Contesting the Re-Primitivism of the West

Does Catholicism expand civilization? Thinking of Thomas Aquinas, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and Gregor Johann Mendel, and the Gothic, Baroque, and Rococo, the answer seems an obvious “yes.”  However, it is also undoubtedly true that a snap survey on any street in the West would find a decent number of respondents either angered by the suggestion or just clueless.

John M. Rist thinks the answer certainly “yes.” What’s more, he thinks that re-primitivism (to borrow a term Aurel Kolnai used in his 1938 War Against the West) threatens our civilization, and only Catholicism has the theoretical heft to ward it off.

It is not always easy for academics to see the wood for the trees. Trained to research a topic closely in order to find something new to say, academics are frequently risk-averse. Leery of making bold statements, they prefer employing plenty of sub-clauses to head off a challenge to a too-hasty conclusion.

How refreshing, then, to read an academic book whose author has an expansive theme to articulate. What Is Truth?: From the Academy to the Vatican argues that there are currently two principal threats to civilization: fundamentalism, and the strange fact that the idea of human rights has no very good theoretical grounding. Not only can Catholic theology at its best expose fundamentalism of all varieties as a fraud, its own baseline belief—that men and women are made in the image of God—offers the best explanation for why human rights do exist.

We hear so much about the lack of intellectual seriousness in today’s universities. However valid, that criticism cannot attach to Rist. Born in 1936 in the United Kingdom, he is a master of Latin, an acknowledged authority on Saint Augustine, and expert on the thought-world of the Mediterranean in the years of Imperial Rome and beyond. He spent much of his career at the University of Toronto but was also Regis Professor of Classics at Aberdeen University, Scotland.

Rist is retired, and the point is not irrelevant, for it would have been interesting to watch his colleagues’ reaction to his many forthright claims in this new book. For example, he does not shy away from declaring that “Islam always has been spread by force,” that abortion is killing, that an unabashed cult of hedonism is upon us, and that most accounts of toleration are hopelessly confused. Few in the academy would accept any of these as signs of re-primitivism.

Catholicism itself is not magically immune from fundamentalism. Large tracts of this book are given over to debates within Catholic theology (especially debates during the early history of the Church) that represent struggles in the Church to find its better civilizational angels. Crucial to these struggles’ ending on the right side has been the Catholic commitment to human reason as divine-like. The point is subtle: It is not a trust in natural reason but a conviction that human reason is trustworthy because revealed as being made in the image of God. Catholicism expands civilization because it is a theology of the image.

Rist walks a fine line. On the one hand, he wants to insist that Augustine’s doctrine of original sin is salutary: that Augustine’s vivid awareness of human wickedness clips our arrogance, and acts as an internal limit on theologians, stopping theological grandeur from running amok and ossifying in fundamentalism. But on the other hand, he does not want to tip over into the position defended by Protestant theologians—some of them of the first rank, like Karl Barth—that our capacity to know the truth is radically hampered in the absence of a knowledge of Christ as the one who forgives sin. Religious fundamentalism of all varieties trades on the idea, not of truth, but of a “saving truth.”

Certainly, the theme of reason and truth is well chosen. One of the most ridiculous things we’ve noticed of late is that university professors say they are aghast at the loss of truth in politics when these same people have taught a generation of students there is no such thing as objective truth. The lack of self-awareness has been breathtaking and it goes to Rist’s broader point: our civilization has tied itself utterly to the defense of human rights and yet has no epistemological or metaphysical explanation for them.

How does a theology of image justify the belief in human rights? The defense of rights, stretching from the Jesuit Francisco Suárez to the Protestant John Locke, and even to Immanuel Kant, relies on Christian metaphysical truths that the university has long since abandoned, only to then find itself bereft of any explanation for the rights it holds so dear—or indeed for the rights it thinks override every other moral or political claim that might be made upon persons. Deploying his knowledge of early Christianity, Rist shows in detail that Christianity, albeit with some dissenting voices, has always affirmed that the human is “divine-like”; that humans have special protections because favored by God to embody the truth, goodness, and beauty of the divine itself. The revelation of God in the Incarnation secures these special protections. In consequence, it is the metaphysics of the Incarnation that justifies human rights.

What Is Truth? does contain some imbalances. Oftentimes when coming to the hardest part of the argument, Rist redirects us to other works where he has done the heavy lifting. Academics who have many books to their name often do this, and it makes a book leaner and more readable, but it can also be frustrating. Leaving arguments not quite complete can make them lose some (or even a lot) of their power.  For example, toward the end of the book he says a return to natural law is necessary yet nowhere is this explained or defended, and this despite natural law’s being embattled even in Catholic circles and utterly ignored in secular legal and moral studies.

Another issue, which, granted, those readers most historically-minded won’t mind one bit, is the book’s lengthy excursions into the nitty-gritty of early Christianity. For readers more interested in the broad civilizational argument being made, this will be some ground for complaint. Not least because opportunities are missed. For example, Rist discusses the papal intellectual tradition of Catholic social thought but does not take up Pope Benedict’s argument about the pathologies of secular reason made in his famous and brilliant Regensburg Address of 2006. Rist tends to think secular reason insufficient for its own ambitions, and reserves the category of fundamentalism to religious fundamentalism, whilst Benedict deftly shows that a thoroughly secularized reason is malevolent, a claim for which there is ample historical and contemporary evidence.

The 20th century has plainly shown that the re-primitivism of a complex civilization is possible. Rist rightly wonders whether the West is still toying with its own betrayal.  His proposal that the West re-engage with a theology of the image to both shore up its ramparts and purge itself of malign defections from civilization is ably put. More vital work like his is needed, and let us hope Christian intellectuals deliver.