by Brian Coman
Part One of two parts (You can read Part Two here)
IN THE FIRST PART OF THIS EXTENDED ESSAY, BRIAN COMAN CLEARS THE GROUND FOR A LATER TOUR OF WHAT MAY COME TO REPLACE THE POLITICAL SETTLEMENT USUALLY DESIGNATED BY ‘LEFT’ AND ‘RIGHT’. HE DOES THIS BY IDENTIFYING THE FRACTURES BETWEEN THEM AND REMARKS THAT THESE FRACTURES ARE WIDENING INTO IRRECONCILABILITY.
For most older Australians, at any rate, my title will bring to mind those early Australian explorers and settlers who found their way over the Great Dividing Range and into the vast Australian interior. But it is another type of journey, an intellectual journey, that I have in mind.
Sometime in the late 11th century, the great Persian philosopher/theologian, Al-Ghazali, penned the following reflection on the nature of a traditional belief system: “There is no hope of returning to a traditional faith after it has once been abandoned, since the essential condition in the holder of a traditional faith is that he should not know he is a traditionalist.”
On first reading, this seems a rather harsh judgement. But something about it rings true, and it forces us to reflect upon on an issue which is as pressing today as it was in Al-Ghazali’s time. Indeed, many might argue that such reflection is far more important today than at any time in the past. After all, Al-Ghazali was chiefly concerned with the tendency of Muslim philosophers (mainly Aristotelians) in his own day to meddle in what he regarded as strictly theological matters.
His greatest work was entitled The Incoherence of the Philosophers. The 11th-century philosopher, Averroes, countered with a book entitled The Incoherence of the Incoherence! They were not without humour in those days.
Today, it’s not just a question of philosophers meddling in religious affairs. Rather, it is a matter of the wholesale rejection of traditional belief systems and, even worse, attacks upon them such that the whole notion of religious freedom is under threat. Even the state – Hobbes’ Leviathan – now threatens the traditional believer, as News Weekly readers are well aware.
But let us take Al-Ghazali’s little reflection and apply it not to religious belief per se, but to the political notion of conservatism. Of course, conservatism is not entirely unrelated to religious belief and I will return to this connection later in the essay.
Most of us have a fair idea of what the political notion of conservatism entails. The most famous enumeration of conservative values was probably made by Russell Kirk back in the 1980s and it is worth repeating some of the main tenets of conservatism as he saw them (here condensed):
Conservatives generally believe that there exists a transcendent moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society.
Conservatives uphold the principle of social continuity – the order, freedom and justice that we have are the products of a long and painful social experience.
Conservatives believe in the principle of prescription – the “wisdom of our ancestors”. To use another famous expression, we are “dwarfs on the shoulders of giants”. If we know more than our ancestors it is only because they have provided the vantage point for us.
Conservatives operate by a principle of prudence – they carefully judge likely long-term consequences of any proposed changes. The old Latin adage was festina lente – “hasten slowly”.
Conservatives understand that human nature is imperfect and that true perfection is not to be found in this life.
Now, this is all well and good but, harking back to Al-Ghazali, we might well ask: “How did these principles arise such that we identify as conservatives rather than liberals” (note here that my use of the term “liberal” has little to do with the Liberal Party in Australia)?
In a truly conservative (read “traditional”) society, after all, such a thing as a traditionalist would not exist. All of the above principles would be taken for granted. And, indeed, before the writings of John Locke and the French Revolution a little later, there were no conservatives (as we understand the term now) because there were no liberals against whom they could identify. For the most part, political conservatism dates back to the writings of Edmund Burke (against the French Revolution) and no further.
In other words, if you or I identify as being conservative or “traditional”, as those entities are now understood, we have already become part of the problem, in a sense.
This may seem a shocking claim to make, but an increasing number of very bright scholars, many of them younger Christian academics, believe this to be the case and have advanced highly persuasive arguments to support their case. They argue that we must get beyond the notion of the modern conservative/liberal divide. For one thing, they argue that the modern conservative is already (perhaps unwittingly) contaminated by many liberal ideas.
The modern notion of freedom is a good example. “Freedom” once meant a freedom from the shackles of the lower desires. It was a freedom which allowed the intellect to contemplate the higher good.
In a recent issue of News Weekly (January 25, 2020), I reviewed the book, Liberal Shock: The Conservative Comeback, and made particular mention of an essay in that book entitled “Beauty and the West”. It was written by James Matthew Wilson, Associate Professor of Religion and Literature at Villanova University, U.S. He is a very good example of this “new breed” of philosophers who wish to go beyond the liberal/conservative divide and, in so doing, return to the very roots of Western social and political ideas.
Wilson demonstrates how the traditional notion of Beauty, arising first from Plato’s depiction of “The Good”, was expanded in the Christian era and how the essential goodness of the created order and of man himself (notwithstanding the Fall and human sinfulness) underpinned the whole political and social order. Indeed, a “splendour of truth” arose from “The Good” (recall here the 1993 encyclical of John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor).
CHANGING MAN’S VIEW OF MAN
The essential goodness of the human person was explicitly opposed by Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan and this set the tone for Locke and later liberal thinkers such as J.S. Mill. In the “state of nature”, man is evil or at least in a constant state of war with all others. Hence the need for the state where each person voluntarily cedes power to the state in return for some measure of peace.
For these early liberals, it was all about power, and the notion that small groups of people might act charitably towards each other without the need for a “police” state was largely dismissed. One can readily understand why. The “Wars of Religion” that plagued Europe from the late 15th to the early 18th centuries led many intellectuals to believe that the only solution was an all-powerful state enforcing tolerance.
But it is worth asking, just what happens when we cede such power to the state but at the same time demand maximum freedom of the individual untethered from the traditional norms of behaviour associated with Christianity in the West. What we then find is that, in the absence of an agreed set of moral laws in the post-Christian era, the state must enact more and more legal restraints to protect individual rights. Of course, this has the effect of ceding more and more power to the state.
Even worse, in enacting its new hedge of laws, the state is unable to refer to an agreed set of moral guidelines because, as Alasdair MacIntyre so eloquently pointed out in After Virtue, there can be no such agreement. Different groups in society argue from completely different and incommensurable premises – utilitarians against Kantians against contractarians.
In effect, the loudest voices win the day – those with the best Facebook and Twitter networks (and friends in the ABC) will bring the greatest influence to bear on that most important but delicate species, the swinging voter. At the end of the day, it is emotivism and not veritas splendor that wins the day and saves political careers. We have what Malcolm Muggeridge once referred to as “Consensianity” as replacement for Christianity – rule by popular opinion, media surveys and polls, etc.
So, what about the churches then – can they mount some sort of counter-attack to prevent an all-powerful state from depriving them of their freedom?
Here, I would like to quote Andrew Willard Jones, a visiting assistant professor of theology at the Franciscan University, in Steubenville, Ohio: “Within the metanarrative of progress that underwrites liberalism, Christians are cast as the losing side and, I am afraid, there is no amount of manoeuvring that can change that. In fact, our role in the drama is precisely this manoeuvring. We are cast to fight a rearguard action: we steadily lose ground, but nonetheless put up a stubborn resistance.
“In the liberal march to freedom, we are the ever-retreating but completely necessary tyrants, the enemies of human rights against whom the freedom fighters heroically contend, the defenders of dogma against whom the courageous scientists struggle, the stuffy prudes against whom the free-spirited youth must battle. We have all seen multiple versions of this movie – in fact, this is the plot of nearly all our cultural productions.
“If this is indeed our role in the cultural narrative, new tactics will not save us. Devising new ways to ‘turn back the clock’ or new arguments within the dominant discourse of freedom and rights, of religion and the state, is simply to continue to play the part of the loser in a liberal script acted out on a set constructed of modern concepts. To view ourselves as the retreating good guys is simply our role.” (Communio 45, 2018).
In fact, it’s much worse than that. Should some spokesman for one or other of the Christian communions have the intestinal fortitude to go public and offer a view contrary to the zeitgeist, the one-finger mobile-phone warriors of the blogosphere descend upon such a hapless soul like a swarm of angry wasps – “how dare you lecture us when your own mob are all child molesters and perverts”. And how eagerly do the media vultures descend upon said hapless soul and deliver the coup de grace!
And so, for the most part, the church hierarchy remains silent, lest any response makes the situation even worse. That is the reality of the situation is which we find ourselves. As Russell Kirk once said, we live in a world of “armed doctrine and consuming appetite”.
But there is hope. Within the scope of my admittedly limited reading, perhaps the best critique of the modern liberal order and the best hope for a practical way forward for embattled Christians in the West comes from the writings of the small group of scholars that includes Andrew Willard Jones and James Matthew Wilson.
A number of such scholars has banded together to produce a new publication called Postliberal Thought. (It can be found at postliberalthought.com.) They include (as members of the Editorial Board) the aforementioned Jones, D.C. Schindler (whose book Freedom From Reality I reviewed recently in News Weekly), Patrick Deneen, William Cavanaugh and the well-known Anglican scholar, John Milbank. These are people who know their philosophy, know their history, and above all else, know their theology.
In the next issue of News Weekly, I hope to cover their ideas concerning a way forward for those Christians who take the message of the Gospels seriously and who maintain the priority of Truth over expediency. As we well know, there is now a huge range of Christian churches and many of these seem to suppose that “keeping up with the times” and “being relevant” is the only way forward. They rightly proclaim the message of Divine Love but do so at the expense of Divine Justice. In the great battle of ideas that lies ahead of us, they have already sided with the liberal majority.
But such success as they may have in these endeavours will be short-lived. A policy of constant retreat is no formula for victory, as is evidenced by the thinning ranks of Sunday worshippers and the continuing decline in religious belief.
FOR THOSE WITH EARS …
Let me end this essay with a real-life example of the folly of “liberal” Christianity.
The Rev J. Gresham Machen was an American Presbyterian theologian and Professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary between 1906 and 1929. He wrote many books and articles but perhaps his most famous was Christianity and Liberalism, first published in 1923. In this book he targeted the modernist (that is, liberal) movement within American Presbyterianism for preferring to fight their battles in what he termed “a condition of low visibility”. He was here referring to their reluctance to employ clear-cut definitions in religious matters and to face full on the logical implications of religious views.
Machen’s was a bold stance and it made him very unpopular. He became more and more isolated from his liberalising brethren. History has, of course, proved Machen to be essentially correct in his diagnosis.
When Machen died in 1937, an obituary was penned in the Baltimore Evening Sun by the famous journalist, H.L. Mencken. The latter was a committed atheist whose witty and acidic covering of the “Scopes Trial” had earned him a wide audience. One might have expected Mencken to ridicule Machen’s position. On the contrary, he praised the man to the hilt for his courageous stance and excoriated his liberalising enemies.
“It is my belief … that the body of doctrine known as Modernism is completely incompatible, not only with anything rationally describable as Christianity, but also with anything deserving to pass as religion in general. Religion, if it is to retain any genuine significance, can never be reduced to a series of sweet attitudes, possible to anyone not actually in jail for felony. It is, on the contrary, a corpus of powerful and profound convictions, many of them not open to logical analysis. Its inherent improbabilities are not sources of weakness to it, but of strength. It is potent in a man in proportion as he is willing to reject all overt evidences, and accept its fundamental postulates, however unprovable they may be by secular means, as massive and incontrovertible facts.” (my italics)
These words came from a hardened atheist. Yet, many today suppose that we will win the support of our non-religious friends by watering down our beliefs. Mencken’s obituary on Machen shows the opposite is true.