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The Decline of the West

Most people of our time are existentialists, even though they may never have heard of that philosophy, nor of existentialist thinkers from Kierkegaard through Camus and Sarte.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony,
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Most people of our time are existentialists, even though they may never have heard of that philosophy, nor of existentialist thinkers from Kierkegaard through Camus and Sarte. The old observation is accurate, that armies march because of the ideas and philosophies of men unknown to them. Most people do not know what presuppositions of the modern world have been and are, nor what the world's direction is, nor why it is near death culturally.

As Henry Van Til noted, culture is religion externalized. As that culture develops, the old order often continues in the new, rebaptized into respectability by inclusion. Rene Descartes, the father of the modern age, shifted the intellectual world from the triune God to the supposedly autonomous mind of man.

The medieval criterion had commonly been, "What say the Fathers of the church?" or "What says the Holy Father?" For the Reformation, it was, "What say the Scriptures?" The modern world, being Cartesian, responds with "Well, I think," or, "In my opinion," or, "As far as I am concerned," and other like egocentric statements, and especially since the Romantic era of the modern age, "I feel" has been determinative for many.

No man has written more devastatingly of the fallacies basic to the emphasis on man's supposedly autonomous reason than Cornelius Van Til. Modern man begins by insisting on the necessity for rationalism in all discourses but ends up with nothing except itself. All else is finally swept away. Man's reason is a very jealous and exclusive god!

The Dregs of Society
At the bottom levels of societies, it is not uncommon to find depravities, perversions, a contempt for law and order, hostilities to the church, state, school, family, industry, and more. The resentment harbored by the failures in a society is as old as history. As long as those above their level retain a living faith, they can effectually govern the lawless and disorderly element. Such failed persons can be the objects of charity, but their opinions are usually in history of no consequence, and their lawlessness is generally controlled.

What happened to the West is that, as Christendom receded, and as the church became marginal in its relevance, and as modern philosophy undermined values and faith, the lowest elements' thinking became that of the overlords. Underground man became the social model for many. The "hippy" and related movements saw the children and youth from the "best" families model themselves after the dregs of society in speech, dress, and behavior.

The Enlightenment had enthroned the Cartesian premise of the sovereignty of the autonomous mind of man, it had brought God and the Bible to the bar of man's reason and had found them wanting. Max Stirner (1805-1856) had held, in The Ego and His Own, that since there was no God, there could be no moral law. He despised the atheists who were closet Christians because they refused to practice incest within the family. Morality, monogamy, restrictions of any kind, he held to be disguised forms of Christianity. Not surprisingly, in the 20th century, the Marquis de Sade has been openly hailed as a great thinker and psychologist for his open avowal of, and even practice of, every form of perversion.

As Otto Scott has pointed out, before the French Revolution, it was still the concept, however battered in some areas, of Christendom which prevailed. After that flood-tide of evil, the idea of the West, or the Western World, replaced it. This meant Europe and the Americas. It also meant the white race. Racism has been a major result of the idea of the West. Prior to that, religious differences were basic, but all men were potentially converts to Christ, and the goal was to bring them all in. With World War I, this began to decline. Modernism infiltrated the "main-line"churches and captured their pulpits, colleges, and seminaries. Christianity was seen in white and Western terms, and it was damned for this by the world at large as well as by churchmen.

A Brave New World
The West, having abandoned Christ and Christendom, has dreamed great dreams of a "brave new world" and of an ideal "new world order." For some centuries, the knowledge and development of tools has been underway, making possible the first Industrial Revolution of the 1800s, and the second one with computers, etc., after World War II. Given the premises of humanism, the world should very quickly become a paradise. Everything on the technological side is in order. Instead, however, the world since World War II, and especially since 1960, when President John F. Kennedy presided over the fairytale Camelot which was in reality a moral cesspool, we have had, not heaven on earth, but hell. The schools are moral and educational failures; the world of politics has become war zones in conflicts between rival gangs. The West is dying and does not understand why.

The failure began with Descartes, and with all the men of the Enlightenment, and all who have followed them. Christianity and Christendom see man as a sinner, a fallen and depraved creature needing salvation. Calvinists have held that man is totally depraved, i.e., that every aspect of his being is affected and governed by sin. Man's need therefore is salvation by the atonement of Jesus Christ. Apart from Him, man will replicate his sin in every area of life and thought. As a redeemed man, the Christian has a duty to bring all things into captivity to Christ, every sphere and every activity.

The governing thesis of Western man is that the problem in man and society is not sin but a lack of knowledge. Western thinkers have replaced man created in the image of God with rational man. At the same time, however, they have undermined man's rationality by reducing man to an animal and a product of evolution. Darwin's puzzled question remains: how can we trust our thinking if we are not more than an advanced ape?

Technology thus has not led to paradise on earth, because man himself cannot live in peace with himself or with anyone else.

Not only is the West dying, but in the process it is denying its own heritage. In universities, required Western Civilization courses are now damned as Eurocentric and hence evil.

The Will to Death
The West has collapsed internally, and this is a forerunner of external collapse. Richard Sennett has pointed out that, whatever men may doubt, "Belief remains a fundamental social condition, nor is the will to believe erased, even as mankind loses a belief in gods." Belief has been transferred from the supernatural to "the immediate life of man himself, and his experience as a definition of all that he can believe in." As man has "demystified" the gods, he has mystified himself.1

Alexis de Tocqueville foresaw this withdrawal of public man into himself, a retreat from a common culture into an anarchistic individualism. The result is narcissism. It has taken over the West, and Protestantism also. "Nothing is real if I cannot feel it, but I can feel nothing."2 Man as his own god defines his own reality, and he reduces the world into his own mind or feelings. Civility then begins to wane and disappear, because civility is a recognition of social obligations, a realization that there is more to the world than our own feelings and annoyances.
To turn on one's television set is to witness mindless and senseless plots, people determined to supplant God's reality with their evil imagination, and a determination to waste life on trifles. Of course, the insanity of modern politics is good evidence also. The old proverb is true: "Whom God would destroy, He first makes mad."

The West is declining because it has lost the will to live: it is eaten up with self-hatred, and it has a will to death.

(Abridged from The Journal of Christian Reconstruction: Symposium on the Decline and Fall of the West and the Return of Christendom, No. 2, Vol. XIII, 1994, pp. 61-73)


1. Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man (New York: Alfred A. Knoph, [1974] 1976), p. 151.

2. Ibid., p. 335.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965. His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.” He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

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