In the latest issue of New Oxford Review Christopher Beiting offers a critical analysis of The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited. Beiting says that “instead of being a magisterial jeremiad” this new book by John Carroll “is a disappointing train wreck.” Although I’ve not read the volume in question, I’m familiar with works like it. Certain authors like to set up a cultural crisis – in this case an ill-defined “Renaissance humanism” – as the bête noire of Christian civilization. The more absurd versions of catastrophic history will claim that urbanism, the advent of printing, the discovery of electricity, etc., led to Western society’s irremediable degradation.
The problem with the well-known “decline and fall” model, popularized by Edward Gibbon in the eighteenth century, is that it is neither historically nor theologically accurate. While there are downturns in society, almost never do we see one trend exclusively at work. Typically a movement arises to combat the excesses of an older system but may end up indulging in new excesses of its own. But that does not necessarily invalidate the new trend completely. A case in point is the movement for racial equality. The absurdities of political correctness hardly indicate a need to revive segregation.
Periods of cultural turmoil often evince this mixture of good and bad. The power that unleashes zeal and creativity can also overflow with pride and impatience. Humans are involved, and humans have free will. A movement cannot force our decisions, though it may shape them. The Renaissance that Carroll details was full of both saints and sinners. In conclusion, hypothesizing about traumatic social decline may be appropriate for heathen pessimists like Gibbon or Spengler. But for the Christian thinker the only truly pivotal event in history is the Incarnation. It is around this that everything else revolves, and through which everything else is ultimately resolved.