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Christian Radicals, Seeing to the Roots

The unwinding of Christian culture began not in the 1960s or the 1780s, but in the 1300s

A reader who identifies as a liberal and an atheist writes:

I read your exchange with Michael Hanby in First Things today, and I have to say that I find it fascinating that both of you seem to grasp the philosophical importance of the present moment in a way most liberals do not. Transhumanism, practical ethics, and other such “radical” ideas are really just modern liberalism carried through to its logical conclusion. If there is no real metaphysical support for the traditional family or method of life then why not remake ourselves in accordance with our desires? Why not genetically engineer children? Why not alter the family to suit modern needs? I support this outcome because I am a liberal and an atheist, but few of my fellows seem to grasp where Baconian method and secular humanism are already taking us. The fact that traditionalist Christians can see it clearly is fascinating.

This is not the end game of the Enlightenment. This is not the end game of the Reformation. This is the end game of Nominalism. The practical Nominalist worldview is summed up by Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy thus:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

There is no truth but the truth you choose to believe in. It’s all inert matter upon which we impose our will. Writing in Communio three years ago, the Catholic theologian David L. Schindler explained how the Lockean liberal state cannot tolerate traditional religious claims because ultimately, they conflict with its metaphysics — a metaphysics that liberalism denies it holds. Schindler:

In a word, what Pinckaers characterizes as freedom of indifference, a freedom that is “‘indifferent’ to nature,” corresponds exactly to what we have identified as the formal freedom of liberalism, in the latter’s abstraction from any natural-constituent order of relations to transcendent truth and to God. Such a freedom is an act without an anterior, immanent natural ordering by these relations, an act whose content thereby becomes simply an object of choice. Freedom of indifference thus indicates a metaphysics of freedom that, eo ipso, displaces freedom for excellence, by reconfiguring the order of man’s relations to truth and to God.

First, instead of being natural relations to truth and to God, and so far relations that always already order each individual’s freedom from within, these relations are conceived as mere “objects of circumstance,” which is to say, as options and thus as objects that the individual himself first, now arbitrarily, chooses. Second, human dignity takes its essential meaning from a formal agency abstracted from what are now extrinsically conceived relations; consequently, the individual who is the subject of rights becomes a logically self-centered agent defined primarily in terms of the independent power of self-determination. Third, the freedom of the self is understood in the first instance to be competitive with the freedom of others, such that the corresponding rights and duties between the self and others are conceived in the strictly negative terms of each one’s being protected from intrusive activity by the other.

In sum, then: liberalism’s intended strictly juridical order, in the name of avoiding a metaphysics, advances a definite metaphysics centered in freedom of indifference, whose central burden is to displace the person’s natural community with God and others, and with truth and goodness, by an extrinsic and so far voluntaristic community—what is commonly termed a contractual community—made up of formal-independent, logically self-centered individuals. The hallmark claim of liberalism—that its juridical order remains ex officio empty of any one metaphysical truth, in order that individuals and groups in civil society may be left free to seek and defend the truth on its own terms—thus harbors within itself a subtle, but truly massive, deception.

On the one hand, the intention of such a formally-conceived juridical order remains just. On the other hand, this juridical order is already filled, hiddenly, with the metaphysical truth of a single group in society, that group which has been formed, largely unconsciously, by the tradition of liberalism. The problem is thus that the purely juridical state of liberalism, eo ipso, albeit in a way that is officially blind, conflates and so far eliminates the very distinction between state and civil society that it is the main intention of liberalism itself to defend, and that is indeed necessary for any civilization that would remain genuinely free.

What he’s saying is that liberalism conceives of the human person as a radically free agent who defines himself by what he freely chooses. This means that ultimately, the metaphysics of liberalism, which denies that it even exists, will steamroll any rival metaphysical claims, and, in the end, . More Schindler:

Here, then, is the burden of my argument: in responding to the crisis that has arisen regarding religious freedom and contraceptives, Catholics need to understand that the issue is not properly conceived as a matter of the consistent application of an idea of rights (as immunities) commonly embraced by the various parties. On the contrary, the dominant liberal culture, given exemplary expression in the New York Times editorial, is acting consistently with the formal-juridical view of rights that is framed by liberalism’s hidden metaphysics of freedom of indifference. The issue that needs to be faced, then, is that of the proper nature of rights, which is to say, thus, of the proper nature of the person and his freedom in relation to truth, the good, God, and others. If this is not understood, efforts to resist policies such as that now imposed by the Obama administration in the matter of “reproductive rights” will, however successful in immediate strategic terms, continue otherwise to aid and abet the dominant liberalism’s hidden logic of repression.

In sum, the task of Catholics, in the face of the current controversy, is not only that of effecting change in the culture’s public policies, although of course it is also that. What is needed, at a more fundamental level, is a transforming conversion of our society’s largely unwittingly assumed idea of the human being as an abstractly conceived in-dependent agent, and of the “culture of rights” and indeed entire way of life that have grown up around this idea and that now dominate America’s political, economic, social, educational, and religious institutions.

If I’m reading him correctly — and I may not be; he’s not an easy read — Schindler is pointing out that the problem facing Catholics (and others) today regarding religious liberty is at its root one of anthropology and metaphysics. In ordinary terms, what liberalism thinks Man is, and the way liberalism construes Reality, cannot be reconciled with orthodox Christianity. Schindler wants Catholics (and others) to keep fighting in the public square for religious liberty, but he also wants them to know the true nature of the battle.

This has been hidden from us for so long because the country has been informed primarily by Christian thoughts, concepts, and values. Because most people in this country were in some sense Christian, the Christian worldview, broadly conceived, set the bounds for our culture and the discussions we had within it. Don’t misunderstand: there never was a Golden Age of Christianity in this country. Note well that the profoundly Christian oratory of Martin Luther King was used to tear down American apartheid, a system maintained by white Southerners who no doubt considered themselves to be good Christian people. The point is certainly not that there was a Golden Age, but that the very concept of human rights that liberalism advocates depends on belief in God.

In a 1989 Atlantic essay, “Can We Be Good Without God?”, the political scientist Glenn Tinder explored this concept. Excerpts:

We are so used to thinking of spirituality as withdrawal from the world and human affairs that it is hard to think of it as political. Spirituality is personal and private, we assume, while politics is public. But such a dichotomy drastically diminishes spirituality construing it as a relationship to God without implications for one’s relationship to the surrounding world. The God of Christian faith (I shall focus on Christianity although the God of the New Testament is also the God of the Old Testament) created the world and is deeply engaged in the affairs of the world. The notion that we can be related to God and not to the world—that we can practice a spirituality that is not political—is in conflict with the Christian understanding of God.

And if spirituality is properly political, the converse also is true, however distant it may be from prevailing assumptions: politics is properly spiritual. The spirituality of politics was affirmed by Plato at the very beginnings of Western political philosophy and was a commonplace of medieval political thought. Only in modern times has it come to be taken for granted that politics is entirely secular. The inevitable result is the demoralization of politics. Politics loses its moral structure and purpose, and turns into an affair of group interest and personal ambition. Government comes to the aid of only the well organized and influential, and it is limited only where it is checked by countervailing forces. Politics ceases to be understood as a pre-eminently human activity and is left to those who find it profitable, pleasurable, or in some other way useful to themselves. Political action thus comes to be carried out purely for the sake of power and privilege.

It will be my purpose in this essay to try to connect the severed realms of the spiritual and the political. In view of the fervent secularism of many Americans today, some will assume this to be the opening salvo of a fundamentalist attack on “pluralism.” Ironically, as I will argue, many of the undoubted virtues of pluralism—respect for the individual and a belief in the essential equality of all human beings, to cite just two—have strong roots in the union of the spiritual and the political achieved in the vision of Christianity. The question that secularists have to answer is whether these values can survive without these particular roots. In short, can we be good without God? Can we affirm the dignity and equality of individual persons—values we ordinarily regard as secular—without giving them transcendental backing? Today these values are honored more in the breach than in the observance; Manhattan Island alone, with its extremes of sybaritic wealth on the one hand and Calcuttan poverty on the other, is testimony to how little equality really counts for in contemporary America. To renew these indispensable values, I shall argue, we must rediscover their primal spiritual grounds.


The most adamant opposition to my argument is likely to come from protagonists of secular reason—a cause represented preeminently by the Enlightenment. Locke and Jefferson, it will be asserted, not Jesus and Paul, created our moral universe. Here I cannot be as disarming as I hope I was in the paragraph above, for underlying my argument is the conviction that Enlightenment rationalism is not nearly so constructive as is often supposed. Granted, it has sometimes played a constructive role. It has translated certain Christian values into secular terms and, in an age becoming increasingly secular, has given them political force. It is doubtful, however, that it could have created those values or that it can provide them with adequate metaphysical foundations. Hence if Christianity declines and dies in coming decades, our moral universe and also the relatively humane political universe that it supports will be in peril. But I recognize that if secular rationalism is far more dependent on Christianity than its protagonists realize, the converse also is in some sense true. The Enlightenment carried into action political ideals that Christians, in contravention of their own basic faith, often shamefully neglected or denied. Further, when I acknowledged that there are respectable grounds for disagreeing with my argument, I had secular rationalism particularly in mind. The foundations of political decency are an issue I wish to raise, not settle.

I’ve recently started a terrific book, one that casts harsh, clarifying light on this entire controversy. It’s called The Unintended Reformation: How A Religious Revolution Secularized Society, and it’s by Brad Gregory, a professor at Notre Dame. The basic concept of the book is that the Reformation began as an attempt to resacralize Western European culture in the face of a decadent Roman Catholicism, but ended up — unintentionally — setting the stage for the exile of God from our public life, the fragmentation of truth (cf. MacIntyre), and the transformation of religious belief into the counterfeit Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

The point of Gregory’s book, let’s be clear, is to say that the Reformation’s consequences were unintended. The Reformers did not mean for things to turn out this way. And to be fair, the philosophical and theological roots of the Reformation, Gregory shows, are not simply in the corruption of the Renaissance Catholic Church, but go back to the Catholic High Middle Ages, when the Nominalists defeated the Scholastics in the battle of metaphysical ideas, and introduced a new, anti-traditional notion of metaphysics.

It’s a complicated story, and to greatly simplify it, the Nominalists contended that God existed as a category of Being, versus the older idea that God was Being itself. The Nominalists taught that things just were, that there were no such things as ideal forms. When we talk about the “Supreme Being,” we are accepting Nominalist thought. As Gregory puts it, “Despite their formal, grammatical similarity, ‘the book is on the table’ and ‘God is in heaven,’ are not comparable statements in traditional Christian metaphysics.” That this is very hard to conceive of today shows the extent to which Nominalism revolutionized Western thought (and why it is so difficult for Western Christians to grasp the core of how Orthodox Christians view things, given that Orthodoxy never went through the Nominalist revolution). More Gregory on this point:

Indeed, as already noted, the nature of language itself, including the religious language used by believers to talk about God, veers by default in a univocal and nominalist direction, as if “God” were the name of a thing, an ens, an entity within the totality of being. It requires a concerted effort linked to a traditional metaphysics of creation to see that “the king reigns at court and throughout his kingdom” and “God reigns in heaven and throughout his creation” are not the same kind of statement. But if God is thought to be a “highest being” within the universe, they are.

The same assumptions with their roots in the distant past, unknowingly held and woven into ordinary experience, also explain why many religious believers today feel anxiety when pressed about where God is or how God acts or what God is like. The key point is not, as is commonly but wrongly believed, that the empirical investigation of the natural world made or makes a transcendent God’s existence increasingly implausible. It is rather that this presumption depended historically and continues to depend on a conception of God as a hypothetical supernatural agent in competition with natural causality, polemically vulgarized, for example, in the rants of Richard Dawkins about the “God hypothesis” and the putative “God delusion.” In diametric contrast, with the Christian conception of God as transcendent creator of the universe, it is precisely and only because of his radical difference from creation that God can be present to and through it. This is the metaphysics that continues to underlie and make possible a sacramental worldview, against supersessionist conceptions of history, in combination with any and all scientific findings.

It would take a very long post to sum up Gregory’s genealogy of secular liberalism, descending from Nominalism, down through the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and to the present day. It’s not a simple story, for sure. One thing I found fascinating about this history (and I’m not very far into the book) is Gregory’s claim that Nominalism became so pervasive in Western thought that even the Neo-Thomists of the Tridentine era unconsciously accepted some of it. Gregory says that Nominalism served as the philosophical underpinning for the instrumentalization of the world. That is, under Nominalist thought, the world became something for us to use to fulfill our desires. There was no transcendent natural order we had to obey; we could do and be whatever we wanted to do or be. Gregory:

Medieval Christian teachings claimed that God created the world, became incarnate for human beings’ salvation, remained mysteriously present in and through his creation, made stringent moral demands, commanded human beings to deny themselves for the sake of others in pursuit of a certain kind of shared human life, and would judge for eternity all human beings after death based on how they had lived. Such claims impinged on any number of potential human plans about the use of natural things, including one’s own body as expressed in one’s behavior. They were restrictions on the human will, encumbrances to human self-determination. Beginning in the 1520s Catholic and Protestant controversialists had unintentionally paralyzed theological discourse based on ecclesiastical authority, tradition, scripture, and religious experience, leaving reason, however construed, as the basis for argument about God, creation, and morality. In principle, the less any view of nature was linked to restrictive religious claims, the greater would be the scope for human beings to realize their ambitions to use nature however they pleased. Here was a new opportunity. The intellectual impasse created by theological controversy provided an opening for ideas about nature based on novel beliefs. A subjective conception of nature as “objectively” devoid of God’s presence would neatly serve a highly interested view of nature as “disinterested” — even for thinkers who were Christians.

Desacramentalized and denuded of God’s presence via metaphysical univocity [that is, Nominalism’s claim that God is only part of Being; that He is the highest being within the universe — RD] and Occam’s razor [the idea that the simplest explanation is the best one –RD], the natural world would cease to be either the Catholic theater of God’s grace or the playground of Satan as Luther’s princeps mundi. Instead, it would become so much raw material awaiting the imprint of human desires. This would come to be called an “objective” view of the world.

There’s so very much more here, and I hope you will buy Gregory’s book. For one, it’s showing me why, despite Bernard of Clairvaux’s attention to deification (theosis) — and Bernard is at the pinnacle of Dante’s heaven, the figure who introduces the pilgrim Dante to God — and Aquinas’s accommodation of it, deification faded far into the background after the High Middle Ages — though it continued on, and continues on, in Eastern Christian thought.

Richard Weaver, in his Ideas Have Consequences, understands what Nominalism has wrought:

Like Macbeth, Western man made an evil decision, which has become the efficient and final cause of other evil decisions. Have we forgotten our encounter with the witches on the heath? It occurred in the late fourteenth century, and what the witches said to the protagonist of this drama was that man could realize himself more fully if he would only abandon his belief in the existence of transcendentals. The powers of darkness were working subtly, as always, and they couched this proposition in the seemingly innocent form of an attack upon universals. The defeat of logical realism in the great medieval debate was the crucial event in the history of Western culture; from this flowed those acts which issue now in modern decadence.

One may be accused here of oversimplifying the historical process, but I take the view that the conscious policies of men and governments are not mere rationalizations of what has been brought about by unaccountable forces. They are rather deductions from our most basic ideas of human destiny, and they have a great, though not unobstructed, power to determine our course.

For this reason I turn to William of Occam as the best representative of a change which came over man’s conception of reality at this historic juncture. It was William of Occam who propounded the fateful doctrine of nominalism, which denies that universals have a real existence. His triumph tended to leave universal terms mere names serving our convenience. The issue ultimately involved is whether there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of, man; and the answer to the question is decisive for one’s view of the nature and destiny of humankind. The practical result of nominalist philosophy is to banish the reality which is perceived by the intellect and to posit as reality that which is perceived by the senses. With this change in the affirmation of what is real, the whole orientation of culture takes a turn, and we are on the road to modern empiricism.

It is easy to be blind to the significance of a change because it is remote in time and abstract in character. Those who have not discovered that world view is the most important thing about a man, as about the men composing a culture, should consider the train of circumstances which have with perfect logic proceeded from this. The denial of universals carries with it the denial of everything transcending experience. The denial of everything transcending experience means inevitably—though ways are found to hedge on this—the denial of truth.

With the denial of objective truth there is no escape from the relativism of “man the measure of all things.” The witches spoke with the habitual equivocation of oracles when they told man that by this easy choice he might realize himself more fully, for they were actually initiating a course which cuts one off from reality. Thus began the “abomination of desolation” appearing today as a feeling of alienation from all fixed truth.

Finally, I strongly encourage you to read Catholic philosopher Michael Hanby’s reflection on the end of American civic Christianity.  He says, in essence, that we have come to the end of the road, that the present moment has unmasked the deep fissures between liberalism and Christianity, divides that were always there, but which were obscured by the fact that most Americans lived with a more or less Christian metaphysical dream in their heads. Those days are over. Hanby:

There are important debates about how and why the liberal order has attained this dangerous, all-encompassing absolutism. Patrick Deneen evokes its main contours in his American Conservative article “A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching.” He describes a debate between “radical” Catholicism and “neoconservative” Catholicism. The neoconservative Catholic often draws attention to a progressive fall from classical liberalism, while the radical Catholic sees our current crisis as the outworking of liberalism’s deepest premises. Not surprisingly, therefore, the radical Catholic thinks it necessary to engage liberal order in a fundamental, ontological critique, while the neoconservative Catholic settles for a moral, sociological, legal, or political approach. He thinks energies are best spent recalling America to its founding principles, in hopes of preserving the dwindling space of freedom for Christians in the public square. The radical Catholic is more likely to counsel preparing for the day when filing another lawsuit is no longer enough. The same contrasts play out among Protestants, largely along the same lines.

This is a debate worth having, for it addresses fundamental questions about the structure of being, the nature of human beings, and the relations between nature and grace, faith and reason, and the political and ecclesial orders. I am inclined toward the “radical Catholic” side of this debate, convinced that unless and until we engage in a thorough reassessment of the metaphysical and crypto-theological conceits of liberalism, we will find ourselves coopted by it, unwittingly serving its project even as we bemoan and increasingly are afflicted by its excesses.

Hanby says that before we can act, we have to begin with a realistic understanding of what liberalism is, and why it is, at bottom, incompatible with Christianity:

A witness is, first, one who sees. And none of these efforts are likely to come to much unless we are able to see outside the ontology of liberalism to the truth of things, to enter more deeply into the meaning of our creaturehood. Only then can we rediscover, as a matter of reason, the truth of the human being, the truth of freedom, and the truth of truth itself. It is no accident that Benedict XVI placed the spirit of monasticism at the foundation of any authentically human culture. For nothing less than an all-consuming quest for God, one that lays claim to heart, soul, and mind, will suffice to save Christianity from this decaying civilization—or this civilization from itself.

This quest requires an internal renewal of theology and philosophy—not merely as academic disciplines, but as ways of life—and they need to be brought to bear on the governing assumptions, the unarticulated ontology of our culture. In other words, we will need a much more penetrating ontological engagement with the first principles of liberal and secular order than has heretofore characterized American Christian thought. We will need a deeper assessment of how liberal principles shape both the objects of our thought and the very form of our thinking. Only thus can we really hope to come to grips with the true depths of our predicament and help our liberal culture understand the truth about itself and the profound implications of its present course toward an impoverished absolutism now poised to seize control of the most primitive junction between nature and culture—the family itself.

One thing Christians have to recover: metaphysical realism. That can’t be put on a bumper sticker, but it’s true.

A lawyer I know who has been involved for years at the national level litigating for religious liberty, and strategizing for its cause, recently told me that most Christians in this country have no idea how far gone things are for religious liberty in this country — but they’re going to find out in the next few years. He said that their inability to grasp the fundamental realities of the situation is an enormous impediment to their preparing for what is coming. It’s as if they were standing ankle-deep in floodwater, and thinking that Noah was crazy to be building an ark, because the rain looks like it might taper off shortly.

Bottom line: Christianity is dissolving in America not because America has fallen from grace, but because the founding liberal principles of America and American society are working themselves out in history, as they must. It’s happening all over the West. This is not something that can be arrested using the tools of liberalism. The best we can do is fight within the structures of liberalism to maintain a space that will allow us to develop the institutions, the habits of mind, and habits of life that will allow future generations to live as faithful Christians in an anti-Christian world.

The Christian radicals — and I am one of them — say that the Benedict Option is not really an option anymore, but a necessity. Soon enough, this will become apparent to many more Christians. These are not normal times. My liberal atheist transhumanist reader, the one whose note to me started this thread, sees exactly what’s going on. Far, far too many orthodox Christians and social conservatives do not. They will.