East and West
In his memoirs of growing up in the U.S.S.R., Wolfgang Leonhard recalled how he and his mother, a German Marxist-Leninist, emigrated from Germany to the communist paradise. When they looked for a map of Moscow, their new home, they found only useless, outdated ones and official plans for Moscow’s glorious future, but no map of Moscow as it actually existed. Evidently, as Eugene Vodolazkin also explains in “At Lenin’s Tomb” (February), the present had been bled dry of significance. It existed only as a necessary transition to the guaranteed utopian future. The same was true of living people: They could be sacrificed by the millions to construct the promised future, the only time that mattered.
The idea that history has a direction dates to the time of Joachim of Fiore (c. 1135–1202). It reflects a belief in providence. Strangely enough, modern atheist materialists, who claim to have rejected anything beyond natural laws, somehow retain what only divine providence could ensure. They attribute mandated progress to historical laws or even, in Marxist-Leninist ideology, to the nature of matter. Matter is not inert and purposeless, as eighteenth-century “vulgar materialists” presumed, but, as dialectical materialists taught, tends ever upward.
But if there is no God, what provides the purpose? How do intellectuals smuggle goodness into amoral natural laws? Where is progress in Newton’s law of inertia, f = ma, or his law of universal gravitation? To point out the illogic of such thinking, the Russian theologian Vladimir Solovyov formulated what he called “the intelligentsia syllogism”: “Man is descended from apes; therefore, love thy neighbor.” For the philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, discovering purpose in impersonal natural laws resembled the legend of Baron Munchausen escaping from quicksand by lifting himself up by his own hair.
Vodolazkin is correct that real morality depends on an understanding of time and its relation to human action. The future is not preordained but depends on what we choose. The world is vulnerable. The worst evil belongs to those certain of where the world is going and who therefore divide people into good (of the future) and bad (of the past), and then eliminate the latter. We must never let a timeline substitute for real examination of the morality of proposed actions. And, as Solzhenitsyn maintained, we must acknowledge that the line between good and evil runs not between groups but through every human heart.
Gary Saul Morson
I was very grateful to have read Eugene Vodolazkin’s essay. It called two things to mind.
First, the providential sense of history he describes in the East is at one with the providential sense of history that St. Augustine describes. This should not be surprising since much of what we think of as “Byzantine” is simply the best of the Roman world that Emperor Constantine had moved east. If you go to the Roman Forum today, you will find the Basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian, replete with mosaics that you would swear look as “Byzantine” as anything found in the East—yet built in the sixth century by artisans who normally would have worked in Constantinople. What unites the providential sense of history, both Eastern and Western, then, is the faith that the Incarnation is being “elongated” through the course of time. This is to say that the Incarnation is the standard by which all history is to be judged and measured—this is precisely what all the great anti-Christian parodies of historical progress know that they must defeat, and for this reason, the hatred of a Christian Russia is likely to be as fierce or fiercer than the hatred of communist Russia.
Second, Vodolazkin’s most profound observation is useful to those of us resisting a new anti-Christian revolution. He observes, rightly in my view, that the Soviet Union fell not simply because of the arms race or falling oil prices, but because “the faith that held it together had ceased to exist.” Fustel de Coulanges, in his classic work The Ancient City, made the same observation about Rome: It fell not because of Vandal incursions, but because its religion ceased to have power. Rome survived only because it recognized a new faith in Christ. What should we say then of the new religion of wokeness that is built upon this anti-Christian view of history as progress, rather than history as an elongation of the Incarnation? Vodolazkin’s reflections remind us that we must recover Christian confidence that there is one and only one God, and he will not be mocked. “At Lenin’s Tomb” gives me hope that my sons, and their sons, will not disperse and go home, but will unite with Christian friends from East and West to help put an axe to the root of the religious error that so animates the new liturgies of the progressive empire.
catholic university of america
Eugene Vodolazkin replies:
Both responses to my article “At Lenin’s Tomb” pleased me to the highest degree. Our dialogue follows the ancient conversation between East and West, and reminds me of that wonderful time when the Western and Eastern churches were not separated. Of course, there are elements of friendly confrontation here: for example, the mention by Chad Pecknold that “Byzantine” is simply “the best of the Roman world that Emperor Constantine had moved east.” In the same friendly manner, let me remind you that this, to put it mildly, is not entirely true. I will not mention the Eastern Fathers of the Church; I will limit myself only to the borders of the historical topic that we are discussing. So, the Christian chronicle appears in the East, and precisely when Origen turns to the historian Julius Africanus and asks him to write a chronicle with the sole purpose of showing people that the end of the world is not yet on the agenda and that there is still time for repentance. The writings of Julius Africanus as well as Eusebius of Caesarea (translated by St. Jerome), formed the basis of Western Christian historiography. These facts cannot be disputed, because we are talking about our common heritage, and it is very good that this heritage is not homogeneous. Every great phenomenon must have its poles, because only then is it stable and long-term.
Now, after many centuries of division and antagonism, it seems to me that the need for reunion—both religious and cultural—is palpable. I think it’s redundant to construct new forms in which this can happen, for if God sees that we need this reunion, he himself will provide the forms. All that is required on our part is mutual understanding and a willingness to treat one another with love.
What I am talking about may at first glance seem like a utopia, but it is not. Recall that Dostoevsky, a very “national” writer, said in a speech dedicated to Pushkin: “Oh, the European peoples do not even know how dear they are to us.” “European” here is understood broadly, including, of course, Americans as a very important branch of European culture. It is important to understand that it is not the masses that unite, but individuals—millions of individual wills. Our hope lies in the personal development of everyone.
As a lifelong Southern Baptist who has worked in two major evangelical institutions, I appreciated Aaron Renn’s informative perspective on the current tensions and divisions within American evangelicalism (“The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism,” February).
I’m less sanguine about the particular story that Renn tells in the essay. For one, his narrative suffers for lack of what Alan Jacobs would call “temporal bandwidth.” In other words, Renn’s interpretation of contemporary evangelicalism doesn’t consider enough history. Renn describes evangelicals who take the “neutral world” approach and consequently model a “cultural engagement” strategy. Renn implies that these evangelicals, such as Tim Keller and Russell Moore, betray their theological confessions and instead “take their cues from the secular elite consensus,” especially on LGBT issues.
The problem here is that Renn’s timeline is completely wrong. He assigns the “cultural engagement” model to 1994–2014, and I was surprised to see absolutely no reference in his essay to H. Richard Niebuhr’s 1951 landmark book Christ & Culture, which provided a compelling taxonomy of the different Christian perspectives on how to relate to unbelieving culture. The people that Renn describes as engaged in the “negative world” posture are quite obviously descendants of the Christ-versus-culture framework that Niebuhr outlined, while people like Keller and Moore belong in Niebuhr’s Christ-transforming-culture category. Of course, one may disagree with Christ-transforming-culture and agree with Christ-against-culture, but the point is that these two frameworks have been competing against each other much longer than Renn suggests, which casts serious doubt on the way he ties evangelical “cultural engagement” with desire for secular approval.
Renn’s incorrect view of how and why the cultural engagement model emerged clearly distorts his view of this group’s motives. For example, of leaders like Keller and Moore, Renn writes, “Their rhetoric . . . is increasingly strident and ever more aligned with secular political positions. . . . They talk often about being holistically pro-life and less about the child in the womb.” This is simply not correct. Under Moore’s leadership, the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission was triumphantly pro-life, establishing initiatives to place ultrasound machines in crisis pregnancy centers, as well as organizing Evangelicals for Life, a massive pro-life gathering in the heart of Washington, D.C. (right under the nose of our nation’s elite!) to coincide with the March for Life. True, Moore emphasizes that the doctrine of imago dei defends all victims of violence and oppression, born and unborn, but the imagined tension Renn suggests between being “holistically pro-life” and defending “the child in the womb” is merely a talking point borrowed from the pro-choice movement.
The culture warriors (to use Renn’s term) within evangelicalism have some legitimate complaints against cultural engagers. But those points will be utterly irrelevant if negative worlders are so eager to cut off an approaching left flank that they become ignorant of history and careless with facts. Contemporary threats to religious liberty and the well-being of children do not demand that one evangelical subgroup dunks on another, but that they find crucial points of unity amid disagreement. A quarrelling, fragmented evangelicalism, locked in presentism and apathetic toward biblical commands to honor one another (Rom. 12:10), will lack the strength to resist the spirit of the age, instead tempting the kind of divine judgment that removes a lampstand (Rev. 2:5).
Aaron Renn’s essay justifiably earned much online attention. His heuristic offers a clear guide for understanding the growing divides within American evangelicalism, divides that crystallize in the response of confessionally orthodox Christianity to a growing secular militancy.
Renn’s essay concludes with a call for negative-world evangelicals to find ways to adapt to the changing landscape he describes. I would like to offer what I see as six initial starting points for navigating the negative world. Having seen the neutral-world evangelicals’ “cultural engagement” model yield little fruit and muster only impotent resistance to ruling class demands, negative-world evangelicals must come to see that, short of catechesis and fortification, there will be little evangelicalism left to speak of. Renn is thus doubtlessly correct that some sort of evangelical Benedict Option must be on the table.
What does the negative world require of evangelicals? First, that they preach the gospel. The foreignness of the gospel is one of the paramount distinctions of a society lulled to death by expressive individualism. If we do not believe in the power of the gospel, nothing else matters.
Second, the negative world, like the positive, requires more direct political engagement than the neutral-world evangelicals countenanced. Negative-world evangelicals need to emphasize that secular threats to society are not only incompatible with orthodoxy, but with sound reason and human flourishing. Evangelical politics ought to thus be framed around a concern for the broad common good rather than a distinctly Christian vision of America.
Third, the negative world will require further intellectual formation, but without the desire for academic credibility that the neutral worlders so badly craved. Intellectual cultivation should not be pursued for worldly acclamation or out of an inferiority complex, but as a way of forming networks of intellectual resistance.
Fourth, negative-world evangelicalism will require accepting cultural alienation, but never retreating. Out of the secular ruins, negative-world evangelicals must draw strength from watching society decline, knowing that only the recovery of orthodox Christianity will save a barbaric society from itself.
Fifth, institutions must be intentionally led in the direction of faithfulness. Leadership that simply desires to reconcile itself with secular demands will steer, inexorably, to capitulation. We must fortify the few uncompromised institutions remaining, hiring personnel who understand the situation.
Finally, we negative worlders must overcome the temptation to ally with unsavory characters or movements; I see no virtue in valorizing authoritarianism or excusing bizarre, conspiratorial-minded personalities. Our political path forward requires unswerving conviction and unrelenting sanity.
Negative-world evangelicalism will have to accept the possibility of disenfranchisement while fighting—even politically—against it. But politics tends toward the abstract and the impersonal, so be simultaneously ever more committed to your local congregation. Form thick bonds of community. Reprioritize the social capital that comes with the natural family. Champion the natural law. Let us not be apocalyptic, but sober-minded and joyful. And take heart, for Jesus has overcome the world.
Andrew T. Walker
southern baptist theological seminary
I attended CIDOC, the Illich center in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 1971 and again in 1972. The Spanish immersion classes were excellent: We used the textbook developed for the State Department’s language training. Illich was a quiet guru, forcing us to rethink everything, including the fevered rhetoric of political revolution in vogue among young lefties like myself. His revolution was much more radical than ours, not least because it was fundamentally critical of big-state socialist and capitalist solutions. It was a truly human vision for civilization, and technology was most often part of the problem. His quaint proposal for transportation remains in my mind, even after all these years. He argued that we are moving around much too fast and must return to a pace that fosters human freedom and evolution, which he defined at a maximum of five miles an hour, the speed of a swiftly walking person or your average burro. I would love to hear his thoughts on climate change and his critique of its enablers.
Besides Illich, the lecturers and participants at CIDOC were a motley crowd of radicals and countercultural thinkers. We sprawled on the grass and in hammocks to take in speculations and gonzo ideas, unfailingly interesting but not always serious. It was freethinking in the genuine, democratic sense.
That’s why I was disappointed to see reviewer Brian Anderson associate Illich’s critique of schooling with his own obsession with imagined “critical race theory or gender ideology in today’s grade schools” (“The Genius of Ivan Illich,” February). Illich criticized indoctrination in schools not because imposed curricula were radical but because they tended to justify established institutions at the expense of free and critical thinking. It is hard for me to imagine Illich attacking curricula that exposed students to the history and systems of racial injustice. In the same paragraph, Anderson takes a gratuitous shot at Joe Biden and teachers’ unions.
I would have asked the author to explain both the relevance and factual accuracy of those statements (grade-school CRT?) and I question why he has inserted items of the contemporary right-wing cultural agenda into a piece on Illich, a hero of pluralistic modes of learning.
Thanks to Brian C. Anderson for his thorough and discerning review of my book Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Journey, and to First Things for publishing it. Since his withdrawal from Church service in 1969, Illich has been largely forgotten in his own Catholic milieu as well as in Christian circles more generally, and I welcome Anderson’s recognition that it is now time to restore Illich to his “rightful place among the significant social and religious thinkers of our time.”
The one point on which I might take issue with him concerns Illich’s radicalism. Illich’s criticisms, Anderson says, are “often exaggerated”; he “goes too far”; he “lacked prudence”; he was “hyperbolic”; he was “against everything,” as an article in The Baffler, cited by Anderson, put it; his critique of development “ignore[d] the wishes of the poor themselves,” and so on. These notes have been sounded before, often by writers less sympathetic than Anderson. Neil Postman called Illich a “totalist.” Francine du Plessix Gray in a profile for the New Yorker in 1970 chalked up his critique of development to “the aristocrat’s sentimental attraction . . . for cultures of poverty untainted by bourgeois aspiration.” Sidney Hook took Deschooling Society for a specimen of “revolutionary extremism.”
Against this picture of the wild-eyed radical and romantic dreamer, Illich always portrayed himself as a conservative—a man so rooted in the spirit of the first Christian millennium that his forward-looking contemporaries mistook him for avant-garde. Two points are worth making briefly. Illich, as he once told his friend John McKnight, was a proscriptive rather than a prescriptive thinker. He wrote sparingly and always to definite and limited occasions, leaving behind no summa or system. He “strongly suspect[ed],” as he says at the end of Gender, that a “contemporary art of living can be recovered,” but, beyond the example he gave, he refrained from defining this renewed “conviviality.” It was his faith that communities would find fitting forms of life for themselves once their imaginations were set free of thralldom to the “mechanical messiah” he speaks of in Deschooling Society. But he did believe, on the other hand, that the unfolding of “the mystery of evil” was culminating in our time in a prolonged moment of decision, and this also gives his thought an apocalyptic cast. In this latter respect, I believe he went just far enough.
Brian C. Anderson replies:
I’m glad David Cayley found my essay on his important book on Ivan Illich of merit; he has restored Illich to the ranks of major thinkers of the twentieth century. As I argued in my lengthy assessment, Illich’s social theory helps us understand fundamental developments of our age, above all the dangers of metastasizing bureaucratization in education, healthcare, and other vital sectors. What Cayley’s mild criticism reflects is simply my own hesitation to embrace fully Illich’s anti-institutionalism, which is—however conservative the underlying vision that motivated it—radical, in the original sense of the word: going to the roots. I wouldn’t abolish all compulsory schooling, for example, even if I think the current American education system is a failure on many levels. Cayley, as his study makes clear, is convinced that Illich has it mostly right.
John Dinges’s recollection of participating in CIDOC’s activities is evocative and isn’t at odds with how I described the place. My point in briefly mentioning the imposition of critical race theory and gender ideology in contemporary public schools was to emphasize the contemporary relevance of Illich’s educational theories, which excoriated government-mandated schooling and centralized, unaccountable curricular models. To say that today’s ideologically driven, divisive, and frankly bigoted public-school instruction in race and gender is “imagined” is laughable, given the extensive reporting of my City Journal colleague Christopher Rufo and others documenting it. If someone wants to pay privately for such indoctrination of their kids, that’s on them, but government schools shouldn’t be forcing it on families—hence the growing public anger about school curricula.
Image by Damzow via Creative Commons. Image cropped.