What is there to say about the abominable 2016 election that has not been said already? With the election of Hillary Clinton seemingly a fait accompli and with the transformation of the US into a one-party state all but assured, it is not too early to begin the soul-searching inevitably provoked by such calamitous events. Let us hope that it is not so late but that our souls may still be found.
The kind of “soul-searching” I have in mind is not the endless cycle of mutual recrimination between those who are alleged to have sold their souls to Hillary, those who are alleged to have sold their souls to Trump, and those allegedly cowardly souls who withdrew from the fray. Besides the garden-variety cynicism and sophistry we have come to expect from American politics, times as confusing as these are sure to produce colossal but well intentioned errors of judgment on all sides. I leave it to God and the party apparatchiks to sort all that out. It is still the Year of Mercy, after all. Besides, I do not find the question of who voted for whom all that interesting. The vices of each candidate are well-known. They do not need to be weighed and measured yet again. A Trump election would likely have accelerated our descent into chaos, fueling violent social disintegration and fragmenting the “deep state” into an ad hoc collection of bureaucratic fiefdoms unresponsive to the erratic declarations of an unstable executive whom they regarded as illegitimate. A Clinton election almost certainly means that the juggernaut of progressive Cultural Revolution will proceed unobstructed. Each of these dismal possibilities is sure to bring painful real-world consequences, and together they manifest the exhaustion of liberal order and deep civilizational crisis which we lack the wherewithal to fully recognize or understand. It is this crisis that we should reflect upon.
I have written a fair bit of late about the inherent totalitarianism of technological and liberal order, a notion, admittedly, that many find absurdly inconsistent with the numerous freedoms we obviously enjoy. But by “totalitarianism” I do not mean the dictatorial rule of an all-powerful state; indeed, the state is but one of its mechanisms of enforcement and perhaps not even the most important. Rather, I mean the absolutization of technological and liberal order as such, their power to define the totality within which we live and move and have our being, and thus to determine the limits of our vision, thought, and action. Elections have consequences; I do not mean to suggest otherwise. But no election can suffice to prevent this suffocating fate, as each party seems to have its own peculiar genius in helping to bring it about.
However much one insists upon the classical and Christian elements in the American Founding—and I fully concede the presence of these elements—there is no disputing that the United States is a quintessentially modern nation, both in the character of its theoretical first principles—and indeed the fact that it was self-consciously founded on theoretical first principles—and in the fact that we have no shared tradition and no common memory from before the modern age. It is a subject worthy of reflection that the common “culture” we share even now is largely the product of a culture industry, itself a technological achievement whose advent roughly coincides with the completion and consolidation of American continental expansion at the turn of the twentieth century.
There are many ways to characterize modernity, but perhaps one of the most succinct and insightful comes from the late Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce. I paraphrase, but for Del Noce modernity (and especially late modernity) is predicated upon the attempted elimination of every form of transcendence: the transcendence of truth over pragmatic function, the transcendence of the orders of being and nature over the order of historical construction, the transcendence of the civitas dei over the civitas terrena, the transcendence of eternity over time, the transcendence of God over creation. Every form of transcendence save one, that is. For once real transcendence is eliminated or suppressed, political order itself becomes the transcendental horizon, assuming sovereignty over nature, truth, and morality—over anything that would precede, exceed, and limit it. Politics then becomes “the matter of ultimate concern,” even for those who strive to prevent the ultimacy of politics. The political order becomes that to which all meaningful (i.e. public) arguments are referred, while religion becomes a domesticated amalgam of congregationalism, pietism, moralism, and pragmatism.
Christian acquiescence in this fate can be measured in any number of ways: by the extent to which the Church renounces her inherent “platonism,” thinking and speaking in the language of psychology, sociology, economics, and politics rather than philosophy (metaphysics) and theology; by the tendency to view the Church not first as sacrament transcending political order, but as a mere mediating institution within that order; by the “political” or “clerical” temptation to equate true ecclesial reform with institutional or curial reform. Whereas Bernanos is surely right “that nothing can be reformed in the Church by ordinary means. Whoever attempts to reform the Church by such means, the same means by which one would reform a temporal institution, not only fails in his enterprise, but ends up infallibly outside the Church. I say that, by some kind of tragic fate, he finds himself outside the Church before anyone has taken the trouble to exclude him. He renounces its spirit, its dogmas, he becomes its enemy without hardly realizing, and if he attempts to turn back, each step takes him further away.” A caution to “church-watchers,” activists, and political theologians everywhere.
“There is nothing like a good shock of pain,” writes C.S. Lewis in The Silver Chair, “for dissolving certain kinds of magic.” If there is hope to be found in this painful political year, it is in the fact that the spell which liberal modernity has long cast over the Christian imagination might finally be starting to dissolve even as technocracy tightens its grip on our everyday lives. The fundamental question in the wake of that dissolution and in the face of the interminable juggernaut of technological and liberal order is not whether we can rebuild conservatism or renew the moral foundations of civil society, but whether we can find our way to the fullness of the transcendent faith with all that this implies, and live in the light of a truly eschatological hope. A terrifying hope, perhaps, but it is the only true resistance to the tyranny of a suffocating immanentism and all we really have to give to a political order that wants nothing from us but capitulation. Such a gift requires a less political and more mystical Christianity, and a Church that is not simply less worldly, but properly other-worldly.
Michael Hanby is associate professor of religion and philosophy of science at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America.