“Perhaps the best tool man possesses is his moral imagination. With it, man can rekindle old truths in new forms,” Birzer wrote in 2003.
Professor of History Bradley J. Birzer, in a recently self-published ebook, “Seeking Christendom: An Augustinian Defense of Western Civilization,” discusses how Augustinians of the 20th century — most prominently Russell Kirk and Christopher Dawson — responded to the Modern age during which they lived.
In 2003, Birzer wrote the book in just five days, and continued editing it until 2008. He tucked it away for 10 years, before deciding to self-publish it on Amazon in January 2019.
Because of its age, Birzer called the book a “timepiece.” The book is a collection of lectures Birzer anticipated teaching, as he himself worked through the ideas.
Birzer synthesizes the Augustinian scholars’ view of their world, and the book fulfills a twofold purpose: to teach the reader about these men from a historical standpoint, and to pass on their advice to modern Christians who face a hostile and broken world as creative individuals.
The book discusses a foray of issues through a humanist lense, from what makes an ideology (including capitalism) take root, to culture and myth. The world may seem to be falling apart, but Birzer does not encourage a fear-driven pessimism in his lectures.
The first chapter, titled “St. Augustine and the Twentieth Century,” compares the 410 A.D. sacking of Rome, and the subsequent panic, with the modern decline of Christianity. The modern scholars adapted Augustine’s beliefs when grappling with a world just as violently breached and attacked as Rome on that violent day that shook the faith of Christian world at the time.
C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, T.S. Eliot, and Dawson, as well as Kirk, Flannery O’Connor, Willa Cather, Thomas Merton, and others in the United States, fall under Lewis’ term “Old Western Men”: Everyone who thinks in a traditional sense, outdated for the 1950s.
Birzer said these Western Men succeeded because they emphasized the moral imagination, a term which was coined by Edmund Burke, to describe the human ability to look at the world and see the divine. Through metaphor and representation, people can develop the ability to see truth, thereby recognizing evil for what it is in everyday life.
A belief in Natural Law meant that truth was constant and couldn’t change with the times.
While these scholars held to an orthodox belief in Christianity, through which they viewed the world, they did not identify as one group. Birzer said they had many personality differences, and would sometimes criticize one another harshly.
“The humanist ideal transcends left and right,” Birzer said, in terms of these 20th century thinkers’ political ideology. “I was trying to figure out where I could have purpose without being a political partisan.”
But in addition to trying to overcome political partisanship, they agreed that art, literature, and culture, were higher subjects than politics and law, Birzer said. Their divergence from one another itself exemplifies the validity of their beliefs: Men have equal dignity as God’s image bearers, yet each individual has unique qualities.
With this understanding of unchanging truth, these 20th century scholars refused to adopt new ideologies in response to the contemporary horrors of Soviet dictatorship or the Holocaust, among others.
Instead, they sought to “return to tradition, and, specifically, to return to religion, virtue, and morality as the basis of culture,” Birzer wrote.
At the time he wrote it, Birzer was studying Christian Humanism broadly with two mentors and friends, and preparing to teach a history course on the subject.
Prior to this, Birzer had written a biography of J.R.R. Tolkien. As he studied 20th century Augustinians, he was preparing to write another biography, this one about Dawson, whom he called the “quintessential Christian Humanist.” Birzer knew that in order to appropriately portray Dawson, he would have to do an intensive study.
Even though he said he sees the book as the process of his younger self learning, rather than being on par with something he has written more recently, the issues explored and discussed remain relevant for Christians today.
The concept of the Economy of Grace, that a person is born with unique gifts in a specific moment of history to fulfill God’s purpose for him or her, is the foundation for the book.
While Birzer does not paint modernity in a positive light, highlighting the secularization and mass destruction of the 20th century, he provides a hopeful mindset for the future. God put these men in the world when he did because, “a group of men of this intellectual and moral caliber and traditionalist mindset could never have arisen in any recent century prior to the 20th.”
Birzer emphasizes God’s sovereignty, and reminds the reader not to panic in apparently dark times. With an introduction which draws comparisons between modernity and the fall of Rome, we’re reminded that evil has always been a part of the world.
While Birzer himself calls the book “chaotic,” it holds gems of history and hope in a modern age.