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Book review: John Carroll and 'The Wreck of Western Culture'

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 26 October 2004

The thesis of John Carroll’s book The Wreck of Western Culture; Humanism Revisited is that humanism, or humanistic rationalism, has robbed Western culture of the deep insights about humanity provided by faith. He works this thesis out mostly through examining major works of art, the painting, especially The Ambassadors by Holbein and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “the most written about text in Western culture other than the bible”. These works and others spell out the modern fall from the narratives that have sustained Western culture for 2,000 years, the stories of Israel and of Jesus. They both have a skull at their centre; Holbein, in a distorted form that can only be recognised obliquely and the skull of Yorrick in Hamlet. Both the ambassadors of Holbein and Shakespeare’s Hamlet are frozen by death and they symbolise the state of Western culture. For if death has lost all meaning it becomes the dominant force in our lives.

Western culture has lost the mythos that has sustained it, lost the overarching authority of religion that held everything together. Man has again become the measure of all things (Protagoras 490-420BCE). There have been other books that have traced this fall, but none as polemical as Carroll’s: This is a jeremiad, a head butt to the nose and a knee in the groin, we are left embarrassed, nauseous and in pain. This is why he has been accused of being overblown and outrageous. But the polemic is compelling even though at times over-stretched.

It seems to be a law of human nature that we find it hard to hold two worldviews in our mind at once. Thus as soon as we see the world as mechanism - as did the Greek Sophist; as did D’Alembert in the radical Enlightenment and hence in Darwin; and our current crop of scientists - we lose what may be called “the spiritual”. On the other hand, when we become spiritual enthusiasts, we have a tendency to forsake the truth of materialism and lose our contact with the world. What we need is a synthesis of the two that leaves both materialism and the spiritual intact. The following quote from Jordan Peterson, (pdf file 89.4KB) a scientist himself, makes this clear:


It is not clear either that the categories “given” to us by our senses, or those abstracted out for us by the processes of scientific investigation, constitute the most “real” or even the most “useful” modes of apprehending the fundamental nature of being or experience. It appears, instead, that the categories offered by traditional myths and religious systems might play that role, despite the initial unpalatability of such a suggestion.

The new thing that the above quote represents is that a mainstream scientist is able to hold both materialism and the spiritual together. By “spiritual” we do not mean the unnatural or the spooky but the essence of human life without which we cannot be said to be alive, or are so vulnerable in our diminished life that death lays close to us. The solution to Carroll’s impasse lays in this synthesis. But for this to happen we must understand that materialism does not necessarily empty the spiritual of meaning. Materialism only undermines religious culture when that culture holds to a materialist understanding of the events described in biblical texts. While Christianity is the most materialist religion of them all, that is one meaning of the incarnation, we must recognise that biblical texts were written out of a pre-scientific, mythological worldview. Bultmann has something to say to us after all. When this impasse is negotiated it is possible to understand the world as mechanism and to believe that the “word” became flesh and dwelt among us. Alas, it is a negotiation that few scientists achieve.

The impasse between the materialist and spiritual worldview is still being played out around the theology of creation and Darwinian evolution. Carroll rightly indicates this as one of the deep schisms that runs through the centre of modern Western Culture. The theory of evolution is the basic theory of all the biological sciences that reach into every corner of life. This is a theory that has ceased to be a theory, like Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the solar system: It has become scientific dogma. There are no rational alternates.

However, while this understanding about biological nature has given us huge benefits, it is also corrosive to any culture that would answer Carroll’s three big questions; Where do we come from (creation)? How do we live our lives (redemption)? And where do we go (the question of the meaning of death)? The theory of evolution empties any answers we might attempt by reducing humanity to the level of the beast. The answer to any of these questions for humanity is the same answer we may give to any living creature. We come from millions of years of chance interactions of genes, we live only to survive and pass on those genes and we die into nothingness. In the face of this onslaught, any thought about the purpose and meaning of life is defeated, or rather, dwindles to the pleasure principle. How can a culture survive when its guts have been torn out?

What my fellow scientists miss, and to a point also John Carroll, is that an understanding of the world as mechanism does not clear the world of meaning. It leaves us with spiritual culture, which cannot be reduced to mechanism even if certain evolutionary psychologists attempt to do so. Both natural science and theology exist as culture and they inform each other. What I see lacking in the church is this honest dialogue. The church cannot seem to let go of God as Aristotelian demiurge rather than Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Because it cannot rid itself of this tradition, nature will always be tied to God in a way that is unbiblical.

The consequences are that there is an unholy attempt to base faith on nature instead of history and tradition. The idea that there is a reason behind all things leads to the idea of natural law, which in turn leads the Catholic Church into unsupportable positions on contraception and homosexuality. Science has found that the world is material and is sustained by balancing forces and not a divine will and we must come to the conclusion that we live in a cold and uncaring place. This is a blessing for Christian theology because now it must revert to its true origins, i.e. history, poetry and legend.


It did not occur to the writers of the Bible that the miracle stories contravened what we now know cannot happen in nature. This does not make the biblical witness any the less true as it relates to the three big questions. There is, therefore, a way forward from our admittedly wrecked state. That way is not hostile to rationality, as Carroll seems to think. He needs to read past Kierkegaard. There is nothing irrational about systematic theology otherwise nobody could understand it. What is present is paradox: “If you would have your life you will lose it” etc. What is present is a creation legend that tells us about the human world and nothing about the origin of the material world. That is not irrational; it is a way of leading us deeper into the truth about ourselves. Christian theology is guided by the Logos of John’s gospel, the knowable word and thus can never be irrational.

To be fair, John Carroll is a sociologist and not a theologian. His job is to take the temperature of the culture that forms our lives, not to provide a cure for its ills. Carroll’s diagnosis is that we think we have free will and hence the “I” becomes the centre, which is to our spiritual impoverishment. What is certain for Carroll is that any observation of human behaviour will not reveal the clean-cut person who knows the good and does it. What it does reveal, and particularly in the last century, is that this kind of rationalistic view of the human comes unstuck in totalitarian regimes and the superficiality of modern life; children of rationalism all. He also understands, I think, that early Christianity, particularly in Paul, understood that good intentions are not enough.

For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Rom.7:18,19

This raises one of the deepest problems of rationalism: its over optimistic and simplistic view of the human person. It would rely on the study of ethics to find out what is good, then all we have to do is to get with the programme. Reading Hamlet will convince us that human nature is not that simple and reading the Bible will convince us that we are all fenced around by principalities and powers both of the world and within ourselves. We are not our own creatures. In this, Carroll has his finger firmly on the pulse.

Freedom from bondage is not just something we can decide about, that is humanism's great mistake. The fact is that our bondage to the universal elements of the universe, fear of death, greed, pride, jealousy, party spirit and so on, cannot be overcome by human will. This is where the debate between Luther and Erasmus springs. Luther’s point is that without Christ we are determined by the powers, we really do not have free will. When Carroll argues that the West forsook Luther for Erasmus and in so doing undermined the culture of the West, he is right. The problem is that he does not spell out how this is so. To do this he needs to read some systematic theology.

The Wreck of Western Culture is worth reading. John Carroll represents a prophetic voice from outside the church. This allows him to be brutally honest because he does not have to please a constituency that is wedded to a particular view of the meaning of Christianity. His analysis of our culture is concise and insightful and there will be many who will not take it seriously. They will rely on our achievements to prove him wrong, and they will miss the point - our achievements are increasingly built on metaphysically thin ice.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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