Book Review: The World Turned Upside Down

George Weigel, reviewing The World Turned Upside Down for NR, has an interesting thought about the flaw in logic found even among supporters of the particular notion that…

“…reason detached from the Jewish and Christian sources of Western civilization — and especially from the idea that God impressed a certain rationality on creation, thus rendering it intelligible — has become the parody of reason that is postmodernism: the witches’ brew of metaphysical nihilism, epistemological skepticism, and moral relativism that underwrites the political correctness Phillips correctly deplores.”

The “flaw in the argument,” as Weigel describes it, is the author’s “uncritical adoption of one facet of the Whig theory of history”:

As for Ms. Phillips’s missing the rich pluralism of medieval social, cultural, and intellectual life, well, let’s just say that no one familiar with the history of the European university (which was the creation of the Catholic Church), and with the public debates over quaestiones disputatae that were a staple of European university life in, say, the 13th century, could possibly suggest that “debate” in Europe began with the Enlightenment. There was a lot more genuine debate between defenders of the received neo-Platonic and Augustinian theology of the day and men like Thomas Aquinas, who wanted to bring Aristotle to bear on Christian self-understanding, than there was between Voltaire and his sparring partners.  This historical myopia is unhappily reminiscent of the new atheists whom Phillips rightly dismisses for the intellectual charlatans and in vitro authoritarians they are.

Weigel also argues for the West “to recover its commitment to reason, and thus its civilizational and cultural morale” by replacing “a distorted narrative built in large part on certain black legends about Christianity with a more “nuanced historical narrative about the relationship between faith and reason, religious conviction and intellectual exploration.

  • Religious conflict often had “far more to do with dynastic politics and the formation of modern nation-states than with contending theories of the theology of justification.”
  • Recognizes that “for all their mismanagement and brutality, the Crusades were a legitimate response to Islamist aggression and were primarily motivated by religious devotion and self-sacrifice, not by the testosterone-driven aggressiveness of second and third sons with nothing better to do with their lives under the laws of primogeniture then prevailing in Europe.”
  • Points out that “what we know as the scientific method arose only in cultures (which had) an intellectual climate that accepted the Biblical conviction that God created a world of inherent intelligibility?
  • Argues that although Christians ought to feel ashamed of the Inquisition, but that godless ideologies (like Communism) “killed [and enslaved – ed] more men and women in a slow week than the Inquisition in its various forms did over centuries.
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