The Decline of Western Culture: A Letter to Wendell Berry

Feast of St Nicephorus, Archbishop of Constantinople

Sewanee_Teaching_Square.pngWHILE MY focus is currently zoomed in on solidifying EDI’s core offerings – making them consistent and top quality – and stabilizing EDI financially, the Catechetical Academy is never far from my mind. It is the reason I started Eighth Day Institute and it is going to happen. That’s a promise. But not quite yet.

Part of solidifying EDI’s core offerings includes clarifying who we are and why we exist. That’s why I asked you to tell me what you think. I’ve posted that feedback in the Eighth Day News (see here). EDI’s Board of Directors will sort through your comments to create a statement for us all to hang our hats on.

At a board meeting last night, I asked EDI’s Board of Directors (including myself) to answer these same questions. To force our answers to be off the cuff, as if we were on the spot explaining EDI to an inquirer, we were only given three minutes.

As I wrote down what I think EDI is and why I think it exists, I recalled describing the various ways the culture of our Western civilization is declining in the first letter I ever wrote to Wendell Berry. So I pulled out my physical copy of that letter this morning. I composed it on a typewriter just over ten years ago, on my birthday, at the very beginning of EDI’s existence as St John of Damascus Institute. And to my delight, I found it to be a great articulation of what I have long envisioned for the Catechetical Academy.

For a little context, at the time I taught at Northfield School of the Liberal Arts. In addition to my teaching duties, I organized a summer trip for the high-school students. As a part of that trip, I invited Wendell Berry to join us. Here’s that original letter of invitation, with the section highlighted that came to mind while answering the “what” and “why” of EDI:

Dear Mr. Berry,

I teach Western Civilization, Medieval History, Greek, and the Great Books at Northfield School of the Liberal Arts in Wichita, KS. I have also recently formed an institute that promotes the renewal of culture through faith and learning. St John of Damascus Institute and Northfield School of the Liberal Arts have collaborated to create a summer program for high-school students called “June School.”

This June, approximately twenty students will spend two weeks in the mountains of Tennessee. The heart of the program will include spiritual formation, intellectual study, manual work, and leisure. Students will spend an initial two days hiking and camping in the historic Natchez Trace State Park, followed by five days in a rural cabin, and then a final week at Sewanee University.

The mission of “June School” is to revive a Christian culture among young people. We hope to accomplish this by providing students with a schedule of study, work, and leisure, integrated into a rhythm of prayer modeled after Christian monasticism. Furthermore, mornings will be spent studying the Bible, the early Church Fathers, and Western Civilization; afternoons will include a combination of work (building a church, working with an Amish community, and organic farming) and leisure (reading, reflection, discussion, writing, and art); and evenings will focus on music and astronomy.

As you know, the heritage of our Western Civilization is deeply rooted in the Christian Tradition. Over the last several centuries, however, a great divide has developed between these two worlds and they both seem to be struggling to preserve their identity in our global, post-modern world.  Unfortunately, any semblance of a coherent Christian culture has for too long been fading further and further into the shadows. Moreover, when it comes to the traditional values of our Western heritage, we seem to be suffering a serious case of amnesia. Indeed, we have lost almost all sense of the sacred; we have forgotten that “life as a miracle is a gift to be accepted;” we have lost our passion for the perennial quest for “the true, the good and the beautiful;” we fail to comprehend that “we work in order to have leisure;” we have lost touch with the proper and vital role of feasting and fasting; we no longer believe that “small is beautiful;” our sense of place and community has been destroyed; our connection to the land has been disrupted; our sense of wonder has been dulled by the distractions of television, computers, and I-pods; our heroes are contemporary celebrities instead of great men of past ages who wrestled with the “great ideas;” and in our obsession for progress and the future, we have almost completely forgotten our past. In short, we have turned our back on far too many of the values and ideals conceived out of the womb of Western Civilization and the Christian Tradition.


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“June School” is a direct response to this tragic and frightening state of affairs. By addressing topics like those above, through lectures, readings, and discussions, we hope to ignite a movement that will give birth to an authentic Christian culture, a movement that will inspire young people to passionately embrace what Jean Leclerq so eloquently titled his study of medieval monastic culture: The Love of Learning and the Desire for God. (See enclosed catalogue, pg. 11).

This brings me to the purpose of this letter. So much of your work articulates and echoes our concerns and passions here in Wichita. You have been such a great inspiration to me personally and to so many of my dear friends. To pass on this inspiration in a more personal manner, I would like to invite you to address this year’s “June School” students.

I realize that you are very busy and that you must receive thousands of requests like this each year. If a personal visit to the cabin or to Sewanee University is impossible, we would be thrilled to come visit you and your farm. If this is too presumptuous of a request – forgive me for my boldness – would you be kind enough to address the 2007 June School participants with a response to this letter that includes any of your reflections on the aforementioned topics?

Thank you for your attention to this letter.  I remain yours

                                                                                    sincerely,

                                                                                    Erin Doom

Although Berry was unable to join us and did not offer any responses on this occasion, he has since responded to me with insights in other letters (here’s a link to one of them responding to a few questions about the 2015 Eighth Day Symposium; sometime down the road I’ll share another letter from Berry which resulted from a winter trip I organized for Northfield).

My encapsulation of the decline of our Western culture ten years ago was right on. And I believe the diagnosis is even more pertinent today. Hence the imperative for a Catechetical Academy. It’s coming.

 

In Christ,

Director Doom

 

P.S. For what it’s worth, since I made all the responses to “What?” and “Why” anonymous, here is how I answered those two questions in less than three minutes:

1) EDI is a Christian 501(c)(3) organization that seeks to renew culture through faith and learning by promoting an ecumenical dialogue of love and truth with an emphasis on the classics of Western Civilization, which shed light on ultimate questions, and the early Christian Tradition, which all Christians held in common for at least the first 1000 years of the Church’s history.

2) EDI exists because Western culture is decaying, Christendom is divided, and too many Christians have forgotten their common heritage in the early Christian Tradition.


Erin Doom is the founder and director of Eighth Day Institute. He lives in Wichita, KS with his wife Christiane and their four children, Caleb Michael, Hannah Elizabeth, Elijah Blaise, and Esther Ruth.

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