Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

I was starting the second year of a Ph.D. program in U.S. history at the University of Delaware when the professor who would direct my dissertation, Guy Alchon, dropped a remarkable book into my mailbox: Christopher Shannon’s Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in American Social Thought, from Veblen to Mills (1996). The book gave me a glimpse of what it might mean for a historian to do “Christian scholarship,” and it inspired a concern about the modern world that in the years since I’ve not been able to brush aside.

Guy called it a “dark” book, and he thought it would resonate with me. (I’m almost sure he meant that favorably.) I had already taken his seminar on “The Political Economy of American Intellectuals,” and had written a paper for it on the American social critic and historian Christopher Lasch. With considerable help from Shannon’s work, I ended up expanding that paper into a biographical study of Lasch’s life and thought as part of my dissertation.

Shannon had been a student of Lasch’s at the University of Rochester and had remained close to him until Lasch’s death from cancer in 1994; in the midst of his illness Lasch had even read and commented on Shannon’s manuscript. Such closeness, however, did not stop Shannon from offering a few pages of vigorous criticism of his former teacher. After spending 180 pages of Conspicuous Criticism dissecting modernity’s secular and rationalist frame of mind, Shannon turned to Lasch to underscore his overarching point: Americans, he contended, were trapped in a political and cultural straitjacket due to their complicity in modernity’s “critical project of uprooting all received traditions.”

Shannon tagged this project “the tradition of conspicuous criticism,” and attempted to locate Lasch within it. “More than any other intellectual since the 1950s,” Shannon wrote, “Lasch carried on the struggle with modernity as it took shape in the tradition of conspicuous criticism.” But despite his acuity of vision, Lasch seemed unable to accept one ominous historical reality: due to the modern rejection of a world governed by a “spiritual order” and the affirmation instead of “the creation of value and meaning by autonomous human subjects,” the sort of community for which Lasch and so many others yearned––whether they were on the left, center, or right––was impossible. Whatever their own self-flattering perceptions, Americans were, constitutionally, “a people bound together only by a belief in their inalienable right not to be bound together to anything.” Given this brute philosophical and political reality, the unceasing jeremiads pronounced by moralists like Lasch, however intelligent and well-intentioned, were doomed to fail. “Calls for moral responsibility are pointless apart from some context of shared values, and the only values Americans share are the procedural norms of a libertarian social order, the thinness of which incites the anxiety that drives the jeremiad in the first place.” He concluded the book with a damning pronouncement: “The bourgeois attempt to construct a rational alternative to tradition has failed.”

In his opening pages Shannon had disclosed that he was a Catholic, and his cool, gutsy diagnosis of what he termed “the Reformation-Enlightenment attack on tradition” revealed the remarkable extent to which he was willing to place his faith in the foreground even when writing as a young, vulnerable scholar. I later learned from a mutual friend the cost of Shannon’s theological affirmations: he had been unable to land a tenure-track teaching job, his Yale Ph.D. and enviable publishing record notwithstanding. My friend’s sense was that Shannon’s Catholicism had helped to do him in.

It was Shannon’s position as a Christian writing within the academy that helped to account for my own grateful and enthusiastic reception of his arguments. I suspected, as I made my way through his book, that Shannon felt as uncomfortable in the modern American university as I did, and his book seemed at least in part an effort to probe the roots of his unease and to explain his findings to his (uncomprehending) peers and colleagues. What provoked Shannon (and me) wasn’t simply a wrongheaded “worldview,” or some other species of philosophical abstraction in the university. Rather, it was a way of life––the actual living out by real people of this “rational alternative to tradition.” By the century’s end this way of life was standard within the American university, where both Shannon and I, as fledgling Christian scholars, found ourselves uneasily living and moving and having our being.

One obvious feature of this university-sanctioned-and-sustained way of life is its depleted understanding of marriage and sexuality, and its accompanying commitment to oppose any who would speak against this understanding. Although this received wisdom is conveyed in the language of liberation, I discovered that it provided cover for lives that were often full of hopelessness. One of my classmates was about to be married, and I remember hearing another student wisecrack to him about the divorce that was sure to follow––a barren, ugly cynicism, rooted, sadly, in an all-too-intimate knowledge of the empirical evidence.

It’s no wonder that in this atmosphere so many of my peers turned to the study of history for hope. Here again, though (and consistent with Shannon’s thesis), most of their research endeavors had to do with some attempt to discover who was oppressing whom, and what sorts of liberation the oppressed were being denied, whether the oppression was due to law, custom, or belief. Fair enough––it is important to gain a full historical understanding of the varieties of oppression. But did these folks really think that the larger, well-traveled narrative about “oppression” and “freedom” captured the whole story? Was there nothing else in history to wonder about besides a ritualistically rehashed liberation tale?

Among the saddest conclusions I came to during graduate school was that the answer is no. For most of my peers, I realized, there was no other story. The other possibilities”philosophical, ideological, theological”had been ruled out, debunked and filed under the category of “oppressor.”

Lasch had offered a keen description of the nature of this newly emerging self early on. His improbable best-seller of 1979, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, both summed up and deepened a conviction shared by many that Americans were changing, becoming less able and willing to practice citizenship, exchanging the common life for, as he put it, “purely personal preoccupations.” Lasch tied this historical shift in character to the ongoing advance of liberal capitalism, with its ever-colonizing market and ever-expanding state. “The atrophy of older traditions of self-help has eroded everyday competence, in one area after another, and has made the individual dependent on the state, the corporation, and other bureaucracies,” he said. “Narcissism represents the psychological dimension of this dependence.”

It was a powerful argument. It was also precisely the type of argument––a jeremiad––that Shannon, two decades later, called at once understandable, monotonous, and futile. For Shannon, the ending of the American story was already scripted, and even a collective turning away from corporate capitalism wouldn’t remove the fact that America’s deepest (and sole) point of unity was the individual, and the individual alone–a laughably weak foundation upon which to construct anything like a “commonwealth,” “republic,” or even a “community.”

Shannon’s pessimism about the possibility of truly improving our common life resonated with my own experience in the university: whether we were Catholic, Protestant, or irreligious, our common circumstance as academics by the 1990s seemed to be a post-communal one. Creatures of our age, we were starving for a fullness, a socially embodied richness, that prevailing civilizational patterns and our own moral commitments (both chosen and inherited) precluded us from achieving. The paeans to “freedom” rang out with regularity, but within me (and, I gathered, within many others in varying degrees and ways) they effected mainly a mild sense of desolation. Everyone seemed to be trying a little too hard to celebrate liberalism’s lonely triumph.

A sure sign of our loneliness was the near-total absence of any genuine political discussion or debate within the university, whether in graduate seminars, public lectures, or less formal settings. All graduate students “knew,” to take the most obvious and telling example, that “conservatism” (rarely defined or actually discussed) was pathological and thus hideous and dangerous; this assumption ended up setting the ground rules for any consideration of conservatism as either a historical subject or a contemporary point of view that might fruitfully be brought to bear on our discussions of authors, politics, or life.

My gut sense was that the culture of the university didn’t have the strength to accommodate any serious challenge to the dominant liberal standpoint. In this regard, Jean Bethke Elshtain’s recent remark about the kind of self that has accompanied “the triumph of the therapeutic culture” is apt; it is, she says, a “quivering sentimental self that gets uncomfortable very quickly, because this self has to feel good about itself all the time. Such selves do not make good arguments, they validate one another.” The university in the nineties seemed a case study of this self’s triumph: genuine, principled argument rarely even made an appearance there. We academics had by then become a people fighting mainly for ourselves ––a posture that tends to foster, with some rapidity, a defensive, emotional state of mind, not one centered on open-mindedness, rationality, and all of the other attributes that intellectuals are supposed to possess.

Elshtain’s perspective on this peculiarly disabled modern self resembles and is in fact indebted to Lasch’s; indeed, she and Lasch were close companions in the last decade or so of his life. But Lasch, writing in the 1970s from within a self-consciously rationalist framework, could at that point only employ explanations rooted in social and economic causes for what he knew to be true about us; absent was the metaphysical, philosophical dimension that would enrich his work in the eighties and nineties. (See for instance his The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times [1984] and The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics [1991].) Behind this shift in his thinking lay the remarkable work of an author whom Lasch read with enthusiasm in the early eighties: Alasdair MacIntyre, perhaps the dominant moral philosopher of the last third of the twentieth century.

MacIntyre had moved from Marxism to Thomism by the 1981 publication of After Virtue, a book in which he presented an interpretation of the modern self that both echoed and deepened Lasch’s (and others’) depiction of our enlarging cultural narcissism. On MacIntyre’s view, having gradually abandoned the long-dominant Aristotelian tradition of virtue ethics, modern moral thinking had devolved into emotivism, which assumes as a matter of course that “all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character” “We live in a specifically emotivist culture,” contended MacIntyre, a culture that locates moral order not in a benevolent, overarching telos but solely within the individual self.

Like Lasch, MacIntyre looked at the twentieth century and saw chaos; the old moral consensus of Europe and North America had dissolved. “Each moral agent now spoke unconstrained by the externalities of divine law, natural teleology, or hierarchical authority; but why should anyone else now listen to him?” he sensibly asked. Also like Lasch, he made it clear that he was not simply another former member of the left who had made a home on the right: capitalism was deeply implicated in the destructive historical turn that concerned him. The tradition for which and within which he was arguing, he emphasized, “is at variance with central features of the modern economic order and more especially its individualism, its acquisitiveness, and its elevation of the values of the market to a central social place.” Reaganites reading him in the eighties could find only limited solace in his critique of the secular modern order.

It was MacIntyre’s discussion of the modern self––and how it had replaced an earlier, nobler form––that had the deepest effect on my thinking. Lasch and Shannon had helped me to see more starkly the plight of the individual in modern capitalist civilization, but neither had provided much by way of normative guidance. Here MacIntyre spoke powerfully. From the perspective of the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition, we moderns had “suffered a deprivation, a stripping away of qualities that were once believed to belong to the self.” The typically modern self possessed “a certain abstract and ghostly character,” disconnected as it was from that which could define it: “In many premodern, traditional societies it is through his or her membership in a variety of social groups that the individual identifies himself or herself and is identified by others. I am brother, cousin, and grandson, member of this household, that village, this tribe.” For MacIntyre, there was no escaping this elemental identity. “I am born with a past; and to try to cut myself off from that past, in the individualist mode, is to deform my present relationships....These are not characteristics that belong to human beings accidentally, to be stripped away in order to discover ‘the real me’”; in reality, there was no such thing as the isolated, autonomous, independent “individual.” In fact, he described the “individual” as “that newly invented social institution.”

This vision of human obligation, identity, and community clearly had no place in the contemporary university. If, as essayist and scientist Wes Jackson has quipped, the university today offers one single major”upward mobility”then its central function, platitudes aside, is to provide functionaries for that mighty tandem, the corporate economy and the secular state. Today’s graduates emerge from the modern university (and the whole American educational system) in no philosophical or moral condition to embrace a self-identity centered on service to kin or place. The university trains us to serve other masters.

MacIntyre’s understanding of the self cast long-awaited light on all sorts of perplexities, from the failures of “conservatism” and “radicalism” alike to my struggle to reconcile my own university-sponsored “upward mobility” with my rural, working-class roots. I could now see more clearly than ever that the sort of peace for which I yearned, a peace joining the social and personal, must include a deep fidelity to kin, to place, and, finally, to my own divinely shaped design––all of the things, in short, that modern wisdom had told me I could (and should) cast off. The futility of such a way of life had become apparent: to abandon an identity rooted in kinship, telos, and place would be to abandon myself.

After Virtue was an audacious book, a heady attempt to implode, from the very center of the university itself, the mythological narrative of the West’s progressive march through history. That entire academic disciplines took MacIntyre seriously is vivid testament to the intellectual power and rhetorical verve with which he made his case. But if the book was quietly feisty, it was also defensive in tone. This defensiveness was understandable, given MacIntyre’s embattled stance, yet it inevitably diminished the power of his argument.

Most damaging, perhaps, was the simple fact that MacIntyre made little effort in his narrative to explain how the tradition he honored had contributed to the eventual triumph of the individualistic culture he damned. Arguably, the entire modern project, at least in its political manifestation, began as a corrective to defects in traditional Western cultural and political structures. If this is so, then those Christians who for centuries opposed political liberalization ended up, tragically, siding with those who would illegitimately exclude the poor, women, or minority races and ethnic groups from political liberty. The philosophical tightness of MacIntyre’s overarching argument against modernity did nothing to erase the actual historical failures of his forebears, who in some ways invited the great modern political, intellectual, and religious revolts. Given these failures, a greater measure of sympathy and pathos in MacIntyre’s narrative might have made it more compelling.

This criticism does not diminish the immensity of his achievement, however. After MacIntyre and the many he has influenced, including Lasch, Shannon, and Elshtain, “modernity” looks less like progress and more like an experiment gone bad, a cultural corrective that has devoured the culture itself. “Liberating” the individual is the only end our civilization collectively knows; we barely perceive that other understandings of common life have existed, and continue to exist, even in our own multicultural midst. Today, insofar as we as a nation are one it is due to marketing, technology-spawned fantasies, and, paradoxically, the individualist creed itself. And insofar as we are “individuals,” we become so by ritualistically cutting ourselves off from our native communities and giving ourselves over to a putative freedom that exploits our aimlessness, our appetites, and our hopelessness in the ongoing creation of a “global” society. Could this truly be a satisfactory solution to the ancient question of how to hold in balance the one and the many?

George Packer’s beautifully crafted memoir, The Blood of the Liberals (2000), provides a poignant personal rendering of this development. The grandson of a self-proclaimed Jeffersonian Congressman from Alabama and the son of a self-consciously liberal law professor (and a Stanford University provost during the late 1960s), Packer tells, with disarming frankness, a three-generational story about what has happened to a country that seems unable to bind itself together in ways that honor its venerable, organizing ideals of citizenship. Repelled by the tendency of twentieth-century liberals like his father to cut themselves off from their own “blood” to serve the mind (he notes, for instance that his father gave the university “all his energy, much more than he gave his family, because he believed in the high importance of the life of the mind”), Packer narrates his own journey through his family’s past, subtly intertwining his personal narrative with a broader argument about the direction of American history itself. His conclusion? “The main problem of our time is a loss of belief in collective self-betterment.” The revolts of the sixties, he contends, may have changed a lot of lives but they “didn’t leave behind a viable worldview,” making what he calls the post-sixties “ruins of liberalism” at once understandable and pathetic. “This was the face of American prosperity at the end of the twentieth century,” he writes, “racially tolerant, environmentally conscious, and determined to wall itself off from the low-paid countrymen who cut its grass and wait on its tables and look after its children.”

Packer is a leftist longing for a community that he can’t find. In his mid-thirties he goes so far as to investigate his aunt’s evangelical world, and even travels from his home in Boston to Washington D.C. to attend the massive 1997 Promise Keepers rally, in search of one single experience of social, interracial solidarity. Understanding “religion” to be a “challenge” to his “liberalism,” he nonetheless senses that evangelicals have what he has been unable to locate on the left, “something that can’t be summoned on demand: vitality.” At the end of his evangelical explorations, he sadly concludes that “all the years of rational training at home had killed the nerves that might have been receptive to religious stimuli.”

Packer was looking in the right direction––cultus––even if his own search ended in disappointment. The communities that will be forged in our midst will surely be religious in a self-conscious way, for actual religions––our collective responses to the mystery that lies beyond and within our seeing and touching––are what have historically made possible the sorts of communities that we in our time so struggle to achieve. Communities need God as children need parents: apart from the ordering presence of a religion, we fly apart and die alone.

MacIntyre closed After Virtue in cryptic fashion by commending to us as our hope not merely a “religion” but the monastery itself––a place where Christians do live and die together. “We are,” he concluded, “waiting not for a Godot, but for another––doubtless very different––St. Benedict.”

Seen from this point of view, Christian colleges with “mission statements””such as the college at which I teach––seem driven at least partly by countercultural, communal visions like MacIntyre’s: we profess Christian doctrine and practice as our defining feature and our primary driving force. But a stroll through the campus bookstore, or a visit by an accrediting agency, even the phrase “mission statement” itself”all these remind me of the extent to which we at Christian colleges, despite our clear differences of belief and behavior with our secular equivalents, swim in the same polluted waters. I often wonder whether it is even possible to take higher education in a distinctively Christian direction in this globalizing, homogenizing age––or if our own halfway covenant with modernity is not, in the end, a devil’s bargain.

I confess these doubts while working within the bounds of a community that wrestles actively (I wish more actively) with these questions. Hence the irony of my own quest. My deepening discovery of the human need for a life more richly communal has mainly occurred while studying and working within one of the places most responsible for the dissolution of traditional understandings of common life: the modern university––even, all too often, in its “Christian” guises.

But perhaps there is a logic beneath the irony. Before there were places like Delaware, there were places like Harvard and Princeton and Yale. And before there were places like Harvard and Princeton and Yale, there were places like Oxford and Paris and Wittenberg. Perhaps if true communities are to be born in our postmodern age, they will yet begin within the walls of communities like those of long ago, communities that set themselves apart in order to dedicate themselves to discovering who we are, where we are, and how we ought to comport ourselves as we walk with our Creator on this earth. This sort of collegial renewal, Benedictine in scope and end, deserves all of the effort we have to give.

Eric Miller directs the Humanities program at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsyvania. His essays have appeared in several publications, including the Cresset,Mars Hill Review, and Christianity Today.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift