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Can Westerners Atone for Their Sins Without Breed… – ChristianityToday.com

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Run this thought experiment: If you could split a bottle of fine wine and converse at leisure with a contemporary author that you respect, who would it be—and why? My own short list would include Douglas Murray, associate editor of The Spectator and best-selling British author of The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam and The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity. Watching videos and listening to podcasts that feature Murray, my hunch is that a tête-à-tête with this man would prove fascinating.
Associated with the so-called “intellectual dark web,” which Jonah Goldberg describes as “a coalition of thinkers and journalists who happen to share a disdain for the keepers of the liberal orthodoxy” (e.g., Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Michael Shermer, Christina Hoff Sommers), Murray intrigues me as a sagacious conservative (à la public intellectual Roger Scruton), a nonconformist gay man (à la commentator Andrew Sullivan), and a Christian skeptic (à la Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy). The last two epithets need further elaboration: As a “nonconformist gay man,” Murray eschews the narcissism of sexual identity and the tribalism of identity politics; as a “Christian skeptic,” his questioning has a decidedly Christian coloration, owing to his upbringing and sympathies, even though he is not currently a practitioner. It seems God is so near to Murray that he does not yet feel him at his shoulder.
Watch the video of Justin Brierley, host of the podcast Unbelievable, moderate a conversation between New Testament scholar N. T. Wright and Murray on how we live in a post-Christian world. Murray confesses his discomfort as both an agnostic who recognizes “the values and the virtues” of Christianity in Western civilization and “a nonbeliever who is disappointed by the behavior of the believing church,” which, he reckons, has ceased preaching the gospel in favor of the latest social and political tropes.
Murray’s latest title, The War on the West: How to Prevail in the Age of Unreason, strikes me as a coda to his previous books. He culls the dizzying number of stories from current events into a bricolage confirming our intuition that denizens of the West are practicing an extreme form of self-flagellation to atone for the sins of white supremacy, colonialism, patriarchy, and heterosexism. Worrisomely, this masochism appears to have no terminus of forgiveness, healing, or reconciliation because the inexhaustible will to power is at stake for the new masters. The juvenile chant of a marginal protest more than 30 years ago at Stanford University—“Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go”—has mushroomed into the pseudosophistication of today’s woke herd.
Any attempt to make Western civ optional or obsolete is a fool’s errand. We are inescapably bound up in its heritage. Instead of engendering the vanity of self-hatred, our geographic location should propel an earnest inquiry into the failings and glories of Western civilization and an appreciation for its gifts. Failure to do so results in ignorant enlightenment (not knowing the genealogy of ideas) and ungrateful achievement (not crediting our forebears who cleared the way to progress). Given the historical mistreatment of ethnic, sexual, and gender minorities in the West, Murray acknowledges the need for honest reckoning, but it is not as if the reckoning never occurred before. The pendulum has now “swung past the point of correction and into overcorrection,” he says, even igniting a thirst for revenge in formerly disenfranchised groups.
It is not my goal to recount dispatches from the war zone, which the author vividly narrates and whose cumulative force increases the plausibility of his thesis. If I were sharing a bottle of wine with Murray, I would focus on three aspects of his engrossing book: first, the appropriateness of invoking a metaphor of war to describe our contemporary upheaval; second, the centrality of antiwhite animus in his account; and third, the oddity of an exhortation to gratitude as a (partial) remedy to the pathology afflicting the secular West.
At the start of the evening, I would question the framing of Murray’s book: Is there actually a war on the West? American poet Carl Sandburg delineates the evolution of war:
In the old wars clutches of short swords and jabs into faces with spears.
In the new wars long range guns and smashed walls, guns running a spit of metal and men falling in tens and twenties.
In the wars to come new silent deaths, new silent hurlers not yet dreamed out in the heads of men.
Obviously, the war Murray has in mind does not belong to “the old wars” or “the new wars.” Perhaps “the wars to come” have already arrived; their “new silent deaths” are the casualties of cancel culture, typically anyone (Aristotle, Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill) or anything (math, logic, classical music, opera) that is redolent of Western hegemony. Black, indigenous, and people of color are the new white; female is the new male; gay is the new straight; secular is the new Judeo-Christian. These “new silent hurlers” use violence that is less physical than ideological, cultural, and political.
As an unapologetic defender of the West—“the side of democracy, reason, rights, and universal principles”—Murray fights admirably. “To assess the natural quality of even the cleverest heads,” Friedrich Nietzsche says in Daybreak, “one should take note of how they interpret and reproduce the opinions of their opponents. … The perfect sage without knowing it elevates his opponent into the ideal and purifies his contradictory opinion of every blemish and adventitiousness: only when his opponent has by this means become a god with shining weapons does the sage fight against him.” Even by his own standard, Nietzsche failed to apotheosize his enemies, such as Plato and Paul. Murray approximates the status of sage by directly engaging with the words and actions of his opponents, whether critical race theorists, antiracist ideologues, education administrators, federal bureaucrats, Antifa-BLM rioters, the 1619 Project revisionists, statue topplers, anticolonialists, Enlightenment foes, and trendy clergy.
Some perspective is in order. War has been written into the cosmos ever since Lucifer, the bearer of light, esteemed himself equal to the Light, “and with ambitious aim / Against the throne and monarchy of God / Raised impious war in Heaven, and battle proud / With vain attempt,” as John Milton puts it in Paradise Lost. War moved from its cosmic battlefield to earth, but it will ultimately suffer the fate of the one who started it: defeat.
In the meantime, spiritual warfare animates every conflict—a reality not lost on previous generations of the church who recognized that “the sloth of disobedience,” or a failure to keep our zeal serving the Lord, is the ultimate cause behind war. In the opening of his sixth-century guide to monastic life, The Rule, Saint Benedict invoked martial imagery: “This message of mine is for you, then, if you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience to do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord.” As everyday monks, Christians belong not inside the walls of a cloister but to the church militant, which vigilantly campaigns against evil in the world and, more lamentably, in ourselves—not afraid, “for the Lord [our] God is the one who goes with [us] to fight for [us] against [our] enemies to give [us] victory” (Deut. 20:4).
The decisive battle in the Great War, which vanquished “the prince of this world” (John 12:31), was fought at the skull-shaped hill in ancient Jerusalem. Everything that follows Golgotha is a skirmish, including the cultural war against the Western tradition that Murray chronicles. Exaggerating the scale and severity of this war, Murray writes, “If we allow malicious critics to misrepresent and hijack our past, then the future they plan off the back of this will not be harmonious. It will be hell.”
No, hell occurs on the cross when “Christ’s body was given as the price of our redemption,” as John Calvin interprets the claim “He descended to hell” in the Apostles’ Creed. Besides the excruciating physical pain, “he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man.”
Midway through the bottle of wine, I would turn to a second aspect of interest in The War on the West: the antiwhite animus. What all of Murray’s enemies hold in common is a contempt for how the West underwrites the “parasitic-like condition” of whiteness, which does not yet have “a permanent cure,” according to psychoanalyst Donald Moss. “To delegitimize the West, it appears to be necessary first to demonize the people who still make up the racial majority in the West,” observes Murray. “It is necessary to demonize white people.” Murray correctly perceives internecine strife in the West, which makes Europe and North America weak as China vies to become the world’s unipolar superpower, but should we frame this strife primarily as a racialized conflict?
It is certainly worth asking how any white person today could answer Marc Lamont Hill’s gotcha question to a guest on the Black News Channel—“What do you like about being white?”—without setting off a tripwire. After all, society celebrates just about every species of identity pride except for white pride, which is judged inherently evil. Murray imagines two soft options for answering Lamont Hill’s question: either a colorblind outlook, which repudiates racial essentialism, or a reinterpretation of “white culture” as “a part of a universal culture,” open to all human beings, regardless of race. Though respectable, critics would still claim these answers betray white privilege.
At “the very edges of permissible sayability” is what Murray calls “the nuclear answer,” which takes stock of the good things that come from being white (read: Western). These include “almost every medical [and scientific] advancement”; “most of the world’s oldest and longest-established educational institutions”; “the invention and promotion of the written word”; “interest in other cultures beyond [one’s] own”; “the world’s most successful means of commerce, including the free flow of capital,” which has “lifted more than one billion people out of extreme poverty just in the twenty-first century thus far”; “the principle of representative government, of the people, by the people, for the people”; “the principles and practice of political liberty, of freedom of thought and conscience, of freedom of speech and expression”; “the principles of what we now call ‘civil rights,’ rights that do not exist in much of the world”; the music, philosophy, art, literature, poetry, and drama “that have reached such heights that the world wants to participate in them”; America as “the world’s number one destination for migrants worldwide”; and finally, “the only culture in the world that not only tolerates but encourages” self-criticism.
While this nuclear answer carries some truth, it also returns us to modern tribal lines of racial identity that are deeply problematic from a Christian point of view, which holds that there are only two “races” of human beings: the old creation of the first Adam and the new creation of the second Adam (2 Cor. 5:16–17). In an article for First Things, Anglican theologian Gerald McDermott, editor of Race and Covenant, claims the apostles taught that “the work of Jesus does not destroy the old creation unity of the one human race but redeems it and brings it to its God-given destiny by the power of the Spirit.” In another article for Public Discourse, McDermott disabuses evangelicals of racial essentialism because “there is a broad consensus among biologists and anthropologists that race as a clear distinction separating groups and individuals is a notion of modern origins without solid grounding in biology or genetics.” Moreover, biblical authors “grouped people by nations and cultures,” not by skin color. If skin color is only skin deep, then accident is not essence, lest Christians make a categorical mistake and sacralize the secular.
Near the end of our bottle of wine, I would address a third aspect of The War on the West. Of all strategies to fight this war, it is peculiar that Murray, as a lapsed Christian, exhorts his readers to wield the weapon of gratitude, which belongs to the arsenal of theists more than nontheists. Murray takes “an unauthorized loan from the theistic capital that he officially repudiates,” to borrow the words of philosopher John Cottingham. “True thankfulness has no really secure place in a worldview where ‘gift’ is nothing but a specious metaphor.”
To understand why gratitude plays a role in Murray’s account, we must first consider its opposite: resentment. Drawing on Nietzsche’s psychological insight that people “sanctify revenge with the term justice,” Murray avers that a disconcerting number of today’s social-justice warriors are motivated by resentment; they aim “to turn happy people into unhappy people like themselves—to shove their misery into the faces of the happy so that in due course the happy ‘start to be ashamed of their happiness and perhaps say to one another: “It’s a disgrace to be happy! There is too much misery!”’”
How can we be happy while watching a theatrical production of William Shakespeare’s Othello if we know his works are “full of problematic, outdated ideas, with plenty of misogyny, racism, homophobia, classism, anti-Semitism, and misogynoir,” according to a touchy librarian? How can we be happy while listening to George Frideric Handel’s Messiah if we know he “invested in a company that owned slaves”? How can we be happy strolling the world-famous Kew Gardens in London if we know its “plants were central to the running of the British empire,” as one botanist bemoaned? Behind calls to diversify and decolonize, the author detects “a pathological desire for destruction.”
People of resentment forbid “the best emotions,” and in Murray’s estimation, “the most important, without doubt, is gratitude.” He writes:
Without an ability to feel gratitude, all of human life and human experience is a marketplace of blame, where people tear up the landscape of the past and present hoping to find other people to blame and upon whom they can transfer their frustrations. Without gratitude, the prevailing attitudes of life are blame and resentment. Because if you do not feel any gratitude for anything that has been passed on to you, then all you can feel is bitterness over what you have not got. Bitterness that everything did not turn out better or more exactly to your liking—whatever that “liking” might be. Without some sense of gratitude, it is impossible to get anything into any proper order.
To be sure, resentment crowds out gratitude, which explains why the implacable critics of the West make woebegone society. But Murray’s notion of gratitude as an emotion is thin compared to the thick conceptualization in Christian ethics, which regards gratitude as a virtue that involves affection between a poor recipient and a prodigal giver, namely humankind and their Maker. Since God owes us nothing, everything he does give us—including himself—is gratuitous, consistent with his nature of gratuitous love.
In Learning the Virtues, Catholic priest Romano Guardini lamented how the virtue of gratitude has receded in the modern world, where democratic rights and economic transactions suppress the relational dynamic that is essential to gratitude. Guardini sets forth three conditions to gratitude:
Gratitude can exist only between an “I” and a “thou.” As soon as the consciousness of the personal quality disappears and the idea of the apparatus prevails, gratitude dies. Gratitude can exist only in the realm of freedom. As soon as there is a “must” or a claim, gratitude loses its meaning. Gratitude can exist only with reverence. If there is no mutual respect, gratitude perishes and turns to resentment. Anyone who gives assistance to others should think about that. Only the assistance which makes gratitude possible really deserves the name.
All three of these conditions have a theological character that Murray overlooks.
Is Murray guilty of what Nietzsche derisively calls “English logic,” as typified by Victorian novelist George Eliot: “They have got rid of the Christian God, and now feel obliged to cling all the more firmly to Christian morality”? In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche castigates this kind of sophistry with reasoning that is strikingly orthodox for a putative atheist:
When one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality. For the latter is absolutely not self-evident: one must make this point clear again and again, in spite of English shallowpates. Christianity is a system, a consistently thought out and complete view of things. If one breaks out of it a fundamental idea, the belief in God, one thereby breaks the whole thing to pieces: one has nothing of any consequence left in one’s hands. Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know what is good for him and what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows. Christian morality is a command: its origin is transcendental; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticize; it possesses truth only if God is truth—it stands or falls with the belief in God.
More than just “a fundamental idea,” gratitude is a vital practice of Christian living because of the gift economy that God set into motion with the creation of the universe and humanity, where “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights” (James 1:17). “Giving and thanking, which lift man above the functioning of a machine or the instinct of animals, are really the echo of something divine,” writes Guardini. “For the very fact that the world exists and embraces such inexhaustible profusion is not something self-evident; it is because it was willed; it is a deed and a work.”
Divine logic, contrary to unsound “English logic,” holds that gratitude is not possible without recognition, even adoration, of the ultimate Giver. If there is no Giver, to whom do we express gratitude? It is rather silly to thank the Earth, as if a plausibility structure in the secular West makes room for Gaea. It is silly to thank dead geniuses because the secularist, unlike the Christian, is not surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1).
So, I heartily agree with Murray that the weapon of gratitude is needful in these sour times, but we cannot rely on the vagaries of an emotion. The virtue of gratitude swims against “the corrupted currents of this world,” which is how Hamlet describes the rotten state of Denmark. Strength for exercising this virtue does not reside within us, as if we could retard the flow of water, but comes to us as another gift for which we give thanks to God.
Our gratitude, then, must go well beyond the blessings of the Western tradition to the inexpressible joy of salvation made available by the Man of Sorrows. Jesus has given us an identity and mission far nobler than custodians or saviors of Western civilization. We are his “chosen race”—notice the premodern and biblical sense of the word race—“a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that [we] may proclaim the excellencies of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9, ESV).
Christopher Benson is the director of culture and instruction at Augustine Classical Academy in Lakewood, Colorado. He worships at Wellspring Anglican Church in Englewood and blogs at Bensonian.
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