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The Interminable Dialectic of Modernity: Theoconservatism

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.

Comments (19)

"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 goes far toward answering the question asked in my own post.

I can't get from the last excerpt whether Fr. Neuhaus approved or disapproved of Ellison swearing on the Qur'an. Did he? Because, for my own part, I admit to experiencing a deeply visceral antipathy to it.

Fr. Neuhaus approved of Ellison swearing his oath (though the individual oath apparently is nothing more than a post-facto photo-op) on the Koran, inasmuch as, for an oath to be binding upon the swearer, it must be sworn on his "highest allegiance".

Once more, a liberal principle of toleration and nondiscrimination finds expression in proceduralism, and conservative luminaries rush to proclaim it of greater public import than the historic substance of the nation. It is almost as though conservatives are arguing with themselves: "The public square is naked; we must advocate the historic Christian origins of our public ideals." "But the public square must be open to all who want to propose their ideals as modes of life, even those who reject the historic substance of the nation." "The public square is still naked!" Ad infinitum.

It seems obvious, to me at least, that this mode of argumentation and engagement is yielding diminishing returns, and that not merely in practical terms.

A very helpful treatment of the issue from a neocalvinist perspective was written by Prof. Klass Schilder. It has been translated into and is now available on line. It can be found at:

Well I guess you've been holding that one back since the demise of Enchiridion Militis!

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 that now, when Christianity again proposes, being received variously, recapitulates the 'founding moment' of modernity.

11 And I saw another beast coming up out of the earth, and he had two horns, like a lamb, and he spoke as a dragon. 12 And he executed all the power of the former beast in his sight; and he caused the earth, and them that dwell therein, to adore the first beast, whose wound to death was healed. 13 And he did great signs, so that he made also fire to come down from heaven unto the earth in the sight of men. 14 And he seduced them that dwell on the earth, for the signs, which were given him to do in the sight of the beast, saying to them that dwell on the earth, that they should make the image of the beast, which had the wound by the sword, and lived. 15 And it was given him to give life to the image of the beast, and that the image of the beast should speak; and should cause, that whosoever will not adore the image of the beast, should be slain.

The point of taking an oath is to solemnly swear by one’s highest allegiance, which, for Ellison, is represented by the Qur’an.

...is unbelievably facile. The point to swearing an oath is to affirm your commitment before the Triune God. Whether or not you believe in Him is very nearly irrelevant; because He believes in you.

Excellent piece, Jeff.

One of the follies of Conservatives has been to embrace some older, saner "classical Liberalism," to draw some arbitrary line in the sand beyond which Liberalism Went Wrong. Saner it was indeed, but the Liberal tradition must be traced back beyond that line; and its origins also, not merely its later developments, critiqued. James Burnham once very shrewdly pointed out that all the Liberals of the J. S. Mill-era sound so congenial to today's libertarians, with the anti-statism and firm individualism, because today's libertarians cannot see that those Liberals were work against what was still in large part a non-Liberal state. It is natural that once the non-Liberal elements were overturned, the anti-statism would pass. We've seen this over and over: Conservatives are baffled by Liberal inconsistency, because they fail to see its revolutionary roots.

It is not, of course, that we can never learn from the great Liberals. We certainly can and should. But we must recognize the revolution they made in the minds of men; and oppose it.

Actually, I haven't been holding this one back; I wrote it this morning after reading the Neuhaus section of FT late last night. The lecture contained strong suggestions of the necessity of a true counterculture, engaged in challenging the commanding heights of the dominant and decadent one under which we live, but never liberated itself from the shackles of the assumptions of liberal modernity. It made me profoundly unhappy.

Ah, see, it read like a firestorm you were just waiting to unleash! I probably enjoyed reading it as much as you didn't enjoy writing it.

The lecture contained strong suggestions of the necessity of a true counterculture, engaged in challenging the commanding heights of the dominant and decadent one under which we live, but never liberated itself from the shackles of the assumptions of liberal modernity.

That is sort of the paradox that dogs the conservative temperament in an inherently radicalized environment though, isn't it? We don't want - temperamentally don't want - to shake things up too much, even when we know intellectually how much they need shaking. That is the only explanation I have for neoconservatism's mass appeal (setting aside its intellectual leadership). You actually have to reason your way out of it the hard way and against temperamental predispositions, usually with the help of some important personal influences. (Well, at least I did).

I am thankful that Neuhaus hints at the necessity of having a true Christian counterculture to challenge the decadent culture that dominates western liberal democracy.
To then approve of legislators swearing an oath on the Koran is inconsistant.
Is the whole idea of seperation of Church and State inconsistant with the goal of establishing a just conservative society?

Public standards which are destructive of life, family, and personal morality are protected, indeed given constitutionally protected status. Bad laws tend to corrupt good morals. Conservative fear to challenge the seperation of Church and State that, in part, makes such a perversion of Constitutional Law possible.

I think, it was David Lewellyen who observed that "Laws begin by imposing norms of conduct but conclude by teaching morality and values. As these values are inculcated, the coercive power of law recedes as its moral force rises to govern the conduct of the people."

Quite a tour de force, which will take some cognitive mastication before digestion.

Question: when you mentioned voluntarism in a mediaeval intellectual context ("[A]uto-deconstruction of scholastic philosophy" is a nice turn of phrase, BTW), I assume you mean mostly Duns Scotus and univocity? If not, could you expand on what you do mean there?

Also, I do not understand what the last three words of the post, "in these terms", mean. In what terms? In terms of modernism in any form? Obviously, the relevant conversion(s) of pagan Europe happened long before any sort of modernism appeared on the scene. Are you trying to say that Christianity in its modern [sic] form is incapable of [re-]converting the present Western culture the way it did the greater Roman culture (as well as many/most of the Migration barbarian cultures)? If not, then what are you saying? Apologies for my lack of close reading skills, but I just don't see what you're trying to say there.

"Is the whole idea of separation of Church and State inconsistent with the goal of establishing a just conservative society?"

This is a good question, Thomas. If the word 'Church' were changed to 'Christianity', my answer would be yes. In the long run, at any rate.

Yes, I did intend to reference Scotus, whose conception of univocity, when linked with his voluntarism, provides a potent impetus to methodological individualism in philosophy and theology, and that conceptualized in terms of disincarnate willing, to boot. I've also nothing to say in favour of the nominalism of Ockham, though I'll freely concede that his was a powerful intellect.

As for the words, "in these terms", I mean only that this understanding of the Christian relationship with secular reality as being nothing more than a winsome proposal simply cannot account for the actual process by which the Empire and the pagan tribes of Western Europe were Christianized. Christianity became a heavily patronized religion of the imperial elite at a time when Christians may have been one-quarter of the population, and the notion of "persuasion" would have to be exceedingly broad to encompass the brazenness of the missionary saints who challenged pagans to tests of the sacred powers of their groves and shrines, and occasionally even simply hewed them down in defiance. There was also, in many instances, a sort of personification of the tribe/nation in the person of the ruler, such that his conversion entailed the conversion of the nation; a headship principle, if you will.

Now, I am not arguing that these situations transfer readily to our own circumstances, either by replication or analogy, but that Christians ought to reflect more deeply upon their own history, theology, and rule of life; for to do so is to be confronted with the inescapable reality of the nonliberal nature of the emergence of Christendom. I am not impressed by arguments to the effect that, well, yes, all of that is very true, but it was a corruption of the Christian substance. "Constantinism" and all of that. This is nothing more than the sheerest anachronism, a projection of the sensibilities of moderns upon the Christians of Late Antiquity, who could never have possessed the sensibilities that moderns fault them for failing to exhibit. Early Christianity accepted - and that with reason - the ancient assumption that the right order of the soul should be mirrored in the order of society, though acknowledging that the mirror of society inevitably would be cracked and distorted. Moderns seldom perceive that there even exists a right order of the soul, and to the extent that the question is even contemplated, tend to conclude that such things are undecidable and inherently contestable; the consequence of this is that society becomes a mirror of volition, and volition, given modern anthropology, is the servant of desire, once all of the bushwah of modern ethical theories has been cleared away. Society becomes the mirror of desire.

Desire and right order stand in no necessary relationship.

It is imperative that Christians reflect upon the manner in which their reconstructions of Christian history and doctrine, and their modes of interaction with the modern world, function to reinforce modern social structures, and to validate the assumptions that inform them.

You know, it occurs to me that this post of yours has enormous implications for what hope Christians might nurture (and what means they might employ) in their desire to take the culture back. Am I wrong in thinking this?

You are quite correct, although I prefer indirection in the present climate. :)

"You are quite correct, although I prefer indirection in the present climate. :)"

The present climate is philistine.

"You know, it occurs to me that this post of yours has enormous implications for what hope Christians might nurture (and what means they might employ) in their desire to take the culture back."

You have to have one to take one back. I've been looking at reproductions of paintings from the Prado. What happened to us?

Great website folks! It shows promise of picking-up some of the void left by the departure of the New Pantagruel.

As for Father Neuhaus, he always returns to the fold and accepts the current socio-political and cultural arrangements. It is painful to watch.

Keep up the good work.

"You have to have one to take one back."

Mr. Chichikov has a point. With "take back the culture" I fell into cliche. A 'transformation' might be more accurate. Or a 're-conversion.'

"You have to have one to take one back."

And I would add the emphasis on one. Since Christianity has failed to maintain the unity that our high priest prayed for in Jn 17, how can we have one culture?

How can we build a common Christian culture with those who value uneducated, screamin' preachers, whose weekly "meal" at church is fried chicken, who handle snakes, whose only book in the house is a Bible?

How can we build a common Christian culture with a nominally C of E Englishman who thinks it isn't good manners to be too religious, who saves his sentiments of devotion for an earthly queen and the kingdom, rather than the kingdom of heaven and its heavenly queen?

How can we build a common Christian culture with the marketing Christians, who are looking for the next slick approach to make a buck, what's the next WWJD? bracelet to hit the bigs? Christian stuff as product.

No, hacking the body of Christ into tens of thousands of bits eliminates the very possibility of building a Christian culture. It isn't just an Enlightenment secular insistence on radical subjectivity and privatization; it is the corollary of accepting the hacking of the body of Christ into tens of thousands of bits.

I don't know what the answer is; what seems to me more likely is a renaissance of Catholic art, architecture, music, writing, etc., produced by and producing conversion, and being a pinch of leaven to the larger society. Let other Christian groups/subcultures produce their own valued culture--bluegrass gospel, prayer hankies, airbrush Jesus license plates, fish emblems for the car, breathy urgent Contemporary Christian Music, etc.

This narrower notion of culture within a subculture is more doable. We will not have common ideals for the larger society with an end times fundamentalist who is a patriotic American but thinks the state is doomed. They seem happy about the world going to hell in a handbasket.

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