Liberalism and Christianity, cont.

In a follow-up to a previous post, in which I discussed in what sense Christianity is and is not inherently liberal, Jeff in England writes:

I still feel there is a lot more to be said about the connection between early Christianity and liberalism.

LA replies:

Well, in relation to its time, Christianity was tremendously “liberal.” It brought the individual to the fore and liberated the individual as never before; it established a basis on which men could be equal across boundaries of wealth and nationality; the Gospels showed women as being prominent among Jesus’ followers and put a lot of emphasis on the idea that wealth and power are not where it’s at.

Also, as I’ve said many times, Christianity without a worldly element coming from outside Christianity (such as the Old Testament or Roman civitas) to balance it and tie it to this world can easily undermine civilization, and in that sense Christianity could be seen as a kind of hyper-liberalism. Just as any society that adopted consistent liberalism as its guide would go quickly out of existence, any society that made the New Testament its sole law would go quickly out of existence. But that is the very reason why historic Christianity has never been just the New Testament; it needed to be articulated into a functioning Church tradition. Therefore Christianity, or rather the Church, has always been been more than the New Testament. It is the New Testament, which points beyond this world, placed in the context of an actual society that functions in this world. That is the multidimensional aspect of Christianity and of Western man, which, as I wrote once, makes Christianity very dangerous because it is a difficult balance to maintain.

Just as the Christian scriptures have certain gnostic potentialities (for example, Voegelin criticizes passages in the Letter to the Romans where Paul seems to suggest that the very structure of the world with its physical perishing is about to come to an end) that must be resisted or balanced by a more comprehensive understanding, the Christian scriptures have certain negative “liberal” potentialities (as seen in the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 for example) that must be resisted and corrected by more comprehensive understandings.

Now one could say that the true Christianity is defined by the “egalitarian” and “unworldly” way of the early followers of Jesus who had their property in common and expected the imminent end of the world and so forth. But that early period was very brief; it couldn’t outlast the realization that the world was not imminently coming to an end. So that is not historic Christianity. Actual, historic Christianity is that which was articulated by the Church, reaching its culmination in Augustine’s articulation of the City of Man and the City of God, and becoming the basis of Western civilization.

- end of initial entry -

The Norwegian writer Fjordman, a fellow Separationist whose work is often seen at The Brussels Journal and Gates of Vienna, writes:

I notice the debate you have regarding Christianity and liberalism. I tend to agree with you in your conclusion that Christianity should be one major component, but not the only component, of what makes that West Western. I just published an essay touching some of these issues:

According to the blogger Conservative Swede, Christian ethics is more unfettered in modern liberalism than it is in Christianity itself. The West, and Europe in particular, is sometimes labeled as “post-Christian,” but this is only partly true. We have scrapped the Christian religion, but we have still retained some of the moral restraints associated with it, which have been so mired into our cultural DNA that we probably don’t even think about them as Christian anymore. Yet our humanitarian ideas are secular versions of Christian compassion, and it is Christian or post-Christian compassion that compels us to keep feeding and funding the unsustainable birth rates in other cultures, even actively hostile ones. Likewise, there are elements of Christian thought, such as universalism, that could be seen as the inspiration behind our one-world Multiculturalists.

One major component of Western self-loathing is the idea that we should we be punished for crimes, perceived or real, committed by our ancestors before we were even born. It could be argued that this idea has its roots in Christian thinking, in the concept of original sin, committed by Adam and Eve, but where all their descendants are subject to its effects. Christian ethics have proved more durable than Christian beliefs. Even when we have supposedly left the religion behind, we still believe we have to make atonement for the sins of our forefathers, but since we no longer believe that Christ has made that sacrifice for us and washed away our sins, we end up sacrificing ourselves instead. This proves that unbalanced Christian ethics without Christian beliefs can be unhealthy, especially if combined with a high degree of cultural feminization and a focus on the feminine aspects of the divine, the self-sacrificing.

LA replies:

Fjordman’s last point is fascinating. I think I also said something along the same lines recently—that Christianity forgives sins, but liberalism does not forgive sins, that is, sins against liberalism. But I can’t find it at the moment.

Dana A. writes:

It’s not that Christianity is liberal, that’s backwards, its that LIBERALISM (really Leftism) today is based on Kant’s attempt to rescue Christian morality from what he rightly saw would be the death of religion, Science. He sought to rescue the morality without the Diety. He replaced Diety with raw DUTY, a baseless duty that simply exists a priori. What Kant failed to understand was that the major philosophical underpinnings of all religious philosophy (Altruism/ethics-Mysticism/epistemology-Collectivism/politics) CANNOT exist without being enforced by a God, because humans require that duty be OWED to something they perceive as having a justifiable claim on them, God, King, Church—post Enlightenment attempts to place the genesis of that duty in some variation of “Brotherhood” or the “spirit of Man” have all failed because it is contra human nature to view ALL men as our brothers.

LA replies:

This is very good, but in making the point that liberalism is Christianity without God, isn’t Dana acknowledging that Christianity is after all the basis and the sine qua non of liberalism, that Christianity contained liberalism within it?

Peter H. writes:

It’s dangerous to use the social arrangements of the early Church as a model for government. The primary reasons for this are the voluntary nature of the former and the “monopoly on force” held by the latter. The former results in a beautiful, fully voluntary society with a totally shared system of belief; the latter in, for example, several of the horrific tyrannies we’ve witnessed during the twentieth century. I’m sure that even Christ would have denounced governance by a Christian community model as it’s impossible without the use of force. It can only, in other words, become tyranny.

Thucydides writes:

I read with interest your brief comments. It seems to me that the human universalism characteristic of modern liberalism (the idea that elaborate specific duties and rights are owed to every man regardless of his historical circumstances or particular identity) is an unacknowledged inheritance from the Christian (perhaps I should say Judaeo-Christian) idea that the immortal soul of every person is important to God. However unrealistic this universalism is in failing to recognize the historical situatedness of people, and the incommensurability of cultural values, it has not been without its positive aspects: surely it had much to do with the elimination of slavery and the development of better treatment of women.

Also deriving from the Christian tradition are liberal meliorism, the vision of history as a kind of moral drama involving Man’s Fall and subsequent Redemption, and the idea of eventual convergence on a perfect rational society. These ideas seem to me to be a secularized version of that vision, and might be considered a sort of Christian heresy.

Though you mention Augustine, you do not mention the doctrine of Original Sin. It seems to me that the recognition of permanent human weakness and imperfectability, so important in Augustine, is essential to a sound view of the human condition, whether expressed through formal religion or otherwise. This is a key problem with liberalism; it took over, in effect, the Christian eschatology, transferring it to the secular level, but left behind [LA: left out?] Original Sin. Even some Enlightenment figures recognized this: according to Immanuel Kant, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, nothing very straight can be made.” (“Aus so krummen holz als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz gerade gezimmert werden.”)

It seems to me that the thing which liberals and various putative conservatives have in common that is far more important than their differences is their refusal to recognize this reality. Of course, if they did, they would no longer be liberals. A realistic view of the human condition utterly undermines the liberal eschatology. If human imperfectability is not evanescent, then dreams of some perfect rational society are absurd, and the best one can hope for is modest, cautious amelioration of institutional arrangements here and there, taking great care not to risk doing too much damage by proceeding in an attitude of ignorant and shallow optimism.

Put another way, the doctrine of Original Sin, or its secular equivalents, are absolutely crucial to the maintenance of humility, and to prevent the exaltation of Will and Appetite in various projects to construct a new Tower of Babel.

LA writes:

And there’s always that fascinating fact that G.W. Bush, who in 2000 said he wanted the U.S. to have a more “humble” profile in international relations, a posture consistent with the acknowledgment of man’s inherent limitations of which Thucydides speaks, was the president who two years later embraced the most aggressive ideological crusading posture of any president in U.S. history. Yes, 9/11 happened and explains this radical change to some extend. But it doesn’t explain all of it.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at April 25, 2007 01:30 AM | Send

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