This is a remarkable book that will, however, be read by few. Its great fault is its defense of America, Christianity, and Western culture. The authors also make the egregious error of criticizing modern and postmodern thought, which they believe must be effectively combated if the Western world is to survive.
In a vibrant culture, the authors argue, people actively pursue truth, beauty, and goodness; their goal is wisdom. This is the good life, the life of virtue. People around the world have historically sought the good life, but the West alone has achieved the highest culture and the best life, owing to its Judeo-Christian tradition.
In Judeo-Christian thought, the material world (becoming) and the spiritual world (God or Being) are distinct, but still a continuum united by love. Moreover, the Trinity and the Incarnation are not mere abstract theological ideas: They underscore Christ as the necessary bridge between the material and the spiritual, between becoming and Being. This fact is reaffirmed by transubstantiation, in which the spiritual and material are one. Without God becoming man, spirit and matter could not be reconciled.
The authors, following Saint Augustine, posit a realist ontology in which human reason can comprehend both spiritual and material worlds. Humans live in the material, yet they are constantly in pursuit of the divine. And because all life is unified, there is no separation between science (scientia) and wisdom (sapientia). Both pursue the same goal, which is praise of God. It is also an optimistic ontology, since it assumes an ultimate purpose to material existence—its union with the spiritual.
The cultural consequence of spiritual and material unity is decorum. Decorum is how the truth of God is publicly displayed. It serves as a constant reminder of man’s earthly purpose—to look toward Heaven and imitate it in everyday life. Language, dress, and manners are the common manifestation of decorum, while church art and architecture are its ultimate manifestation.
Another, more practical, achievement of the West is the development of representative government and free markets, or what the authors define as the Anglosphere. This development, which is mostly American, centers on the idea of responsible individual freedom, a freedom available even to the common man.
Yet this unique synthesis of human freedom and cultural wealth has been savagely attacked over the last few centuries by modern and postmodern ideas, now victorious in most of the Western world. The Judeo-Christian and Anglosphere ideal survives only—albeit tenuously—in America. Thus, Pontynen and Miller contend that if modern and postmodern ideas should prevail here, the Western world would be lost, perhaps forever. This is why America is now the crossroads of Western culture.
America was founded during the Baroque period, an age of revolution when scientific discoveries, especially Newton’s theory of gravity, began to challenge Christian orthodoxy. As a result, science and wisdom became increasingly estranged, resulting in a divorce that was finalized in the Enlightenment. Science now focused exclusively on material facts; it embraced positivism, which for the authors is synonymous with modernism.
This world of descriptive fact is complex, but it has, of itself, no meaning. The meaninglessness of the positivist world led to an intellectual revolt, which the authors define broadly as postmodernism. The Romantics were followed, in turn, by the Transcendentalists, the existentialists, the pragmatists—all of whom rejected a world of pure fact in favor of some higher meaning. Yet none of these schools succeeded in reuniting science and wisdom; rather, their path has led to deconstruction. For postmodernists, science, as well as wisdom, is subjective, a matter of personal preference.
Though modern and postmodern are in conflict with each other, they are also coterminous, both of them being concerned solely with becoming—the pursuit of worldly power. Neither has been able to ground becoming in Being. Neither seeks an objective standard of truth, beauty, or goodness. Neither pursues, let alone comprehends, wisdom or the love of God, because for it there is no God. Thus individuals are made gods—gods of construction, or of destruction.
The dialectic of construction and deconstruction is now the existential state of the Western world, and the modern university is its epicenter. Scholars who once sought wisdom (profound generalization) are now all specialists. Worse, they are all scientists. The social “sciences” have replaced the humanities, religion, and the fine arts, while what remains of the liberal arts is most stridently devoted to postmodern deconstruction and revolution.
The fine arts, for example, which once sought to convey wisdom, are now all but dead. They are irrelevant to positivists and ruthlessly mocked and deconstructed as elitist by postmodernists. The artist, who once communicated universal ideas to all of society, is simply another specialist who speaks to other specialists in an artistic language no one else understands.
Similarly, the common man is now cut off from any effective participation in public life. Modern science has created an industrial-commercial-political juggernaut, a complex machine run by specialists and special interests. The sole consolation so far as the public is concerned is that the system discovers an increasing number of supposed political rights and creates more consumer goods to validate and facilitate each person’s “lifestyle,” his subjective pursuit of truth.
Arthur Pontynen and Rod Miller, both of whom are art historians, effectively examine the destructive influence of key artists and thinkers on Western culture since the Baroque period, referring to art and architecture in particular to show how modern and postmodern ideas slowly eroded belief in God. The revolutionary roles of Marx, Nietzsche, Picasso, and Dewey are obvious. Less well known is that Christians aided the revolution—often unwittingly—by adopting modern or postmodern ideas or attitudes.
Christian fundamentalists, for instance, have turned the Bible into a science text, a book of facts, while emphasizing the power and glory of God (becoming) over the older idea of love (God’s Being). Other Christians, mainstream Protestants especially, followed the postmodernists by turning the objective truths of Christianity into a subjective “spirituality.” Even orthodox Christians, in defending their faith in this revolutionary world, sought retreat from that world rather than active critical engagement in it. Ultimately, most Christians have never effectively challenged modern and postmodern ontology.
Moreover, when Christians and Christian fellow travelers have criticized modernism and postmodernism, they have focused more on the revolutionaries than on modern science, the effect rather than the cause. Modern science has produced so many tangible benefits for mankind as to have made any critique at all of science seem sacrilegious. More importantly, science, while describing itself as ontologically neutral, in fact is not so. Rather, science, being indifferent to “quality” as distinct from quantity, undermines the very foundation of Christianity, which is the belief that life indeed has meaning.
Here is the thesis of this book: In order to end the hegemony of modernist and postmodernist thinking, the ontology of science must be challenged to allow science and wisdom to be reunited. Modern science is not wrong; it is incomplete. Similarly, the postmodern desire for meaning is not false; it has the wrong focus. Meaning cannot be pursued by a negative ontology, one centered on subjectivity and destruction. It must rediscover an objective standard of truth. It must rediscover wisdom and the good life. It must rediscover God.
Science and technology must be demystified. This was a constant theme in the work of the late historian of science Stanley Jaki, OSB. Science, Father Jaki argued, is a human creation for human ends—and no more. Modern science could have emerged only in a Christian culture. In every other culture science developed to a certain point, then stopped. Science developed further under Christianity on account of its realist ontology and its belief in free will, a combination that allowed for free inquiry and experimentation.
Thus, Christianity is the only religion compatible with a technological society. Moreover, it is the only religion capable of creating the proper moral framework for science and technology, and it is the only religion that can fully grasp the manifold consequences of the scientific worldview. Christians, Pontynen and Mills argue, must also continue to press their critique of postmodern ideas. Yet their greatest responsibility is the pursuit of the Christian life, the life of virtue. Christians must persist in making the principles of subsidiarity and sacramentality central to their daily existence.
In the end, America and Western culture may not be “saved.” But if enough Christians keep their faith, they may save enough of Christianity so that the gates of hell on earth do not prevail against it.
[Western Culture at the American Crossroads: Conflicts Over the Nature of Science and Reason, by Arthur Pontynen and Rod Miller (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books) 448 pp., $34.95]
Leave a Reply