Steve Bannon once expressed the view this piquant political moment could be “as exciting as the 1930s.” Not because the president is akin to Hitler. But because “everything might be up for grabs: not just electoral coalitions, but the nature and destiny of the liberal order.” Drawing on Patrick Deneen’s new book, Why Liberalism Failed
, Ross Douthat gives
credibility to his thesis:
Where it once delivered equality, liberalism now offers plutocracy; instead of liberty, appetitiveness regulated by a surveillance state; instead of true intellectual and religious freedom, growing conformity and mediocrity. It has reduced rich culture to consumer products, smashed social and familial relations, and left us all the isolated and mutually suspicious inhabitants of an “anticulture” from which many genuine human goods have fled.
Then, on the basis we lack consensus on an alternative to the current regime, and with Trumpism apparently on the wane, Douthat concludes that “maybe the crisis of liberalism isn’t real, maybe people are just play-acting.”
As a Christian, Douthat is aware of the parasitic qualities of modernity, how it draws upon tradition and the “moralism and metaphysical horizons of religion,” while trashing the beliefs, rites and institutions from which that inheritance arose. Yet he overlooks the fact this subversive mindset is the calling-card of his savior, the archetypal political wrecking ball.
“Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth,” says the Gospel according to Matthew. “I did not come to bring peace but a sword.”
While miracles, true or otherwise, were obviously helpful, Jesus is the cultural icon he is because he bore witness to two principles, separate but related. First, accept without question the will of God, our one true deity. A reasonable request, given only an omniscient transcendent force, the first cause of everything, could ever truly know why the universe exists, what the Plan for restoring pre-cosmic unity involves and the role we each have in the glorious Homecoming. Second, love your neighbor, no matter what.
Vertical Then Horizontal
Importantly, these goals are hierarchical. The person and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth focus on the vertical aspect of life, that inner connection with Something Greater, a presence and imperative both behind and beyond the material world. Reality, qualitative and holistic, always more than it seems, is a mystery that cannot be mastered. So why, as he asks during the Sermon on the Mount, worry? If the birds and lilies are cared for, surely, so too are we. The teller of parables implores Man to stop reasoning in his heart. Myth and allegory, more than the grasping mind, is how we make sense of things. Regardless of how daunting the path that rises up to meet him, by embracing his fate, Jesus is able to transcend incredible physical and psychological suffering and, in so doing, give meaning to his mortal existence. With an eternal foothold secured, his sublime self-confidence is freed to contend with the horizontal, all that is worldly.
Jesus is no anarchist. Render to Caesar what it rightly his, but don’t overreach. Don’t judge or seek vengeance. “And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?” is practical advice, as no-one – king, cleric or president – has a complete handle on the big picture. The moral truth, familiar to us inwardly but also independent, and thus, in effect, objective, must nonetheless be lived subjectively, in response to the concrete particularities of our own unique calling. Any attempt to reduce it to a set of rules and conventions for political purposes is an act of vanity, a pre-empting of the Plan that aims to put Man on par with God. As Paul makes clear in his epistle to the Romans, “he who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
Anyone, at any time, irrespective of race, class or gender, can opt to make absolute faith their raison d’être. Which is not to disavow the common good or a collective cause. We all get Home, or no-one does. It’s just that a durable union of souls has to be co-incidental to a freely-made, personal apprehension of Something Greater. Aware of this vertical-horizontal dynamic, Jesus strives for pluralistic solidarity based on empathy, compassion and commonsense. The past is locked down, the future uncertain, in the hands of our maker. Yet we can influence the present by being open and attentive to its immediate, other-worldly demands. He takes the sword, not to structure and critical thought per se, but to a shameless reliance on formal orthodoxy and iron-fisted authority to achieve eschatological closure.
Of course, the uncomplicated story of Jesus, shared over bread and wine, eventually succumbed to sophistry. Political movements naturally prioritize horizontal order and stability over a mystical fellowship with a universal spirit whose intentions are unknowable to reason. The church domesticated its messiah. Thankfully, his radical egalitarianism and individualism re-emerged centuries later, causing the cultural West to depose a quasi-spiritual Christian theocracy, ossified by the false hope a punitive system, exclusive and morally rigid, would one day deliver the advertised love-conquers-all ethos.
But as Deneen correctly observes, the replacement is just as – if not more – disappointing. Freedoms cultivated since the Reformation and Enlightenment have been overrun by an insidious strain of statism. The gathering moral and social wreckage has left a disempowered populace unable “to control or influence the state, the economy, and much of our own fates.” And there’s no prospect of reform. Nor can we go back. Modern liberalism “created the conditions, and the tools, for the ascent of its own nightmare, yet it lacks the self-knowledge to understand its own culpability.”
Post-Christian Man and The Passion
The cul-de-sac into which the Western mind has wandered is of its own making. Efforts to bring militant religiosity to heel were, of necessity, counter-ideological. When the Latin priesthood lost patience and relinquished its final remnants of epistemic humility, the new liberal hegemony was obliged to respond with matching intellectual fervor. We were told religion is ignorant, with nothing to offer humanity. Based on reason and evidence, not myth and superstition, it’s obvious Man is a biological accident. God is dead and so too his tortuous Plan.An anthropocentric Biblical cosmology undermined, historian Will Durant spells out the implications of rejecting the old certainties:
Copernicus had reduced the earth to a speck among melting clouds; Darwin reduced man to an animal fighting for his transient mastery of the globe. Man was no longer the son of God; he was the son of strife, and his wars made the fiercest brutes ashamed of their amateur cruelty. The human race was no longer the favored creation of a benevolent deity; it was a species of ape, which the fortunes of variation and selection had raised to a precarious dignity, and which in turn was destined to be surpassed and to disappear.
Man was not immortal; he was condemned to death from the hour of his birth.
But here’s the thing: the conflict between rival dogmas has obscured a compelling metanarrative.
Interpreted allegorically, with a touch of humor, modern science actually dovetails nicely with the figure of Jesus, properly understood as an existential monotheist. The universe is literally meaningless, human beings devoid of verifiable significance. We are, in effect, animals. There are no guarantees, no plans to obey or to be imposed. Control is not only impossible, wanting to achieve it in a deathly cold cosmos founded on randomness, is irrational.
Which all points to Gospel-style irony. Lose the self-important self, the mere idea of a finite, physical existence, in order to find your true self, that divine spark, eternal and fearless, receptive to whatever life has install. In fact, modernity is an unsentimental, up-the-ante adjunct to the Passion. Post-Christian Man, has no need of a reassuring, miracle-inspired covenant with attendant sacred text, ideology and institutional power. The answers lie within, inscribed upon our mutual hearts. Further, the by-design absence of “intelligent design” serves as an antidote to idolatry. Darwin and quantum physics represent a justified empirical basis to let go and trust in the unseen forces of providence. Better still, a rational commitment to amor fati, to live care-free in the moment, makes redundant all the angst-ridden metaphysical speculation concerning the maker of the universe and who he does and doesn’t side with. A vertical orientation towards a common transcendent order can become second nature, social comity an organic outcome of authentic encounters between neighbors in the here-and-now, building a community of peace and justice.
Alas, as G. K. Chesterton found with the Christian ideal, its secularized successor has not been tried and found wanting – it has been found even more difficult and abandoned. Rather than shore up humanity’s precarious dignity, modern liberalism has gone on to impose new certainties using a democratic punitive system that leverages the supposed infallibility of science and reason to redeem a broken and disordered world on behalf a non-existent God. John Steinbeck aptly describes our plight upon receiving his 1962 Nobel Prize for literature:
Having taken Godlike power, we must seek in ourselves for the responsibility and the wisdom we once prayed some deity might have. Man himself has become our greatest hazard and our only hope.
The test of his perfectibility is at hand.
Liberalism is the Final Test
Cutting down an objectified Christian God and arrogating the church’s salvific functions to the state, wasn’t a step toward a shared spiritual life. It was about winning and control. As such, the rationalistic hubris that helped to marginalize religion and deliver remarkable material success, now extracts an immense human toll. We are technically free, but lacking in meaning and purpose. A narcissistic anti-culture attempts to engineer horizontal success, a caring and sharing society, without the individual having to first do the hard emotional and psychological work required to tap into Something Greater. With the notion of a higher realm banished from the public square – what is inaccessible to reason is automatically heretical – it’s a struggle to gain a foothold beyond the fleeting comforts of consumerism or some New Age spirituality. Worse, the more confused and wretched things get, the more inclined we are to either give up entirely or put our faith in an external fix, one that typically vows to correct the plank in your brother’s eye, not your own.
It shouldn’t be a shock that our corrupt political establishment, insulated by a groupthink that is at once fainthearted and incredibly arrogant, cannot define something better than the status quo.
Bannon is right about everything being in play, though not for the reasons he thinks. Taking the sword to the current liberal order does not mean burning everything to the ground. It’s exciting because the next step, the unleashing of real human potential, exceeds politics and, indeed, the mind itself. It’s unscripted and cultural, dependent on woke individuals – those actually in touch with reality – to co-author their own narratives, on the way to that place where all our paths meet. Hence the Beltway hijinks and Deneen’s description of liberalism as “a taunt rather than a promise.” The crisis is in our neurotic heads, the faux battles between science and religion, the hyper-partisan posturing of victimhood politics, little more than a dialectical diversion from a challenging truth: Western democracy has hit the wall because the only way forward now is Jesus-like transcendence of our own personal suffering.
We in the West can have the kind of world we want as soon as we choose to take responsibility for wanting it enough, unreliant on political ideology and Godlike power. This is what we signed up for. This is classic liberalism, the final test of Man’s perfectibility.
And, unsurprisingly, it’s in keeping with what the Nazarene said two millennia ago. Which is still true today, as it will be tomorrow.
Mr. Christensen is a political and social commentator in Australia, who has also been published in a number of US outlets.