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The civilization birthed by Israel, Greece, and Rome is the source of culture and individual traditions that can nourish us—traditions that can give us purpose, order, and beauty and rescue us from despair, boredom, and banality. Follow it and live by it, even if others scorn and abandon it. After all, it made us who we are.

“Today there is a crisis of faith and hope in the hearts of many. People are confused and seeking distractions because they are sitting in the uncomfortable silence of life and haven’t yet found the peace and joy they had hoped for…. Consciously or not, they are seeking something that will anchor them to a shore of safety, give them a hope that is eternal, and the promise of a love that will never disappoint.”

Thus we read in the Forward to a new book of apologetics entitled The Door of Faith. And the comments seem right on the mark. In the world today we see much busyness and little reflection, much opinion and little truth, much noise and little beauty. The crisis of belief in the hearts of many in the modern world is the result of a multitude of causes and factors, about which scores of books and essays have been written.

More than ever, we find ourselves buffeted to and fro by an endless array of information and conflicting ideas and beliefs, in need of a solid anchoring of truth. Where do we find it? Some of us, of course, have found it in such things as orthodox faith, classical philosophy, and the frame of mind we here call imaginative conservatism. Others lack such convictions and are far from those traditional harbors. Absorbed in work and day-to-day living, they have no strongly defined beliefs about God, the soul, or the ultimate meaning of life. In fact, we (and I use the word “we” in a very generalized sense) have arrived at a topsy-turvy situation: workaday concerns take up almost all of our time, and things of eternity (the soul, ultimate meaning) are at best a curiosity and at worst never enter our minds at all. The truth is that we should be consistently living our lives in relation to eternity. We cannot remain fence-sitters on the deepest questions. Yet for many people such questions are unknowable, and there is no sure guide to them, no tradition that is really true.

To be sure, such sheep without a shepherd should be pitied rather than scorned. And this is where good apologetic writing comes in. Apologetics is not only for nonbelievers. It is highly beneficial for believers also, to help us see things in a different light and confirm and strengthen our convictions. Why do we cherish works like Pascal’s Pensées, Joseph Butler’s Analogy of Religion, Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and Everlasting Man, or C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity? Simply because they are useful manuals for persuading skeptics and nonbelievers? No; they are great works of thought, insight, and imagination, worth reading even for the hundredth time by a person whose own faith has never been shaken. While I am no Pascal or Chesterton, following are a few scattered thoughts of my own on the topic.

Where does one begin? The mere fact that the human mind is capable of conceiving God and a spiritual world indicates a strong likelihood that those things exist. If there were nothing but matter, how could we think of anything but matter? But we clearly do conceive of a world of spirit. So where did we get these ideas in the first place, if not from a natural intuition of what is really there?

It is clear to me that materialism and naturalism are not credible worldviews. There is something out there besides nature and matter. We intuit the existence of a spiritual world, moral obligations, and all the rest. The question now is: whose version of spirituality and morality is correct, or closest to the truth?

Many people today have a serious objection to believing that one religion, philosophy, tradition, or worldview alone is true. We live in a world of cultural pluralism, where all traditions and views are supposed to be equal. As the Hungarian bishop who authored The Door of Faith puts it: “Others think that the demand of some religions for exclusivity is a sign of arrogance and intolerance, constituting one of the major problems of human history.” The “scandal of particularity” attaches to claims that universal truth is communicated in specific and concrete forms, in this religion or philosophy more than that religion or philosophy. Of course, it bears emphasizing that these matters should always be handled through persuasion and argument, with love and charity, not through aggression and force.

But I hold that it is perfectly plausible to believe that the fullness of truth is instantiated in one tradition in particular, like a fruitful branch that has grown on the common tree of humanity. Truly, nobody “owns” truth; but it is instantiated in cultural traditions that we can trace through history, and a particular tradition may hold a special key to the truth. Is this arrogance and chauvinism? Or can we in humility and open-mindedness recognize the particularity of how Providence works?

Chesterton expressed all of this beautifully and systematically in The Everlasting Man, his account of the spiritual history of humanity. One of the most noteworthy facts of this spiritual history, which Chesterton recognizes, is the impact that the man Jesus of Nazareth had on the world. A seemingly insignificant local preacher who became a martyr to his beliefs eventually conquered the minds and hearts of the known world. This is an objective historical fact with which we must contend. How exactly did Jesus of Nazareth change the world?

Christ’s contemporaries expected him, as Messiah, to address the problem with the Romans. It was what the Messiah was supposed to do, according to common expectations. Christ didn’t do this. Instead, he preached a message of inner purification, repentance, and enlightenment. The rightness of this strategy only became clearer with the passage of time (keeping in mind that God works on the scale of centuries). Jesus was out to convert the entire world, not to deal with a merely local and temporal problem. By tending to the soul first, everything else would follow. Beating the Romans in a military battle and establishing an Israelite kingdom would not have solved the deeper problem, which was mankind’s enslavement to sin. By addressing the problem of sin, Jesus went to the root of mankind’s sickness and thus provided a more complete cure for all concerned—Jew and Gentile alike.

And in doing so he transformed the world. Within a few centuries, this new gospel had been embraced by the Romans themselves, the former enemies of the Jews and of Jesus. Christ was the hinge of history, closing the door on the ancient period and opening onto a new era. The Christian character with its emphasis on humility, kindness, gentleness, patience, and self-giving love became for millions the professed model for behavior. Not that such qualities were nonexistent before (although recall that humility was firmly rejected by Aristotle), but the world now had a personal model and exemplar for these virtues, vindicated by a divine authority personally experienced by those who knew Jesus and continued through the Church.

What this means, among many things, is that a good portion of the world has ended up imbued with the spiritual worldview of Judaism, that seemingly narrow and exclusive sect of the ancient world. In a sense one could say that the Jewish people have no reason to feel marginal since their beliefs have shaped world culture and the imaginative intuitions of all of us, certainly in the Western world. Thus that which seems narrow and limited turns out to be broad and universal.

Coming from and representing the very particular Jewish tradition—and presenting himself as the fulfillment of that tradition—Jesus drew all other traditions of that time to himself. The Greek and Roman heritages were drawn in, and all of these combined in a new symphony of culture, a union of the great traditions of the ancient world. The Gospel reconciled all peoples.

This tradition, instead of being narrow and exclusive as sometimes claimed, represents the broad heritage of mankind as forged in its formative period of antiquity. Call the tradition Western if you like. Only remember that its cradle was in the Mediterranean basin, the home of the three great traditions of Israel, Greece, and Rome. The Church, Jesus’s institution for the propagation of his message, processed and synthesized the ethical culture of the Jews, the philosophic and aesthetic culture of the Greeks, and the law and organizational know-how of the Romans. (For example, we can see how the hierarchical/administrative aspect of the Catholic Church echoes Roman culture, while the Greek concern for beauty and for rational argument is reflected in her art and theology, respectively. Still, the soul of the Church remains the faith of Israel.)

During his lifetime, Jesus displayed openness to people from outside the Jewish fold, and as the faith spread after his Resurrection, it penetrated ever further into the gentile world. St. John’s Gospel was written under the influence of Greek philosophical concepts. St. Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus in Athens (recounted in the book of Acts) opened the Christian message to the Greeks—a pivotal moment in the meeting of cultures—while Paul’s and St. Peter’s missions culminated in Rome, the seat of empire. In time the Church, and Western civilization, would become international, multicultural, and assimilative, reconciling diverse influences and addressing itself to all peoples.

Gradually over time, God’s purposes become clear. By the time Jesus came into the world, the world had reached its first maturity. Classical civilization had produced great poets and philosophers, and experiments in statesmanship. The Roman Empire had facilitated communication between different areas and peoples. Perhaps Providence chose this region because it was the geographical nucleus of the world and the hub of ideas and civilization.

The great tradition I have spoken of has suffered great blows, but more through misunderstanding and ignorance than because of any inherent weaknesses in it. As James W. Sire puts it in The Universe Next Door, “Christian theism […] was abandoned not because of its inner inconsistency or its failure to explain the facts, but because it was inadequately understood, forgotten completely, or not applied to the issue at hand.” How foolish to abandon the good tradition out of mere ignorance. Yet that is what appears to have happened to a great degree. The endless proliferation of philosophies and ideas, especially since the invention of the printing press allowed for the development of what we now call mass media, has led in time to an overproduction of thought and a multiplicity of arguments, ideas, and options that have together choked out the traditional canon of ideas and works which nourished the culture at its start.

And so we see many departing from the good tradition toward other worldviews like naturalism and materialism, sliding onward toward agnosticism and atheism. Yet this devolution is more in the nature of a schism than a wholesale destruction. Secular-minded people always expect the tradition to die out, but it never does. The tradition is always there to be found again; it lives in the great books, in the churches, in the spiritual and religious traditions that make for a good life. What’s more, gifted countercultural thinkers (Cardinal Newman, C. S. Lewis, and so many more) have helped to stem the tide by defending, re-examining, and reframing the good tradition in fresh terms.

Believers sometimes say that people need to return to “tradition,” full stop. But this language is surely inadequate, since the opposing worldviews are themselves traditions by now. What is needed is to delineate a particular tradition—philosophical, cultural, spiritual—as the good one, the one to follow, and our arguments need to rest on historical facts and cultural insights. I am not even sure that this tradition is identical with “Western civilization” as such, because those opposing worldviews (materialism, scientism) also came out of the Western tradition, perhaps as departures from its true path. Perhaps we should call it the good tradition or the great tradition.

The tradition I speak of is to some extent an intellectual heritage. But it also is a tradition of practices and modes of living, of ethics and morality. For me and for the author of The Door of Faith, the good tradition leads to the house of Christianity and ultimately to the doors of the Catholic Church. Perhaps not everyone will follow all the way, but it is worthwhile to meet people at least part of the way. Using the traditions of humane and classical learning, we can make vigorous arguments on behalf of this good tradition. It is within our power to return to and be guided by it on an individual, personal basis.

It has been said by some Western commentators that Eastern thought is essentially nihilism, destructive of reason and the self. That is beyond my competence to judge. What I can say is that any form of thought that denies the importance of personhood, of the individual, and of reason is one we are obliged to reject. It is simply not in tune with reality as we experience it. The worldview of Islam, for its part, seems to us a flattened and closed vision of reality, emphasizing as it does God’s abstract omnipotence and inscrutable will at the expense of reason and personality.

The civilization birthed by Israel, Greece, and Rome is the solid tradition that anchors us. It is, let us remember, originally a Mediterranean (not “European” or “white”) tradition that spread throughout the world. This tripartite civilization is the source of culture and individual traditions that can nourish us—traditions that can give us purpose, order, and beauty and rescue us from despair, boredom, and banality. Call it the Western tradition, or call it Greco-Roman-Judeo-Christian civilization. Call it whatever you like, but follow it and live by it, even if others scorn and abandon it. After all, it made us who we are.

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The featured image is “Olympias presenting the young Alexander the Great to Aristotle” (before 1733) by Gerard Hoet, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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