do not despair, no matter how dysfunctional and mephitic our current moment may be. Instead, we face the challenges of our day with a humble confidence. The realm of Western culture, as dark as it seems, will one day be raised to new life and made to bow to Christ. Our Lord will gain victory and restore the earth, but it will be his victory rather than ours, so we remain confident but humble.
Lesslie Newbigin recognized the profound implications this has for contemporary social action, even amid a deformed society. He writes:
The point is that [a transformed society] is not our goal, great as that is…. Our goal is the holy city, the New Jerusalem, a perfect fellowship in which God reigns in every heart, and His children rejoice together in His love and joy…. And though we know that we must grow old and die, that our labors, even if they succeed for a time, will in the end be buried in the dust of time, and that along with the painfully won achievements of goodness, there are mounting seemingly irresistible forces of evil, yet we are not dismayed…. We know that these things must be. But we know that as surely as Christ was raised from the dead, so surely shall there be a new heaven and a new earth wherein dwells righteousness. And having this knowledge we ought as Christians to be the strength of every good movement of political and social effort, because we have no need either of blind optimism or of despair.
Bruce Riley Ashford is provost of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary .