Can anything be done to stop Europe and the United States from becoming Third World countries? Is the West doomed? Considering that it doesn’t look as if things are going to get better any time soon, it is tempting for conservatives to write finis on Christendom and view the fall from a place of cynical detachment, while obituaries for the West flow from pens and laptops.
This is, at its core, a neopagan temptation, whose lineage can be traced back to the age of Augustine and whose ethos the bishop of Hippo opposed when he wrote his famous work On the City of God. (The full title included the prepositional phrase contra paganos.) Then as now, the pagan critic sees the fall of the great city (Rome, Constantinople, New York) and fingers Christian “universalism” as the agitating force that cracked the city walls. Intellectual neopagan social and cultural criticisms—precisely because they are perceptive—tap into Christians’ deepest fears and hatreds. Blistering denunciations of Western decadence then sow the seeds of cynical detachment that will reach full flower as a form of idolatry.
For example, the tendency to connect certain symptoms of Western decadence—individual isolation, rootlessness—to the presence of Jews or Jewish ideas seems always to lurk beneath the surface of the right. Today’s neopagan intellectuals simply give a philosophical explanation—indeed, a theological explanation—for it, one that, were it actually true, would have the paradoxical effect of destroying the very foundation of the civilization it seeks to rescue.
The New Rightist and intellectual neopagan Alain de Benoist singles out the Yahwehist religion of the Old Testament as the fount of Western decadence. Whereas the pagan Gentiles of the ancient world were content to serve their own gods, the Jews invented an intolerant Yahweh who condoned genocide for the simple reason that “Sh’ma Yis’ra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.” And because the Lord is one, none should have other gods before Him, and in fact, those gods are not gods at all, but mere idols, images made by human hands. Indeed, the very concept of idolatry (eidololatreia, “image worship”) comes into the Greek language from the Septuagint.
Paradoxically, this belief in the One God, the Universal, absolute Truth, became, for Benoist, the foundation for the two ideologies that have clashed for nearly 1,500 years: Christianity and Islam. The Apostle Paul, on the one hand, is blamed for internationalizing the concept of Israel, compelling hitherto happy pagans to think totalitarian thoughts about every knee bowing in submission to Yahweh-in-the-Flesh. Muhammad, in Benoist’s view, was cut from the same cloth, as was “Osama bin Laden, the Saudi millionaire with the Christ-like face.”
The problem, as Benoist sees it, is the whole notion of absolute truth, or what the neopagans call universalism. He cites the 19th-century French nationalist (and early discoverer of the mauve “historical Jesus”) Ernest Renan, who wrote in his Studies of Religious History,
The intolerance of the Semitic peoples is the inevitable consequence of their monotheism. The Indo-European peoples, before they converted to Semitic ideas, had never considered their religion an absolute truth. Rather, they conceived of it as a heritage of the family, or the caste, and in this way they remained foreign to intolerance and proselytism. This is why we find among these peoples the liberty of thought, the spirit of inquiry and individual research.
(The mind’s eye briefly lapses into a vision of the great liberty of thought that existed in pagan eighth-century Hesse, when the philosemitic Anglo-Saxon Boniface chopped down the Sacred Oak of Thor.)
For Benoist, the history of Christendom has been a series of totalitarian crusades against the unfortunate, and the transformation of the Western spirit of Christian evangelism into the White Man’s Burden and, finally, into wars to spread democracy is largely a distinction without a difference. Christian universalism demands that all enemies be treated as so many orcs, precipitating “the worst of all wars, the ‘just war,’ where, having been banished from humanity, the enemy can and must be destroyed by all means.”
Benoist’s naiveté toward Islam knows no bounds. (In fact, he is capable of arguing that there is no such thing as a monolithic Islam, and then, a few sentences later, declaring that Islam “has a collective psyche” based on the fact that “it is heir to a civilization equal and even far superior to Europe.”) As religions go, Islam “is based on a number of beliefs [that] are no more nor less absurd or ridiculous than those of the other monotheistic religions. Its historical relationship with Europe is far more complex than the official historiography claims.” He praises Islam for following the example of paganism in refusing to “separate the political from the sacred, the worldly from the spiritual.” Yes, Bin Laden and his “fundamentalist” minority are dangerous, but in Benoist’s estimation, there are far more fundamentalists in the West, because “the Western world always wants to dominate the world by imposing its ideas, techniques, products and behaviors.”
Benoist owes much of his critique of Christianity to another neopagan who is gaining ground among rightist conservatives today, Julius Evola. Evola understood the importance of tradition and decried in his Revolt Against the Modern World the suppression of traditional ethnic and hierarchical societies by totalitarian governments. He reads backward into the histories of the superior pagan West and finds elements of structure, caste, and natural inequality—bound tightly in societies with their own gods and ritual cults—that afforded meaning to every man, master and slave.
Unfortunately, Jesus wrecked all of this, preaching the Kingdom of God, claiming to be God, and then informing everyone that His “kingdom is not of this world.” To become a Christian, then, meant to be infected with the contagion of otherworldliness, which, for Evola, melts the glue that holds traditional cultures together. The gods gave meaning to the present age, but the God-Man transferred all hope to the “life of the world to come”:
The immediate antecedent of Christianity was not traditional Judaism, but rather prophetism and analogous currents in which the notions of sin and of expiation prevailed; in which a desperate form of spirituality emerged; and in which the type of the warrior Messiah as an emanation of the “Lord of Hosts” was replaced with the type of the Messiah as “Son of Man” predestined to be the sacrificial victim, the persecuted one, the hope of the afflicted and the rejected, as well as the object of a confused and ecstatic cult. . . . By regarding Jesus as Savior and by breaking away from the “Law,” that is, from Jewish orthodoxy, primitive Christianity took up several themes typical of the Semitic soul at large. These themes were those proper to an innerly divided human type and constituted fertile ground for the growth of an antitraditional virus, especially vis-à-vis a tradition like the Roman one. Through Paul’s theology these elements were universalized and activated without a direct relationship to their Jewish origins.
In Pagan Imperialism, Evola ridicules what he regards as primitive Christianity:
It had a purely anarchist, antisocial, defeatist character, subversive of every rational order of things. A single concern pervaded it, obsessively: the salvation of the soul of the individual in the face of the supposedly imminent coming of the “Kingdom of God.”
But when the prospect of this “Kingdom” receded and finally disappeared, the forces focussed on this hope fell back onto themselves, and from its individualistic aspect, the Semitic religion passed to its socialistic aspect. The ecclesia, the community of the faithful, understood as an impersonal and mystic medium formed out of mutual need—the need to love, the need to serve, the need to communicate, the need for mutual acknowledgment, and the mutual dependence of lives each insufficient in itself—replaced in each soul the missing reality of the “Kingdom of God.”
Thus, for Evola, the ecclesia (“assembly,” traditionally translated “church”) devastated traditional societies precisely because it created new communities based not upon one’s relationship to one’s ancestors or social betters, but on one’s relationship to Christ and His Mystical Body, and the assembly’s journey together toward a Heavenly Kingdom.
On the surface, it would seem odd that the same conservative rightists who today are so wary of the papification of “paleoconservatives” are also quite enamored of Benoist and Evola. For Evola especially, it was none other than the Roman Catholic Church that saved Europe by stripping Christianity of the essence of Jesus’ teachings and converting the Faith once delivered into a mere civilizing force, the carrier of Romanitas. Hence, tradition-denying Christianity gave way to Christendom, which, for Evola, was little more than pagan Roman society with the mask of Christ, yet cured of its Semitic AIDS: “[The Catholic Church] arose from a gradual Romanisation of the ecclesia in the primitive sense, whose spirit, to a certain extent, it betrayed, and whose Semitic part was choked off by means of a hierarchical principle of authority and a symbolic ritual corpus.”
Given this jaundiced view of the development of Christendom, it is no surprise that Evola hated the Reformation, which he called the “great fall of Nordic humanity: it is the degeneration, the reversal into the negative and the Semitic, of that force which had animated the struggle for the Empire against the Roman yoke.” For him, the Reformation took life-giving Romanitas out of Christendom and
resuscitat[ed] those very forces which had formed the first Christian community and the life of the ecclesia. In the Reformation we have the return of primitive Christianity, precisely in its lower, “socialistic” aspect, in contrast to the Roman aspect characteristic of the Church. Protestant intransigence put an end to the Catholic compromise, though not on behalf of the way back to the Empire, but rather towards the anti-Empire.
Of course, Evola was no Catholic traditionalist. He hated the modern Catholic Church because, he believed, it had become a vehicle for democratic liberalism: “The Church for us is too little. We need much more. We need a true counter-Reformation. And this counter-Reformation will consist in the return to the original Aryan ethos, to the pure forces of Nordic-Roman tradition, to the Imperial symbol of the Eagle.”
Short of an armed neopagan revolution, there will be no return to the mythic pure forces of the fantastic Nordic-Roman tradition. When this reality intrudes upon our philosophies that explain everything, there is nothing left for the anti-Christian rightist but despair. Nearing the end of his life, Evola lost all hope: The West was too far gone. But rather than embrace the transcendent hope that breathed life into the West, Evola embraced a kind of mercenary internal existentialism that, for him, was encapsulated in the Tantric phrase “ride the tiger.” In The Metaphysics of Sex (1969) he wrote, “Rather than avoid . . . a dangerous force one should grasp and hold it tight with the idea of getting the better of it.” Practically, this meant embracing the hedonistic modern world, while maintaining an air of detachment or inner transcendence:
What I have hinted at concerning recent technology that annihilates distances and the planetary spread of today’s horizons, feeds inner detachment, superiority, calm transcendence, while acting and moving in the vast world: one finds oneself everywhere, yet at home nowhere. In this way, the negative can again be turned into positive. The experience increasingly offered, and often imposed on our contemporaries, of going to other cities, across frontiers, even to other continents, outside the sphere of a secure existence with its peculiarities can be banal, matter-of-fact, touristic, utilitarian, and in our day almost always is. Alternatively, it can be an integrated part of a different, liberated life, with a more profound meaning in the above-mentioned terms, but only if the proper capacity of reaction is present in oneself.
The critique provided by intellectual neopaganism is powerful. We are indeed living in a nowhere society, in which the traditional bonds between parents and children, families and communities, and communities and religion have eroded. The powers that be are so completely entrenched, and consciences are so utterly seared, that the prospects of a change for the better seem remote. Should conservatives “ride the tiger”? Should we follow the broad path of least resistance, striving, as a means of maintaining our sanity, to maintain a “proper capacity of reaction” inside, to insulate ourselves from utter barbarism?
And is the only alternative to pine for a social order, a pagan-inspired society that fell because of silly Semitic ideas about personal guilt in lethal combination with a messianic embrace of otherworldliness?
The thing that stands in the way of neopaganism is that silly Semitic idea that certain Greeks of some repute (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, say) also recognized: that of absolute truth. Or, put in the form of a question, “What if the Jews were right?”
That is to say, right about Yahweh being the one true God, and all the rest being idols. Right about Yahweh making the world in six days and out of nothing. Right to insist that, from the beginning, the real problem was not the prison of flesh or nascent individualism, but the corruption of sin and its punishment of curse and death. Right to assert that God spoke to a Mesopotamian named Abraham and made him certain promises. Right to believe that God spoke regularly to His backbiting and idolatry-prone people. Right to believe that God spoke through prophets and called His people to repentance.
The primitive Christians—Jews, Greeks, Egyptians, Ethiopians, Romans—thought the Jews were right, and their proof for it was that a Man was raised from the dead and declared to be the Son of God. The truth of that fact, transcending bare myth and any particular culture, including Semitic ones, transforms any notion of human tradition and clarifies the meaning of human community. The reality of the Incarnation of God and His entrance into human history cannot but shape the meaning of everything, because it is the meaning of everything.
It is that universal truth (and the concomitant rejection of all idols) that shaped the West, creating Christendom. But neither Christendom nor the Church (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, or all of the above) are the City of God, the Kingdom of Heaven. It is, as Augustine wrote, a “heavenly city.” That City, that Kingdom will come on the Last Day, but not a day or an hour sooner.
The tendency of others to confuse the City of Man with the City of God was what led Augustine to write his great work. Like today’s neopagans, yesterday’s pagans pointed their fingers at “primitive” Christianity as the cause of the fall of the so-called Eternal City. Roman Christians, in turn, fleeing the fires of Alaric and arriving at their vacation homes in Augustine’s North Africa, could not help but wonder: Has God abandoned us? Are the pagans right? Even Saint Jerome approached despair.
Augustine’s answer in De Civitate Dei was to remind Christians of the utter futility of making an idol of human government. Kings, cultures, civilizations come and go. Jesus told Pilate, “my kingdom is not of this world.” He told His disciples that those who enter that kingdom must become not great warriors, but like little children, babes in arms. “Peter, put up thy sword.”
The fall of a great civilization—even one that is rooted in Christianity—is painful to watch. But it really tells a Christian nothing more than what he should already know: Sin has so utterly corrupted this world that no human tradition can save it. It must be bathed in fire. Thus, to ask whether there is any hope for the West is to ask the wrong question. Attempting to answer it leads to the neopagan critique and its self-centered, cynical detachment. We may fight for the West and against the enemies of Christendom. But our hope is in the City made without hands.
Christendom apart from the Faith that made it is a corpse. A corpse we dare not, and cannot, resuscitate.
[This article was drawn from a speech delivered at the 2011 meeting of the John Randolph Club.]