Blood pressure is rising. Folks are worried about “illiberalism.” In a November issue of the Washington Post, Anne Applebaum warned of a rising “neo-Bolshevism” assailing the West: “Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and Jaroslaw Kacyniski.” Others have more moderate anxieties, even about First Things. Matthew Continetti, editor-in-chief of the Washington Free Beacon, suggests that we don’t do justice to the liberty that gives liberalism its name and purpose.
The anxiety about illiberalism reminds me of my years as a graduate student. I studied theology at Yale in the 1980s. At the beginning of that decade, there was a conflict between the “Chicago school” and the “Yale school.” The former was thought to carry forward the noble achievements of modern or liberal theology: historical consciousness, biblical scholarship, cultural relevance, and openness of mind. The latter, many worried, marked a retreat into sectarian insularity and neo-fundamentalism. As I look back, I see some parallels to our present-day debates about liberalism and illiberalism.
From its founding in 1891, the University of Chicago’s Divinity School took pride in its unabashedly liberal theology. That meant declaring theology free from traditional sources of ecclesiastical and doctrinal authority. To draw an analogy to political theory, liberal theology affirms what John Rawls defined as “public reason,” the common stock of truths that educated people accept. This approach has been pursued in a number of different ways. Some liberal theologians take Kant’s, Hegel’s, or Heidegger’s philosophy as their point of departure. Others adopt first principles from psychology or other social sciences. The strands of liberal theology go in many different directions, but they are all characterized by openness to and even enthusiasm for the latest intellectual and social trends.
In its optimistic mode, liberal theology seeks to show that the modern age brings out the best in Christianity. By this way of thinking, historical-critical study of the Bible uncovers its original meaning, allowing us to return to the purity of apostolic faith undefiled by the accretion of later rituals and dogmas. Or it means seeing God’s hand at work in modern developments such as democracy and secularization. These historical changes reveal, for the first time, the full truth of the gospel. In its pessimistic mode, liberal theology warns that we must adapt to modern realities if we’re to have any hope of keeping people in church. Christian faith needs to be updated with concepts and categories that are meaningful to what mid-twentieth-century theologians unselfconsciously referred to as “modern man,” a term rejected by today’s generation of liberal theologians for whom feminism is authoritative.
David Tracy was one of the presiding figures at Chicago. He was thought to embody the intellectually open and inquisitive Catholicism inaugurated by the Second Vatican Council. Meanwhile, something rather different was going on at Yale. There, Karl Barth had been closely studied for a decade or more before I arrived. He was a fierce critic of liberal theology, which he regarded as theologically and intellectually bankrupt. If God is truly other, he argued, then one can reason about God—think theo-logically—only if one begins with God’s Word.
Weaned on Barth by my undergraduate mentor, Ronald Thiemann, a Yale PhD, I was naturally attracted to the Yale school. With Thiemann’s encouragement, I enrolled there for graduate study in theology in the mid-1980s. Hans Frei, George Lindbeck, David Kelsey, and my dissertation director, Gene Outka, along with biblical scholar Brevard Childs, were influential figures. They had no affinities with the conservative, anti-liberal Protestantism that gets derogated as “fundamentalist.” This tradition was no more present on our syllabi than it was at Chicago, which in retrospect was a shame. Some years later, I read J. Gresham Machen’s 1923 classic, Christianity and Liberalism. It is in some ways better than anything Barth wrote: more succinct and uncluttered by conceptual over-ornamentation. Nevertheless, to a greater or lesser degree, many of my teachers viewed liberal theology as bankrupt. Within respectable academic circles, this made them dissenters, but not outsiders.
Their pessimism about liberal theology had grown out of recent developments. In 1965, Harvey Cox published The Secular City, a widely influential book in mainline Protestant circles. Cox argued that Christianity is truly itself only when it leaves behind its institutional form and becomes part of “God’s permanent revolution in history,” which Cox located in various liberation movements. The Church is truly the Church when it is no longer the Church. As Paul Tillich sometimes said, faith only achieves its perfection when it casts aside dogmatic supports.
My teachers at Yale were not anti-liberal. To the last, they were political liberals. All were committed to ecumenical engagement. They affirmed the rigors of mainstream academic life and imposed no doctrinal orthodoxies on their students. But they came to believe that the promise of liberal theology—that openness to modernity bears fruit for the gospel—had run its course. To keep its vitality, not just in the churches but in academia, theology needed to be “postliberal.” What this meant was controverted, though perhaps one can say it involved recovering the foundational authority of revelation. The Yale school was postliberal in the sense that it sought to learn again how to speak about God by allowing itself to be tutored by the apostolic tradition rather than the contemporary university. This did not mean evading intellectual challenges. On the contrary, the postliberal frame of mind freed me to become an independent participant in today’s debates rather than an echo of the dominant consensus.
The Yale school had a “canonical criticism” phase, a “narrative theology” phase, and a “cultural-linguistic” phase, among others. This led some to deride postliberal theology as endless prolegomena, a deferral of real theology, not its recovery. The criticism was not unfair. In the 1970s and 1980s, Yale school luminaries published books best described as outlining the conditions for the possibility of doing theology on the basis of the authority of revelation. Representatives of the Chicago school adopted a different line of criticism. They deemed postliberal theology “sectarian,” which is a liberal theologian’s way of saying narrow and “illiberal.” Modern theology must accept the criteria of truth that prevail in the modern university, they said. Failing to do so invariably condemns one to fundamentalism, obscurantism, and intellectual irrelevance—or so critics of postliberalism warned.
Subsequent decades were not kind to liberal theologians or to the Chicago school. Mainline Protestant churches entered a long season of decline and internal convulsions, most of which revolved around sexual morality. John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger turned Catholicism in a different direction, one that bore certain resemblances to Yale’s postliberalism. Meanwhile, the modern university became postmodern, calling into question objective standards of truth. Liberal theology blended into the self-referential academic enterprise called “religious studies.” The audience for liberal theology withered.
By contrast, the Yale school dissenters from the mid-twentieth-century liberal consensus succeeded to a degree greater than they thought possible. The majority of young people aspiring to advanced study in theology now seek broadly postliberal programs and mentors. This does not make the rising generation of theologians “illiberal,” if by that term we mean close-minded, authoritarian, and inflexible. On the contrary, as a figure such as Ratzinger illustrates, the authority of revelation underwrites a life of intellectual openness, boldness, and courage. These virtues are in short supply in today’s academic culture.
What I cherish most from my graduate training is the spirit of freedom it cultivated. The Yale professors suffered from the limitations of their backgrounds, as do we all. Frei had no interest in Catholicism. He and the others were dissenters within academic Protestant culture. But postliberalism broke the narrow spell of liberalism’s conceit that today’s dogmas should enjoy presumptive authority. This liberated us to look more deeply and broadly for theological inspiration.
First Things contributed to the postliberal trend in theology. More than a decade before the magazine was founded, Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus gathered a group of theologians at the Hartford Seminary. They worked up thirteen themes, many of which characterize liberal theology, and appealed to the churches to reject them. Here are some highlights. Theme 1: “Modern thought is superior to all past forms of understanding reality, and is therefore normative for Christian faith and life.” Theme 4: “Jesus can only be understood in terms of contemporary models of humanity.” Theme 6: “To realize one’s potential and to be true to oneself is the whole meaning of salvation.” Theme 10: “The world must set the agenda for the Church. Social, political, and economic programs to improve the quality of life are ultimately normative for the Church’s mission in the world.”
Opposing these modern truisms provided much of the original impetus behind First Things. That spirit of opposition remains central. Our project has been postliberal, broadly understood. But the upshot has not been illiberal. First Things is more ecumenical than theologically liberal organs of opinion are, as well as more open to a wide range of standpoints in politics. We are more vigorously engaged in contemporary debates at the highest levels. This is not coincidental. To harken to God’s Word frees one from bondage to ideology, intellectual fashion, and the latest waves of groupthink. We are more truly liberal in spirit, because we are theologically postliberal.
Postliberalism in Politics?
Theology is not political philosophy. But there are analogies. One is the way in which dissent induces panic. This seems counterintuitive. Liberalism prides itself on its openness. Reality suggests otherwise. Liberal theology dominated mainline Protestantism. Its proponents regarded as benighted any who were not members of their tribe. But the postliberalism at Yale could not be summarily dismissed. It emerged within an elite Protestant program. This posed a more serious threat than Carl F. H. Henry and other conservative Protestants did, for liberal theology embraces the modern dogma of progress. It assumes that the arc of history bends toward liberalism. This gives rise to a cultural version of the Brezhnev doctrine: Territory taken cannot be lost. Liberal theologians regarded the Yale school as dangerous backsliding, a perverse return to dogmatic bondage that had to be reversed.
We see a similar panic in political commentary today. After 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, many believed that the West’s political and economic way of life had triumphed and would soon become the global consensus. The West’s ever-greater sexual liberation and post-national cosmopolitanism, among other trends, were seen as necessary outgrowths of liberalism. A tacit Brezhnev doctrine thus prevails among liberals. It treats as heretical those who question these developments. Just as liberal theologians have always been tempted to see themselves as bulwarks against resurgent fundamentalism, today’s liberals quickly rush to the bastions, escalating their rhetoric by hurling accusations of “illiberalism”—perhaps even “fascism” or “neo-Bolshevism.”
Liberalism suffers from “presentism.” This is almost unavoidable, because it holds that we must accept the intellectual standards of our time. In this respect, Richard Rorty was right, not about metaphysics, but about the logic of liberalism: “Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with.” Liberal declarations of loyalty to reason, which sound timeless, are really expressions of loyalty to the current consensus. I saw this clearly in liberal theology. As I’ve noted, “modern man” was once unobjectionable, but subsequently was deemed unacceptable. Derrida, Foucault, and Butler superseded the authorities of an earlier generation such as Camus, Sartre, and Heidegger. In recent years, identity politics rose to dominance in the universities. Take a look at what’s left of liberal theology, and you’ll find scholars writing about the Bible and intersectionality, or authoring studies of theology and “the body.” One cannot be liberal in theology without being current in academic fashions. I remain grateful that my postliberal training in theology delivered me from this bondage.
Presentism characterizes many of today’s political commentators. Since 1989, the United States has led the development of a rule-based international order. Some now take this evolution to be an essential outgrowth of liberalism, so much so that dissent from its particulars marks one as a heretic. Others treat the latest iteration of human rights as divine revelation. Still others regard the so-called Washington consensus about economic development as essential. Or they insist upon abstract applications of free-market principles. Dissent from the latest consensus, whether one conceives of it in center-left or center-right terms, gets interpreted as a rejection of liberalism tout court. One can be confident that those who rise to defend liberalism these days will define as “illiberal” any deviation from the most recent iterations of the liberal consensus.
Presentism corrupts judgment. Recently, the ruling party in Poland changed the way in which judges are appointed to that country’s constitutional court. No doubt power politics played a role in this protracted controversy. But the Western media present this Polish drama as a profound betrayal of liberal ideals. Last summer, Anne Applebaum wrote that the proposed change in judicial appointment in Poland will “politicize” the judiciary. It is an “illiberal” assault on “democracy.” How do we square this with the fact that judicial appointments are among the most politicized issues in American politics, so much so that a Republican Senate held Justice Scalia’s seat open for more than a year? Is contemporary America an antidemocratic, illiberal society, too?
Liberal theology also tends to suffer from Manichaeism. It’s either liberalism in theology—or it’s fundamentalism. Something similar is at work in today’s over-heated political journalism. Applebaum’s claims about the rise of “neo-Bolshevism” are extreme instances of a too-common tendency to split the world into true believers who are loyal to the present consensus and deviationists who undermine all that is true, good, and beautiful. I have observed that Michael Novak oversold the virtues of democratic capitalism, failing to do justice to its vices. This modest claim evokes accusations that I’m a crypto-socialist who is betraying the legacy of Richard John Neuhaus.
A signal feature of modernity is its “realized eschatology.” Our age is convinced that something new has been revealed—more than new, something final and decisive. Newman captures this tendency in his eighth thesis on liberalism: “There is a system of religion more simply true than Christianity as it has ever been received.” The conceit of modernity is that that more fundamental and true system of religion is only now being discovered. The latest biblical scholarship, the deliverances of modern psychology, the progressive political agenda, or some other feature of modern life—this reveals, for the first time, the inner essence of Christianity that had been obscured by dogmas, rituals, and the dead hand of ecclesiastical authority. The same realized eschatology characterizes political liberalism, at least in its more recent expressions. It assumes we have made a historical leap forward. We are living in the first era in which human dignity is truly recognized and honored! My postliberal training in theology immunized me against this idolatry of the new. This does not mean rejecting the First Amendment or repudiating democracy. It means setting aside liberalism’s claim to finality.
My teachers at Yale were clear. Modern historical-critical methods of biblical interpretation have an undoubted intellectual integrity. But its conclusions do not have automatic authority. We should reject not its methods and insights but its presumptive claims to be the final arbiter of the Bible’s meaning. I recommend a similar approach in politics. Those such as Applebaum who toss around epithets do not own the copyright for liberalism any more than John Rawls does. We should draw upon their best insights without according them magisterial authority, which means distinguishing the good from the bad in the present liberal consensus rather than adopting our own all-or-nothing, Manichaean stance.
Questioning liberal pieties does not make us anti-modern or anti-liberal, any more than John Henry Newman’s trenchant rejection of the liberal claim that reason has ultimate authority over revelation made him an enemy of reason. On the contrary, he was among the most nuanced thinkers of the modern era. We need to follow his lead. Our job is to set aside the conceits of our time so that we can reframe our political witness in light of first principles: human dignity, solidarity, subsidiarity, the common good, and defense of the weak and vulnerable. It’s past time to set aside the mentality of panic, presentism, and Manichaeism, as well as the false eschatology that turns liberalism into a dogmatic religion. We need to sort through today’s liberal theory and practice with measured judgment.
A Theology of Adoption
In his 2016 book Not by Nature but by Grace: Forming Families through Adoption, Gilbert Meilaender provides a subtle account of the dual character of adoption. On one hand, it transcends the limitations of genetic kinship and serves as a sign of our life in Christ, which is rooted in God’s grace, not in the logic of flesh and blood. On the other hand, the fact that adoption is necessary reveals the brokenness of our fallen world. Adoption can bring extraordinary blessings. Yet it is almost always haunted by loss.
Christians are sons of God by adoption. We are not doomed to remain enslaved to “the elemental spirits of the universe”; we are redeemed and receive the “spirit of sonship.” In Christ we are made “heirs of God.” Through the waters of baptism and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are born again, spiritual children adopted into the divine household. The doings of God in history triumph over the limitations of nature.
The way in which salvation transcends nature tempts some Christian proponents of adoption to maintain an entirely positive view. By this way of thinking, the adopted child becomes the ideal, not the exception—or perhaps more accurately, the ideal because the exception. Adoption bears witness to our greater spiritual filiation in Christ. It is a relationship based on gratuity, not biology, a bond purely spiritual rather than physical.
But as Meilaender points out, in the Christian view of salvation, nature does not drop out. “Because we are God’s creatures, we must acknowledge, honor, and even celebrate the human nature that is ours.” This is not a simple matter of affirming the way things are. “Because we are (pardoned) sinners whom God has in Jesus acted to reconcile, we must come to terms with the countless ways in which human life is disordered and broken.” Redemption frees us from this brokenness. But this new future recognizes the enduring claims of creation. “Because we are heirs of the future God has promised, we must live toward a destiny that will fulfill and transform our created nature without simply obliterating it.”
This dialectic of nature and history—a dialectic of nature and grace or covenant, to use cognate theological terms—governs Meilaender’s approach to adoption.
We will not deny the significance of biological ties, we will not deny the pain and sorrow that is often embedded in the circumstances that lead to adoption, and we will not deny that our identity as God’s children is in the end determined not by biology alone but also by adoption.
Meilaender briefly surveys Muslim and Jewish approaches to adoption. They differ, and neither tradition is monolithic. But both give a prominent role to the claims of genetic kinship. Christianity, by contrast, has a more radical view of adoption. Insofar as I am welcomed into a family not my own and am brought up as a son, I truly become the son of another. My adoptive family becomes my own. And yet, Muslims and Jews are not entirely wrong. Biological ties can be transcended, but they are not thereby destroyed. The personal history of an adopted child may mean that his genetic kin are to him as strangers—but they are still kin.
This strikes me as exactly right. It is a needed corrective to an excessive pessimism and overdone optimism about adoption. Objections to cross-racial adoption represent perhaps the most egregious instances of pessimism. In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers took the public position that only black families should adopt black children. But a soft pessimism is abroad as well and can fuel demand for in vitro fertilization and other reproductive technologies. It is often thought, sometimes only tacitly, that one can be fulfilled as a mother and father only by having genetic children.
There is a false optimism as well. Lutheran theologian Ted Peters rejects the “inheritance myth,” arguing that biological kinship has no theological significance. But as Meilaender points out, the real myth is the myth that biological ties don’t matter. Adoption involves a “moral cost.” The women who must give up their children often feel this cost acutely, even if they continue to affirm their decisions as serving the best interests of their children. The children, too, feel the moral cost. Most adopted children feel some ache over the circumstances that prevented them from being raised by their natural parents. True, the Christian family transcends biology. But biology has a role in the moral meaning of family life, even among an eschatological people.
Six or seven years ago, I glimpsed the compound truth Meilaender explicates so well. I was eating lunch on the patio of a fast-food restaurant near my home in Omaha, Nebraska. It was a hot day. Nobody else was outside. I was looking forward to reading the book I had brought with me. But an agitated, middle-aged woman sat down in a chair close to mine. She lit a cigarette. “I’m so nervous,” she said in a way meant to elicit my attention. I complied, and she told me that she had driven that morning from Ames, Iowa, to meet her daughter for the first time. She had given her up for adoption at birth. “It was hard, but it was the right thing to do.” Recently, her daughter found her on Facebook. They corresponded, but her daughter didn’t want to meet—until now. She looked at her watch. “She’s not coming until one, but I didn’t want to be late.” She was proud. “She’s a registered nurse.” And frightened. “What will she think of me?” “I’m so nervous,” she said again, lighting another cigarette, fighting back tears. And then she said, “I can’t wait. I’m so happy.”
A Globalist Future
Aviezer Tucker, a fellow at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, is worried about the rise of “neo-illiberal democracy,” by which he means regimes that betray the best achievements of today’s liberal consensus. Writing in the January/February issue of the American Interest, he regrets the rise of the Law and Justice government in Poland, the Fidesz government in Hungary, Putin’s regime in Russia, and other “vulgar and vile populist politicians,” including the current president of the United States. His remedy involves laying the foundation for a global technocratic regime that will manage public affairs at a distance from the political process. This, he argues, will prevent populism from gaining the upper hand in the future.
The populist “noxiousness” is spreading because “self-destructive passions” have taken hold in Western politics. These passions emerge when “prolonged recessions undermine personal, professional, and vocational security.” This triggers a response in the general population. “Sensing existential threat, people look to their tribe for protection.” Things go sour as people turn inward “instead of facilitating trade and migration to stimulate the global economy and generate growth that can shorten and moderate the severity of recessions.” As a consequence, “a vicious cycle of economic decline, breakdown of trade, economic and political hostilities, and isolation takes over.”
The vicious cycle is not inevitable, however. Responsible people can plan ahead, argues Tucker, anticipating irrational behavior by the demos. To do so requires “designing institutions to better withstand the kind of self-destructive pressures that economic recessions generate and will continue to generate.” Center-left thinkers such as Lawrence Summers (“Responsible Nationalism”) and Robert Reich (“New Populism”) have tried to accommodate aspects of populism. Tucker argues that we should seek the opposite. We need to build up a postnational system that will check “illiberal” political impulses during bad times. Our goal should be to make populism impossible.
In the immediate term, this means beefing up the authority of the European Union. The “illiberal Hungarian and Polish regimes” should be punished with economic sanctions. Had European leaders done that sooner, the populist parties in those countries could have been nipped in the bud. But Tucker’s vision is broader yet. To prevent backsliding from today’s liberal order, we need international bodies with real power. Using the WTO as a model, he argues for “independent boards” that guarantee “trade and labor mobility.” Immigration should be regulated by an “immigration algorithm” that calculates “optimal immigration” levels for the purposes of steady economic growth. Tucker admits that these algorithms depend upon fallible economic theories. “But at least they are immune to political pressure and short-term self-destructive passions.” Social welfare also needs to be coordinated and perhaps mandated. Plebiscites and other forms of direct democracy should be curtailed. The Internet must be regulated to “block disinformation” and otherwise defend liberal democracy.
Tucker is responding to real problems. He inveighs against postmodernism in academia and argues for a renewed study of history. Plebiscites and referenda that appeal directly to voters often produce bad results. The Internet poses new challenges to open societies. On the whole, however, he represents the technocratic trend in elite opinion. He favors international institutions that are insulated from voters. And even when sovereignty remains undiluted, the technocratic frame of mind recasts political debates as technical disagreements about how best to manage the economy and otherwise sustain the existing system.
The paradox is obvious. The technocratic mentality holds that responsible political leadership should be “immune to political pressure.” This is a way of saying that we need to keep democracy at arm’s length. There is some wisdom in this. The founders were worried about the dangers of too much democracy. But they were also worried about the dangers of too little. In my view, our problems today are of the latter sort, not the former.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ The Wall Street Journal editorial page weighed in on the recent tax bill. “The worst individual tax policy is the doubling of the tax credit for children to $2,000 from $1,000. This costs half-a-trillion dollars and contributes nothing to growth because it doesn’t change incentives.” According to the editors, the worst of the worst is Marco Rubio’s late-stage demand that $1,400 of the child tax credit be refundable, which means that families paying little or no income tax will receive a cash payment from the federal government. So there you have it. Marriage is in decline in Middle America. Families are fragile, often broken. The causes vary, but surely financial relief for those raising children will contribute to the repair of the weakened culture of the family in America. Nonetheless, the editors of the Wall Street Journal regard any tax scheme that allows one parent (usually a woman) to raise children as the “worst” aspect of the tax bill.
♦ One does not need an advanced degree to recognize that no society will flourish without strong, stable families. Nor does one need a special revelation to know that, outside the upper 20 percent, families in America are in deep trouble. The child tax credit scheme in the 2017 tax reform bill may be inadequate. I prefer a two-tiered tax credit, one that gives a higher amount to married couples with children. This would provide an incentive to get and stay married. No doubt the editors at the Wall Street Journal would deride this as “conservative social engineering,” an epithet they often apply to attempts by social conservatives to use the political process to nudge our fellow citizens in the direction of sanity and decency. In their eyes, we’re allowed to speak from our pulpits, but we are not to influence tax policy.
♦ In mid-December, the editorial board of the New York Times opined, “Most Americans know that the Republican tax bill will widen economic inequality by lavishing breaks on corporations and the wealthy while taking benefits away from the poor and the middle class.” Yet according to the Times’s own business reporters, the tax bill is “an economic dagger aimed at high-tax, high-cost and generally Democratic-leaning areas—most notably New York and its neighbors.” New limits on state and local tax deductions, as well as limits on mortgage interest deductions, will “increase the regional tax burden.” One business group estimated that the highest earners in the New York area will go from paying 52 percent of their income in taxes to 57 percent. Super-rich counties in the Bay Area and Southern California have different tax structures, but there too the super-high-earning crowd is likely to find its tax burden increasing, not decreasing. The Times warns, “For the wealthiest New Yorkers, meanwhile, the loss of the deduction for state and local taxes means they could face a combined tax rate above 50 percent on their income.” So which is it? Does the tax bill “lavish breaks” on the wealthy? Or does it imperil the wealthiest New Yorkers and Californians with ruinously high rates?
♦ The Ohio state legislature rejected prenatal euthanasia, making it a crime for a doctor to abort an unborn child based on Down syndrome diagnosis. Indiana and North Dakota have similar statutes, although a federal judge has blocked the Indiana law. At present, a number of Western European countries have almost no infants born with Down syndrome, having euthanized all of them in the womb. We need more laws like the Ohio statute to fight the culture of death. The ACLU of Ohio, Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and other proabortion groups have called for Gov. John Kasich to veto the Ohio bill.
♦ The School for the Dogs had its “Holiday Fair” on December 16. Founded in 2011, this establishment promises to “help you change your dog’s behavior, cultivate leadership [in your dog?] and improve your relationship.” Services include the “Day School,” with morning and afternoon sessions from Monday through Friday. A full-time student attending mornings or afternoons throughout the week will run you $1,600 per month. First Things regular (and devoted dog owner) Francesca Murphy speculates: “I would think a lot of customers at ‘School for Dogs’ are women who are totally rational ten hours of the day at work, but totally irrational about their dogs.” True, perhaps, but I fear she underestimates the male capacity for irrationality of the same sort.
♦ In an appreciative review of David Hart’s recently published translation of the New Testament, Atlantic contributing editor James Parker commends the “sheer freaking oddness” of many of Hart’s English renderings of the original Greek.
Oddness, in fact, might be the signature—the breakthrough, even—of Hart’s translation. No committee prose here, no compromises or waterings-down: This is one man in grim submission to the kinks and quirks of the New Testament’s authors—to the neurology, as it were, of each book’s style—and making his own decisions.
I do not dissent from Parker’s appreciation of Hart’s independence of mind. He certainly is one to make his own decisions. But I take issue with “grim submission.” In my experience, Hart is quite happy in the service of quirks and oddness—one could even say makarios, or as he would have it, “blissful.”
♦ For a taste of that blissful service of quirks and oddness, readers should revisit David Hart’s reflections on his Great Uncle Aloysius Bentley. “As you may recall,” Hart writes to his most devoted readers, “he was the last practicing pagan in my extended family.” A poet of sorts, Aloysius found his muse on the shores of the Choptank, east of Tilghman Island, and knew how to exit this life in grand style. And then there is of course Roland, Hart’s dog, a canine of remarkable opinions.
♦ Recent off-the-cuff remarks by Pope Francis raised eyebrows. The topic was a French translation of the Lord’s Prayer that modifies the petition that asks God not to lead us into temptation, saying instead, “Do not let us enter into temptation.” The Holy Father opined that it’s bad theology to think of God pushing us toward temptation, as if he took pleasure in our falls. “A father does not do this. A father quickly helps those who are provoked into Satan’s temptation.” A minor controversy ensued, fueled by media headlines. BBC News titled its story: “Lord’s Prayer: Pope Francis Calls for Change.” In fact, he was only commenting on the change already made by the French church. He was not setting an agenda for the whole Church.
♦ The Lord’s Prayer is the most durable prayer in the English language. In the United States, the Catholic Church adopted the English form used by most Protestants, which is derived from William Tyndale’s sixteenth-century translation of the Bible. Evangelical Christians who attend contemporary praise services nevertheless address the Father who “art” in heaven. For those who recite this version of the Lord’s Prayer, it’s very likely the only moment in their lives when they use “thy,” the archaic second person possessive. These older locutions do not endure because liturgists relish them. On the contrary, for generations those responsible for our liturgical patrimony have typically been enemies of the old and partisans of the new. But ordinary people insist upon continuity in prayer, especially continuity in the most repeated and beloved prayers. A middle-aged faithful Christian may have said the Lord’s Prayer ten thousand times. Multiply that by many generations, and the words of the Lord’s Prayer have become saturated by pious intentions and sanctified by constant use. Part of the vandalism of liturgical “updating” comes from the arrogant disregard for the weight of piety borne by these old forms.
♦ Douglas Murray’s book The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam is depressing to read. He recounts the long period of feckless governance by Europe’s major parties. Democratic majorities never favored large-scale immigration. But the ruling class thought otherwise. A combination of spiritual exhaustion, guilt over colonial empires, and more recent neoliberal arguments that the economic future of Europe requires mass immigration have contributed to a political culture of evasion, even to the point of outright collusion among major parties to ignore voters’ concerns about immigration. We know parts of this story. It’s very powerful to see it spelled out in full.
Murray is particularly effective in analyzing Europe’s cultural disarmament. Germans call it Geschichtsmüde, the state of being “weary of history.” Another way of putting it is Auschwitz fatigue. Its epicenter is Germany, of course, but Murray sees the malaise in Western European nations more broadly. By his analysis, Europe is afflicted by more than the historical hangover of mid-twentieth-century mass murder. The problem is spiritual. Europe has become post-Christian. We have “lost our story,” Murray writes. This loss is felt more acutely than most Europeans will admit. “We still live among the actual debris of that faith,” he observes. These monuments remind Europeans of the artistic and imaginative achievements of a people capable of transcendence, throwing into painfully sharp relief the present flatness of life. However opulent and laden with pleasures, today’s Europe is enervated. Various gods have been proposed as substitutes for the God of Israel: art, science, and of course revolution. But none is able to sustain Europe’s vitality. Marxism, the last European substitute for transcendence, had lost its grip on the European imagination decades before 1989.
In the first decade of the present century it seemed for a moment that this European ennui might find some relief in the form of what was termed a “muscular liberalism”: a concerted and sometimes even violent defence of liberal rights around the globe.
But that god failed as well.
The moment of muscular liberalism came and went, and by the time that Syria fell apart without Western intervention we appeared to have recognised that the global situation was beyond our control and that if we were to be blamed when we acted as well as when we did not it was best to do nothing. Everything that Europeans touched turned to dust.
In this vacuum, mass immigration is certain to be transformative. “A culture of self-doubt and self-distrust is uniquely unlikely to persuade others to adopt its own stance,” and this in spite of the cheery optimism of European multiculturalists who imagine that newcomers will thrill to the ideal of “diversity.” Murray paraphrases Roger Scruton’s sober assessment: “Downstream from Christianity, there is every possibility that our societies will either become unmoored entirely or be hauled onto a very different shore.”
♦ Murray tells of a visit to a contemporary art exhibit. He dutifully viewed the underwhelming artwork. Then,
I heard the strains of Spem in Alium [a sixteenth-century motet by Thomas Tallis] and made my way towards the sound. Suddenly I realised another reason why the earlier galleries had been so depopulated. Everybody had migrated towards the same “sound installation” by Janet Cardiff, consisting of 40 speakers arranged in an oval, each relaying the voice of a singer in the choir. In the centre people stood mesmerised. Couples held hands and one pair sat embraced.
I had the same experience when touring a temporary exhibition of contemporary art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Museumgoers drifted indifferently through the rooms, only to stop and stand amid Cardiff’s installation. Some had their eyes closed, transported by the beauty of Tallis’s Christian-inspired composition. When offered the opportunity, people respond to the transcendent. Few want the nihilism that they’re told is their only inheritance.
♦ The Strange Death of Europe is not an antiestablishment tract. On the contrary, Murray worries that rampant self-deceptions about “diversity” and multiculturalism so corrupt the ruling elites that they’re losing their legitimacy.
It is not possible for a society to survive if it routinely suppresses and otherwise fights against its own origins. Just as a nation could not thrive if it forbade any criticism of its past, so no nation can survive if it suppresses everything that is positive about its past.
Undoubtedly true, but Murray tends to fall back on a version of Matthew Arnold’s religion of the best that has been thought and said. An aestheticism of this sort is preferable to nihilism, to be sure. But it has been tried and found wanting. The resurrection of Europe will depend upon something more potent—something that participates more directly and more explicitly in the proclamation of the Resurrection that gave birth to Europe in the first place. One has a sense that Murray suspects this.
♦ Dimitris Avramopoulos is the European commissioner for migration, home affairs, and citizenship. Writing for Politico, he had this to say about immigration: “It’s time to face the truth. We cannot and will never be able to stop migration.” The problem is not with European leadership but with the European people. “Unfortunately, the recent discourse on migration—influenced by rising nationalism, populism and xenophobia—has limited our opportunities to put in place smart, forward-looking migration policies, at both the national and European levels.” That has to stop.
At the end of the day, we all need to be ready to accept migration, mobility and diversity as the new norm and tailor our policies accordingly. The only way to make our asylum and migration policies future-proof, is to collectively change our way of thinking first.
Bottom line: It’s time to dismiss the people and elect another.
♦ The Boston Globe recently reported on its internal struggles with sexual harassment. A law firm was hired to lead the inquest. “The Globe has since made a number of management changes across the business side of the organization.” That’s HR-speak for firing people. No names have been released, however. Commenting on rumors about one employee who was fired, Globe editor Brian McGrory piously intoned, “Yes, we’re well aware that by withholding the identity of the reporter involved, we’ll be accused of a double-standard by people and organizations that are not privy to all the facts. I can live with that far more easily than I can live with the thought of sacrificing our values to slake the thirst of this moment.” Over the last two decades, the Boston Globe published the names of Catholic priests who had been accused of sexual abuse. Apparently it is fine to sacrifice the reputations of others, just not their own values.
♦ The present concerns about sexual harassment and abuse by prominent men do not suggest a return of traditional moral concerns. I dare say that the New York Times would be reluctant to report on the escapades of a congressman cruising sex clubs in San Francisco. Nor does marital infidelity rise to public significance today, as it once did. Prominent and powerful men are falling these days because their peccadillos are not seen as private. The transgressions are taken to be violations of justice, not purity. Al Franken sinned against the ideal of a gender-neutral workplace. Even Harvey Weinstein’s depredations are framed as polluting the environment for professional advancement for women. Promoting a gender-neutral society is a political project, not a moral one. This explains why the women who excoriated Mike Pence for his rigorous rules for interacting with women other than his wife are not being inconsistent when they lambast Matt Lauer. Pence’s personal discipline was ordered toward protecting his marriage. Unlike past eras, our present political culture does not believe marital status has public significance. Adultery may bring private harms and ruin a marriage, according to this way of thinking, but it poses no threats to justice. Meanwhile, Pence’s self-imposed rules limiting intimate contact with women were cast as impeding their professional opportunities. Like sexual harassment, this sins against the ideal of a gender-neutral workplace. All the men dethroned from their high seats could have had mistresses, orgies, and whatever sexual experiences they might have wanted, if only they had established a clear separation between their professional power and their private lusts.
♦ In 2001, Portugal decriminalized the possession and consumption of many drugs. Since then, proponents of drug legalization have proclaimed the country a great success. Overdose deaths are down. Rates of HIV infection are down. And, of course, incarceration rates are down. Writing in The Guardian, Susana Ferreira wonders why other countries haven’t followed suit.
Massive international cultural shifts in thinking about drugs and addiction are needed to make way for decriminalisation and legalisation globally. In the US, the White House has remained reluctant to address what drug policy reform advocates have termed an “addiction to punishment”. But if conservative, isolationist, Catholic Portugal could transform into a country where same-sex marriage and abortion are legal, and where drug use is decriminalised, a broader shift in attitudes seems possible elsewhere.
But maybe it is social realism, not mindless conservatism, that stands in the way of drug legalization. Statistics on drug use are hard to find, but a friend pulled up some data on drug-induced seizures in Portugal. Heroin-induced seizures have not increased (nor have they decreased to a statistically significant degree). Cannabis-induced seizures have gone up measurably, however, and cocaine-induced seizures have risen fourfold. This strongly suggests that the supply of marijuana, hashish, and cocaine has gone up a great deal in Portugal since decriminalization of possession, leading to significantly more use.
Drug legalization is part of the larger project of cultural deregulation that has preoccupied progressives for more than three generations. It redefines drug use as a lifestyle choice that, admittedly, can be poorly made but should not be constrained by the state. This has contributed to a growing injustice in the West. Protecting the vulnerable is one of the basic duties of a just society, which requires norms that deter self-destructive behavior, of which drug abuse is surely a signal instance.
♦ I’m gratified that the tax bill passed by Congress includes an excise tax on investment income earned by super-sized university endowments. The tax is a good idea. We need a similar one addressing the problem of the increasing number of super-sized foundation. This dimension of tax policy serves the principle of subsidiarity by deterring institutional giganticism. It’s unhealthy for our society when cultural power becomes too concentrated in just a few very wealthy institutions. We’re much better off with wider dispersion of educational and philanthropic influence. To encourage philanthropic subsidiarity, we should phase out charitable deductions for super-sized endowments, not just at universities but at any nonprofit.
♦ As long as I’m irritating my anti-tax, free-market friends, I’d like to propose another tax. This one should target advertisements placed on websites that publish pornography. Like our levies on alcohol and tobacco, it needs to be a steep tax, perhaps two or three times the cost of placing ads. This will deter advertisers, which will reduce ad revenue for pornographic sites. It is likely to force Internet pornography businesses to adopt paywalls, which will reduce casual porn use, especially among young people who don’t have credit cards.
For too long, we have allowed ourselves to be told that our First Amendment right of free speech means there is nothing we can do to prevent raw sewage from flowing through the Internet. This is not true. The Constitution does not protect pornographers from a sin tax designed to promote decency.
♦ For the last few months, Audm has been producing audio versions of selected First Things articles, along with material from other publications. Check them out at Audm.com.
♦ I’m happy to report that two new ROFTERS groups are forming:
Harley Pinson in Roseville/Placer County, California, would like to convene First Things readers. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Edmonton, Alberta, Rev. Lars Nowen is forming a group. You can reach him at RevLFNowen@gmail.com.
In Denton, Texas, Michael Morris would like to test interest in forming a ROFTERS group. His contact is email@example.com.
♦ Our end-of-year fundraising campaign is in full swing as I write. Early results suggest strong support. I am profoundly grateful for the generosity of First Things readers. Without your support, we would not be able to continue our work.