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From Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy:
In the commentary on the modern spiritual predicament, religion is consistently treated as a source of intellectual and emotional security, not as a challenge to complacency and pride. Its ethical teachings are misconstrued as a body of simple commandments leaving no room for ambiguity or doubt. Recall Jung’s description of medieval Christians as “children of God [who] knew exactly what they should do and how they should conduct themselves…
What has to be questioned here is the assumption that religion ever provided a set of comprehensive and unambiguous answers to ethical questions, answers completely resistant to skepticism, or that it forestalled speculation about the meaning and purpose of life, or that religious people in the past were unacquainted with existential despair. The famous collection of songs written by medieval students preparing for the priesthood Carmina Burana would be enough in itself to dispel this notion; these disturbing compositions give voice to an age-old suspicion that the universe is ruled by Fortune, not by Providence, that life has no higher purpose at al, and that the better part of moral wisdom is to enjoy it while you can (242-243).
For the most part, Lasch’s assessment is spot on. Yet note how Lasch appeals to medieval Christianity in order to make his argument convincing. In so doing, he conspicuously bypasses the modern Protestant tradition – that which gave birth to religion as a well spring of security, surety and fideism. The “misconstrued” ethical teachings, rightly deplored by Lasch above, unfortunately have less to do with modern secularists like Jung or Wilde, and more to do with a contingent form of bad theology. As John Milbank argues in Theology and Social Theory (published around the time of Lasch’s book), secularism was not birthed ex nihilio; rather, it was a certain form of early modern theology that birthed secularism.
When we are assured that tomorrow, in the natural order of events, will be better than today, we can enjoy ourselves in peace. Progress, paradoxically, can be used to justify conservatism. A draft drawn on confidence in the future, it allows the master to have a clear conscience. The slave and those whose present life is miserable and who can find no consolation in the heavens are assured that at least the future belongs to them. The future is the only kind of property that the masters willingly concede to the slaves.
Albert Camus, The Rebel, 194.
In The Realm of Lesser Evil, Jean-Claude Michea looks to revive the original socialist critique of liberalism in both its cultural or economic forms. For a person on the left, such as Michea, to attack economic liberalism is about par for the course; for a person on the left to attack cultural liberalism – that which rejects tradition, virtue, moral values, and “common decency” – is to be labeled “reactionary.” Michea’s work is of interest to “Sublunary Sublime” in that he echoes the ethos of the Christian Socialist tradition, beginning with F.D. Maurice.
According to Michea, cultural and economic forms of liberalism are governed by the same underlying logic, and the misguided attempt to disentangle the two only serves to reinforce the worst ravages of economic liberalism. The foundation of liberalism rests on a pessimistic anthropology – despite the best intentions of Smith or Hobbes – and the political desire to secure peace through the market. Government’s role is somewhat secondary, tasked to play the disinterested arbitrator, except that the market’s logic always triumphs over the state’s empty form. “Political liberalism always ends up finding its natural centre of gravity in economic liberalism,” writes Michea (32). This is because, as Michea goes on to argue, Law and Market are structurally and substantially identical (64 – 70). Michea delivers a bit of damning evidence here, quoting Milton Friedman, “who has described most precisely (or cynically) the real nature of this liberal tolerance, when he celebrates the Market as the magic mechanism enabling ‘millions of individuals to come together on a daily basis without any need to love one another, or even to speak to one another’” (54).
From the outset Michea recognizes that his argument will be a hard pill to swallow for many on the left, who typically like “to distinguish between a ‘good’ political and cultural liberalism and a ‘bad’ economic liberalism” (1). In truth, however, “the soulless world of contemporary capitalism is the only historical form in which this original liberal doctrine could be realized in practices. It is, in other words, actually existing liberalism” (2).
If there is no difference between good and bad liberalism, what then is to be done? For Michea, the task is then to revive the spirit of original socialism, as opposed to Marx, who is but “the direct heir of ‘English economic science’, i.e. of original liberalism” (41). As Anca Simitopol states about Michea’s work, “the rediscovery of the political philosophy of the first socialist thinkers is highly important because it represents the only way out of the all-embracing capitalism (italics mine).” Early socialism, according to Michea, was directly opposed to liberalism: at the heart of all early socialist manifestos is “the critique of egoism and the liberal atomization of society” (139). Standing at odds with liberalism, Michea wants “to anchor the fundamentals of socialists practices in basic human virtues”; that is, to revive the Orwellian sense of “common decency”: trust, generosity, working-on-oneself, and, most importantly perhaps, holding to a sense of limits as opposed to unending economic growth. Pace Marx, the reviving of virtuous socialistic practice is not reactionary. Orwellian socialism, as Michea clarifies, “is less the nostalgia for a vanished world than a determined opposition to the moral pessimism of the Moderns. It is the constant refusal to drown the ‘common people’ in the icy waters of egoistic calculation” of both liberalism and totalitarianism (113).
Although Michea presents a controversial thesis, he is absolutely right to point out that it is becoming more and more difficult to disentangle the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ forms of liberalism out from under the all-mighty market. What’s worse, it is quickly becoming the case that liberalism is no longer content to cast itself as the least bad option. As Michea writes, “the realm of lesser evil, as its shadow has stretched over the entire planet, seems set on taking over, one by one, all the features of its oldest enemy. It now wants to be adored as the best of worlds” (140).
In his contribution to The Crisis of Global Capitalism: Pope Benedict XVI’s Social Encyclical and the Future of Political Economy, Eugene McCarraher looks to blow the dust off of R.H. Tawney’s legacy: “Often admired but now rarely consulted, Tawney’s work deserves a spiritual revival.” In Sublunary Sublime’s modest opinion, this has got to be one the great theological understatements of the decade.
McCarraher writes that Tawney’s work suggests “theological acuity and depth,” as can be seen from his Commonplace Book and other critical works. As McCarraher explains,
Tawney lauded the medieval economic imagination, in which work and goods were judged in the light of the beatific vision. Surveying the wisdom of scholastic philosophers and canon lawyers, Tawney reclaimed their conviction that “the ideal – if only man’s nature could rise to it – is communism,” since sharing in communion was the order of heaven. Seen in this light, corporate capitalist property and production were grotesque distortions of the divine economy. Against the corporate order which protected stockholders and other parasitic classes who merely owned and lived off the labor of others, modern Christian socialism would, Tawney hoped, revive and older conception of property as “an aid to creative work, not an alternative to it.” Artfully made and justly distributed, material goods could be tokens of beatitude, “aids to blessedness,” as Tawny put it (105).
We can see how Tawney’s theological acuity is demonstrated in his understanding of St. Thomas’s claim that “grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it”; his depth comes from grasping the material implications of this seemingly esoteric doctrine. In Religion and The Rise of Capitalism, Tawney writes,
The contrast between nature and grace, between human appetites and interests and religion, is not absolute, but relative. It is a contrast of matter and spirit informing it, of stages in a process, of preparation and fruition. Grace works on the unregenerate nature of man, not to destroy it, but to transform it. And what is true of the individual is true of society. An attempt is made to give it a new significance by relating it to the purpose of human life as known by revelation. In the words of a famous (or notorious) Bull: “The way of religion is to lead the things which are lower to the things which are higher through the things which are intermediate. According to the law of the universe all things are not reduced to order equally and immediately; but the lowest through the intermediate, the intermediate through the higher.” Thus social institutions assume a character which may almost be called sacramental, for they are the outward and imperfect expression of a supreme reality. Ideally conceived, society is an organism of different grades, and human activities form a hierarchy of functions, which differ in kind and in significance, but each of which is of value on its own plane, provided that it is governed, however remotely, by the end which is common to all (26).
As Tawney goes on to argue, in the absence of a common end the ideology of efficiency reigns supreme. The rejection of teleology birthed the market state and the market state in turn birthed the individual. “The concept of religion as a thing private and individual does not emerge until after a century in which religious freedom normally means the freedom of the State to prescribe religion, not the freedom of the individual to worship God as he pleases,” writes Tawney (Religion and The Rise of Capitalism, 149).
All in all, Tawney presents a sobering vision, one that appears to leave little wiggle room for the more liberally minded. It is, however, a sentiment shared by no less than Simone Weil and Alasdair MacIntyre:
On the whole, our present situation more or less resembles that of a party of absolutely ignorant travelers who find themselves in a motor-car launched at full speed and driverless across broken country (Weil, Oppression and Liberty, 114).
From an Aristotelian point of view a modern liberal political society can appear only as a collection of citizens from nowhere who have banded together for their common protection (MacIntyre, After Virtue, 156).
The undiminished irrationality of rational society encourages people to elevate religion into an end in itself, without regard to its content: to view religion as a mere attitude, as a quality of subjectivity. All this at the cost of religion itself. One needs only to be a believer – no matter what he believes in. Such irrationality has the same function of putty… the jargon guides the petit bourgeois to a positive attitude toward life. It fastidiously prolongs the innumerable events which are to make attractive to men a life by which they otherwise would be disgusted – and which they would soon come to consider unbearable. That religion has shifted into the subject, has become religiosity, follows the trend of history. Dead cells of religiosity in the midst of the secular, however, become poisonous.
Theodor Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity, 21-22.
Catholicity and Covenant has written a patient, yet forceful, critique of GAFCON’s response to the Pilling report. It’s well worth a read.
As it stands, the GAFCON statement seems to have formed an unholy alliance with the logic of moral intuitionism. With the help of Oliver O’Donovan, C&C notes that such paradigms are dominated by the modern “immediacy of insight” and therefore run the risk of making “the interpretation of Scripture seem superfluous.” Truth is here regarded as self-evident, immediately present to the subject irrespective of ethical formation, authority and history. Kant again triumphs over Aristotle.
In Church in Crisis, O’Donovan doesn’t mince words when it comes to criticizing such forms of biblical-moral-intuitionism:
We must not, then, in the supposed defense of a “biblical” ethic, try to close down moral discussions prescriptively, announcing that we already know what the Bible teaches and forbidding further examination. It is the characteristic of “conservative” temptation to erect a moment in scriptural interpretation into an unrevisable norm that will substitute, conveniently and less ambiguously, for Scripture itself. The word “authority” means, quite simply, that we have to keep looking back to this source if we are to stay on the right track. Anything else is unbelief – a refusal to open ourselves to the questions, What is God saying to us through his world? […]
The interpretation of Scripture is a matter in which we wait upon God – not, of course, as though we had understood nothing, but simply because we have not understood everything. The text and my reading of the text are two things, not one, and the first is the judge of the second. I can always read further, study harder, think deeper. To precipitate myself from the pinnacle of the text, and demand that angel wings shall bear my interpretation up, is to cut short the task of waiting and attending; it is to tempt the Lord my God (79-80).
Be sure to check out Elizabeth Stoker’s recent post, “Pope Francis, Abortion, & Quandary Ethics.” As Stoker shows, both the left and the right are having a very difficult time placing Pope Francis; try as they might, the man just doesn’t quite fit into their narrow political paradigms.
Stoker goes on to discuss and diagnose the problem of “quandary ethics,” a form of moral reasoning that continues to infect most of our cultural debates. Quandary ethics imagines a world of renegade trolley cars and fat men being tossed from bridges; it seems to have little time for everyday dilemmas, like affordable day car or PTA involvement. Such ethical reasoning represents
a tendency to think of ethics as the universal rules that arise from the resolution of high-stakes, zero-sum moral puzzles, like abortion and the infamous ‘trolley problem.’ As Pincoff points out, one of the major problems with the quandarist pursuit of ethics is the type of reasoning it demands to produce suitable solutions: “what is relevant must have nothing to do with me, only with the situation: a situation in which anyone could find himself. What is right for me must be right for anyone.” This is essentially the stripped-out, hyper-abstract sense in which we’ve come to imagine abortion, despite the fact that both sides harp endlessly about dealing in the harsh realities of lived human experience. In practice, the discussion of abortion zeroes down to categories so broad they’re almost vacant: woman, fetus, equality, freedom.
This form of abstract reasoning not only creates unhelpful generalizations, but creates political stalemate. As just one example, witness the impasse in The Episcopal Church over sexuality. The net effect of this peculiar ethical reasoning insists “upon ethical rules too general and too extreme for our real sense of the matter,” as Stoker points out.
Proponents of quandary ethics tend to side with Kant over Aristotle: authority is rule-based in nature and application. Compare this, however, with traditional catholic teaching on ethics, where factors like “intention, purpose, and overall cultural tendencies” inform moral decision making, and you can see how far some Christian ethical discourse has strayed from its classical roots.
But isn’t this to be expected? After all, “Aristotle is the great historical figure that the Enlightenment forgot,” according to Sam Wells.
At the end of the day, Classical Christian ethics is a messy affair; it doesn’t have the luxurious clean lines of quandary or rule-based ethical systems, which is to say, it doesn’t have the precision of math. As Wells reminds us, “the key question about New Testament ethics is not ‘What exactly do these instructions require and are exceptions ever legitimate?’ Instead the key question is ‘What kind of a community did the early church need to be to be faithful to Jesus in the light of the world’s challenges, and thus what kind of a community does the church today need to be to do the same?’”