The April issue of First Things features an adapted version of a lecture Fr. Neuhaus delivered at Beeson Divinity School, entitled Christ Without Culture. Neuhaus, suggestively modifying the famous Niebuhrian taxonomy of the ways in which the relationship of Christ and culture has been understood, adds to the list - Christ against culture, Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ transforming culture - the formulation Christ without culture. Noting that there is, in point of fact, a distinctive American culture, and more specifically, an American culture as it pertains to religious affirmations, Neuhaus elaborates:
Now, as a matter of historical and sociological fact, Christianity is never to be found apart from a cultural matrix; Christianity in all its forms is, as it is said, “enculturated.” In relation to a culture, the Church is both acting and being acted on, both shaping and being shaped. What then do I mean by suggesting this sixth type, Christ without culture? I mean that the Church—and here Church is broadly defined as the Christian movement through time—can at times adopt a way of being in the world that is deliberately indifferent to the culture of which it is part. In the “Christ without culture” model, that indifference results in the Church unconsciously adopting and thereby reinforcing, in the name of the gospel, patterns of culture that are incompatible with her gospel.
American religion certainly seems to be flourishing; theories of secularization which hold that religious commitments will atrophy and wither certainly seem inapplicable to the American context. And yet, American religion is quite impotent, culturally speaking, and, as Neuhaus observes, is quite prosperously happy in its impotence. American Christianity exercises scarcely even a negligible degree of influence upon the wider culture; it is rather the case that the cultural forms developed by American Christians tend to recapitulate and reinforce certain of the tendencies of the dominant culture itself:
Preachers of self-esteem and the gospel of happiness and prosperity uncritically accept the debased and pervasive notion that unhappiness and discontent with one’s circumstance in life is a disease; they would lead us to believe that self-criticism, along with its inevitably depressing discoveries, is a dangerous indulgence. The entrepreneurial spirit has built empires of Christian books, Christian music, and entertainment mislabeled as worship, all of which creates the delusion of living in a vibrant Christian subculture that is, in fact, a mirror of the habits of heart and mind that its participants think they are challenging—or at least escaping.
While Christianity has become more visible politically, eliciting overwrought and surprisingly un-pluralist screeds written against an impending Age of Theocratic Darkness, American Christianity has, by and large, merely re-enacted the American cultural drama of religion as a private intimacy, a belief system in which one finds private fulfillment and satisfaction divorced from the particularities of culture, history, and inherited identity. American Christianity is a patchwork of self-referential subcultures, a rich and ever-ramifying tableau of inward fastnesses; but Christian subcultures which, so far from challenging the dominant culture, actually recapitulate many of its more deleterious tendencies, can hardly be said to be confronting the world with its own deepest narrative, doing so not to negate the world but to bring it to its truest life. Christian faith, in sum, mandates intense personal commitment, but is never wholly private in either its nature or its effects. Christianity, if it remains faithful to its own essence, not only engenders a culture of its own - a distinct community and ethos - but stands as a community of priests within the wider world, extending the offer to the world of becoming more completely what it was intended to be, what it both is and is not yet, all at once.
And yet. And yet Christianity "only proposes." And herein we may perceive the interminable dialectic of modernity and Christian faith, for Christianity has proposed, and modernity has parried the proposal, for going on five long centuries now, and it is this dynamic which explains the involution of a Christianity without culture. Neuhaus may bemoan the fact that Christians have acquiesced "in the Enlightenment demand that religion, if it is to survive at all, confine itself to the closet of subjectivity", but this is not primarily a matter of the Enlightenment, that dark epoch in our history when gnomes standing on the shoulders of giants imagined themselves the lords of the universe, but of modernity itself. In other words, this is not a matter of an easily-grasped derailment of a fundamentally benign modern process, but of the logic of that process, considered in itself.
Western modernity is a complex product of the confluence of a variety of independent, yet plainly analogous trends arising out of the ferment of the late middle ages. There is the auto-deconstruction of scholastic philosophy in nominalism and voluntarism, begetting both a type of methodological individualism and the impetus for the methodologies of modern science. There is the growing appreciation of the natural world, influenced primarily by developments in Western devotion (St. Francis, anyone?) and philosophy, ultimately merging with those tendencies of late scholasticism. There is the decay of the imperial idea of Western Christianity and the gradual emergence of defined nation-states, often driven by ambitious rulers who wished to free themselves from the oversight of the Church, or even to control the Church within their domains. There is, arising from the earlier confluence of popular religious movements, some heretical, some offshoots of new trends in Western religious devotion, and those unfortunate derailments of medieval philosophy and theology, the emergence of potent religious dissent, eventuating in the Reformation. There is the sheer cultural trauma of Western exposure to classical texts long assimilated in the Christian East, yet largely unknown in their original forms in the West, which begets not merely new expressions of Christian piety and thought, but various attempts to revive an allegedly purer classical past long concealed beneath the encrustations of Christian tradition. There is the emergence of modern modes of economic organization and commerce as constitutive features of social and political order. And we could continue in this vein, if not indefinitely; and of the interpretation of the fascinating period of history, there will be no end.
The Enlightenment, then, was not a definitive rupture with the Christian past; the Enlightenment was the historical moment when a rupture that had hitherto been implicit became explicit. By the time the historical trends coalesced to bring forth the Enlightenment, Christianity, though it had continued as an integral feature of public order, allowing the appearance of Christendom to endure for a time, had long since ceased to function as the foundation of that order. To the contrary, that order was now defined in terms of secular nation-states, emergent capitalism, growing religious pluralism, and a sense of individuality for which an inherited identity, religious or otherwise, was becoming increasingly problematic. We must not mistake the fact of great stability among the masses, overall, for a stability of societal identity; that identity was made by the great and the powerful, and it was their actions which determined, by intent or accident, that what was now given was the state, the economy, and religion as a good of public order, as opposed to the basis of order.
History is linear, but this linearity does not mean that in its unfolding history merely expresses a simple logic. And so, there were indeed wars of religion, terrible wars, and there were persecutions, and political settlements in which one religion was to prevail in a defined territory. There occurred all of these things, and more besides which might be invoked against the argument. But this would be to miss the forest for the trees; the Western mind had fractured, and with it, the Western tradition. With that fracture had come a plurality of traditions, trends, powers, ambitions - with the inexorable result that the winsome "proposal" of Christianity was no longer the basis of order, but was itself contested, both internally and externally. And so, in a sense, there had to arise an alternative basis of public order, a new religion, in the archaic sense of that which binds together. This, in fine, is the genesis of liberalism; the dialectic of modernity is simply that Christianity proposed, and Western man parried, and disposed in various ways; and now, when Christianity makes its proposal to modern man, it is again received variously, and thus can only recapitulate the founding moment of modernity.
We might say that theoconservatism is stuck in a feedback loop, a loop which leads to ironic affirmations of the very neutrality which Christianity must contest if it is ever to be more than a subculture mimicking the forms of the dominant culture (for is this not what it would mean to actually convert a culture, to have the deeper story of Christianity widely accepted and lived as the story of the world?):
A storm of criticism broke when columnist Dennis Prager suggested that there was something not quite American about Democratic representative Keith Ellison taking his oath of office with his hand on the Qur’an. (snip) The brouhaha engaged a number of interesting questions. There is, for instance, the fact that representatives are sworn in en masse in the chamber of the House. The individual taking of the oath is an after-the-fact photo-op. (It is said that more media showed up for Ellison’s photo-op than for any in the history of the House.) Then, too, there is the representative principle. The people of the Fifth elected him knowing full well that he is a Muslim, and presumably his highest allegiance is to God as revealed in the Qur’an. The point of taking an oath is to solemnly swear by one’s highest allegiance, which, for Ellison, is represented by the Qur’an.
The axis of the dialectic of modernity, if there can be such a thing, is just this sort of procedural neutrality, this formalism which, by its emptiness, invites the very pluralism which reduces Christianity to a "subculture that is, in fact, a mirror of the habits of heart and mind that its participants believe they are challenging - or at least escaping." Christianity as an inward fastness amidst a culture of autonomous choosing. One does wonder how pagan Europe was converted. One wonders, but receives no answer in these terms.