The greatest cultural—and ecclesial—challenge we have to confront is the loss of a palpable sense that God’s life makes all the difference in the world to our social and political decisions. Many things have made this witness more and more difficult in our era, and they touch the wider world as much as they do local American concerns. That witness ought to be First Things’ focus.
I am not as certain as R. R. Reno is, for instance, that theological liberalism has lost “decisively.” To be sure, what was once called “liberal Protestantism” as a set of vital institutions has been withering rapidly, and with it some of the most common tropes these institutions generated.
But many of the corrosive aspects of liberal Protestantism—its ways of conceptualizing God as a benign projection of our human hopes, for example, and of approaching Scripture as a malleable human or cultural construct—have been adopted not only by mainstream secular culture but by “conservatives” and “Evangelicals” across the board, as the rapid shift in American attitudes regarding sexuality demonstrates. Other (theologically) liberalizing results follow from this diluting of informed and particularized Christian faith in the West. What we like to call a “commodified” consumer culture of religion is largely the result of our naiveté that all things can be touched and exchanged without danger or consequence, and this has now come to include religion itself.
And not only in the West. In many non-Western contexts, deeply rooted post-colonial antipathies, recognitions of complex cultural realities, and global economic resentments have colored Christian outlooks among the more educated. These elites represent a growing body that has mixed traditional doctrinal commitments with liberal attitudes about meaning and authority in ways that puzzle many Westerners. This makes problematic the comforting (to Westerners) notion of passing the torch of the Christian tradition to the Global South. The unprecedented speed with which traditional societies in these countries have morphed into urbanized metropolitan cultures makes all bets on future religious commitment downright risky. My own sense is that Christian foundations there are as precarious as in the West, if for somewhat different reasons.
In short, the apologetic struggle against theological liberalism requires greater precision. It is a struggle not with the sorriest forms of liberal dogmatic dissolution, but with the deeper forms of thinking and believing that sustain its particular expressions: its ambivalence about divine creation, the Fall, the Incarnation, etc., whose creedal foundations have to be dealt with in the most comprehensive of ways. We are dealing with the ongoing assault of idolatry, in scriptural terms, which is a reality that actually enslaves human beings. This has become clearer and clearer over the past few years, as the purported ethical innocence of laissez-faire human relations has been given the lie.
The fact that essential elements of “liberal Protestantism” are now part of the global atmosphere means that the conservatism of First Things is not simply a matter of local American concern, even if that must remain the magazine’s main practical focus. We are accountable to the needs of both the “larger Church” and her contexts. But because these needs are so diverse and complex—what are “tradition” and “political conservatism” in places as different as Ghana and Singapore and Russia?—it is hard to know how there could be a “movement” that embraces all of this and yet is somehow tied to “American” culture.
To hope for one may be too grandiose and intrinsically self-contradictory, unless it is carefully worked out vis-à-vis claims regarding Christianity and religion and the civil-political sphere in ways that are applicable to global realities of the Church more generally. We believe, after all, that the connections themselves have a transcendent basis. If First Things took this on as a serious and ongoing project to analyze and illuminate,it would probably be the first magazine to do so anywhere.
What are some of the touchstones for such an analysis? The general political scheme represented by “liberal democracy” is surely well ensconced, as Reno argues, at least as an ideal and on a global scale. But we have also seen how the tensions between Catholic and Protestant approaches to this scheme have not been resolved and have instead each received renewed emphasis: on the one hand, a commitment to the underlying ethical need for collective and communal cohesion of formation within such societies, oriented towards a robust understanding of the common good, and on the other, a commitment to the strict controls on fallible human institutions that impose themselves upon unwilling citizens and subjects, filled with unintended and destructive consequences.
These larger realities touch on the American scene. Reno wonders if the religious conservatives’ de facto default to the Republican party as the bearer of religious interests in America has a downside. Indeed it does. And I continue to believe that Christian social and political witness needs to steer clear of hitching its wagon to either party. I say this, not in favor of some “third way,” but simply for the sake of clarity of critique and engagement on behalf of the liberal polity itself, which, in its original ideals, should be shaped by formative values that support the collective good even while accepting vigorous restraints on power wielded by fallible individuals and institutions.
Both of America’s political parties have—as all political parties must—made terrible compromises with and given into the allurements of individual and group sin, and churches have often led and followed in this. “He must have a long spoon that must eat with the devil”—and the history of the churches in the twentieth century especially has underlined the need to avoid such feasts altogether. This will be true, of course, not only in America.
Here the wider and global realities are deeply important. The often superficial and then subsequently antagonistic attitudes of many non-Western peoples to the Church derive from the Church’s profound failures to keep this warning in mind, as wide-ranging situations—from Haiti to Romania, Rwanda to Guatemala—remind us. The failed alliances of Christians with political parties there, and the weakness of American policy, bound to our own internal arguments, should make a critical and constructive magazine like First Things wary of aligning its witness with one group or another.
This concern that the Church in America remain separate from the two political parties and other political commitments goes to the question of the kind of needed “conservatism” First Things can witness to. Obviously, in the American political context the meaning of the term is disputed. For example, does it refer to the British conservatism of Burke, which depends on contextual continuities, or the continental conservatism of de Maistre, which depends on metaphysical universals? The highly ramified religious–social context of the United States doesn’t quite fit such simple models and leaves us with many more choices, which have to be made on the basis of multiple and often incommensurate claims.
What conservatism could one “renew” in such a context? The philosopher William Abraham has spoken of “canonical” criteria that might, within a broad range, constitute overlapping models for a certain kind of Christian traditionalism, even among different church communions. These include practices, from hymnody to devotion to catechesis to art, that time itself has allowed to move across originally distinct boundaries to form now a common ballast of truth and witness. But articulating this kind of conservatism presumes that a certain ecumenical understanding is at work among us that critically presses against our too-easy distinctions of “Catholic” and “Protestant.”
First Things has, at times, been a leader in working for such understanding, but I sense that interest here has waned. That’s too bad, because there will be no conservative renewal, on a religious basis, without such effort. The revitalized witness to a transcendent and living God as the foundation for a just and robust society must rely on the renewal of a common evangelical truth. Furthermore, this must go beyond shared ground on certain specifically social issues.
Restricting a conservative religious vocation to advocacy of these issues only has reduced the strength of the witness, and turned it more into a (confusedly) political matter. Divine realities and imperatives must stand at the center of any ecumenical retrieval and strengthening of “tradition.”
Questions of cultural apologetics, political engagement, and social policy are important and have been the magazine’s stock in trade. First Things cannot afford to leave them aside. But integrity of the faith is more fundamental.
The undeniable thinning out of religious faith and the diluting of religiously communal bonds, not only in the West but elsewhere, is obviously bound up with a range of practices that are affected by economic and social policies. But from the perspective of faith, the proper response is less one of finding ways to manipulate social life in less negative directions, but in witnessing to a vital “communal ascetics,” that is, to a form of common life whose moral habits shape a society of divine service.
First Things should not, therefore, wish to be a standard “player” in the normal political debate of America. After all, the challenge of a “communal ascetics” that is bound up with vital religious renewal is something that American political and economic culture is currently unable to assimilate. Perhaps that simply means that this culture needs to be engaged on its own playing field with this in mind, but I doubt it. While policy questions and the rest have moral import and so must be addressed, the deeper faith realities lie elsewhere.
Where exactly? It seems to me that they lie more directly in the new “evangelical” witness George Weigel has outlined in Evangelical Catholicism. Precisely because the long-standing compromises of Christian witness, in their often ill-advised coupling with distorted political goals, have undermined the kinds of responses one might get in both the West and now many parts of the Two-Thirds World, there really is a need for something “new.” We have not extended (at least symbolically) much beyond the concerns of the 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference, and attempts to do so over the past one hundred years have consistently lapsed into naiveté and laziness. Sacrificial unity for the sake of and bound to God’s own self-giving has rarely found a stable embodiment, and the ways it might in today’s increasingly fragmented world of the spirit are becoming more and more difficult to think about.
Does First Things have a primary commitment to such witness? Not in such a way as to eliminate many of its established interests, but in a way that relativizes them to the evangelical thrust that, I would argue, supersedes political discourse at the moment. I well remember the magazine’s publication, some years ago, of the “Testament” of Christian de Chergé, Trappist martyr in Algeria in the 1990s. It was a piece almost shocking in the clarity of its evangelical vision, just for the time and world in which we live. But it required a persistent and ongoing engagement to bear its fruit. Can we engage more concretely, explicitly on the basis of this kind of vision, the questions of how to witness to and share faith in God’s life and truth in the face of unbelief, forgetfulness, and simple rebellion?
The dissolution of America’s public square as a religiously hospitable place, bound to a larger current encircling the globe, means that First Things has both the imperative and the requirement to open its social commentary to a more open and robust witness to its primary commitments of faith.
Ephraim Radner, a member of First Things’ advisory council, is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College in Toronto.