On Being a Christian in Late Modernity (Part 7: Conclusion)

25. On a superficial reading, the trends and quandaries I have highlighted thus far permit two basic reactions. Republicans versus democrats, right versus left, conservative versus progressive, tradition versus change, power versus justice – perhaps men versus women. Since the French Revolution, most Western societies have tended to self-script in such a dialectic. Arguably, however, precisely as this dialectic has reached its fever pitch in the contemporary “red pill” and “woke” halves of our civilization, the animating spirit of each has become one. In fact, we’re all Jacobins now. Most contemporary conservative movements lack conservative virtue, education, breadth of vision, and rhetorical precision. Most are self-consciously an attempt to recover old principles in the face of some threat. And most are very aggressive and quick-footed about how to do so, giving the overall hue of a reactive project that tends to be the negative photocopy of its perceived enemies (and therefore increasingly like them). The result is generation after generation of entrepreneurial intellectual projects, but little intergenerational intellectual continuity beyond vague sentiments, sentimentally reconstructed and retroactively trans-substantiated into a collection of principles. But to conservative civilizations whose “conservatism” has no contrast but is rather an internalized principle, most Westerners (and especially Americans) look like Jacobins. Most of the world is simultaneously impressed and bewildered by American self-confidence. And yet none are ignorant of its risk, that we are a nation of those who confidently prognosticate about the complexities of the world, but who are incurious concerning the actual and real-world risk of our own applied vision. For those who recall, both the Founding Fathers and foreign commentators on America (De Tocqueville) foresaw that this would be our tendency, and that only a miracle of virtue could preserve our civilization long term. 

26. In one sense, given the above argument, there is no alternative to a kind of radical project. The situation of the un-homed juvenile, the one forced into a renegotiation of all with all, is a situation of irreducible reflexivity and self-making. All conservative projects are fresh in this sense. One cannot, after all, download the hivemind of the past directly. One must interpret and make judgments. In our context, no attempt to internalize conservative habit is anything less than a radical move (a move to the roots) because our inherited habit is Jacobin. But perhaps a radical conservatism remains possible. That is to say, one can still carry out the original Protestant project in its self-conscious civilizational implications. But this would be to recover a character as well, a radical freedom and self-making that nevertheless chooses limits. It is not simply to rediscover principles and apply them from hearts atrophied by (inherited and cultivated) hubris. It is precisely here that most conservatisms fail. Most are reactive, “come off” irreducibly as self-protective and self-interested, and marry a blind radicalism of habit with often mutilated conservative principle (Much that goes by the title of “complimentarianism,” for instance, is no less profound a shift in gender relationships as modern feminism, precisely because it is so self-conscious and defined over against a negative model). But our self-narration obscures this, and precisely to this extent we tend to confuse reconstructed LARPing for rediscovering life.  

27. Naturally, a dearth of responses to this late moment posture themselves as third ways. Often this is simply a “third way” out of some very derivative aspect of the binary, but remains firmly attached to one side of it in the large picture (so, for instance, it would be difficult to say that the “household economics” movement, which postures itself as “third way” on some registers, is anything other than conservative in its principles). Moreover, even those who fancy themselves more radically in some middling space are often read by others as belonging to one team or the other in their ultimate social import. I am not sanguine that my own self-conscious attempt at a third way can escape such ditches, nor do I expect (though I hope!) to escape projection. However, if the manner in which I have situated the culture wars is fair, then we might suspect that any sane phenomenology of a civilization in the state of unhomed juvenility is likely to require some analogue of a modern right and left, some attention to the “characteristic concerns” that belong to each side of the binary. Hopefully, as in a good marriage, this can become a matter of sublated unity rather than a fragile cobelligerancy. In any case, forced to make ourselves and our communities through freedom, contemporary life simply is a space of radical fracture from custom. It just is a context in which the justification of custom is inevitably necessary and self-conscious. And precisely because of this, it is impossible that we will survive without a thick conservative deference toward our fathers rooted in the humble suspicion that we, who so badly need wisdom, are probably not wise. The result is no slavish devotion to the maps that have been left to us, but an irreducibly and radically free relation to them. And precisely because this is our situation, it would both be insane to abandon them, and dishonest to refuse (at each moment) their continued testing by re-demonstrating our inherited map’s capacity to carve even this chaotic world at its joints. 

28. C.S. Lewis sums up our situation well:

“Since the sixteenth century, When Science was born, the minds of men have been increasingly turned outward, to know Nature and to master her. They have been increasingly engaged on those specialized inquiries for which truncated thought is the correct method. It is therefore not in the least astonishing that they should have forgotten the evidence for the Supernatural. The deeply ingrained habit of truncated thought – what we call the “scientific” habit of mind – was indeed certain to lead to naturalism, unless this tendency were continually corrected from some other source. But no other source was at hand, for during the same period men of science were coming to be metaphysically and theologically uneducated…..The state of affairs in which ordinary people can discover the Supernatural only by abstruse reasoning is recent and, by historical standards, abnormal. All over the world, until quite modern times, the direct insight of the mystics and the reasonings of philosophers percolated to the mass of the people by authority and tradition: they could be received by those who were no great reasoners themselves in the concrete form of myth and ritual and the whole pattern of life. In the conditions produced by a century or so of Naturalism, plain men are being forced to bear burdens which plain men were never expected to bear before. We must get the truth for ourselves or go without it. There may be two explanations for this. It might be that humanity, in rebelling against tradition and authority, has made a ghastly mistake; a mistake which will not be the less fatal because the corruptions of those in authority rendered it very excusable. On the other hand, it may be that the power which rules our species is at this moment carrying out a daring experiment. Could it be intended that the whole mass of the people should now move forward and occupy for themselves those heights which were once reserved only for the sages? Is the distinction between wise and simple to disappear because all are now expected to become wise? If so, our present blunderings would be but growing pains. But let us make no mistake about our necessities. If we are content to go back and become humble plain men obeying a tradition, well. If we are ready to climb and struggle on till we become sages ourselves, better still. But the man who will neither obey wisdom in others nor adventure for her/himself is fatal. A society where the simple many obey the few seers can live: a society where all were seers could live even more fully. But a society where the mass is still simple and the seers are no longer attended to can achieve only superficiality, baseness, ugliness, and in the end extinction. On or back we must go: to stay here is death.”

Miracles (65-67)

Herman Bavinck likewise:

“The unity of the church and Christianity is irrevocably behind us; differentiation is increasing in all areas, including religion. Just as Roman Catholics and Protestants, Lutherans and Reformed have had to get used to existing side by side. God seems to want to teach us even more in this direction; his teaching in previous centuries of the lack of charity of our hearts has not yet been received seriously enough.” – What is Christianity, 59

What is Christianity? (59)

29. Both Herman Bavinck and C.S. Lewis interpreted the modern world as a trial that brought its own fruits and was aimed at the production of distinctive virtues for the church – and (largely) through the church for the human race. Human civilization, like the individuals that make it up, has always been a paradoxical tension between the mind of man and his will. Perhaps the unity of these has typically been thought to rest in a thick caste system where “types of persons” (roughly speaking) constitute the “mind” of society, and others its “will.” As de Tocqueville noted about America, however, certain social arrangements require wisdom to be distributed among the masses through mass internal movement rather than mass external obedience. Of course, to put it like that is to hear echoes of the moral program of early Christianity as well as the social agenda of the magisterial Protestant movement – both of which tended toward the raising up of lower castes toward intellectual and moral self-possession and agency. Returning to the trial motif, perhaps the wide distribution of such pressures is precisely for the production of a godly people. The situation of the unhomed juvenile is the situation of one who isn’t forced to mature, but who nevertheless must. 

30. It is to the irreducible reality of their own regal being that men and women must be pointed in our time. Transcending mere atavism or progress, the human on the frontier of an uncertain civilizational future moves humbly not because the world isn’t clear, but because we aren’t. The demand of a king is literally to “rise to” an occasion – to gain a fuller face through trial and the internalization of wisdom. It is the unwise who moved from the gut and out of assumed arrival. Unhomed, we remain free to become wise – to sit before and imitate masters – but spiritual, intellectual, and moral precision in our world remains a living project fit only for the humble of heart who call upon the name of the LORD for His aid in each. The perennial temptation of ideology and its deconstructive alter-ego must ultimately be seen as an abdication of rule. The adventure of soul to which we are called in our curious historical moment is far more grand. 


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