What would have to happen, humanly speaking and “under the sun”, for the Christian Right and the Christian Church in America to recover a clear and present cultural mission? Is there some kind of contemplative vision that could possibly give roots and unity to the furious but desultory evangelical activity in the modern Church?
That’s an interesting way to put the question – “some kind of contemplative vision.” Without denigrating contemplation, I’d say that liturgical action rather than a contemplative vision should be at the heart of the reformation of Christian mission. That distinction is based in part on an anthropological point: We are embodied beings, and so preparation for Christian mission and ministry must not only be contemplative but also a matter of bodily training and discipline. A “vision” of life is worked into bodies and not just into minds and hearts; Christian pedagogy takes form in action, ritual, and gesture as well as in teaching and thought.
So, rephrasing the question more to my tastes: What liturgical reform should give roots to evangelical activity in the modern church? Here, the traditional answers are the obvious and right answers. Liturgy centers on Word and Table, and what the American church needs is a return to those basics. I could elaborate on all the flaws of contemporary evangelicalism – preaching that has minimal connection with Scripture and reduces to self-help and moralistic exhortation; narrow “methods” of biblical interpretation as opposed to the richness of medieval and Reformation exegesis; infrequent or non-existent Eucharist, which means infrequent or non-existent enjoyment of the hospitality of God; etc. I’m heartened by increasing interest in liturgy among evangelicals, but it could degenerate into traditionalism, with people obsessing over the quite secondary ornaments of worship instead of recovering the driving force of Word and Sacrament.
If talking about liturgy in answer to a question about the Christian Right and the church’s “cultural mission” seems odd, well, I see that as part of the problem. Christian mission certainly isn’t exhausted by what we do in liturgy, but the trajectory of mission is set by the liturgy. We are as we worship, and if we never enjoy God’s hospitality at His table, it’s not so surprising if we’re a greedy and grasping people.
In your analysis of Jane Austen’s works in Miniatures and Moral, you defend Austen’s portrayal of real heroism in both male and female characters. In the The Historical Austen by William H. Galperin (by contrast) Galperin attempts to de-code or de-construct Austen’s work by providing secret clues as to Colonel Brandon’s (supposed) active ruination of Willoughby, and Austen’s hidden disapproval. How does one (or should one) go about answering the postmodern anti-narratives that attempt to re-read every canonical author? Can’t every author eventually be de-constructed, given enough objectifying research? What is the salient point to remember when reading such deconstructions?
I’m not familiar with the book, but from your summary I find the thesis implausible. But Austen opened herself up to this sort of reduction, I suppose, since she’s always draping everything with several layers of irony. Poor Jane. She didn’t know what she was setting herself up for.
I find some “deconstructionist” readings revealing and helpful. They point to real tensions within a text that I would have missed. In that sense, deconstruction is an intensified form of New Criticism. But many deconstructive analyses get tedious, boring, and incredibly self-reflexive. When a critic needs a 50-page theoretical introduction before he ever looks at a text, when he can’t look at a text without talking about Bataille and Deleuze, something’s gone awry.
On the more general hermeneutical question: Are there tensions between surface and depth in a text? Yes, just like there are plenty of tensions within the writers who write them. Do silences and gaps speak as loud as words? Yes. Is there slippage between sign and signified, sign and referent? Yes. Communication thus seems impossible. But it only seems impossible if you’re measuring it by a standard of transparent, flawless purity. So, deconstruction is a kind of disappointed idealism: Thought and communication do not have the kind of purity that we think is necessary, and so it becomes impossible. But why should we assume that communication can only take place in that kind of pure form? To put it in more bluntly realist terms (envision Samuel Johnson kicking his rock): Communication happens. Therefore, it is possible. Since it happens through very imperfect means, these are the means by which it happens. Wishing for purity is (as Hamann recognized) the Pharisaism of Enlightenment modernity. I think too of Wittgenstein’s point that perfect clarify in communication would actually inhibit communication. “Bring me the broom” communicates better than “bring me the object with the long, thin rounded handle to which straw bristles are attached,” though it is less “precise.”
How does communication happen? How is it possible? I think that’s a theological question. Communication happens because God is the Word, and the Word is God, and the Word that is God is the condition of the possibility of inter-human communication. That means that the possibility of communication isn’t grounded in the text; deconstructionists are kind of inverted creationists, showing that, at base and in itself, the text is nothing. Communication isn’t grounded in the author either, because on overtly creationist terms, the author is made from nothing. The nihilism of deconstruction confirms a Christian insight into creation. It is perfectly consistent and logical, unless God is and is Word. Which He is.
You are a Rosentock-Huessy reader and admirer. What do you regard as his most fundamental and valuable insights for modern times?
Rosenstock-Huessy’s work is impossible to summarize simply. He said it himself in the title of one of his collections of essays: He was an “impure thinker.” But there are recurring themes that I think are important for Christians in our time. He had uncanny prophetic insight, largely because of his profound understanding of history. Long before “globalization” became a buzzword, he noticed that it was happening, and also recognized that the next thing would be a renewed tribalism. So, he gives us a good bit of insight into the dynamics of international politics and culture. More abstractly and theoretically, he was a fundamentally temporal thinker; he saw time as a more fundamental human category than space. Catherine Pickstock has pointed out that modernity is a “spatializing” culture, and Rosenstock-Huessy helps us break out of that. I’ve found his work on language to be very useful in thinking about sacraments and signs, and his concept of “bodies of time” is, I think, a profound insight into the human experience and shaping of time.
I’ve found his paradigm of the “cross of reality” immensely helpful in thinking through all sorts of issues, including pastoral issues. I serve as co-pastor of a church, for instance, that is made up of 20-somethings. I’m not a 20-something, and Rosenstock-Huessy reminds me that there is potential for clash in that generational divide. If I don’t watch myself, I could slip into nostalgia and decadence, maintaining the past for the sake of the past, saying, repeatedly, “this is the way we’ve always done it”; if the younger members of the church don’t watch themselves, they could become revolutionaries who close their ears to the wisdom that their elders bring. Both sides are tempted to hunker down on one pole of the cross of reality, but the health of the church depends on both sides staying at the center of the cross – enduring and suffering the clash of past and future, listening to each other in love and patience, and forming a dynamic present out of that clash.
In Against Christianity, you argue for a restoration of Christendom and a Reformation of Christianity, “For all its animus to modernity, the Christian Right made one of the most characteristic of modern political beliefs the foundation of its entire agenda: the assumption that the state has the jurisdiction of morals”.
You also suggest, with NT Wright, that the Church is called to be “Israel in a new way.” In Paul’s words, “Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.” If Revelation is the story of the unholy alliance between Rome and Jerusalem, with the Ekklesia called upon to become a Church militant and polis that challenges this alliance, and if “political liberalism and political conservatism are variations of one outlook (the modern liberal one)”, with a divine call to resist the “ethos of Americanism and the culture of globalization”, what practical advice would you give to the conservative movement in avoiding the dangers of (real or imagined) Constantianism as against (also) the perils of a withering cultural retreat?
That’s a complicated question, but I’ll venture some incomplete and inadequate thoughts in response. My argument in Against Christianity is that Christians have become so deeply accommodated to modernity that the difference between church and world has been blurred. America is a particularly obvious case of this. Because of our deeply Christian history, and for other reasons as well, American Christians are particularly apt to mistake the kingdom for the country. We are, as Sidney Mead famously said (quoting Chesterton, I think), a “nation with the soul of a church.” That brings some important benefits, but it’s also a dangerous temptation. For the last century or so, however, that alliance has been cracking up. Christians just haven’t caught up with reality yet. We’re stuck in the 19th century in many ways, and that’s particularly true of conservative evangelicals, The breakup of this alliance is like the breakup of the alliance of Rome and Christianity that occurred at the beginning of the Middle Ages, which was given intellectual form by Augustine in the City of God. I think we need an American City of God, one that gives due appreciation to the American achievement but also carefully disentangles the American story from the Christian story. That would be the intellectual side of the problem you state.
Practically, pastorally, the issue is delicate and difficult. There’s always the danger that Christians create artificial differences with the world around them, difference for the sake of difference. That’s a recurring problem in pietist evangelicalism – card-playing, dancing, drinking, smoking become taboos, markers that bound off Christians from non-Christians. But those are not biblical standards. So, how does the difference become palpable, but organically and not artificially so? Sexual ethics is crucial here. Nothing displays the confusions of our culture like our sexual confusions; nothing is so offensive to our culture as saying that there are absolute and inviolable sexual standards. Christians need to defend, and live, biblical sexual morality. Another crucial area, I think, is that of charity and mercy. Since the rise of the religious right, Christians have become known by their anger, often by their fear. That’s not what should mark us. Love, expressed concretely in sacrificial ministry to the world, should mark Christian churches.
You bounce off of Stanley Hauerwas, Rodney Stark, and John Yoder, as well as Phillip Rieff and John Millbank in this book. What other thinkers have influenced you since on these topics, and which ones could you recommend for further study?
When I first started reading theology seriously, I read a good bit of Reformed literature, and especially those dreaded reconstructionists – RJ Rushdoony, Gary North, Greg Bahnsen. I learned a great deal from them, and I owe many of my interests in the theology of culture and political theology to them. Cornelius Van Til’s work, especially as it was mediated to me through the work of John Frame, provided the foundations of my thinking on all sorts of topics. Seminary professors were key, especially Vern Poythress and Richard Gaffin. Behind nearly everything I do is the work of James Jordan and the “Biblical Horizons” circle that he’s formed. Jim’s biblical work is unsurpassed, but Jim has also had a long interest in cultural and political issues, and always throws fresh, biblical, light on those questions. Liturgical scholars have also been hugely important. Through Jordan’s encouragement, I started reading Alexander Schmemann, whose little book *For the Life of the World* has been seminal. I think I’ve learned a lot about politics from Shakespeare as well.
Do you essentially accept Phillip Rieff’s definition of culture as interdict (or “No”), in which outside behaviour becomes unthinkable, and individuals are “in culture” precisely as “culture is in them”? Are there any other real competitors to this kind of definition of what constitutes genuine personhood? How does a Christian go about presenting such an “Old Testament” view to the modern, Hegelian or proto-scientific outlook?
I accept Rieff’s definition, but I wouldn’t say it stands alone as the final definition of culture. I don’t think there is, or ever will be, a final comprehensive definition of culture. I like Rieff partly because it resonates with so much of the Bible, and also because it is so thoroughly counter-cultural. It’s a rather arresting and simple way to get at a lot of cultural pathologies. But I’d accept a Milbankian criticism that making Rieff’s definition primary or foundational would mean making “negativity” prior to positivity. So, again, Rieff gets it right, but he doesn’t say everything that needs to be said.
Your last question is the crucial one: How can “No” become a plausible response to anything? One answer is that we can see the damage done by a refusal to say No. That’s only a partial answer, though; we’ve seen abortion, assisted suicide, “partial-birth” infanticide, and few seem ready to say Stop. What does it take? The other, and more basic answer, is that the biblical “No” become plausible when the gospel takes hold. So, again, the positivity of the good news is prior to the embrace of interdiction.
In your Against Christianity, you suggest that a prophet is someone who tells a king, “You can’t do this stupid shit. If you do, your people will hate you, and you will wind up in f—–g hell.” You openly wonder about the possibilities of an “imperial conversion” at the top, and (rightly) ask why an emperor with actual power wouldn’t be obligated to make his Empire more Christian. However, in an age dominated by a massive Demos, how does one go about making the same point, even at all? Can the point even be made apart from a hierarchy or an Imperial head? If not, is this an argument for monarchy? What other polity might America consider, re-consider? Or is democracy so deeply imbedded, and so identified with the masses, that any alternative is inconceivable?
Yes, I instinctively still think in rather medieval terms about political life – kings and subordinate powers and all that. Partly that’s because those are largely the terms of biblical political discourse. That’s no accident, I expect. For all the populism of American life, there are still elites who shape public discourse, moral expectations, political action. There are still “rulers,” and radical conversion of those rulers would have a profound effect on American “democracy.” That would obviously take a different form than it did in the early middle ages, when a king’s conversion led to mass baptisms.
Tocqueville already commented on how uniform American opinion tended to be, far more so than in European countries. The diversity of our democracy is partly a myth. There’s a recurring current of messianism in American political history, a yearning for a savior. That could take an ugly fascist turn at some point. So, I don’t think that the current “democratic” form of American politics is necessarily permanent.
I am not arguing for monarchy. I think monarchy is a perfectly legitimate form of government, but not the only or necessarily the best. Israel had several different political systems during her history, all of them established by God, so I don’t think Scripture endorses any particular order.
From your blog:
“Published in 1992, The Knight’s Move: The Relational Logic of the Spirit in Theology and Science by James Loder and W. Jim Neidhardt is not widely discussed or read, so far as I have seen. It deserves better. It suggests a new grammar and logic for the dialogue science and theology under the connected categories of “relationality” and “spirit.” Drawing from Kierkegaard, mediated through Niels Bohr, the authors highlight the principle of ”complementarity,” or the coherence of contradictories,which for them is ultimately a Christological category. The idea is that two mutually exclusive and exhaustive explanations are necessary to make sense of some reality: Simply, 100% God and 100% man of the incarnation. This provides them with a model to explore knowledge, human development, discovery, and the strange loops of human thought and of corporate life. A bit of a Kierkegaard overload, but it’s well worth some time.”
What kind of hope do books like these have of reconciling the modern scientific temperament with anything approaching radical Christian orthodoxy? Is there a good definition of what constitutes the scientific temperament? Is it fated to grow without limit? What possible limits, at least in a democracy, could it have? What possible religious implications/limits does it have? Are we (practically) even able to conceive anything, intellectually, outside its limits?
My scientific knowledge is pretty abysmal, so take what I say on this point with more than the usual grain of salt. Loder and Neidhardt, however, are not the first or only writers to note a “spiritual” turn within science. It’s as if we’ve pushed the scientific approach to reality to the point where it inverts and turns into something else. Already in the 19th century, the Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck pointed out that materialism naturally turns into spiritualism. Atomistic materialism attributes spiritual, divine properties to the basic components of the material world – atoms are indivisible (they were in the 19th century!), indestructible, etc. At the most basic level of material reality, matter doesn’t act like matter anymore. Insofar as I understand things, it seems that the physics of the last century has confirmed Bavinck’s point in spades.
But you’re talking about the limits of the enterprise of science as well. There, I guess I’d have to go back to my comments on Rieff. Modernity is the primacy of possibility, the refusal of interdict, the refusal to say No. So long as every possibility remains an open possibility, there won’t be the political will to shut down certain lines of scientific inquiry that are dehumanizing. Again, the success of the gospel seems to me the only thing that will re-establish even the possibility, much less the primacy, of interdict.
Are you familiar with the writings of Alain de Benoist, George Parkin Grant, or any other modern political theorists who are working with concepts of federalism and local sovereignty? Does partition, decentralization, and localism have any prominent theorists you can recommend, or hold any promise for solving the magnitude of problems connected with the US Empire in decline?
I don’t know Benoist at all, and know too little about Grant to comment.
What non-Christian thinker do you owe the greatest debt to?
That’s a very interesting question. I’m afraid my list is fairly short. There are a number of Jewish biblical scholars who have deeply affected by work – especially Jacob Milgrom on Leviticus and Robert Alter on the literary features of the Old Testament. I’ve found Derrida very challenging, and I think of him as a kind of proto-Trinitarian thinker, uncovering all sorts of evidence for vestigia Trinitatis. In my work on sacramental theology, I made use of cultural anthropologists working in the area of ritual studies whose religious commitments are uncertain – Victor Turner, van Gennep, and others. I’ve read in the Western philosophical tradition, and in Western political and social thought, though I’m very far from mastering any of it. Much of the effect of that reading has been mediated through Christian thinkers like van Til, Rushdoony, Milbank and David Hart.