Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Contending for the Permanent Things

Nov 14, 2018

The fight for truth, for faith, for morality, for humanity, and for civilisation is perennial. That is because the enemies of these things are ever at work, ever seeking to undermine and destroy that which they hate. Because the permanent things are just that – permanent – we know that ultimately, they triumph.

But in the meantime, the activists and militants are working overtime to destroy these tremendous goods, and those who support them must ever be vigilant and must ever be engaged in the battles taking place all around them. Particular battles over things like abortion and marriage are simply part of this greater war.

And this greater war involves a war of ideas and a war of worldviews, and is at bottom a spiritual battle. It really is a battle of good versus evil, of light versus darkness. One can argue that the war first broke out in the heavenlies, and then in the Garden of Eden. And it has been going on ever since.

Every age has its warriors, soldiers and generals who step up and engage in these battles. On the political scene, one thinks of that mighty trio of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II who were providently raised up by God to help see the defeat of godless communism.

Of course other champions during that time could be mentioned, such as Poland’s Lech Walesa, leader of Solidarity. But I have written before about the three heroes mentioned above:

There are other sorts of champions who emerge during dark times. In addition to politicians and spiritual leaders, there are also various thinkers, writers and intellectuals who seem to be raised up at just the right time to help stem the tide of darkness.

Last century we had a number of these figures, all of whom were people of faith. One thinks of Chesterton and Waugh and Muggeridge and Tolkien and Eliot and Lewis and Sayers and others who were mighty intellects, important thinkers, and gifted writers who helped to stand for the permanent things.

I have written often about all of these figures and will here again run with a few thoughts from some of them. Consider the phrase found in my title – it comes from several sources. The father of modern American conservatism, Russell Kirk (1918-1994), famously used it in his 1969 book, Enemies of the Permanent Things (Arlington House). Kirk wrote numerous important works, of which I have ten, including this one.

But it was T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) who first gave us the phrase, “the permanent things”. As he said in a lecture given in 1937, “Conservatism is too often a conservation of the wrong things, liberalism a relaxation of discipline, revolution a denial of the permanent things.”

Eliot had converted to Anglicanism in 1927 and toward the end of his life he described his religious views as combining “a Catholic cast of mind, a Calvinist heritage, and a Puritanical temperament.” He knew the values of the permanent things and could see how they were being laid waste before his very eyes.

I have often quoted a famous passage from his 1948 work entitled, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture:

If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes. Then you must start painfully again, and you cannot put on a new culture ready made. You must wait for the grass to grow to feed the sheep to give the wool out of which your new coat will be made. You must pass through many centuries of barbarism. We should not live to see the new culture, nor would our great-great-great-grandchildren: and if we did, not one of us would be happy in it.

Kirk, who cited Eliot often, saw himself as a Christian humanist, and entered into the Catholic Church in 1964. Two years after he died a collection of his later works appeared in the form of Redeeming the Time (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1996). In the first essay, “Civilization without Religion?” Kirk argues that civilization without religion will not survive. He says:

Writers in learned quarterlies or in daily syndicated columns use the terms “post-Christian era” or “post-modem epoch” to imply that we are breaking altogether with our cultural past, and are entering upon some new age of a bewildering character. Some people, the militant secular humanists in particular, seem pleased by this prospect; but yesteryear’s meliorism is greatly weakened in most quarters. Even Marxist ideologues virtually have ceased to predict the approach of a Golden Age. To most observers, T. S. Eliot among them, it has seemed far more probable that we are stumbling into a new Dark Age, inhumane, merciless, a totalist political domination in which the life of spirit and the inquiring intellect will be denounced, harassed, and propagandized against: Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, rather than Huxley’s Brave New World of cloying sensuality. Or perhaps Tolkien’s blasted and servile land of Mordor may serve as symbol of the human condition in the twenty-first century (which, however, may not be called the twenty-first century, the tag Anno Domini having been abolished as joined to one of the superstitions of the childhood of the race).

Or as he puts it at the end of this piece: “What ails modern civilization? Fundamentally, our society’s affliction is the decay of religious belief. If the culture is to survive and flourish, it must not be severed from the religious vision out of which it arose.”

Only the Judeo-Christian view of things can help us get out of the morass we are now it. And that begins with taking things like sin seriously. As Kirk put it in his important 1953 volume, The Conservative Mind: “The saving of civilization is contingent upon the revival of something like the doctrine of original sin.” For more on that vital volume see here:

The English novelist Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) also believed that the modern world involved a choice between Christianity or chaos. As he wrote in 1930:

Today we can see it on all sides as the active negation of all that Western culture has stood for. Civilization – and by this I do not mean talking cinemas and tinned food, nor even surgery and hygienic houses, but the whole moral and artistic organization of Europe – has not in itself the power of survival. It came into being through Christianity, and without it has no significance or power to command allegiance. The loss of faith in Christianity and the consequential lack of confidence in moral and social standards have become embodied in the ideal of a materialistic, mechanized state. It is no longer possible, as it was in the time of Gibbon, to accept the benefits of civilization and at the same time deny the supernatural basis upon which it rests… That is the first discovery, that Christianity is essential to civilization and that it is in greater need of combative strength than it has been for centuries.

G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) wrote plenty on such matters as well. Since I have quoted him so often in the past, let me here just offer a few brief remarks of his that I have collected over the years and are relevant to the subject at hand:

“The issue is now quite clear. It is between light and darkness and everyone must choose his side.”

“At least five times the Faith has to all appearances gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases, it was the dog that died.”

“Every high civilization decays by forgetting obvious things.”

“Unless a man becomes the enemy of an evil, he will not even become its slave but rather its champion.”

“The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him but, because he loves what is behind him.”

“A nation that has nothing but its amusements will not be amused for long.”

“Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.”

After his conversion, Malcolm Muggeridge also thought and wrote about these matters extensively. Just two quotes of his will suffice:

“So the final conclusion would surely be that whereas other civilizations have been brought down by attacks of barbarians from without, ours had the unique distinction of training its own destroyers at its own educational institutions, and then providing them with facilities for propagating their destructive ideology far and wide, all at the public expense. Thus did Western Man decide to abolish himself, creating his own boredom out of his own affluence, his own vulnerability out of his own strength, his own impotence out of his own erotomania, himself blowing the trumpet that brought the walls of his own city tumbling down, and having convinced himself that he was too numerous, labored with pill and scalpel and syringe to make himself fewer. Until at last, having educated himself into imbecility, and polluted and drugged himself into stupefaction, he keeled over—a weary, battered old brontosaurus—and became extinct.”

“As Christians we know that here we have no continuing city, that crowns roll in the dust and every earthly kingdom must sometime flounder, whereas, with knowledge of a king men did not crown and cannot dethrone, we are citizens of a city man did not build and cannot destroy.”

So much more can be said on this, and so many more brilliant quotes offered. Let me draw things to a close by referring you to one book you really must get if all this has been to your liking. I refer to the 1995 volume Permanent Things edited by Andrew Tadie and Michael Macdonald (Eerdmans).

It discusses the above thinkers in great detail and features a number of experts to do so. Thus there are essays by Gregory Wolfe, Peter Kreeft, Thomas Howard, Alzina Stone Dale and others. As the editors say in their introduction:

This book reminds us that some of the century’s most imaginative minds – G. K. Chesterton, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Dorothy L. Sayers, Evelyn Waugh – were profoundly out of sympathy with the secularist spirit of the age, seeing progressive enlightenment as ushering in, not a millennium of perfect freedom, but a Waste Land whose inhabitants – Waugh’s “vile bodies,” Eliot’s “hollow men,” Lewis’ “men without chests” – can find refuge from their boredom and anomie only in the ceaseless acquisition of things or in the consoling illusions of pseudo religion: “distracted from distraction by distraction,” as Eliot memorably put it….

Modern man’s poverty of spirit, visible alike in so much of his art and architecture, his literature and philosophy and political science, reflects his loss of any good reasons for living; his loss of the Permanent Things.

The culture wars that so many of us find ourselves in are part of the much larger war against the permanent things. It is our calling to engage in the battles and stand up for truth and principle, when all the world has renounced such things.

As Faramir says near the end of Tolkien’s The Two Towers: “War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”

[1879 words]

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