Is the West Worth Saving?

Joseph Pearce

By Joseph Pearce a senior contributor to Crisis. He is director of book publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions. An acclaimed biographer and literary scholar, his latest book is Literature: What Every Catholic Should Know (Augustine Institute, 2019).

Last month I had the privilege and the pleasure of being a panelist during a public debate in Budapest on the thorny subject of “Christian Democracy and the Future of Europe”. I was one of five “experts” on the panel. The others came from Poland, Hungary, Germany, and England. My fellow Englishman on the panel was Theodore Dalrymple, the curmudgeonly conservative commentator who will be well-known to many readers of Crisis. He and I exchanged some good-natured banter on the role of Christianity in the restoration of the West, his atheism butting heads, albeit affably, with my robustly militant Catholicism. It was, however, my butting of heads with the German panelist, Roland Freudenstein, which created the most controversy during the debate. He and I saw eye to eye on nothing and differed on just about everything. It would be well, therefore, were I to say a little more about Mr. Freudenstein before expanding upon the nature of our differences.

Roland Freudenstein is a former member of the foreign and security planning staff of the European Commission in Brussels, and a former Director of the Warsaw office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. As such, he is firmly and ideologically committed to a stronger European Union and to further European political integration. He is also, intriguingly, the co-author of a book entitled The Renaissance of the West, which is something on which one might have thought we would agree. Like Mr. Freudenstein, I also desire the renaissance of the West. The problem is, however, that Mr. Freudenstein’s understanding of what constitutes “the West” is very different from mine. The difference is discernible in the subtitle and description of his book. It is subtitled “How Europe and America Can Shape Up in Confronting Putin’s Russia”. As for the description of the book’s thesis, as expressed on the website of the organization with which Mr. Freudenstein is currently associated, it reveals what Mr. Freudenstein means by “the West”:

The West is facing challenges on many fronts…. Authoritarian regimes are threatening the core values of the West, and even its cohesion—and no regime more so than the newly aggressive and fundamentally antagonistic Russia. This research paper argues that by countering the threat posed by Putin’s Russia, we can achieve a stronger transatlantic relationship. This will ultimately lead to a Renaissance of the West and reinforce the global liberal order.

This is all very interesting and enlightening. It seems, as far as Mr. Freudenstein is concerned, that “the core values of the West” are not threatened by the sort of secular fundamentalism which has undermined the very foundations of western civilization, especially in terms of the destruction of marriage and the family, nor is it threatened by the Islamicization of Europe portended by the European Union’s support for unbridled immigration. No, indeed. None of these issues threatens “the core values of the West, and even its cohesion” as much as the threat posed by Russia.

I was unaware of Mr. Freudenstein’s authorship of this book or “research paper” at the time of the debate in Hungary, but it explains his aggressively antagonistic reaction to my mentioning Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in a positive context. It also explains his hostility towards my expressions of joy that Orthodox Christianity had risen from the ashes of communist atheism in Russia, which I remarked could not have been predicted by the most optimistic of prophets in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union. Who could reasonably have expected the resurrection of the Christian faith in Russia, considering that the Russian people had endured more than seventy years of enforced atheism and anti-Christian propaganda? This astonishing development, which some might be tempted to call a miracle, was treated with scorn by Mr. Freudenstein, who sees the Russian Orthodox Church as a threat to the “renaissance of the West”, which, for Mr. Freudenstein, is inseparable from the reinforcement of “the global liberal order.”

Responding to Mr. Freudenstein’s evident disdain for Russia in general and Solzhenitsyn in particular, I commented that Solzhenitsyn had told me personally—during my interview with him at his home near Moscow in 1998—that he was not antagonistic towards the West, but that, on the contrary, he saw Russia as being part of the West. If the Iron Curtain had come down, he told me, so that the cream of western culture had poured over the top, he would have rejoiced; instead, he lamented that the Iron Curtain had gone up so that all the dregs of western decadence had seeped in underneath.

Since Solzhenitsyn believed that Russia is part of the West—whereas Mr. Freudenstein believes that Russia is the greatest threat to the West—it might be worth considering what exactly is meant by “the West”.

Mr. Freudenstein gave his own definition of the West, at least indirectly, when he mentioned that its roots were in Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. So far so good. Solzhenitsyn would agree with such an assertion, as would I. The problem lies with Mr. Freudenstein’s understanding of the relationship of these three pillars of civilization to each other in the context of what we mean by the West. Mr. Freudenstein claimed that Jerusalem represented “faith”, Athens “doubt,” and Rome “law”. In other words, faith was for the credulous, whereas reason was for those who doubted the evidence underlying such credulity. In Mr. Freudenstein’s understanding of the foundations of western civilization, the two pillars of faith and reason are at war with each other, suggesting a tension, or even a schizophrenic schism, at the very core of the West, which could only be resolved or healed when “reason” trumped “religion” or triumphed over it. I responded that his understanding was wrong. The faith of Jerusalem, as fulfilled in Christian revelation, forms an indissoluble union or marriage with Athens, which represents “reason”, not “doubt”. The philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle laid the rational foundations for the Christian philosophy of Augustine and Aquinas. These giants of Athens brought rational order from irrational chaos, affirming the triune splendor of the good, true, and beautiful. This glorious pursuit of truth through the use of reason cannot be reduced, via a reductio ad absurdum, to mere “doubt”.

And what of Rome? Does it merely represent “law”, and, if so, what is meant by “law”?

I countered Mr. Freudenstein’s reductionism with an insistence that Rome was the divinely provided conduit via which the indissoluble marriage of faith and reason, symbolized by Jerusalem and Athens and incarnated in the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, was spread throughout the western world, forming what is known as western civilization, or Christendom. As for the “law” which is symbolized by Rome, it is the natural law, which follows from the union of faith and reason. If “law” is divorced from the marriage of fides et ratio, it disintegrates into nothing but that which serves the merest whim of whoever happens to wield power. Another name for this sort of “law” is tyranny. This is nothing new, of course; it was known by Sophocles, who shows us its consequences in Antigone.

There is no doubt that Mr. Freudenstein and I both claim to desire “the renaissance of the West.” There is, however, a world of difference and an eternity of distance between the two Wests. The abyss that separates them is not merely as wide as the Atlantic; it is as wide as that abyss that separates heaven from hell. To misquote and discombobulate the words of Rudyard Kipling, the one West is not the other West and never the twain shall meet.