I've had all kinds of things I've been wanting to post, but unfortunately have been traveling and staying with internet-deprived relatives for more than a week. This may continue for some time, by the end of which I'm afraid I'll have lost all the deep thoughts I was hoping to store here. Oh well. For now, if you're reading this, I wish you a very good summer, one that is much more restful than mine
David Bentley Hart's essay on "Religion in America" from In the Aftermath had me chortling with glee at various points, and pondering profound observations at others. Hart's generous-minded, boisterously cynical assessment of the absurdities of American Christianity, which nevertheless compares favorably with the desiccated wasteland of modern secularist Europe, is one of the finest essays I have read.
In this post, I will just offer some of the more delightful lines and sharpest daggers from his glittering prose:
The station's oblong pillars were blackly begrimed; shreds of posters in garish hues hung limply from the walls; in shallow depressions of the concrete floor opaque pools of oleaginous water glistened with a sinister opalescence; an astringent chemical odor of antiseptics vying with various organic purulences suffused the damp air; a scattering of gaunt torsos farther along the platform bore eloquent witness to the malaise of Britain's post-war gene pool.
The last line there really had me in awe.
Or how about this vicious jab at American culture:
Obviously, in any number of ways, America is late modernity's avant-garde; in popular culture, especially, so prolific are we in forms of brutal vapidity and intellectual poverty that less enterprising savages can only marvel in impotent envy.
And one of his best summary statements on American Christianity:
Most of us, for instance, rarely have cause to reflect that some of the variants of America's indigenous evangelical Christianity, especially of the "fundamentalist" sort, would have to be reckoned--if judged in the full light of Christian history--positively bizarre. Yet many of its dominant and reputable churches have--quite naturally and without any apparent attempt at novelty--evolved a Christianity so peculiar as to be practically without precedent: an entire theological and spiritual world, internally consistent, deeply satisfying to many, and nearly impossible to ground in the scriptural texts its inhabitants incessantly invoke.
In justifying his confidence that the evangelical denominations will soon wholly outstrip the liberal mainline denominations:
I merely observe that theologically and morally conservative believers tend to have more children. Conservative American Christians reproduce at a greater rate than their liberal brethren, and at an enormously higher rate than secularized America; the extraordinary growth of traditionalist Christian communities in recent decades is something that has been accomplished not only by indefatigable evangelization, but by the ancient and infallible methods of lawful conjugation and due fruition.
A description of the current culture war in America that is second to none:
"It is a tension that--for want of that precious medium, civilization--looks likely to increase, for our extremes are becoming very extreme indeed: a modernity drained of any of the bright refinements and moral ambitions of Enlightenment reason or humanist idealism, reduced to a "high" culture of insipid ethical authoritarianism and a low culture consisting in a dreary hedonism (without a hint of healthy Rabelaisian festivity), ever more explicit and repetitive celebrations of violence, sartorial and sexual slovenliness, atrocious music, and an idyllic emancipation from the fetters of literacy or (in fact) articulacy; and an antiquity of real and dynamic power, but largely uncontrolled by any mediating forces of order, stability, unity, or calm. To the dispassionate observer, there might be something exhilarating in the spectacle, the grand titanic struggle--within the very heart of their homeland--between a secular culture of militant vanity and incorruptible coarseness and a Christian culture of often prosaic experientialist ardor."
Finally, the best, a delightful dismemberment of the liberal Episcopalian, John Shelby Spong:
"All of which [the rise of African Christianity] tends to make rather hilarious a figure like John Spong, the quondam Episcopal bishop of Newark. It was Spong who, in 1998, produced a hysterical screed of a book, pompously entitled Why Christianity Must Change or Die, that--in arguing for a "new Christianity," unburdened by such cumbrous appurtenances as, for instance, God--succeeded only in making audible the protracted death rattle of a moribund church. It was Spong also who, that same year, appalled that African bishops at the Lambeth Conference were about to defeat movements towards an official Anglican approbation of homosexuality, delivered himself of a fiercely petulant diatribe almost touching in its unreflective racism; these Africans, he declared (all of whom were far better scholars and linguists than he, as it happens), had only recently slouched their way out of animism, and so were susceptible to "religious extremism" and "very superstitious" forms of Christianity. Now, admittedly, Spong is a notorious simpleton, whose special combination of emotional instability and intellectual fatuity leaves him in a condition rather like a chronic delirium tremens; so it is not surprising that, on being somewhat unceremoniously roused from the parochial midden on which he had been contentedly reclining, his reaction should be puerile and vicious; but is perplexity and rage were genuine and understandable."
In this flat-out phenomenal essay, David Bentley Hart argues that there is no danger of our culture reverting into a kind of paganism; on the contrary, the only remaining alternative to Christianity in Western society is the nihilism of individualist self-love. This is far worse than the rather more noble ancient paganism, which, for all its problems, at least had some sense of the numinous, some sense that there was something to be feared, that man ought to stand in awe at. Christianity, he suggests, in asserting the absolute ultimacy and universality of God, devoured all that was good in the ancient pagan faith, all the traces of nobility which held nihilism in check, showing that they were properly fulfilled in the Christian God. Because of this, paganism was so thoroughly demolished that it is no longer a genuine option for Western civilization…all roads to paganism ultimately lead to Christ now. All that is left is the husk of nihilism that was left when Christianity plundered paganism.
I really shouldn’t give it all away, but here’s the last page, just to give you an idea of how amazing it is:
Modern persons will never find rest for their restless hearts without Christ, for modern culture is nothing but the wasteland from which the gods have departed, and so this restlessness has become its own deity; and, deprived of the shelter of the sacred and the consoling myth of sacrifice, the modern person must wander or drift, vainly attempting one or another accommodation with death, never escaping anxiety or ennui, and driven as a result to a ceaseless labor of distraction, or acquisition, or willful idiocy. And, where it works its sublimest magic, our culture of empty spectacle can so stupefy the intellect as to blind it to its own disquiet, and induce a spiritual torpor more deplorable than mere despair. But perhaps Christians—-while not ignoring how appalling such a condition may be—-should actually rejoice that modernity offers no religious comforts to those who seek them. If this is a time of waiting, marked most deeply by the absence of faith in Christ, it perhaps good that the modern soul should lack repose, piety, peace, or nobility, and should often find the world outside the Church barren of spiritual rapture or mystery, and should go about vainly looking for terrible or merciful gods to adore. With Christ came judgment into the world, a light of discrimination from which there is neither retreat nor sanctuary. And this means that, as a quite concrete historical condition, the only choice that remains for the children of post-Christian culture is not whom to serve, but whether to serve the God Christ has revealed or to serve nothing—-the nothing. No third way lies open now, because—-as all of us now know, whether we acknowledge it consciously or not—-all things have been made subject to him, all the thrones and dominions of the high places have been put beneath his feet, until the very end of the world, and—-simply said—there is no other god.
So, having been diverted from my lovely new books by packing, I have at last been able to return to them, and coincidentally, read to page 25 in each yesterday. For Milbank's The Future of Love, this encompassed his first essay, on Coleridge's political philosophy, "Divine Logos and Human Communication." As might be expected in a Milbank article, the majority of it was on metaphysics and I was able to follow very little of it. Even the parts on Coleridge's political philosophy proper often left me rather bamboozled. But a couple important points stuck out.
First, it appears that Kirk's classification of Coleridge as a fine example of "the conservative mind" is rather oversimplistic. Milbank categorizes the development of Coleridge's political thought in three main phases, only the second of which might be considered "conservative" in a classical sense. The final synthesis that he was working toward could be better described as a kind of Biblically-driven Christian socialism.
Second, Milbank makes some remarks that contribute intriguingly to my recent attempts to rethink law in terms of custom and tradition, as opposed to the desiccated, inescapably coercive structures of positive law that dominate our modern political understanding:
In accord with his understanding of the symbolic logic of human evolution, Coleridge develops a sort of doctrine of political indeterminism, which insists, against all rationalist politics, on the essential political value of the latent and obscure. He writes: "A Democratic Republic and an Absolute Monarch agree in this; that in both alike the Nation or People delegates its whole power. Nothing is left obscure, nothing is suffered to remain in the idea, unevolved as an existing, yet indeterminate right." The notion of sovereign power, notes Coleridge, too often involves the idea that our entire will has been alienated from us: it is as if "the whole will of the body politic is in act at every moment." Instead of this, Coleridge proposes, political delegation must be thought of as a trust, in which authority is not only answerable to the declared will of the electors, but must be attuned to their latent will, so that "non-formalised" interests can also play their part in politics.
(Because of all the craziness in packing and moving, this comes a few days late.) My first book, The Mercersburg Theology and the Quest for Reformed Catholicity, is now out, and ready to buy . It has received remarkably positive reviews from Mercersburg scholars and Reformed theologians, and I hope will be a valuable contribution to the growing discussion on Mercersburg, and on the need for a Reformed catholicity.
Here's an excerpt from the introduction:
Protestantism in America today is in trouble; or rather, it might be more accurate to say, protestantisms in America are in trouble. Liberal, Evangelical, Reformed, Charismatic—as we look around, it is apparent that the Protestant Church has lost a clear sense of its own identity. Denominations continue to proliferate, and many churches, too independent even to feel at home in one of these new micro-denominations, choose to act as their own “non-denominational” body. Even Reformed Presbyterians, with a supposedly “higher ecclesiology,” have so thoroughly lost sight of the deeper issues of the Church that they are reduced to wrangling with their Baptist brethren over the superiority of their presbyterial form of polity (which they then proceed to demonstrate eloquently by leaving it every few years and setting up a new one with “tighter doctrinal standards”). An increasing number of exasperated and disillusioned Protestants, in the search for something at least vaguely resembling the mystical Body of Christ, have turned to Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.
This unhappy turn of events is not as new as it may seem. More than 150 years ago, it was foreseen and prophesied by the great Reformed theologian John Williamson Nevin. In his day, for the most part, the Reformed churches of America still had enough lingering sense of the high majesty and history of the Church that they remained outwardly the stalwart heirs of the Reformation that they claimed to be. But Nevin knew that the reigning Reformed scholasticism did not possess the theological resources to cope with the swelling tide of sectarian subjectivism and arid rationalism, the twin daughters of the Enlightenment which threatened to overwhelm American Christianity. He saw that Princeton Seminary’s great war against revivalism was no more than a little scrap between consistent individualism and schizophrenic individualism. On his reading of the American religious climate, the only solution to the woes coming upon American Christianity was a return to the historical Reformational faith in the visible Church as the true Body of Christ, and an embrace of the whole of that Body’s history and members, including Catholicism. And, so far as he could tell, there was no one left in the American Reformed corridors of power who would still stand for such a faith, or venture such an embrace.
I got two new books in the mail yesterday (the first time I’ve ordered new books in a depressingly long time), and rarely has so much genius graced my mailbox with its presence. I could barely restrain my excitement as I opened them—John Milbank’s The Future of Love: Essays in Political Theology and David Bentley Hart’s In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments. Being both collections of occasional essays, rather than sustained monographs, they will be perfect for the kind of morsel-sized reading I will have time for in the next month of travel across our vast and scattered nation. Since I was too impatient to read both to abandon one to devote attention to the other, I read first the Preface of Milbank’s and then the Preface of Hart’s. And I was already captivating. From page 1, Milbank is at his usual business of hitting ideological nails on the head with a hammer of remarkable weight, and Hart is at his usual business of deftly plucking them from the wall with the other end of the hammer, swinging them around his head, and lobbing them across the room.
Consider the following from Milbank, which puts very neatly what I have been clumsily trying to say for the last few months:
Today, of course, what we really have is two versions of a ‘left’ celebration of the ‘Many’ either as individuals or as a democratically voting mass. For reasons still not yet sufficiently accounted for by historians and social theorists, we have a ‘liberal right’ stressing economic negative liberty and a ‘liberal left,’ stressing cultural and sexual negative liberty. In reality, of course, the two liberalisms are triumphing both at once and in secretly collusive harmony. So perhaps what still sustains party conflict is alternating anxieties amongst the populace about the inevitable insecurities generated by now economic and now cultural ‘freedom’ in different temporal phases.
In just ten pages of Preface, Milbank makes the most intellectually powerful case I have yet seen for sweeping aside the false options of both right and left and adhering instead to a “Christian socialism” that is ecclesiocentric, anti-statist, and simultaneously democratic, aristocratic, and monarchical. No doubt this book will make many appearances on this blog over the coming couple months.
Meanwhile, Hart’s sparkling prose had me chortling with glee. He grudgingly offers some apology for his fiercely satirical criticisms, and then says,
My only defense—apart from confessing my sense that imperturbably mild manners often make for boring copy—is that I have never intentionally used language I thought disproportionately fierce in regard to any proposition or thinker, and that in reviewing these essays I cannot honestly find an instance of invective I particularly regret. Perhaps the most savage personal remarks I have ever committed to print are those I made regarding the bioethicist Joseph Fletcher in an article entitled ‘The Anti-Theology of the Body,’ and they astonished even me by their vehemence when I read them again in preparing this volume; I did not, however, alter them, or even soften them to the degree that the editors of The New Atlantis did when the article originally appeared, for the simple reason that they still do not seem unwarranted to me given the altogether loathsome nature of Fletcher’s ideas, and the scandal that so many of our tenured intellectuals do not recoil from those ideas with the horror and revulsion they merit. I do not know if I believe that any quantity of abuse heaped upon persons like Fletcher is truly excessive, except in tactical terms: if one wants to convince others of the justness of one’s views of anything, perhaps one ought to proceed in as moderate and cautious a manner as one can. But, then again, perhaps one occasionally should not; some ideas are simply evil, and the persons who conceive them somewhat depraved, and there may be something rather disgraceful in an unwillingness to say so.
Then he goes on to discuss his vicious critique of Daniel Dennett,
who, whatever his faults, could never be indicted of the sort of moral idiocy that permeated Fletcher’s work. In matters historical, religious, and even philosophical, Dennett is clearly something of an ignoramus; and he has always been a bad philosopher, however much he may be adored by journalists and book reviewers and his ideological comrades; and, since his work now belongs to that parasitic subcategory of analytic philosophy that serves simply as a sort of adjunct to the hard sciences, he no longer writes philosophy anyway. All of that would be quite pardonable, though, were it not for the self-importance, condescension, and imperiousness of his writings on the relation between scientific reason and religious belief. Ignorance and defective logic become truly offensive only when combined with invincible and self-deluding arrogance….[His book Breaking the Spell] is no worse, admittedly, than the books of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or Christopher Hitchens (though Hitchens, even if he cannot think his way to the end of a simple syllogism, can write fairly well, as Dennett most emphatically cannot); but the arguments of a philosopher—even a bad philosopher—must be held to a higher standard. Of course, the truth is that the entire tribe of the ‘New Atheists’ is a disappointment. A reflective and brilliant atheist is a man much to be admired, if he truly demonstrates an understanding of what it is he is rejecting; and an atheist genuinely willing to accept the full implications of his convictions (Nietzsche being a nonpareil example) should not be reviled for those convictions. But it seems obvious that among the innumerable evidences of late modern culture’s lack of spiritual depths one must include its manifest impotence to produce profound atheists. Instead, the best it seems we can hope for today are dreary purveyors of historical illiteracy, theatrical indignation, subfusc moralizing, and the sort of logical confusions that Richard Dawkins has brought to a level of almost transcendent perfection.
The recent reaction to SC Governor Mark Sanford’s Argentine affair has been very interesting, and very saddening. I have followed the unfolding drama more closely than I would normally follow such a thing, because Sanford was for a few years my governor, before I came out to Idaho, and I have respected him more than almost any politician (though that’s not saying that much)—he has been an outspoken Christian, an unflinching conservative, and has refused to compromise on any of his principles while in office, which is a very rare thing. Or so it seemed. His recent disappearance to Argentina and subsequent messy, stumbling unbosoming of the whole sordid affair have made national news…perhaps a bit too much national news, for that matter. The media has been barely able to disguise their glee that an outspoken Christian conservative was up to his neck in deception and hypocrisy. And to be sure, Christian conservatives should not go out of their way to defend the man, or to try to prop up the image of a fallen hero—he was a hypocrite, a liar, an idiot…no doubt about it.
But the response to this affair has revealed some rather unsavory realities about American society:
first, we are a terribly judgmental people, and second, we prefer politics to truth. In America today, it seems that we have three possible attitudes—either we lionize people, unaware that they have faults (e.g. Obama), or we despise and detest them because they have revealed their faults, or else we maintain a cynical detachment toward all…figuring they’re all scumbags, so who cares? There is no place for recognizing their faults and forgiving them. From what I’ve read in the media, and from the American public (in the form of letters to the editor and such), everyone despises him as a lying hypocritical scum who should be clubbed to political death. Now, that’s precisely what he was a week and a half ago, but now, he’s a broken, shamed man, who knows it, who hates his errors and is trying to get them off his chest and make a clean start, at least so far as I can tell. The articles I’ve read have not seemed really to challenge that he is genuinely repentant, but that doesn’t really seem to be relevant…no one’s interested in forgiving him. I have found that, for all the complaints in the broader culture that Christianity is so judgmental, that the broader culture is far more judgmental, far more unwilling to forgive—because of course you have to know yourself as forgiven in order to forgive.
I was particularly struck by a letter to a Washington Post columnist who’d written about his wife’s response—the letter was outraged at Sanford’s confession that he was going to try to make things right and was trying to fall back in love with his wife. “TRYING to fall back in love with his wife? I can’t believe he’d have the gall to say such a thing! If I were his wife, I would divorce him right away.” The columnist, who appeared to be a mature and intelligent woman, agreed enthusiastically. Why such anger? It would be more grounds for divorce if he tried to pretend that all this time he’d really been properly in love with his wife, and now all he had to do was brush the affair under the rug and be a good husband again. To admit as he did that he was trying to fall back in love with his life was a genuine and rending admission that he hadn’t just made some silly mistake, but had totally screwed up his relationship with his wife, and had been doing it for a very long time. And it was the statement of a determination to undertake the very difficult project of reversing that process.
This leads to the second point—we prefer politics to truth. Many articles I read lamented or mocked his terribly mismanaged confession...conflicting versions of what happened, gradually getting worse, tearful laments about how hard this was to give up, how much this woman had meant to him, throwing out unnecessary confessions of all the other little infidelities he had indulged in over the years. What terrible politics! Doesn’t he understand how to keep up an image? Just make a clean breast of this affair, don’t add unnecessary emotional details, don’t tell us more about other sins that we didn’t know about, tell us you know you were wrong, resign from what you need to, and start projecting a positive image. This was the gist of these articles’ suggestions. But again, the articles did not seem to challenge the genuineness of the emotions and regrets he was expressing—he may be telling the truth, trying to clean out his conscience, etc., but that’s not what we want. We want something that is neat, tidy, and preserves as much political face as possible. We actually prefer the glib apologies and prepackaged expressions of regret of someone like Clinton, which reduce their sins to mere misdemeanors, to the rending, piece-by-dirty-piece confessions of Sanford, which bear all the trademarks of a genuine human being, struggling with genuine sin that has held him captive for years, and that he is struggling to throw off.
This is not, of course, meant to suggest that Sanford should not be pressured to resign, that his political career should not be ruined, etc. Perhaps he should resign, and his political career should be ruined. King David faced terrible temporal consequences of his adultery, but that did not change the fact that he was a forgiven man, a man who loved God and whom God loved.
It is also quite possible that additional facts of the case that I don’t know or that have not yet emerged will prove wrong my assessment of Sanford’s genuineness—but the main points, about what this affair has said about our culture, still stand.