The New Testament’s epistle to the Hebrews was written to Jewish converts in the early Church who had shrunk back from their Christian confession when faced with persecution. To encourage them to persevere in the new covenant in Christ, the writer shows how the details of the Old Testament tabernacle, sacrifices, and priesthood pointed forward to and are superseded by the work of Messiah Jesus. In turning from Jesus, the recipients of the letter were turning from better promises, a better sacrifice, a better priesthood, a better covenant.
An obvious question for a devout Jew was how Jesus, a descendant of Judah, could claim the high priesthood, an office reserved to members of the tribe of Levi. In responding to this question, the writer of the espistle argues that Jesus is a lawful high priest because He belongs to an older and more permanent order of priesthood than that of Levi, the order of Melchizedek. Through Abraham, Levi himself acknowledged the superiority of Melchizedekan priesthood (Heb. 7:9–10). Since there has been a change in the priestly order, there has been a change in the regulations for priestly service. The genealogically qualified Levitical priests have been replaced by a priest who is qualified by “the power of an indestructible life” (7:16). A change in priesthood, the writer tells us, is accompanied by a corresponding change in law (7:12).
This maxim summarizes a recurring pattern in the history recorded in the Old Testament. Prior to the Exodus, the priesthood of Yahweh was evidently not limited to descendants of Abraham (Gen. 14). Israel was redeemed from Egypt to be a “royal priesthood” (Ex. 19:6), and the tribe of Levi was specially elected to serve at the Lord’s house. Not incidentally, detailed ritual, moral, and social regulations were revealed at the time of this “change in priesthood.” Similarly, the prophet Samuel both prepared the way for a reordering of the priesthood and promulgated laws and ordinances for the kingdom of Israel (1 Sam. 10:25). David not only consolidated the kingdom of Israel, but also reorganized the Levitical priests (1 Chron. 23–26). Everywhere in the Bible, a change in the priesthood is accompanied by changes in the ordering of cult and culture.
Though the author of Hebrews evidently had this redemptive-historical pattern in mind, his dictum can also be applied to the sociological phenomenon known as the “circulation of elites.” Elites, particularly intellectual elites whose specialty is the manipulation of symbols, are “priesthoods” in a broad sense. Social change (changes in law) always occur hand in hand with the reshuffling of such elites.
This point becomes dramatically clear in the theory of culture formulated by Philip Rieff in an essay entitled “The Impossible Culture: Wilde as Modern Prophet.” In Rieff’s reading, Oscar Wilde envisioned a culture in which individuals would be freed from all inhibition and all authority. Every possibility would remain an open possibility. Against Wilde’s idea of the “primacy of possibility,” Rieff insists that authoritative limits are of the essence of culture; culture requires “the primacy of interdiction.” In another essay, Rieff defines culture as a “common symbolic,” a “pattern of moral demands, a range of standard self-expectations about what we may and may not do, in the face of infinite possibilities.” This common symbolic is an expression of what is sacred to the members of the culture.
Every culture faces the threat of “sheer possibility,” the threat that its members will agree with the Grand Inquisitor’s suggestion that all is permitted. Cultures survive, Rieff argues, “only so far as the members of the culture learn, through their membership, how to narrow the range of choices otherwise open.” “Safely inside their culture—more precisely, the culture safely inside them—members of it are disposed to enact only certain possibilities of behavior while refusing even to dream of others.” Thus, “members of the same culture can expect each other to behave in certain ways and not in others.” Culture and character are, in short, founded on prohibition.
Cultures are based on interdictions, but also require remissions from those interdictions. Interdicts authoritatively say “No” to certain thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; remissions provide for the exceptional “Yes” that, as Rieff puts it in The Triumph of the Therapeutic, provides relief from the “strain of conforming to the controlling symbolic.” When a person violates an interdict without a justifiable remission, he commits a transgression of the moral demand system. Culture is thus a dialectical unity of interdictions and remissions. Deep cultural changes occur when there are changes in the moral demand system. What was interdicted may become permissible, but the new “permissiveness” will generate interdicts of its own. Political revolutions are little more than glorified palace coups. Real revolutions are changes in patterns of moral demands. That is, cultural change means a change in “law.”
The writer to the Hebrews would have us know that changes in law follow upon changes in priesthood, and Rieff’s cultural theory suggests a similar pattern. The interdictory-remissive complex is internalized, Rieff claims, under the direction of authoritative cultural guides or priesthoods: “Priesthoods preside over the origins of a culture and guard its character.” Priests form and guard culture by projecting an ideal pattern of conduct that narrows the range of possible choices; priests teach what may and what may not be done, the interdicts and the remissions. Education is thus the inculcation by a priesthood of a culture’s “Thou shalt nots.”
A cultural revolution, then, not only involves a change in the symbolic of moral demands, but a change in priesthood: “A crisis in culture occurred whenever old guides were struck dumb, or whenever laities began listening to new guides.” For many centuries, Rieff notes, the sociological priesthood of Western culture was the literal priesthood of the Christian Church, but by Wilde’s time churchmen had defaulted in their capacity as authoritative cultural guides. They had fallen silent, and other priesthoods began projecting their ideals onto the “laity.” The “post-Christian” West can, from this perspective, be seen as the product of the revolutionary changes in law that followed from a revolutionary change of priesthood.
In Rieff’s view, no successor priesthood has yet emerged, but the culture has instead embarked on the unprecedented experiment of forming a non-moral culture, a “culture” lacking both religiously grounded interdicts and a priesthood to serve as the guardian of sacred boundaries. Such is, in fact, an experiment in “anticulture.” What is most disturbing, however, is that the Church no longer functions as priesthood in this sociological sense even for Christians. Rieff has called attention to contemporary churchmen’s penchant for abandoning all Christian dogma and practice that does not readily lend itself to therapeutic purposes. The “anticulture” has invaded the Church.
Jesus said that His disciples would be the light of the world, implying that dark ages come when the Church hides its light under a bushel. Christians, therefore, can hardly expect the rebirth of culture in the world without a rebirth of culture in the Church. One is led to echo, in a perhaps more literal sense than originally intended, Alasdair MacIntyre’s suggestion that our culture awaits the appearance of a new, very different St. Benedict.
Peter J. Leithart is a regular contributor to First Things.