The Cul-De-Sacs of the Christian Intellectual

Looking for paths out of religious decadence.

I’m afraid I’ve been cannibalizing this Substack’s themes for my day job: Both my Sunday column on how our baby bust might come to an end and pieces of my Tuesday column on Weimar Germany and “Babylon Berlin” deal with questions of decadence, demographic and political, in ways that connect to my paperback-promoting posting around here.

But for exclusive Holy Week Substack content, let me try to extend my prior post, on Western intellectual life under decadence, with some thoughts on the specific position of the Christian intellectual in the Year of Our Lord 2021.

In my casually-chosen list of influential public intellectuals from the last twenty years, I represented Christianity with Fr. James Martin, Rod Dreher, Charles Taylor, David Bentley Hart and Tim Keller. I picked Taylor because he’s the scholar who’s produced something closest to a conventional definition of an Important Work, 2007’s A Secular Age, and Keller because he’s the most mainstream embodiment of the Calvinist revival within evangelicalism. But I picked Hart, Dreher and Martin because their work — more popular in the latter two cases, more idiosyncratic in Hart’s case — seems especially responsive to the dilemmas that confront Christian thinkers right now, and the challenges facing Biblical religion amid the decadence of its stepchild, liberalism.

Those dilemmas follow from the prior quarter-century of Christian argumentation about the church and the culture, when the most influential religious intellectuals were neoconservatives of various descriptions (you can take Richard John Neuhaus as a paradigmatic case) who felt that Christian thinkers and activists in the 1960s and 1970s had taken a wrong turn: In trying to make Christianity relevant to secular liberalism or to the revolutionary left, they had allowed the faith to be swallowed by politics, its doctrines effaced and its supernaturalism tamed. The neoconservative answer, then, was a vigorous reassertion of Christian distinctives — but not, crucially, in order to overthrow liberalism itself. Rather, the goal was to return the liberal order to the road it had seemingly been taking prior to the revolutions of the later 1960s, to a path where Christianity and liberalism need not be enemies or rivals, but could meet instead as cooperators and friends.

This neoconservatism still has partisans and influence, but in the last two decades it has fallen on hard times. (A good part of the controversy surrounding a figure like David French reflects the fact that he still hews to the basic synthesis when so many others have abandoned it.) In resisting capture by left-wing politics and liberal culture, much of religious conservatism has seemingly fallen into right-wing political captivity instead, dividing conservative Christians against one another in response. In seeking to call liberalism back to its mid-century form the neoconservatives had some successes (a resilient pro-life movement, some victories for religious liberty) but many conspicuous debacles. And the general effort to re-evangelize American culture has been undercut by scandals within the Christian churches (the Catholic sex abuse crisis above all), overwhelmed by social and technological changes, undermined by persistent racial divisions, and impeded by the stumbling block of the sexual revolution.

From this apparent cul-de-sac, what is to be done? Well, one possibility is to go back to the ideas that the neoconservatives rejected or critiqued. That’s arguably what you find, in different forms, in the recent work of Hart and Father Martin (with Pope Francis looming behind them as a spiritual inspiration): New attempts at moral or theological adaptation, new attempts to find common ground with liberalism or to embrace some of the commitments of the left. This is not, crucially, an adaptation to secularism and anti-supernaturalism; that road I think almost everyone concedes is the deadest of dead ends. Instead in Martin’s writings and ministry you see an attempt to stretch, expand or adapt the Christian tradition sufficiently so that much of the sexual revolution, with abortion as the major exception, can be encompassed and accepted: Maybe not always formally, with new dogmatic pronouncements to contradict the old ones, but at least in a de facto way, with a theology of welcome that resolves the tensions between the church and post-1960s sexual culture and enables Christianity to breathe and preach anew.

In Hart’s recent development you have something a bit stranger, befitting his distinctive style: His famous combativeness against secularism and atheism has been joined to a newer combativeness against certain traditional Christian ideas — the doctrine of hell, in particular — and in favor of a more radical style of Christian politics, socialistic with a soft spot for #fullCommunism. He’s too prickly to be the leader of a movement (Martin is a conciliator, Hart is … not), but he’s an illustrative figure for a tendency that seems common among younger Mainline Protestants (and also some questing Catholics and evangelicals). They want to be more orthodox than, say, John Shelby Spong or James Pike; they want to be politically radical and they definitely don’t want to be Republicans; and they want space to reinterpret Christian tradition in a way that keeps the Resurrection and the miracles but leaves room for the revision of key moral and doctrinal points.

Perhaps these projects will flourish; certainly the pontificate of Francis and the presidency of Joe Biden have given them an unexpected glow. My sense, however, is that they probably lead by new routes to the same cul-de-sac as prior liberal Christianities, with the same problems of continuity and conviction and coherence that contributed to the long decline of Mainline Protestantism and led to the neoconservative era in the first place. (You can read part of my extended argument with Father Martin in chapter 10 of my book on the Francis era in Catholicism; I am not such a fool as to enter into an extended argument with Hart.) And to the extent that they risk placing a Christian worldview in a subordinate relationship to left-wing politics and values, that position is likely to be substantially more subordinate in our era than in the 1970s (Hart may be interested in AOC, but is she interested in him?), insofar as progressivism has de-Christianized further and increasingly developed its own post-Protestant spirituality, which will presumably loom even larger once the Biden generation passes to its reward.

At the very least, for the new styles of liberal or trad-socialist Christianity to offer clear routes out of decadence, they would need a more zealous critique of existing secular liberalism and progressivism (the sterile endgame of the sexual revolution, especially, seems like it requires something from the church besides acceptance and conciliation), and a more direct argument for re-Christianization that challenges the left’s emerging mixture of post-Protestantism, pantheism and materialism head-on. This is not unimaginable, especially so long as the African-American church remains an important constituency for and potential influence upon progressivism. But I don’t see either taking full form and flower yet.

But if you don’t follow the new adaptationists, then what are the other post-neoconservative possibilities? Here’s where Dreher is important, as the eloquent and prolific spokesman for the view that what Christians need is less a vision to transform a decadent society than a plan to survive the “long night” of tyranny and social-cultural breakdown waiting in its wings. This view reflects his fundamental pessimism about our cultural circumstances — you can read the two of us going back and forth about our differences in this conversation — and his sense that the West may be too far gone to be renewed without some intervening catastrophe or Change. That doesn’t mean he’s given up on renewal — his interests roll in all kinds of possibilities — but both The Benedict Option and Live Not By Lies, his two major statements, are fundamentally arguments about communal resilience under pressure, informed by analogies to the Dark Ages and Communist persecution, respectively. So even if Christian communities seeking revitalization can draw important lessons from his work (including communities that don’t share his traditionalism in full), the Dreher vision generally assumes that a slow decline under decadent conditions is the best that Christians can hope for in the short run, and that our social order’s worst features are likely to deliver something grimmer and more oppressive soon, that to be defeated must be first survived.

Which, bristling with impatience with this pessimism, is where the various forms of post-liberal Christian thought come in. As I said in my last post, I think it will be a little while before we can decide on a central post-liberal influencer from the Patrick Deneen/Adrian Vermeule/Edmund Waldstein/Sohrab Ahmari list. But the tendency is certainly important right now, embodying both a rejection of any accommodation with liberalism and an impatience with any form of quietism or defeatism.

Can it really be the case, the post-liberals ask, that Christians facing the present age can only choose between accommodation and resilience-in-retreat? Isn’t the current form of liberalism obviously weakened, exhausted and beset with self-contradictions — and very, very far from being the all-conquering historical force implied by some of Dreher’s dramatic historical analogies? And of so, why should we regard the failure of Christian neoconservatism as proving something definitive about the impossibility of Christian witness, when maybe all it shows is that Christian witness fails if it yokes itself to Americanist pieties and the liberal/Christian convergence of 1955?

These are reasonable questions, and for the purposes of putting the “re” in revival and rebirth, I’m extremely in favor of the post-liberal interest in looking further backward — whether to 19th century popes or medieval French monarchs.

But with that said, the post-liberal project also feels like a tentative beginning, prone to dialectical confidence yet unformed as yet in various respects, and it’s easy enough to see how it could end up in its own cul-de-sacs. If it’s a fantasy for neoconservatives to imagine restoring the lost 1950s, after all, the idea of plugging Christian concepts from the 1880s or 1260s into the political landscape of the 2020s does not necessarily bring us closer to political realism. If it’s folly for liberal Christians to imagine reaching a permanent accommodation with socialism or secular progressivism or liberalism itself, the idea of simply defeating liberalism and remaking liberal culture through a top-down administrative coup does not necessarily answer the challenge by enlarging it. If naively embracing the sexual revolution is a dead end for Christianity, it’s not clear that new roads open immediately if we simply act as though it didn’t happen. If it’s a historical mistake to suggest that we can only have certain political liberties and socioeconomic goods under the rule of liberalism, it still remains to be explained what post-liberal Christians have learned about power and its corruptions from all the places in which the last Christendom went wrong.

I am caricaturing the post-liberal position here a bit, but as a means of suggesting the range of questions that aren’t yet answered by its critique of liberal decadence. And what I wrote earlier about post-liberalism’s limits as a political program applies even more substantially once you move from politics to culture, from governance to faith, from the church’s political expression to the church itself. Late modernity has presented Christianity with a lot of ideas and concepts and developments that remain half-embraced and half-rejected, partially assimilated and partially critiqued — especially for those Christians who don’t consider themselves theological or political liberals. And under decadence, as the secular realm has ground into sterile repetition, so somewhat has the orthodox Christian response. So a post-liberalism worthy of the “post” portion of the name would need to not only shape its political argument into a plausible real-world political agenda, but also help Christians think more clearly about all kinds of issues that seem somewhat “outside” the church right now — feminism, say, or the human relationship to the Internet, or the implications of Darwin’s theory of evolution — as well as all kinds of internal issues, from liturgy and sacred architecture to church discipline, where gridlock and stagnation rule the day.

This might mean going further with ideas and tendencies currently percolating around the edges of the post-liberal project — everything from Brandon McGinley’s writings on church renewal to the attempts in places like Plough and The Lamp to model a Christian journalism that isn’t just part of the culture war to the experiments in thinking about feminism from within Christian orthodoxy but not necessarily within existing conservatism. (On this last point it’s a good sign that Andrea Dworkin appears in Ahmari’s new book!) And it might mean trying to consciously encompass the other tendencies I’ve just mentioned, rather than treating them simply as rivals — to embrace the spirit of Fr. Martin’s writings on prayer or Hart’s wars with the materialists or Dreher’s fascination with re-enchantment or French’s fury at sexual corruption in the church, so that the best of different Christian responses to our circumstances are lifted up together.

Is that too much to ask of an intellectual movement? Well, yes, in the sense that Christianity isn’t fundamentally an academic or ideological project, and if you’re looking for renewal and transformation you need to look first for the renewal’s saints rather than its scribblers. And yes, as well, in the sense that you can’t expect the set of political theorists and theologians currently identified with post-liberalism to solve every dilemma and deadlock facing religious believers in our age.

But at the same time when we think about the history of liberal Christianity, whether you start with John Locke or Walter Rauschenbusch or somewhere else entirely, we’re thinking about a set of ideas about how the church could be stewarded through modernity that ultimately spilled out across a vast cultural territory, reshaping political theology, Biblical translation and interpretation, the church’s relationship to science and social activism, the design of its sacred architecture and the form of its liturgies … and at the same time conditioning distinctive religious responses to just about every new social controversy of the last one hundred years or more.

So if liberal society has fallen into decadence, and the forms of Christianity that strove to adapt to it have reach some sort of dead ends, then you would expect the new thing, the next resurrection of the Christian faith, to look at least as complex and capacious as liberal Christianity did. Maybe not as novel, to the extent that it involves a reaching backward to pre-liberal Christian forms, but at least as inventive, in a way that the transcends the mere traditionalism to which many conservative Christians have fled. So asking questions like “what does post-liberal Christianity think about the apparent tensions between the traditional view of Original Sin and the current evolutionary theory of human origins?” or “what styles of church architecture would post-liberal Christianity embrace?” or “what should post-liberal Christians believe about the role of women in church governance?” or “virtual reality: yes or no?” or “how do we evangelize the aliens?” (well, maybe not the last one quite yet) is not unfair to a school that’s primarily concerned with political theory at the moment. It’s a challenge to that school, or any other would-be agents of Christian renewal, to take the broadest possible view of what a religious renaissance requires.

How do you get out of a cul-de-sac? Well, you can go forward and hope to knock down walls, or you can go backward in search of a wrong turning. But sometimes you need to simply rise, ideally together, and see the whole landscape from above.

*

On that note of uplift, let’s end with an Easter poem from the last high tide of American Protestant culture, the last convergence of liberalism and Christian faith:

Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.

A very blessed Triduum and Easter, from John Updike and from me.