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Religion & Liberty: Volume 29, Number 4

Founding a Republic of Letters

    Beyond Tenebrae: Christian Humanism in the Twilight of the West

    Bradley Birzer | Angelico Press | 2019 | 258 pgs 

    Bradley Birzer’s Beyond Tenebrae: Christian Humanism in the Twilight of the West recounts the narratives of the men and women of the previous century who dared to embrace the “permanent things.” In an age where confusion reigns about the most basic of human assumptions, Birzer writes of those who sought permanence. Beyond Tenebrae follows the pattern of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind: It lays out no rubric or policy. Instead, through the lives of Christian humanists, Birzer enchants the mind and draws the reader into a living dialogue of letters. 

    Tenebrae refers to the time of spiritual darkness between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, when the Light of Life seemed gone from the world. The title’s metaphor establishes the present as a time of darkness, and Christian humanism as a candle burning in that darkness. Though the forces of progressivism seek to extinguish the flame, biographer Birzer shows a chain of humanists who kept alight enduring truths through their humanistic studies. 

    The book is divided into two parts. In the initial “Conserving Christian Humanism, ” Birzer spends six chapters defining key terms, of which “humanism” and “conservative” are the most significant. Identifying as a humanist, Birzer explains the need to rescue the term humanism: “Yet when I mention ... ‘humanism’ among conservatives, I am almost always greeted with silence, head shaking, or actual visible disgust. Almost all conservatives, it seems, associate humanism with secularism and atheism and radicalism.” Instead of contemporary secular humanism, Birzer seeks to restore the term with five “canons of humanism.” Humanists “believe in the dignity of the human person, ” and they “see liberal education as the most proper education for the development and nurturing of a human being.” Christian humanism locates the human person “in the middle of things, ” above the animals yet below the angels. Fourthly, “the humanist upholds citizenship in the Republic of Letters – across time – as higher than loyalty to any nation or worldly powers.” Finally, “while the humanists have never agreed about a god or God, the humanist understands that some THING stands above any one person or all of humanity together.” (Emphasis in original.) 

    Birzer pays homage to Kirk by listing the six “canons of conservatism, ”and then describes five principles giving coherence to the Republic of Letters. He writes that “the conservative is always and everywhere a dogmatist in the proper sense of the term. The true dogmatist promotes a series of ‘good little truths’ without reifying all knowledge as absolute or absolutist, recognizing the importance of a partial understanding of things.” The five principles constitute the core of this right “dogmatism.” 

    “The first principle of the conservative, ”he writes, “is the preciousness of each individual human person, each person an unrepeatable center of dignity and freedom.” Conservatives also affirm “the necessity of community.” The third dogma is concerned with “the need to preserve and defend liberal education.” Fourth, the conservative believes “the most important knowledge is poetic knowledge.” By this, Birzer means the mythic truth, what Richard Weaver called the “metaphysical dream, ”and what Charles Colson called a “worldview.” The story within which we interpret the world is itself the most important kind of knowledge. Lastly, the conservative upholds an “embracing of the classical and Christian virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude, faith, hope, and charity.” Conservatism, then, is a certain set of values that Birzer contends are best encountered through the Republic of Letters. 

    In the second section, “Personalities and Groups, ”Birzer writes 27 short essays explaining 26 figures from the twentieth century (Kirk gets two chapters) and their contributions to this literary Republic. Some figures will be no surprise to Birzer’s readers: J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Dawson, Irving Babbitt, and Eric Voegelin all feature prominently. There is a second tier of names with less fame: T.E. Hulme, Canon B.I. Bell, Theodor Haecker, Clyde Kilby, and “The Order Men” (who founded the journal Order) fall into this category. And then there some surprises: Birzer includes Margaret Atwood of The Handmaid’s Tale and Maddaddam fame, along with Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, and Walter Miller. Several other people receive essays, including one each for Birzer’s grandparents. 

    The second half of Beyond Tenebrae is a loose collection of essays that holds together through participation in the previously outlined principles of humanism and conservatism. These figures are bound together, not by education or ideology, but by participation in a life spent pursuing truth and expressing it in writing. As one works through the different essays, two metaphors come to mind. In one sense, Beyond Tenebrae represents an orchestra made up of major and minor instruments. Several essays, (mostly on previous subjects of Birzer’s book-length biographies, or his family members), come across with a greater depth of insight and significance. The other essays function as secondary instruments, deepening the themes introduced by the first set. At the same time, the essays function as a delicate web of ideas, complex to the point that direct description would shatter the delicacy of the whole. Birzer’s approach is reminiscent of Kierkegaard’s oblique philosophy; rather than didactically telling people how to be conservative humanists, Birzer’s biographical approach invites the reader to enter a lived experience of conservatism, worked out in the real world by real people. In this sense, the strongest essays in the collection are the two dedicated to his grandparents, Wendelin and Julitta Basgall. 

    Many books have attempted to recount the changes in Western civilization across the twentieth century. Brad Birzer’s Beyond Tenebrae offers something different; rather than a tale of decline, Birzer’s stories reveal endurance and renewal in the midst of a decadent world. While he ends with a Rod Dreher-esque note of pessimistic realism, Birzer’s book demonstrates an ongoing hope. The West will survive into a future day; the perennial things will continue. And in each generation, a few will inherit the tradition and carry on the legacy of Christian Humanism within this Republic of Letters, which extends through time and space. 

    Beyond Tenebrae flows out of Brad Birzer’s lifelong passion for Christian humanism. It combines his professional skill as a biographer with his personal love of ideas. In this book, he does what he has done in the classroom for years: inspire the reader to dive deep into the Great Tradition. And in that inspiration lies hope for the West. 

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    Josh Herring is a humanities instructor at Thales Academy, a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Hillsdale College, and a doctoral student in Faulkner University's Great Books program. He has written for Moral ApologeticsThe Imaginative ConservativeThink Christian, and The Federalist. His passion is studying the intersection of history, literature, theology, and ideas expressed in the complexities of human life.