The first chapter of Genesis is a grand liturgy of creation. The second chapter describes with existential immediacy the universal human longing for fulfillment. Subsequent chapters are given over to disaster and destruction. The primordial man and woman set human history on its path toward dissolution and death. We learn of the original sin, and then the original murder as Cain slays Abel. Soon thereafter comes the original, debasing idolatry, described in the enigmatic report in Genesis 6 of the union of sons of God with the daughters of men. This rouses God’s ire, and the waters of judgment rise in a universal flood, as if God intends to wipe the earth clean, starting over again with a new creation. Yet, the perversion of the human heart endures. In the final scene of those early, world- encompassing chapters of Genesis, mankind unites to undertake a self-directed project of universal salvation, building a tower to the heavens.
God frustrates this endeavor by confusing the languages of men and scattering them. From this point forward, human history will be the story of diverse nations engaged in inconclusive cycles of conflict and cooperation. God repents of dealing with humanity from on high. The wisdom literature of the Old Testament affirms that something universal continues to speak to us in reason and conscience. As St. Paul writes, “the law is written on the their hearts.” But the universal, active as it may be in reason and rightly influential in human affairs, lacks the power to bend the arc of human affairs away from sin’s destruction.
Then comes a shift. God adopts a different strategy. As chapter 11 draws to a close, the focus of Genesis narrows, ending with the Terah’s small clan. But even this seems too broad. In the first verse of chapter 12, Abraham and Sarah alone are called. They are torn from their homeland and separated from their clan. God abandons universal solutions to our bondage to sin. He adopts the way of particularity.
The rest of Genesis—the rest of the Bible—will be the story of what follows from the covenant with this obscure man and his barren wife. Abraham and Sarah function as the thin tip of a hypodermic needle. Through them God injects a new possibility. Through this one man and his wife God confers upon all mankind a new future: “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.” The narrative collapses from the universal point of view into the particular lives of a mundane, inauspicious couple. They are infertile, having come to what seems like a dead-end. But they give birth to new life from which springs the people of Israel.
The pattern is repeated in the New Testament. “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled”—the Gospel of Luke sets his story against the horizon of entire world, which is exactly the horizon of the opening chapters of Genesis. Then the focus shifts to an obscure stable with Joseph, Mary, and a newborn wrapped in swaddling cloths. The young couple is as inauspicious as Abraham and Sarah. They too become instruments in God’s plan.
The frame of reference in the gospel stories quickly expands, as does the Old Testament, which chronicles the history of a nation that is sometimes swallowed by world-straddling empires. Jesus preaches to thousands, and Gentiles, those from the nations other than the people of Israel, come to him. And, of course, the opening lines of Gospel of John draw upon the cosmic scope of the first chapter of Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word.” Yet everything collapses, finally, down to a single man on a cross. What God started with Abraham ends with a man who has come to the ultimate dead-end. This is the way of particularity, even to the point of the nothingness of death.
All of this has been on my mind lately. In early October, I visited Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia. It’s a small place, a nullity in our vast system of higher education. I doubt many Americans have heard of the school, which was founded in 1977 by Warren Carroll in an abandoned elementary school with a handful of students. Inspired by Triumph magazine, a publication invisible to those concerned with mainstream ideas and worldly power, Christendom remains small and out of sync with what our world considers to be important. It does not take federal money. The school’s curriculum is traditional, ordered toward the end of nurturing faith and reason rather than preparing young people to climb the greasy pole of meritocratic status.
A couple weeks later I visited Wyoming Catholic College, an even smaller school in the even more remote location of Lander, Wyoming. There, as well, the curriculum is traditional, organized around great books. The college does not dovetail with today’s educational-industrial complex.
While I was visiting these small colleges, I thought of my own alma mater, Haverford College. It too is small, enrolling only slightly more than twice the nearly 500 who attend Christendom, and considerably more than the 150 at Wyoming Catholic. But Haverford’s campus is vast and grand, where Christendom’s is small and modest. Wyoming Catholic College has no campus at all. Haverford’s financial resources are many times greater, and its place among the most highly selective liberal arts colleges firm. Yet, it seems to me that Haverford is, by important measures, an impotent place. Its educational ethos merges with that of other elite institutions, and its faculty are interchangeable with those at prestigious schools elsewhere. With a proper piety, I am grateful for the professors there who mentored me when I was young. But when I view the place objectively, I can see that Haverford is a well-appointed cog in the existing social system in America, feeding talented young people into the meritocratic machine. It’s a place that adds dough to the lump—high-achieving, high-quality dough, but not much in the way of leaven.
Christendom and Wyoming Catholic, by contrast, are places where something new can happen, not just in the lives of students, but for our society as a whole. I was impressed by the esprit de corps among faculty and students. I have no doubt there are many failings and lots to complain about. (Faculty at both schools teach an exhausting course load.) But one senses a confident, joyful purpose in educational missions that are genuinely supernatural in their ambition. There’s lively yeast at Christendom and Wyoming Catholic, and not just at those places. America is full of faithful schools, colleges, programs, initiatives, revived religious orders, and new religious movements. A couple years ago I wrote about my visit to Augustine College, a nano-institution with paltry resources that offers a one-year program of Christian liberal arts for kids who want serious intellectual and spiritual formation before entering college.
It’s easy to get pessimistic right now. Lots of powerful forces in early-twenty-first-century America seem to be turning against us. It’s good to remember, therefore, that God takes the way of particularity. Our increasingly secular cultural and political regimes have little in the way of new life in them. Cynicism and careerism disfigure many talented young people today. These are not qualities pregnant with a vital future for the West. It will be those few who are looking upward, those who have a sense of the transcendent possibilities, who will be able to lead us toward something new, something culturally alive.
Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, Pennsylvania, is another small place that’s rich in faith’s supernatural power. It hosted a one-day conference in early October, “Faith in the Public Square.” The event accorded with the mission of First Things, not just in topic, but in ecumenical spirit. The challenges we face affect us all, and we need to think and act together. I was invited to serve on some panels, including one that raised issues discussed in my new book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society.
One of the most important comments of the day was made by James Kurth, a long-serving professor of political science at nearby Swarthmore College. His panel took up threats to religious freedom. The panelists agreed that circumstances are inauspicious. A punitive political correctness has become increasingly comfortable with illiberal uses of power to silence dissent. Kurth did not disagree, but he wished to point out a further, complicating fact about our cultural moment. The secular “theology” of progressivism has its ministers and acolytes, and they hold powerful positions. They control higher education and are influential in media. But the rising generation finds them less and less convincing. The same crisis of institutional authority that alienates young people from the churches distances them from the moralistic pieties of political correctness, especially as they emanate from baby boomers preaching from the comfort of university sinecures. As Kurth noted, the increasingly totalitarian character of political correctness is a function of its declining persuasiveness.
We are entering times, perhaps, like those that characterized the Soviet Union in the decade or two before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Widespread, fervent conviction is giving way to compelled conformity. Young people at elite institutions like Kurth’s own Swarthmore are largely consumed by the demands of meritocratic competition. A friend, who teaches at an Ivy League institution, recently told me that her one-on-ones with students to discuss assignments or course work almost always end with what has become the question: Will you write a recommendation for me? A transactional ethos predominates, not only in the relations of students to faculty, but among students.
The cold, calculating ethos is reinforced by administrators, whom the Obama administration has pressured to require from students explicit, quasi-contractual agreements for the exchange of sexual “benefits” in the hookup marketplace. Political correctness promotes a legalistic atmosphere that details the protocols for exactly what faculty may or may not say to students, to the point of enumerating the proper use of a wide array of gender-flexible pronouns.
John Henry Newman observed, “Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us.” Relationships and interactions of this sort are less and less likely at universities. Many young people, perhaps most, believe “gender” is socially constructed, along with other progressive dogmas. But the institutional context in which those beliefs can be energized and deepened—the secular university, which has become the secular “church”—is mechanical and lifeless.
As the day at Westminster Seminary ended, I was reminded of the multifaceted character of faith’s vocation in the public square. As Christians, we don’t speak in just one way to our fellow citizens. It’s a false narrowing of public theology to limit it to natural law reasoning on the one hand, or direct evangelical proclamation on the other.
Public theology has a critical, interpretive mode. We need to understand our cultural moment. At the Westminster conference, Robert George used the concept of neo-Gnosticism that he develops in this issue (“Gnostic Liberalism”) to analyze progressive moral crusades from transgenderism to doctor-assisted suicide. Michael Hanby’s “A More Perfect Absolutism” (October 2016) is public theology in the critical mode, as are portions of Laudato Si’. St. John Paul II’s “culture of death” and Benedict XVI’s “dictatorship of relativism” are familiar and useful critical formulations in their public theologies.
I’d like to believe First Things excels at this approach. We need to know what we’re up against, and in the work of social and cultural analysis, theological concepts offer particularly powerful insights. Theology is the queen of the sciences, and that includes the social sciences and cultural interpretation.
We need more, however, than critical insight and orientation. Faith in public life has a prophetic mode. In the Old Testament, the prophets receive a divine illumination. God asks them to speak in his name in order to instruct his people about the true nature of the future: a coming judgment and divine deliverance. Most of us don’t receive direct illumination of the sort that inspired Isaiah and Jeremiah. But the Bible provides knowledge of what God has in store for us. This allows us to speak prophetically, informing our neighbors of the full truth about the future.
St. Augustine engages in a prophetic form of public theology in The City of God. He can speak of the limitations and tragedies of political life, because he has his eye on our ultimate end, which is the heavenly peace grounded in love of God and of our neighbors in God. We desire citizenship in the city above, the city of God, even if we do not know of it. This desire tempts us to make an idol of our earthly cities. And so, to speak prophetically in an Augustinian way means drawing attention to our true and heavenly citizenship. This kind of public theology detaches us from an idolatrous earthly politics and frees us to pursue the common good with a fitting awareness of the fragility, transience, and ultimate inadequacy of our worldly endeavors, however necessary and noble.
Henri de Lubac’s Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man is another book of public theology in the prophetic mode. As Fr. Thomas Joseph White recently explained (“Catholicism in an Age of Discontent,” October 2016), de Lubac sought to show how the collectivist ideologies of his time, especially communism, reflected a legitimate desire for universal human community—a desire, however, that is only fulfilled in Christ. He spoke prophetically, bringing forward God’s promise of supernatural unity in Christ, and thus purifying and redirecting the political and social impulses of his time.
A prophetic public theology can take a more confrontational form, which White thinks our present moment calls for. To proclaim that we are raised bodily from the dead challenges the neo-Gnostic assumption that our bodies have no integral relation to our identities—a key assumption of the sexual revolution. Even arguments based on natural law have a prophetic character in our skeptical age. They bring forward the claims that nature has upon what it means to be human, claims that shape the future, because our destiny in Christ will be a human one, however transformed by grace.
As compared to the critical and prophetic, the political mode of public theology is often fraught. At some point we need to gather ourselves and venture practical judgments in favor of this or that course of action. These judgments need to be informed by a theological analysis of the present moment, as well as biblical principles for public life. Something more is needed, however. That more is prudence, the practical wisdom that can discern what is ordered toward God’s larger purposes, and yet realistic.
Sometimes this practical wisdom makes us recognize that we must settle for the least-bad option rather than the ideal outcome we construct in our imaginations. Faced with aggression, war-making may be necessary, even though it is not what God intends for his creatures, which is peace. Just war theory was expounded so that political leaders can discern when and how war can serve the greater end of peace; it is not a formula but a framework for judgment.
At other times, a public theology that is properly political needs to articulate the conditions for coalition and compromise. Catholics on the left work hard to show how a rejection of abortion can be consistent with support for Democratic politicians who, in the present political climate, must pledge fealty to Roe v. Wade. Those of us on the right need to justify our occasional alliances with libertarians whose views of the human person and freedom are at odds with Christianity’s. These arguments for coalition can be criticized, as can any prudential judgment. But both are fitting enterprises of public theology in the political mode, however flawed the justifying arguments may be.
We always risk making bad judgments in the political mode of public theology. The Catholic party in Germany in the early 1930s, the Centre Party, lent support to Hitler at a crucial moment in his rise to power. It did so on the calculation that communism was a greater danger—and Hitler a lesser evil. We, too, are doomed to make mistakes of political judgment, not of such terrible consequences, we hope, but mistakes nonetheless. Our votes in the recent presidential election provide cases in point. I found myself facing many difficult decisions, none of which inspired me with confidence.
It is for this reason that public theology in this mode should cultivate humility. We should speak boldly in the prophetic mode, trenchantly in the critic mode, but tentatively in the political. And we should speak with generosity to those who draw different conclusions about what courses of action, here and now, in our always compromised circumstances, best serve God’s purposes in public life.
Early in his pontificate, in a long interview conducted in August 2013 by Fr. Antonio Spadaro on behalf of Jesuit journals throughout the world, Pope Francis described himself as “a bit astute,” but also “a bit naive.” At the time, it struck me as an accurate self-assessment. Nothing in the last three years of this roller coaster pontificate has led me to think otherwise. This pope has a kind of genius—and a persistent blindness. He sees some things very clearly, but also seems genuinely unaware of how his rhetoric reverberates.
The signature priority of this papacy has been the marginalized, the “discarded.” This follows a Catholic imperative, often described as the “preferential option for the poor,” which is itself deeply rooted in the Old and New Testaments. Francis, however, adds something more. He links solidarity with the marginalized to criticisms of global capitalism (an inadequate but unavoidable term). The first major statement of his pontificate, Evangelii Gaudium, included denunciations of the “idolatry of money” and criticisms of “the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation.” He spoke of the evils of “an economy of exclusion and inequality” and singled out for censure those who “continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.” He warned of the peril posed by “the dictatorship of an impersonal economy.”
Evangelii Gaudium was about a great deal more than economics, of course, as was his subsequent encyclical about the environment, Laudato Si’. But commentators were not wrong to highlight Pope Francis’s sharp words about today’s global economic system. Previous modern popes have warned against the individualism latent in free market capitalism, as well as its tendency to encourage consumerism and a materialistic approach to life. But with Francis there’s a special urgency. One senses that he regards global capitalism as the focal point of our present difficulties.
The current bishop of Rome, unlike the two men who proceeded him, is not a systematic thinker. For this reason it’s wrong to imagine he’s adopting a Marxist view. Instead, he’s making a more mundane claim: In these beginning decades of the twenty-first century, most of the pressing difficulties we face stem from global capitalism. And these difficulties are far greater than our technocratic elites imagine.
Francis is long on slogans (“economy of exclusion”) and short on analysis. But events have shown him to be largely correct. As recently as two years ago I doubt one could find a single mainstream politician or journalist who took seriously the notion that the United Kingdom would leave the European Union. And yet that’s what happened, mainly because voters rejected the globalist assumptions that now attend global capitalism. It turns out that Pope Francis’s sometimes shrill, dire, and even revolutionary rhetoric about the regnant global system has been truer to social reality than most of us have been willing to admit.
The same holds for the earthquakes rocking our political system in the United States. Less than two years ago, very few of our political leaders or commentators could have imagined the successes of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. By contrast, Pope Francis’s purple passages warning us about “economies of exclusion” make sense of the left-wing populism of Sanders and the right-wing populism of Trump.
So I look back on the first few years of this papacy with respect for this pontiff’s astuteness. At root, the social teaching of Pope Francis is best understood as a rhetorical project, not an analytic one. An Argentine in the Peronist tradition, he articulates a biblical populism, as it were. He warns the emerging global governing class that the system they oversee has not won the loyalty of the masses, including the middle class in the West, because in one way or another they are “excluded.” By my reckoning, this is a correct assessment of our times.
But we can’t overlook how naive Pope Francis can be. He sometimes sounds like a global technocrat. I was appalled by his response to the martyrdom of Fr. Jacques Hamel in France last summer. “I think it is not right to identify Islam with violence,” he said. “This is not right and not true.” Isn’t this a version of the “religion of peace” boilerplate we often hear from our leaders? They adopt a careful verbal strategy designed to avoid offending Muslims and taking care not to stoke anti-Muslim sentiments in the West.
Francis went on to draw a moral equivalence to underline his effort to encourage a positive view of Islam. “I think that in nearly all religions there is always a small fundamentalist group. We have them.” Fundamentalist Catholics are gunning down people at nightclubs? Francis continues, “I don’t like to talk about Islamic violence because every day when I look in the papers I see violence here in Italy—someone killing his girlfriend, someone killing his mother-in-law. These are baptized Catholics.” The only way to describe this way of talking is “spin.”
These comments were made on the plane taking him back to Rome after visiting Poland for World Youth Day. Francis is notorious for his high-altitude, off-the-cuff remarks, so I discount them. But they reflect a tendency in this pontificate. Here’s what the pontiff said at an interreligious prayer service at Ground Zero during his visit to the United States: “We can and must build unity on the basis of our diversity of languages, cultures, and religions, and lift our voices against everything which would stand in the way of such unity.” I understand the context, but why do his comments have to sound like the anodyne, feel-good verbiage we hear from the mouths of human resource professionals and corporate diversity officers? The same technocratic habits of speech—and perhaps of mind—pop up in Laudato Si’. There he writes that we need “a politics which is farsighted and capable of a new, integral, interdisciplinary approach.” There’s a section advocating “best practices.” Pure McKinsey.
Pope Francis is astute in his recognition that the emerging global system, which revolves around capitalism’s ongoing expansion, provokes some of the most important political problems, not just in the West, but throughout the world. And yet he’s unable to see that he often sounds like a functionary in the very same global system. That’s not astute. We need a biblical and metaphysical voice to counter the global system and the emerging empire of utility, not a technocratic one.