Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Men Have Forgotten God


If modernist art and the human sciences had been dissolving the West’s cultural foundations for decades, the First World War brought the utopian structure down like an edifice demolished.

The Age of Nihilism: Christendom from the Great War to the Culture Wars, by John Strickland

The Enlightenment project hit its peak in the second half of the nineteenth century.  The last stronghold of the institutionalized inequality of man, slavery, was banished in the West.  Economic growth was accelerating – a clear vision of an improved economic standard of living for all.  Personal liberty, for most, was clearly advancing.

The achievements of utopia may have been impressive on economic and political levels, but on a cultural level things were different. … It was becoming increasingly evident that utopia was threatened by the very beliefs and values that inspired it.

In other words, liberalism does not have the means to defend and hold onto liberalism; Enlightenment values were killing the Enlightenment.  It is very easy to see this today, but there were those who saw this coming more than a century ago – men like Chesterton and Belloc.

Nietzsche and Wagner were already being venerated at the dawn of the twentieth century.  They inspired a new generation of nihilist thinkers.  Music, art, literature, science, philosophy – all developed branches from this nihilistic trunk.  The one thing all had in common, regardless of discipline: a conscious effort to destroy Christianity.  In other words, deconstruction: a rejection of what the West had once been, to be replaced with…whatever.

For its elitist membership, all values inherited from Christendom’s distant and recent past were to be abandoned in exchange for a life of sensuality and rebellion.

Franz Kafka demonstrates the inevitable future.  In Metamorphosis, the hero awakens one morning to find he has been transformed into a monstrous insect:

It is an absurd and disturbing opening, but the story amasses an ever-growing series of setbacks to demonstrate that utopian man is anything but what the humanists had once proclaimed.

But this is almost child’s play when seen against The Trial.  The hero is charged with a crime he did not commit.  In fact, the crime is never even named. 

His hero is persecuted, arrested, put on trial, and finally, in the last scene, “shot like a dog.”

Emile Durkheim would write of anomie, a condition in which the individual, cut off from traditional morality, is unable to live morally.  In other words, it isn’t that God is dead; it is that man is dead to God.

Durkheim met the end of his life wondering when, exactly, the anomy caused by secularization would be alleviated.  For his twenty-first century successors measuring suicide rates in the sociology departments of modern universities, the question is still being asked.

But of all of the branches that grew from the trunk of nihilism, perhaps the most culturally subversive human science to appear was psychology.  And the father of this branch was Sigmund Freud.  In his wake, the sexual conventions of two millennia became casualties.  And the fruit of this nihilistic tree was running full-speed toward the abyss of the Great War. 

The blow that hurled the modern world on its course of self-destruction was the Great War of 1914 – 1918. (Barzun*)

Ideological nationalism, the efficiency of the bureaucratic state, government-led propaganda, mass conscription, and the new industrial economy – all products of the new utopian civilization erected over the previous century – led to the deaths of some ten million soldiers and another ten million civilians due to hunger and disease.

But not before 1914 was the flush of blood lust seen on the whole intellectual class. …For the first time in their lives they had become important, useful, wanted. … And everywhere the clergy were the most rabid glorifiers of the struggle and inciters to hatred. (Barzun*)

German theologians would add their names to the “Manifesto of Ninety-three German Intellectuals to the Civilized World.”  In England, the Anglican Bishop of London would infuse war with a spiritual purpose.  Leveraging the Armenian genocide by the Turks, he would call on British soldiers to kill the Turk’s allies, the Germans: “…kill the Germans; to kill them not for the pleasure of killing, but to save the world, killing the good and the wicked, the young and the old.”

Much has been said about the causes of the Great War… (Barzun*)

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has offered what I view as the best reason for the cause of this conflict and the century of destruction that followed:

And if I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire 20th century, here too, I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: “Men have forgotten God.”

Jacques Barzun has labeled this war the suicide of the West:

It was not long after the end of the Great War that farseeing observers predicted the likelihood of another and it became plain that western civilization had brought itself into a condition from which full recovery was unlikely. (Barzun*)

Strickland offered that two alternatives faced the West:

…either it would continue on its course of nihilism, or it would return to the paradisiacal culture that centuries ago had made it what it properly was.

We know the path that the West has taken since 1918, clearly it was a continuing path toward nihilism – in other words, it was suicide.


When he composed “The Waste Land,” [T.S.] Eliot was an agnostic.  However, he soon began to repent of the values that made the West unfruitful and forgetful.  By the time he composed his next major work, he was beginning to look to traditional Christianity for a solution to his own despair and by extension that of his civilization.

Eliot would convert to Anglicanism, and his next poem, “Ash Wednesday” was a call to repentance.

As the age of nihilism dawned, literary modernism’s greatest poet broke the cardinal rule of creativity: Thomas Sterns Eliot exorcised rather than surrendered to the specter of nihilism.



* From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, by Jacques Barzun


  1. I thought Solzhenitsyn's comment was strictly about Russia and the Bolshevik Revolution. But it obviously applies to all of Christendom.

    This article makes me want to read Eliot and Kafka now. Funny thing that my teacher in Junior High didn't explain the meaning behind Metamorphosis, that it was a warning of what nihilism was creating. She sure didn't explain that Christ and Him crucified was the antidote for turning into a giant insect. Or that what was causing such a supposed mental breakdown was because society had fully embraced secularism, atheism, nihilism, and modernism.

    1. He made this statement a few times in this speech. The first couple of times, his focus was Russia. But then he expanded it as I have depicted above. I chose to consider it applicable to the twentieth century in total, as it could be read that way...

      It does work for me, as such atrocities were committed worldwide, not only in Russia. And, in my view, the cause was (and is) the same.

    2. I agree. Just never thought of it that way before.

  2. Sadly most have yet to be introduced to true peace or joy and it is readily apparent. Our creator did not intend for his people to live an existence of hate and anger but his fallen angel does.

    1. This is really coming home through my work on the Sermon on the Mount at the other blog.