This is part 4 of a 6 part series. (Yes, the planned length has increased.)
Among those who accuse Christianity of universalism, much is made of its Great Commission to spread the faith and convert all peoples. (I will make no distinction below between “proselytizing” and “evangelizing” because there isn’t any. Since this is a historical-theological study, I will also ignore the current Bishop of Rome’s emphatic rejection of the Savior’s command, which, assuming he has the authority to do such a thing, presumably satisfies anyone concerned with Rome’s universalism.) Undeniably, a conversion of the whole world to Christianity would mean the end of a certain kind of diversity. However, proselytism is not unique to Christianity or monotheism. Every person has some idea of truths that it is important for everyone else to know, meaning naturally that as great a unanimity in favor of such truths should be achieved as possible. Which beliefs should inspire evangelical fervor can be surprising, at least to me. I can understand the practical reason why the believers of anthropogenic global warming should think it important that others believe as they do, but I cannot fathom why evolution by natural selection should be such an aggressively proselytizing faith, while no one feels the same zeal to eliminate unbelief in Kirchhoff’s circuit laws or the theory of plate tectonics.
However, this doesn’t make AGW or Darwinism universalist faiths, in that they don’t necessarily undermine loyalty to non-universal groups. They may accidentally undermine a group if it has a contradictory ideological component, but particular group identity and loyalty is not ruled out in principle. To be a Darwinist doesn’t necessarily mean one is allowed loyalty only to “mankind” or a universal Darwinist Church. That is, AGW and Darwinism are proselytizing but not homogenizing faiths.
Liberalism is an interesting case, with its claim to represent ideological neutrality, and thus be acceptable to peoples of all different beliefs and loyalties. As we have often argued, this neutrality claim is a sham. To reduce religions and communal identities to private hobbies allowed no influence on public life is to destroy them. Liberalism’s demands for freedom, tolerance, and inclusiveness, which ultimately mean the delegitimation of anything other than itself, make it the ultimate homogenizing faith.
What about Christianity?
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.
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”
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.
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.
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.
This might have been a more appropriate name for Christopher Ferrara’s important 2012 book Liberty: the God that Failed.
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.
I know he thinks that his watered-down, softened-up version of Catholicism is making it easier for us, but the real effect is quite the opposite, and this is easy to understand.