One God, many peoples III: false prophets and merely obnoxious ones

The existence of liberal Christians is an important piece of evidence in the neopagan-neoreactionary indictment of Christianity, but such people are in the obviously anomalous situation of rejecting their own tradition to follow novel doctrines invented by explicitly anti-Christian groups.  What are we to make of them?  Our own JMSmith, among others, identifies them with Puritanism, whose essence he identifies with “sanctimonious browbeating“, the ideological justification for the Puritan’s self-righteousness being accidental.  We’re all familiar with this phenomenon, but I’d like to fill out the picture.  Since nobody calls himself a “Puritan”, that word’s use is mainly polemical rather than neutrally descriptive, or at least that’s how someone using it will be understood.  I like to let people define and label their own beliefs.  What do liberal Christians call their program?  “Prophetic“, of course!

In my years as an Episcopal activist, I duly read all the “progressive” magazines and newsletters and press releases and sat through dozens of “progressive” sermons, lectures, press conferences, and literally weeks of General Convention meetings, covering the debates both of the house of bishops and the house of deputies (which included clerics and laymen both). I was surprised, after a while, to notice not only how often the progressives used the word “prophetic,” but how un-ironically they used it.

“Inclusive” language liturgy was Prophetic! and “gay marriage” was Prophetic! and support for illegal immigrants was Prophetic! and legalized abortion was prophetic and so was that and that and that! Nothing they said or did was non-prophetic. Nothing, or almost nothing, was just a good idea or the right thing to do or simply useful or helpful.

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One God, many peoples II: Muslim individualism, Christian corporatism

This is the second part of a four part series.  Part I is here.

Malise Ruthven, in discussing why capitalism arose under Christianity rather than Islam, identifies a core difference between Christian and Muslim societies.  (See here for a more extended quote.)

The key to the seemingly anarchic or ‘irrational’ growth of the Muslim city may lie in a singular fact of the Shari’a law:  the absence of the Roman-law concept of ‘legal personality’.  In Europe, the public right is an abstraction which can be upheld by defending it in law as a ‘legal person’.  Litigation between the public and private interest can therefore–for civil purposes–take the form of an adjudication between two parties…The absence of juridicial personality in the Muslim law may not have been an oversight:  it is certainly consistent with the uncompromising individualism of the Shari’a.  Many aspects of Roman-Byzantine law and administration were taken over by the Arabs…This absence of a juridicial definition of the public sphere had far-reaching consequences.  Islamic law did not recognize cities as such, nor did it admit corporate bodies…

To add a few links to this argument I suggest that in the West the Church, the ‘mystical body’ of Christ which alone guaranteed salvation, became the archetype in law of a whole raft of secular corporations that succeeded it during the early modern period.  The mystic qualities of fictional personhood originating in the Body of Christ were eventually devolved to joint stock companies and public corporations with tradable shares.


– from “Islam in the World”

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One God, many peoples I: JudeoIslamic universalism

This is the first of a 4-part series.

The reactionary blogosphere is largely a debate between Christians and secular or pagan antiliberals.  Thus, we argue a lot about whether Christianity is to blame for unleashing anti-cultural universalism and egalitarianism on the world.  The related but deeper question is what spiritual forces, whether or not they are distinctly Christian, have driven these movements. I’d like to start this little investigation by inviting a couple of interesting outsiders to have their say, reserving my own arguments for later.

First, here’s historian David Levering Lewis lamenting the victory of Charles Martel at Tours:

Had [Muslim general] ‘Abd al-Rahman’s men prevailed that October day, the post-Roman Occident would probably have been incorporated into a cosmopolitan, Muslim regnum unobstructed by borders … one devoid of a priestly caste, animated by the dogma of equality of the faithful, and respectful of all religious faiths … [T]he victory of Charles the Hammer must be seen as greatly contributing to the creation of an economically retarded, balkanized, fratricidal Europe that, in defining itself in opposition to Islam, made virtues out of religious persecution, cultural particularism, and hereditary aristocracy.

How about that?  Islam=equality, cosmopolitanism, and tolerance.  Christianity=particularism and hierarchy.  That’s the common wisdom among historians.  Not all monotheisms are the same, and if group loyalty is what you care about, you’re much better off with Christianity.  For their part, Muslims seem to be proud that their faith and its law teach individualism and equality, that it dissolves national and ethnic boundaries.

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Whether Leftism is a Christian heresy

Of course not.  And yet the claim is often heard from groups that otherwise agree on very little.  The neo-pagan and neo-reactionary Right say that Leftism is just the working out of noxious elements present in Christianity from the beginning.  Some say that these were temporarily offset by other, positive, elements of Christianity; others are under the impression that Christianity itself is pure Leftist drivel but only seemed otherwise because of its “Germanization”, i.e. a borrowed veneer of pagan virility.  (Remember, most people don’t know anything about the pre-Constantinian Church or the Christianized Roman Empire, so the idea that Christians were a bunch of pacifist, egalitarian hippies until the conversion of the Germans actually sounds plausible to them.)  On the other hand, we have all encountered Christian apologists eager to claim that, on balance, Christianity has been on the side of “progress”, that democracy, female equality, and anti-racism really are in some profound sense our ideas and could never have taken hold without the Gospel.

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Book Review: “Persons: the difference between ‘someone’ and ‘something'”

Persons:  the difference between ‘someone’ and ‘something’
by Robert Spaemann

“Person” is a funny category.  In its contemporary sense, the world managed to do without it before 300AD.  The category “human” fit our fellow intelligent creatures, and the word “person” originally meant “role”.  It was elevated to a philosophical concept by theologians in order to explain what it was that is multiple in the Trinity and one in Christ.  Unlike “human”, which refers to a nature, “person” is defined in contrast to nature, that which is one in God and two in Christ.  The settled definition of a person, given by Boethius, is “the individual substance/subsistence of a rational nature”.  The emphasis, then, is on being a particular existent, as being the existing subject that holds a nature (or, in the case of Jesus, holds two).  As Robert Spaemann, the author of this intriguing book, explains, “person” refers not to a particular nature but to the particular way intelligent beings relate to their nature.   This personal mode of existence is alluded to in saying that a person “has a nature”, implying non-identity with that nature and a degree of freedom in engaging with it.

The key quality of personal existence is transcendence.  Like all animals, we have drives, and we naturally regard other beings according to how they relate to those drives’ satisfaction.  But we are not stuck regarding the world this way.  Even to realize that this is a limited perspective is to step beyond it.  Even to, like Descartes, wonder if all one’s perceptions might be false is to maintain the personal attitude of transcendence, because one retains the knowledge that there is an outer world, an outside perspective, in addition to one’s inner world.  That we can try to respond to things according to their objective truth or goodness (the “view from nowhere” rather than my self-interested view) is the mark of our dignity.  Thus, a dying man would prefer to hear a distressing truth to comforting lies even when he is beyond the point where the truth can practically affect him.  As free beings we can choose illusion, retreat into immanence, relinquish our specifically personal dignity, but even this is a distinctively personal act.

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The nature of solidarity: Donoso Cortes vs. the socialists

The nineteenth-century Spanish reactionary Juan Donoso Cortes occupies an intriguing place
in the history of Reaction. His critique of liberalism is distinctly theological; he grounds all his social principles in Christian doctrine: the nature of the Trinity, its manifestations in creation, mankind’s collective Fall, and its collective redemption. In some ways, he anticipates the Christian communitarians and Radical Orthodoxy schools of our own time. Unlike them, he was tied to an actual, living traditional society, and he defends kings, hereditary aristocracies, Catholic establishment, and many other things that would cause today’s communitarians to faint from fear.

Throne & Altar reader William McEnaney has kindly sent me a copy of Dononso’s main work, his Essay on Catholicism, Liberalism, and Socialism. Bill works with Preserving Christian Publications, a small business that sells out-of-print pre-conciliar Catholic books. I would be pleased for such ventures to flourish and so am happy to offer this bit of free advertising.  What follows will be an exploration of one key theme in Catholicism, Liberalism, and Socialism.

Writing in 1851, Donoso saw the great issue of his age as an ultimately theological battle between Catholicism and socialism. Catholicism had dignified both authority and obedience by locating the former’s source in God. Even the legitimate authority of fathers (as opposed to their mere primacy of age and power) is explicable primarily through the Trinitarian relation it reflects. Alongside the family and state, Catholicism fosters a vast network of associations, each embodying it its own way the fundamental law of unity-in-diversity rooted in the Trinitarian heart of Being. Socialism would destroy all of this, reducing the order of mankind to a vast and unitary yet illegitimate statist tyranny.

In the twentieth century, all of this would be explained in terms of the supposed Catholic principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. As you’ve often heard the story, the Left basically owns solidarity, and Catholics criticize Leftists only for neglecting the second principle of subsidiarity, a vague council to–all other things being equal–favor small and local agency. This is inadequate for a number of reasons.  Donoso gets to the real heart of the matter. What’s wrong with socialism is not that it is solidarity unchecked; socialism is solidarity denied, misunderstood, reduced to a shadow of its true self. The socialist believes in solidarity too little, rather than too much.

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“They made a schism with the whole universe”

The whole body of this new scheme of manners, in support of the new scheme of politics, I consider as a strong and decisive proof of determined ambition and systematic hostility.  I defy the most refining ingenuity to invent any other cause for the total departure of the Jacobin Republic from every one of the ideas and usages, religious, legal, moral, or social, of this civilized world, and for her tearing herself from its communion with such studied violence, but from a formed resolution of keeping no terms with that world.  It has not been, as has been falsely and insidiously represented, that these miscreants had only broke with their old government.  They made a schism with the whole universe, and that schism extended to almost everything, great and small.  For one, I wish, since it is gone thus far, that the breach had been so complete as to make all intercourse impracticable…

My ideas and my principles led me, in this contest, to encounter France, not as a state, but as a faction.  The vast territorial extent of that country, its immense population, its riches of production, its riches of commerce and convention, the whole aggregate mass of what in ordinary cases constitutes the force of a state, to me were but objects of secondary consideration.  They might be balanced; and they have been often more than balanced.  Great as these things are, they are not what make the faction formidable.  It is the faction that makes them truly dreadful.  That faction is the evil spirit that possesses the body of France, that informs it as a soul, that stamps upon its ambition, and upon all its pursuits, a characteristic mark, which strongly distinguishes them from the same general passions and the same general views in other men and in other communities.  It is that spirit which inspires into them a new, pernicious, a desolating activity.  Constituted as France was ten years ago, it was not in that France to shake, to shatter, and to overwhelm Europe in the manner that we behold…

As for me, I was always steadily of opinion that this disorder was not in its nature intermittent.  I conceived that the contest, once begun, could not be laid down again, to be resumed at our discretion, but that our first struggle with this evil would also be our last.  I never thought we could make peace with the system; because it was not for the sake of an object we pursued in rivalry with each other, but with the system itself that we were at war.  As I understood the matter, we were at war, not with its conduct, but with its existence–convinced that its existence and its hostility were the same.

The faction is not local or territorial.  It is a general evil.  Where it least appears in action, it is still full of life.  In its sleep it recruits its strength and prepares its exertion.  Its sprit lies deep in the corruptions of our common nature.  The social order which restrains it feeds it.  It exists in every country in Europe, and among all orders of men in every country, who look up to France as to a common head.  The center is there.  The circumference is the world of Europe, wherever the race of Europe may be settled.  Everywhere else the faction is militant; in France it is triumphant.  In France is the bank of deposit and the bank of circulation of all the pernicious principles that are forming in every state.  It will be a folly scarcely deserving of pity, and too mischievous for contempt, to think of restraining it in any other country whilst it is predominant there.  War, instead of being the cause of its force, has suspended its operation.  It has given a reprieve, at least, to the Christian world…

It is a dreadful truth, but it is a truth that cannot be concealed:  in ability, in dexterity, in the distinctness of their views, the Jacobins are our superiors.  They saw the thing right from the very beginning.  Whatever were the first motives to the war among politicians, they saw that in its spirit, and for its objects, it was a civil war; and as such they pursued it.  It is a war between the partisans of the ancient civil, moral, and political order of Europe against a sect of fanatical and ambitious atheists which means to change them all.  It is not France extending a foreign empire over other nations:  it is a sect aiming at universal empire, and beginning with the conquest of France…

– from Letters on a Regicide Peace

Edmund Burke was actually far from the contemptible “slow-and-steady path to surrender” advocate his twentieth-century admirers made him out to be.