What Christianity requires in order not to be destructive of society
Conservative Swede said
recently that my Jewish background means that I have more confidence as a spokesman for the Christian West than do gentile Christians, because for me the Christian God is the Jewish God, and the Jewish God is a national God for Jews, but a foreign God for gentile Christians, and therefore gentile Christians have only a universal or sacrificial ethos, and that’s why the Christian West is going down.
It’s an interesting theory with an element of truth, but the Swede is badly missing the point and ending up with a formula that would require the rejection of Christianity, which, of course, is his agenda. The key to Christian this-worldly confidence is not that an individual Christian be Jewish (an absurd and offensive idea); it is that Christian society—any Christian society—must include non-Christian cultural and political sources.
This is an absolutely fundamental point that Christians must understand. The original teaching of Christianity as presented in the New Testament is about how to live in what Jesus called the kingdom of heaven. It is about the individual soul’s relation with God through Christ. It is not about the political organization of society. The New Testament simply assumes the existence of political society and goes on from there. Because Christianity is not, like orthodox Judaism and Islam, a complete recipe for this-worldly existence, Christians must “render unto Caesar,” i.e., render unto a non-Christian basis of authority. Christian society is thus more complex—more differentiated, to use Eric Voegelin’s term—than any other. It is multileveled, mediating between the pole of the Christian, spiritual realm and the pole of political and cultural existence in this world, which does not come from Christianity itself. If the society loses its this-worldly pole it will go out of existence. This is the reason why Christian society is the riskiest and most dangerous type of society, the most open to catastrophic derailment, such as the derailment brought by modern liberalism. Yet Christianity’s this-worldly “lack,” which makes Christian society so vulnerable in comparison to the religiously structured society of traditional Judaism and Islam, is also the thing that, by requiring Christian society to be multileveled in order to function in this world, makes it the fullest and truest articulation of the human soul, extending downward to the apeirontic depths (the many) and upward to transcendent spiritual truth (the One).
Historical Christianity included the Old Testament as part of its scripture. This was a non-Christian source that provided the sense of living in this world as a community of people under God, a sense that is not provided by the New Testament. Thus Protestants, including the people who created America, were able to build strong national societies because they based themselves heavily on the Old Testament with its powerful sense of a people under God.
The non-Christian source that supplements pure Christianity doesn’t have to be the Old Testament. It could be classical philosophy or Greco-Roman culture or Germanic barbarian nationhood or feudalism or English nationhood or the American way of life or any number of other sources. It could be the traditional Catholic Church, which provides a template for this-worldly society. The Roman church of course carries the traces of its days as the official religion of Rome, and the Catholic liturgy also has deep roots in the ancient Jewish temple service.
People who try to form their practical ethics on the basis of a pure Christian teaching inevitably go gnostic. Look at the evangelicals today who have turned into globalist open borders wackos. Look at how the Christian traditionalist writers at What’s Wrong with the World have articulated a single, pure, all-ruling moral ethos against “killing the innocent” that in certain circumstances, e.g., if enemy invaders included innocent hostages in their ranks, would require a “morally pure” people to allow their enemies to kill, defeat, and enslave them. Some morality!
Christianity is at the center of our culture, but is not the totality of it. People who make some unmediated version of Christianity the totality of their view of culture and politics become a danger to their society.
(I made a similar point in 2003 and re-linked it in 2005.)
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In this connection, also see (via Fjordman at Gates of Vienna) this comment at Vanishing American:
I used to be a devout, practicing Christian. Today, I cannot recognize myself in any brand of Christianity currently available. Nor am I alone. Many of my friends tell me: “I can’t enter any church now without having to leave my brain at the door.”
In this regard, the evangelist, fundamentalist churches are no better than the liberal ones. I once attended a presentation at a nearby Pentecostal church about Third World poverty. The cause? Lack of infrastructure. All we had to do was dig deeper into our pockets and the problem would be solved.
I’m sorry to say this but the cause is deeply rooted and largely intractable, at least in the short term. We will not help the world’s poor by welcoming them to our shores. We will simply destroy ourselves in the process.
John Derbyshire is more right than wrong. Yes, medieval Christianity had no qualms about resisting invaders, but medieval Christians (as Protestants love to point out) had adulterated their faith with pagan beliefs. Over the past few centuries, Christianity has stripped itself of its pagan accretions. In the process, it has become as much a threat to ourselves and our loved ones as Marxism used to be, if not more so.
That sounds like a harsh judgment. It is.
It’s a clever point I’ve never heard before. Christians are always criticizing the “pagan” accretions that have attached themselves to Christianity. But a Christian society must
have non-Christian accretions to function as a society, whether they be pagan, or Jewish, or Germanic, or Roman, or whatever. Pure Christianity is not for life in this world.
- end of initial entry -
Bruce B. writes:
You indicate that Christianity must have non-Christian supplements in order to have a Christian society. Doesn’t this imply that when Christianity injects itself into certain aspects of society it becomes a liberal or at least anti-conservative force? Elsewhere you’ve indicated that modern Christianity is liberal but that modern Christianity isn’t true Christianity. I’m trying to reconcile these two general thoughts. Are you suggesting that what makes Christianity liberal is when it doesn’t defer to these non-Christian supplements?
It seems to me that there are two axes to the problem: (1) literal/reductivist readings versus contextual/commonsense reading of passages in the New Testament, and (2) “pure” Christianity versus Christianity as supplemented by extra-New Testament, this-worldly sources. Even within the New Testament, there are countervailing statements to the suicidally self-sacrificial liberal interpretation of passages like Matthew 25.
For example, to interpret the story of the Good Samaritan—the behavior of one man toward one man in need—as a command for a government to allow foreign peoples to mass-immigrate into a country and destroy the actual country and way of life of the people living there is obviously a distortion. The distortion consists of taking voluntary individual behavior as a model for the coercive action of the state.
So what makes Christianity suicidally liberal may not be that it’s a Christianity that doesn’t include non-Christian supplements, but simply that it is an ideological, reductivist reading of biblical passages.
Thus liberal Christianity is untrue even to “pure” Christianity. Pure Christianity is not necessarily anti-this-worldly existence.
At the same time historical Christianity has always dealt with and incorporated extra-Gospel realities, particularly the exigencies of political existence. Of course, we can find acknowledgments of extra Gospel political existence even within the Gospels and New Testament, most notably Jesus’ “Render under Caesar” and Paul’s statement about deferring to political rulers. So I suppose one could make a fully satisfactory argument against suicidally sacrificial liberal interpretations of Christianity even within the New Testament by itself. But still, the this-worldly indications in the New Testament are hinted at rather than fully worked out, and as a practical matter extra-New Testament sources were needed to establish the Church as an institution existing in this world.
I welcome criticism and corrections.
Several readers’ comments have come in. I’ll try to reply tonight.
Bill Carpenter writes:
I read this outstanding essay on VFR before you sent it to me by email. I had written the day before to Fjordman about his post on the subject. You point to Christianity as a minimal faith with highly specific themes that must be supplemented with a comprehensive culture to provide a comprehensive guide to living. You observe that its limited themes give Christianity an unparalleled power to integrate the heights and depths, the many and the One.
I agree that Gospel Christianity by itself is not a sufficient guide, but I think we are looking at it backwards to say it must be supplemented. It is of the essence of Christianity to be a supplement to a preexisting culture, to lead it back to its origins and forward to the revelation of its full potency. It was introduced in that fashion. Specifically, Jesus said he was come to fulfill the Law, not abolish it. Not one jot or tittle of the Law would fail. His whole ministry was an unfolding of the Hebrew revelation.
Applying that supplementary revelation to Greek, Roman, and Germanic cultures was the work of Paul, Peter, and their successors. Paul understood that the revelation of Christ crucified had universal application. Is it possible that Christ came to fulfill the “laws” of other cultures too, laws that were not God-given from the Judeo-Christian perspective? That appears to have been the assumption of King Alfred when he wrote his code, with its Christian and Hebraic preface to a Germanic schedule of wites and botes. I surmise it was the assumption of other political and ecclesiastical leaders in the early middle ages.
It may seem like an act of ultimate Protestantism to reduce Christianity to a minimal and supplementary reinterpretation of existing cultures, but Christianity will only grow stronger by the challenge. This does not involve throwing out 2,000 years of Christian culture, but testing it against its core, as Jesus did the Jewish law and institutions of his era.
Eric Gans’s book Science and Faith examines the doctrine of the trinity as an unsurpassed anthropological theory that represents our threefold (not twofold, not fourfold) relationship to the originary scene. In my opinion, Gans’s Generative Anthropology, which is a universal theory of human origins and culture, is entirely consistent with Christianity. Your realization of the limitations of Christianity, and that its limitations are a source of its strength, is consistent with this. Gans sees the reciprocity between man and God in the Christian revelation as the fountainhead of the success of market society. It is no coincidence that Islam, with its rejection of that reciprocity, is now the primary vehicle for resentment and opposition of market society.
With respect to a people’s right and ability to preserve itself, natural law and divine law were not abolished by Christianity but supplemented. Christianity gives us ways of understanding conflict and negotiating for non-violent resolution that we may not have had before. However, it does not tell us that nations should commit suicide rather than protect their identity and prosperity. It does not tell us there should be no nations, but that the nations can come to Him, as nations. (Cf. your essay on liberal Christianity and the threat to the nations.) If you are a general, you may give a beggar your coat. But that does not mean you have the right to cede your countries’ territory to an enemy. The structure of obligations remains the same, but with a different God making different ultimate claims. Socrates the soldier and critic is very Christian, in this fashion. Neither he nor Jesus imagined that war or wealth or political authority or marriage or capital punishment were abolished, only that the life of the people needed to be renewed by renewed relationship to God.
Liberal Christianity is a part of our current Western culture that needs to be tested against the core of Christianity. It mostly fails at first touch. Liberalism is Epicurean in inspiration, not Christian. I think it was L.T. Hobhouse who wrote early in the 20th century that the primary value of liberalism was no longer freedom, but harmony. The primary value of liberalism today is the Epicurean value of avoiding pain, whether it be the pain of inequality, the pain of difference, suspicion of disapproval, or guilt with regard to the sacrifices required to accomplish something. Nietzsche squarely identified this in his critique of the Last Man, and of egalitarianism, but mistakenly identified these with Judaism and Christianity. I suspect that Epicureanism, now and anciently, is based on a metaphysical foundation that denies and negates its own sacrificial origins. Christianity is not metaphysical and does not deny and negate its sacrificial origin, but instead identifies the sacrificial mechanism of culture and calls on us to acknowledge and manage sacrifice while fulfilling the Law, at whatever sacrifice that entails.
Most of Jesus’ teaching bear on cultivating a spiritual orientation that will bring individuals and communities closer to God. Individuals and communities are invested in many forms of capital, material, relational, cultural, and spiritual. With his God’s-eye view into human beings, Jesus teaches us to appreciate and critique those investments. Do they bar us from God, or are they part of our life in community with Him? “Suicidally sacrificial liberal interpretations of Christianity” involve a destructive refusal to recognize the material, relational, cultural, and spiritual capital of individuals and communities. That is totally anti-Christian. Instead, it is Epicurean, a quest for the wrong kind of peace.
Resentment of own contemporary societies fuels liberal Christians, who are willing to sacrifice their own social capital and that of others to protect our victims from our injustice. Resentment causes them to massively devalue social capital that does not in fact bar us from God but it the essence of our life with Him.
In sum, I agree that a fully satisfactory argument against liberal Christianity can be made, but if Christianity is supplementary and critical by nature, it need not provide a comprehensive guide for living in society.
Tom S. writes:
Personally, I don’t think that the idea that the New Testament is liberal and suicidal, and that only “pagan accretions” enabled the West to survive, will fly, for a number of reasons; (1) First, there are at least as many non-liberal statements in the NT as there are liberal ones. “Render unto Caeser,” “I come not to bring peace, but a sword,” “He that hath no sword, let him sell his cloak and buy one,” along with Paul’s endorsement of the government’s “sword,” the entire Book of Revelation … none of these things is exactly liberal, and they are every bit as much a part of the New Testament as is the Sermon on the Mount and the Good Samaritan. As always, liberals “cherry pick” the parts that they like. As George Patton once told a pacifist, “Read the WHOLE Bible, not just the parts you like or agree with. It may surprise you … .”
2) The New Testament is not all that there is to Christianity. The Old Testament is included in the Bible for a reason, and there is no contradiction between the two. The attempt to read the Old Testament out of Christianity was a heresy, called “Marcionism,” and it was, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the “most dangerous heresy that the Church ever faced.” When we read in the Epistles of Paul of people “consulting the Scriptures” that was the Old Testament—the New Testament had not yet been compiled. And in fact, the true accomplishment of Protestantism was not to strip away the “pagan accretions” of the Church; it was to reemphasize the role of the Old Testament in Christianity, because without it, the NT can easily be misinterpreted. It can be hard to understand what Our Lord was even talking about unless one has read the Old Testament.
3) I have said this before, but I think that it bears repeating; If Christianity is a suicidal, liberal religion, it’s funny that no one noticed it until about 1964. What, did Abby Hoffman uncover a “Really New Testament” that no one told me about? In fact, it’s modern Christianity that has the pagan accretions—after all, look at all the nice things that modern liberal Christians have to say about Ghandi, Buddha, Mohammed, and other non-Christians. I’d be willing to bet that Thomas Aquinas, Luther, and Duns Scotus would hardly recognize the Faith for which they sacrificed so much.
Yes, you do have to “check your brain at the door” of many churches today, but that was not the case as recently as fifty years ago, and it probably won’t be the case fifty years from now. Churches are composed of human beings, and human beings are always (as the Bible tells us) “whoring after new gods,” and the gods of liberalism are only the latest. Christianity has never lacked for its share of idiots and buffoons, but these people are NOT the Faith. It’s up to us to reclaim our Christian heritage, and in the meantime, God is always accessible to those who seek Him …
Terry M. writes:
Another thing is this, now that I’ve soaked some of this up better.
“The original teaching of Christianity as presented in the New Testament is about how to live in what Jesus called the kingdom of heaven. It is about the individual soul’s relation with God through Christ. It is not about the political organization of society.”
If I’m understanding you correctly here, I disagree. First of all I don’t think the New Testament is about how to live in the kingdom of Heaven. It gives us a picture of what heaven is like, and how individual souls will live in that kingdom, but its main purpose is to teach us how to get there, not how to live there. As long as we’re relegated to an earthly existence then it’s teaching us about how to live here in the interim while keeping our souls intact.
Second, it’s about the political organization of society in that it recognizes the authority of the Old Testament which does a nice job of contrasting the different political organizations of society. The Old Testament also endorses a particular political system over others. The Great Lawgiver, Moses, was instructed on the representative principle by his Father-in-law, Jethro. When Moses took Jethro’s advice before God, God in turn told him to do as he said. The right of the People to choose their own rulers was also part of this exchange, and the federal principle was also part of that structure. The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut are instructive on these points, among other things.
Sage McLaughlin writes:
To your discussion on Christianity and society I’d like to add the following brief impressions:
The key to understanding your point—and I think your basic point is entirely correct, that is, that Christianity requires some sort of cultural “host” body—is the Incarnation. Christianity is an “incarnational faith,” you may say. It is the belief that our salvation required that God be made Man, and that by this process alone could man be truly sanctified. (This has led some to believe, erroneously, that the Incarnation perfected Man’s essential nature, but that is another discussion.) The call to the Christian faith is a call to sanctify the ourselves and others through Christ.
Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is an often-cited instance of the Christian sanctifying the non-Christian. The point is that the transcendent enters into the worldly, sanctifying and healing it, though never fully restoring it to its condition before the Fall, at least not on this earth. By this process we are able to glimpse the beauty, harmony, and perfection of the Kingdom of God which awaits us. We are in some sense drawn into that realm. The Eucharist is the Passover sacrifice made perfect before the eyes of God.
A common error is to believe that because earlier Christians appropriated the symbols of pagan societies, somehow Christianity must be inauthentic (as with the dates of various feast days—how often do you hear that Christmas isn’t really a Christian holiday because it coincides with some Germanic winter festival or other). What this misses is that Christianity is not a total program for the organization of society. It is, rather, a mechanism for the sanctification of society. Christianity after all is the story of God’s search for Man, not vice versa.
I’m rambling. You get the idea.
Charles G. writes:
You wrote: “Christianity is at the center of our culture, but is not the totality of it. People who make some unmediated version of Christianity the totality of their view of culture and politics become a danger to their society.”
This tracks along with what you wrote earlier of tolerance and nondiscrimination … that they were supposed to be subordinated to our civilization as ideals in our society, and not pushed to the forefront as the single most important aspect about our culture. I wonder if these penchants for excessive idealism flow from the nature of European man, or from his religious philosophy. We know how our Swedish friend would answer. Peter H. writes:
Does not classical Christian theology insist that the Old Testament, although pre-Christian, was most certainly Christian in that it provided the background and the prophecy for the coming of Christ? John 1:1, from a Christian document, says that Christ was there at, and indeed the instrument of, the world’s foundation (the Spirit of God in Genesis 1:2).
So I don’t think we can say that “the non-Christian source that supplements pure Christianity doesn’t have to be the Old Testament.” Wouldn’t any of the truly non-Christian sources you mention have changed Christianity fundamentally, just as surely as that the United States would be a fundamentally different place had it been founded by the Spanish or the Portuguese?
Dimitri K. writes:
Bill Carpenter writes: “The primary value of liberalism today is the Epicurean value of avoiding pain…”
I am not as educated in Philsophy as some of your readers, but I would like to generalise that statement. To my opinion, liberalism is not only about avoiding pain but about avoiding life in general. For example, the First Law of Liberalism (after L. Auster) can be explained on this basis. Because the worse some alien group behaves, the more it makes our life intolerable, hence the more reasons are to avoid life. Any real attempt to improve the situation, to bring life and reason to the world, is therefore undermining liberalism. Actually, we are living in the environment which is in many details hostile to life, though physically comfortable.
The other day I came upon an old VFR discussion, I don’t remember which one, where someone said that liberalism is not about life, liberalism is about the self.
Charles T. writes:
“Conservative Swede said recently that my Jewish background means that I have more confidence as a spokesman for the Christian West than do gentile Christians, because for me the Christian God is the Jewish God, and the Jewish God is a national God for Jews, but a foreign God for gentile Christians, and therefore gentile Christians have only a universal or sacrificial ethos, and that’s why the Christian West is going down.”
The description of gentile Christians having only a “universal or sacrificial ethos” describes a great majority of my Christian friends. But it does not have to be that way. It is this way because most Christians I know concentrate only on 1) salvation—for themselves and others; and 2) the next life to come.
If America’s Christians would read and study the OT as well as the New, I think they would see that The Lord is just as concerned for the state of affairs in this world as the next. Example: The Law of Moses is deeply concerned about how we treat our neighbors. Unfortunately, CS’s observation about many Christians is correct.
From the comments: A reductivist versus commonsense reading of scripture. Excellent. This is the best summation of why the evangelical church is making so many mistakes in their reading and teaching of scripture. In fact, such reductivism leads many to neglect personal safety and to jettison their God-given personal instincts for survival in order to prove their love for other people thus fulfilling the teachings of their evangelical pastors and ministers. Very sad. Rather than being thinking, discerning Christians, the evangelical movement has reduced their people to trained seals jumping through hoops to satisfy the ridiculous demands of their career minded ministers.
Why should modern Christianity take in certain cultural or political principles of the current permutation of the “host” foundation? Perhaps it is, rather than anything new or unprecedented, more a natural adaptation to yet another seemingly inexorable tide of social change. This time it is modern liberalism, against which any resistant group or idea is (quite successfully) painted as anachronistic and threatening. Christianity may be the ultimate ideal of such resistance, at least in theory. But as secularism more loudly condemns its most intractable antagonists, churches have been increasingly vocal about their support for certain items on the leftist social agenda.
What puzzles me is not so much why this trend has developed over this tiny segment of Christianity’s timeline but why the churches have apparently allowed this agenda to supplant their authentic role: the salvation of souls and bridging Man and God and all that this implies for the ordering of society. The liberal tempo of modern society in the West is mirrored in the behavior of its waning churches and this is wrong. It is one of the current breakdowns of tradition and one can only hope it is one of those wayward deviations that brings a retrospective awakening to those who realize the blunder.
Then again, maybe it all makes sense. To take the example of unrestrained immigration, it seems fairly obvious that this brings fantastic numbers of potential adherents or converts into convenient striking distance. With the advances of atheism and secularism in the educated West, these entrants may be seen as the only substantial target demographic outside of increasingly costly and dangerous missionary work.
Robert R. writes:
Your final sentence: “Pure Christianity is not for life in this world.”
This is what I’ve thought ever since I actually read the New Testament Gospels (about seven years ago). As I put it, Christianity isn’t a way of life it’s a way of death. Jesus and his followers believed the end of the world was imminent. And this is the reason he could afford to be a liberal—because the destructive consequences of liberalism wouldn’t have time to take effect before he was dead.
Terry M. writes:
I don’t know exactly what your commenter Robert R. is trying to say, but it seems to be that Jesus was something of a fraud and a completely self-absorbed liberal. Taken to its conclusion, Robert’s impression of the character of Jesus would seem to indicate that he (Robert) believes that Jesus was just a man with a radical liberal agenda.
One thing I’d like to know, if this is true of Jesus, then how did he know that he would die before the destructive consequences of his leftist radicalism would have time to take effect; moreover, how did he know about the destructive consequences of this new kind of radical leftism?
But why does Robert think that Jesus was a liberal? Jesus said “go and sin no more.” Liberals don’t do that; they don’t believe anything is inherently sinful. Jesus said “man is not good, no not one.” Liberals don’t believe in the depravity of man. Jesus acknowledged that there are fixed and immutable laws; that there is one God, one faith, and one baptism. He said that to merely lust after a woman in ones heart is the same as committing the act, and etc. That don’t sound like the liberals I know.
I am honored that my brief essay called forth responses of such high quality that I’m going to have to read and re-read them before I understand them adequately.
Bill Carpenter writes:
“Specifically, Jesus said he was come to fulfill the Law, not abolish it. Not one jot or tittle of the Law would fail. His whole ministry was an unfolding of the Hebrew revelation….Is it possible that Christ came to fulfill the ‘laws’ of other cultures too, laws that were not God-given from the Judeo-Christian perspective?”
Beautiful. I’m reminded of the impact of Christianity on the Mexican people. They had this horrible cult of human sacrifice. Christianity showed them a more spiritual meaning of that idea. Isn’t it as if Christianity was the religion perfectly made for such a people, to meet them where there were (some place horrible) and raise them up?
“If you are a general, you may give a beggar your coat. But that does not mean you have the right to cede your countries’ territory to an enemy. The structure of obligations remains the same, but with a different God making different ultimate claims. Socrates the soldier and critic is very Christian, in this fashion. Neither he nor Jesus imagined that war or wealth or political authority or marriage or capital punishment were abolished, only that the life of the people needed to be renewed by renewed relationship to God.”
Very well said.
It’s 1:30 a.m. I’ll respond to the other comments tomorrow.
James W. writes:
I believe you have distilled 2.500 years of understandings with precision and deftness. It seems Jesus was indeed suggesting the first separation of the Church and State that was other than the Greek. But he was a Hellenistic Jew, was he not? Men were to look after their own souls as a personal matter, and lead by the example of their lives.
So it was that Jefferson, no Christian he, happily embraced the better angels of the Christian culture he inherited when he said, “It is in our lives and not our words our religion must be read.”
A profound understanding will remain forever a part of this universe.
But now we are in a race with time against the onslaught of too much knowledge without the grace to guide it; to reassemble lessons in a world gone mad.
Yours was a simple template, and simplicity is badly needed because it is easily understood.
Terry M. writes:
“Beautiful. I’m reminded of the impact of Christianity on the Mexican people. They had this horrible cult of human sacrifice. Christianity showed them a more spiritual meaning of that idea. Isn’t is as if Christianity was the religion perfectly made for such a people, to meet them where there were (some place horrible) and raise them up?”
Beautiful indeed. Your comments about Christianity’s impact on the Mexican people reminded me of a book I read a couple of years ago on the use of redemptive analogies to share Christianity with peoples of other religions.
In Don Richardson’s book Secrets of the Koran, he illustrates how that Islam is the extreme exception to the rule among different cultures tribes and religions in finding a fitting redemptive analogy in their belief systems to Christianity. Says he:
I learned that Islam is unique among non-Christian religions. It stands alone as the only belief system that, due to its very design, frustrates anyone who seeks to use the redemptive analogy approach. Here’s what happens: While Mohammed claims the Old and the New Testaments were from God, we find that 1400 years ago the Islamic “prophet” quite drastically redefined fundamental tenets, including the very concept of God.
Vincent Chiarello writes:
Allow me to congratulate you on the topic chosen, and your treatment of it. If I may stoop to the vernacular, “Heavy stuff, dude.”
I may not get around to it today or tomorrow, but I hope to make a few points which may, I like to think, add a little something to this already very enlightening conversation.
It’s heavy for me too. I’m still trying to explain to myself what I said, let alone replying to the several excellent comments that have been posted so far.
Bruce B. writes:
You wrote: “Is it possible that Christ came to fulfill the ‘laws’ of other cultures too, laws that were not God-given from the Judeo-Christian perspective?”
The Norse/Germanic god Balder was the god of light and truth and in many ways the opposite of Hodur the god of darkness and sin. He was the most beloved of the gods because of his beauty and goodness. He was killed (by Loki’s treachery) and descended into Hell. He could not overcome death because one woman (acutally Loki in disguise) would not weep for him.
Christ was victorious where Balder failed.
Kristor L. in the below comment does a superb job of filling out the ideas I and others have been trying to get at. I’m posting the entire comment. (This is not an invitation of other readers to send 2,000-word comments.) The below line beautifully encapsulates Kristor’s theme on the relationship between culture and Christianity:
“That I am Christian makes me, not more like some other Christian, but more like my own better self.”
Kristor L. writes:
A fascinating, first-rate discussion. There are really two subjects being kicked around here, discrete but related. One is the nature of the interaction between Christian and non-Christian elements of the West, and of Christianity itself. The other is liberal Christianity.
With respect to the first, it might be helpful to recall the Doctrine of General Revelation, which argues that God’s influence is manifest everywhere in Creation. For God is a necessary being; everything whatsoever somehow exemplifies the necessary to some degree (this is what “necessary” means). So, everything that happens is informed by, and therefore expresses in one way or another, and to a greater or lesser (but never zero) degree, the truth of things as God sees them—which is to say, the real, objective Truth. So, every religion expresses some portion of the Truth. This accounts for their survival; the true parts of them tend to work. But no religion, including any of the variants of Christianity, expresses the whole Truth perfectly (only God Himself can do that). They all distort it, overlook or misinterpret key ideas, and (of course) cherry pick to suit their own preferences; this is an inevitable consequence of creaturely inadequacy to the perfect comprehension of the supreme being. What sets Christianity apart from the other religions in this respect is the Incarnation. “No one knows the Father but the Son;” since we have become acquainted with the Son, we are better informed than others. The Incarnation also explains why Christ’s sacrifice was efficacious, whereas those of Balder and Adonis were not: for the latter are mere angels, so that their sacrifices were pale inadequate imitations of the real, true sacrifice. At best they were sacraments, rather than the thing itself that they signified. This in a nutshell describes all forms of idolatry: they mistake a sign for the reality to which it refers, and from which it derives; they confuse for Truth a partial quotation thereof.
Because the whole Creation is formed by the Truth, Christianity has not been afraid to admit the truths expressed in other religions, and to interpret them as foreshadowings or imitations of the truths more perfectly and completely expressed in the religion of Israel (the earliest Church considered itself the renewal and culmination of the true religion of ancient Israel that had survived in rural Galilee, in Edom, etc., and thought the Judean priesthood of the Second Temple was a corrupt offshoot—this accounts for the Sanhedrin’s great hostility to Jesus, which on its face seems disproportionate to his actual offenses). Some of the Fathers considered Plato a prophet, and they revered Jesus’ Alexandrian Jewish contemporary Philo. They didn’t shrink from calling the Feast of the Resurrection after the pagan Goddess of the Dawn, Eostre, with whose spring festival it was coincident, because they had always called Jesus the Son of the Morning Star. To them, the Pagan festival in honor of Eostre was obviously a pale imitation of the true Pascha. The Pagans, poor fellows, had been trying their best to worship God aright, and (since God informs and enlightens every soul willing to admit Him, and since all humans descend from Adam, and their religions from his) they had in part succeeded; they just needed the correction of the Good News. Christianity presupposes that people are religious, and legitimately so; if they were not, they would have no interest in Christianity.
Rather the same sorts of things can be said of Christianity’s interface with other human institutions. Few are wholly bad; all could be better with the correction of the Gospel. Christianity presupposes that people are warlike, political, animal, sexual, rational, sinful, erroneous, mercantile, familiar, and so forth; and that most of these traits derive in the first instance from the ideas of the Creator, however they have been corrupted by creaturely sin and error. It presupposes also that humanity is ineluctably parochial, whereas the Church is catholic. So it is that Christianity has flourished under all sorts of political arrangements: Imperial Rome, Medieval feudalism, modern democratic capitalism. Also, because the Truth is a reproach to all forms of error, idolatry and sin in every age and clime, wherever Christianity has flourished, it has really improved its social hosts, such as the Aztecs, the Canaanites and the Britons. True, the Gospel is not primarily about social or political arrangements, but about the Ultimate Reality and how we should behave in virtue thereof, in this world—the only one that can matter to us for the time being—and in the next. But that does not mean that a correct religious orientation to the Ultimate Truth has no effect on worldly life. One of Christianity’s most important arguments is that if one worships anything but the true, the living God, who is in fact the biggest, best, most important thing of all to every being, then one’s life will be to some extent maladjusted to reality as it actually is. If you put anything ahead of the will of God, anything at all, then you are ipso facto sinning, thus suffering, more than you would otherwise be.
That I am Christian makes me, not more like some other Christian—Lawrence, say, or St. Francis or Mother Teresa—but more like my own better self. At the same time, the more Christian I become, the more I will express Christian virtues, as Lawrence, Francis, and Teresa also all variously do. So with cultures. The effect upon any culture of conversion to Christianity should be, not its destruction, but that it should begin to learn how best to express its truest, best essence. If Christianity is the religion of Truth, then conversion thereto should make Greece a better, truer Greece, Russia a better, truer Russia, China a better, truer China. The reaction of any culture to Christianity should be to evoke and appropriate to itself from the whole body of universal catholic Truth those aspects thereof most pertinent to its parochial predicaments. The whole Truth is necessarily adequate to any creaturely situation. Any creature orienting itself properly in respect to the Truth cannot but find itself ennobled and more perfectly individuated thereby. And to the degree that any culture is truly converted, this beneficial effect should permeate it, down to its most trivial mundane details. Ceteris paribus, any Christian nation should find that it becomes ever happier, healthier, more prosperous—not because it is seeking these values, but precisely because it has, properly, sought first the values to be found in the Living God, of which all other values are derivates. When the landlord’s values come first, the vineyard prospers, and likewise the laborers. This, even though they may suffer tortures and die martyrs.
Thus Viking, Slavic, Latin, Greek and Hebrew societies have all enfolded Christianity, and it has worked in them like yeast in dough. They, in turn, have worked in it. Christianity as a catholic phenomenon is now partly German flavored, partly Babylonian, part Russian, part Chinese, part mestizo. The whole is greater than the parts, subsumes and informs them all; this does not entail that there should be no parts. That both Mexico and the U.S. are essentially Christian does not mean that they should be just the same. Rather, they should be different, and play different roles in the global social ecology, just as the lion and the cheetah differ, though both are cats. The West, then, is European culture trued up by Christianity. That the West is more truly and efficaciously itself than it would be if still pagan accounts for its historical predominance ever since its Christianity gelled. For example, the germ of Western science was present in Periclean Athens; it took faith in the necessary Divine Order, and in His supreme ordering influence upon the world, to undergird the Baconian experimentalist elaboration of Aristotelian empiricism. The primitive capitalism inherent in the social division of labor was likewise bootstrapped first by Cluny, and then by Franciscan monastics parsing the theology of labor, banking, and trade. The distinctiveness of Western music and art have already been discussed in other threads at VFR.
As for Liberal Christianity, it isn’t really Christianity at all. It’s just liberalism, dressed up in the comfortable old trappings of Christian rituals for show, and retaining the economic assets of Christian institutions for sustenance. Performance of the former justifies retention of the latter, which is important primarily because the resources the Churches have amassed over the centuries, both cultural and economic, are useful in the propagation of the liberal social agenda.
Liberal Christianity has lost its metaphysical cojones; it is afraid to assert the supernaturalism of God. Thus it is afraid of death; therefore also of war. It starts from a category error: it searches about in the universe for God as if He were a mere item thereof, like a car or a star, and, not finding Him, gives up on the idea. Liberal Christians don’t really believe in the supernatural, so they can’t honestly encompass belief in God. They believe in … something or other. The Force, or the Tao, or something. Because God is not a wholly credible concept to them, neither can they see that there is really any objective moral standard of value. Their morals wander from one unprincipled exception to another because they have no basis for trust in objective moral principles. They are moral nominalists. All they have left, in the way of a moral guide, is the morality built into their genes and nervous systems: so liberalism is about feeling good.
Since they don’t believe in the supernatural, neither can they credit the Virgin Birth, the miracles, or the Resurrection. In the Liberal mythos, these are mere myths. The most important “myth” they discard is the Incarnation. This makes them Arians. To them, Jesus was a Really Nice Guy who encouraged us to be nice to each other. Nothing more. That’s as far as they can take it. So, in Liberal parishes, there is no longer any mysticism, no longer any sense of the transcendent; nothing hair-raising or spooky ever happens. Also, precisely because the loss of the transcendent aspect of the Faith renders it moot in the face of death, there is determined avoidance of the blood and guts, the pain, destruction and tragedy, that inhere in life and are liberally sprinkled over both Old and New Testaments, like the blood on the altar at the Day of Atonement. In such parishes, it’s all about Community, and feeling good together. Because they have missed the transcendent God, have misunderstood the very idea of God, they have disembowelled their faith. This dooms it; and this is why the liberal mainline Protestant denominations are dwindling. They are no longer religiously efficacious, because they are not really religions at all, anymore.
As to the crisis of the West, then, our civilization and its core religion are under assault, not from Christianity run amok, but by Liberalism. Liberalism eviscerates Christianity just as much as the West more generally. This it does by negating the transcendent objective principles—moral, spiritual, metaphysical—that justify and inform the West and its peoples at every turn of their daily lives. Liberalism declares these principles illegitimate. It leaves its adherents lost. This accounts for much of the confusion, ennui, anxiety and depression now epidemic among us.
The crisis of the West is due then, not to a surfeit of Christianity, but to a deficit thereof. The metaphysical weakness of modern liberal Christianity just is the moral weakness of the West.
Laura W. writes:
Thank you for posting Kristor’s comment in its entirety. That whole thread was remarkable. You flung out your net and brought it in full.
Bill Carpenter writes:
I have a couple of responses to previous comments.
Bruce B. writes that “Christ was victorious where Balder failed.” I think that is correct, but I have this question. Isn’t it possible that this was precisely the point of the Scandinavian writer who is the source for that “legend” regarding Balder? Very little that we have of old Scandinavian writing is authentically pre-Christian, and literature—in Iceland in particular—seems to have become a forum for anthropological and theological speculation as a result of Christianization. Thus texts regarding the death of Balder may have been created in an environment where Christian and pagan story were being compared as vehicles of truth, and indeed where theological truth has become a supreme object of human activity.
The Voluspa, the “Prophecy of the Seeress,” shows Balder coming back to life when the new world rises after the cataclysmic destruction of Ragnarrok. The footnote in my translation says this is thought to show Christian influence. Assimilating the Christian shape of cosmic time to Scandinavian mythology seems like a big deal, as does positing a future state of regeneration, which puts the present in an entirely new light.
With respect to non-liberal Christianity, I wonder if anyone can comment on the success or failure of non-liberal Christianity in South Africa? We only hear about pro-ANC churches. Have non-liberal churches in South Africa been too ethnically oriented to promote the survival of their adherents under the new regime?
Brandon F. writes:
Thanks for this. How is it that every time I think I’ve hit bottom something like this is there to catch me and help me back up? Of course I’m being rhetorical. God bless you and Kristor.
George R. writes:
Kristor L. maintains that liberal Christianity betrays a “metaphysical weakness,” which is true enough. However, metaphysics is difficult. Even when conservatives attempt it they often fall into traps.
For example, he writes:
“But no religion, including any of the variants of Christianity, expresses the whole Truth perfectly (only God Himself can do that). They all distort it, overlook or misinterpret key ideas, and (of course) cherry pick to suit their own preferences;”
Kristor is saying that all religions are imperfect with respect to truth. But if so, why should anyone adhere to a religion instead of to the truth itself? Nor can he claim not to know the truth itself, or that only God can know it. For, just as a person cannot understand blindness unless he understands sight, if he knows that all religions are imperfect with respect to truth, he knows truth. And the truth he knows cannot be from religion since he has already judged the truth thereof to be flawed. But men can know truth by reason. Therefore, it seems, men should adhere to reason in order to acquire truth with which they can capably judge the imperfections of religion.
But that is the liberal secularist’s position.
Jeff in England writes:
On a very quick hurried first skim of the featured blog entry, too many simplistic statements. “Liberal Christianity isn’t Christianity at all.”… that reminds me of the Muslims saying there is no real Islamic state at the moment, all the ones which exist have nothing to do with so “true Islam.” Then the usual simplistic statement that “liberalism” is the cause of all our problems. Oh, what an original unusual conclusion by a VFR reader. I’m tired of this naive simplistic thinking.
I’m sure the blog entry has a lot of interesting points to make but I just spotted those two statements (the second not a quote) and I said “here we go again.”…
Not too dissimilar a feeling of how I feel when you say “Britain is dead.” Infantile simplistic statements possibly based (partially) on your own psychological agenda (wish for the death of the parent?).
Kristor responds to George R. and Jeff in England (as parsimoniously as he can):
George R. writes: “[By Kristor’s reasoning,] men should adhere to reason in order to acquire truth with which they can capably judge the imperfections of religion. But that is the liberal secularist’s position.”
January 8, 2009
If George R means that only liberal secularists can adhere to reason, then I guess I’m a liberal secularist. So are Aquinas, Anselm, Calvin, Edwards, Boethius, and Augustine; and Paul. In fact, since George uses reason to try to skewer my argument about religion, that makes him a liberal secularist, too. I bet George did not really mean that only liberal secularists are allowed to reason. But what then was his point?
George’s argument is clever, but it relies upon a conflation of two technical terms used in my comment, which refer to closely related but quite different things: truth and Truth. I apologize if my use of these terms was less than clear. The latter is the whole content of God’s omniscient knowledge. The former is some portion thereof. To the extent that a proposition is true, it forms a part of what only God knows comprehensively and adequately. It is true enough within limits, but is by no means anything close to a comprehensive account of things; and anything less than a comprehensive account is, ipso facto, imperfect. Hartshorne says:
[T]he revelation may be as truly infallible as you please, but once it actually gets reception into human life the fallibility begins, and until it is thus received we know nothing about it.
God has no need of discernment. He doesn’t need to ratiocinate the way we do, does not need to question His conclusions and parse His arguments to be certain he is on the right track, because He cannot err. We creatures however are bound to err, so we are bound to reason in order to control our error.
Yet it does not follow from the fact that we cannot know things as God does that we cannot therefore know any truth at all. George says, “Kristor is saying that all religions are imperfect with respect to truth.” No. I’m saying all religions are imperfect with respect to Truth. I never argued that religions can’t be true. In fact, I plainly stated the opposite.
We can know something of God. If we could not, the idea of God could never have occurred to us in the first place. The Necessary One necessarily makes Himself felt at every instant of actual existence. And this is to say, that nothing at all can come into being, except insofar as it is in respect of Him. Thus we cannot even exist without being formed by—i.e., knowing—and in our concrete existence somehow manifesting some portion of the Divine Will, however poorly. This means that if we could not know anything of God, then not only would the idea of God never have occurred to us, but nothing else would have, either.
Jeff in England is tired of VFR writers going on and on about liberalism. This is like going to a birding site and complaining about all the talk of birds, or going to Mapquest and whining about all the geography. What does he expect?
Jeff is right however that I was too sweeping in saying that liberal Christianity isn’t Christianity at all. This is unfair to the many committed Christians who have worked hard to understand their faith, but who remain politically or culturally liberal because they have not yet connected those dots.
Lord knows, I haven’t connected all of them yet. VFR is useful because it helps me connect the dots. This requires thinking outside the box of liberal assumptions and unquestioned sacred cows in which I have been steeping unawares since birth. It is hard even to understand that one is assuming something one has always assumed, hard to question an idea one hadn’t realized one had been treating as axiomatic.
VFR helps me do this. The questions seriously considered at this site are profoundly radical. If Jeff didn’t read my whole comment before responding thereto, my guess is that neither did he read the long thread to which it responded, and nor did he understand that the whole discussion was prompted by Conservative Swede’s suggestion—bless Swede for his earnest fearless ire!—that Christianity may by nature be destructive of its host cultures, and ought perhaps therefore to be rejected, if we hope to save the West. This is a dangerous idea, a thrilling idea. Any traditionalist who considers it seriously cannot but feel a bit of terror. I submit that such feelings of danger, fear and excitement when considering an idea are a strong indication that one is on to something; one might have stumbled upon a truth, or upon a contradiction thereof, but either way there is work to be done, for that feeling of intellectual danger is the feeling of profound cognitive dissonance, and therefore a sign of an opportunity to effect a great discovery.
The point of my comment regarding liberal Christianity, as Jeff will perhaps see if he reads it carefully, is that the threat to the West from liberal Christianity noticed by Conservative Swede, if such there be, comes not from its Christianity, but from its liberalism; and that, to the extent one’s Christianity is liberal in the modern sense of that word, its religious efficacy is vitiated and its Christianity is contradicted at the most basic doctrinal level. I argue therefore that Swede is wrong about Christianity. The fundamental threat to the West is also the fundamental threat to Christianity in the West: an inability to take seriously the idea of the transcendent, stemming from a category error in metaphysics that has its roots in the first instance in the reaction—I would say, the over-reaction—against the Scholastics. This point may seem simplistic to Jeff; if he would like, I could go on for many pages about its complexities. Suffice to say that if the transcendent is not a real category, then there is no God, and nor therefore is there any such thing as an objective standard of Good and Evil, to which we may refer in organizing our personal and social behavior.
All the problematic bits of liberalism follow from the doctrine that there is no objective standard of value; that all beauty is merely in the eye of the beholder, and not in the world beheld. This error is the root of the problem of modern culture. The modern inability to stipulate an ideal to which our conduct should aspire, and by which we should judge it, eventuates in an inability to enter upon any dangerous adventure in the confidence that we are at the least trying to do our duty aright, because it cannot see that there is such a thing as duty in the first place. If there is nothing transcendent to our lives, to which we owe them, and ought to surrender them, then all we have left is this world, our disoriented isolated selves, the pleasures and pains of the next few minutes, and the inbuilt wisdom of our bodies. When we leave behind the transcendent, we lose not only the final, complete victory of the Gospels, but even the virtues of paganism. Marooned in what ultimately boils down to mere chaos, we are condemned to fear, indecision, paralysis, anxiety, nihilism, despair, death.
If this is not demonic, what the hell is?
Jeff may find all our harping on such subjects tiresome and simplistic, but he has not shown that anything said at VFR, on any side, is wrong. Can he?
Clark Coleman writes:
I am not sure you were looking for additional contributions to a very lengthy, old discusssion, but I just came across it because you referenced it today. A couple of fundamental things need to be corrected.
First, You quoted a comment at Vanishing American about pagan accretions to Christianity and Protestant objections to them, to which you responded favorably. Two different subjects are being confused here. One is the fact that the Bible does not specify how a Christian society should organize a civil government, hence ideas for civil government must come from elsewhere. The second subject is the accretion of pagan holidays, liturgical rituals, myths, etc., into Christian practice itself, not into the extra-Christian aspects of society. This accretion is what Protestants objected to, and it really has nothing to do with the central theme of your discussion.
Second, Terry M. disagreed with your statement that Christianity teaches us how to live in the kingdom of heaven. He seems to be confusing “kingdom of heaven” with “heaven” itself. Christ used the terms “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God” interchangeably to refer to the spiritual kingdom that he was establishing on earth.
I appreciated Mr. Coleman’s first point but didn’t understand its full significance until I happened to see the section in the discussion that he was referencing, appearing at the end of my initial entry. I quoted an unnamed commenter at Vanishing American who had said:
Posted by Lawrence Auster at August 31, 2007 12:26 AM | Send
John Derbyshire is more right than wrong. Yes, medieval Christianity had no qualms about resisting invaders, but medieval Christians (as Protestants love to point out) had adulterated their faith with pagan beliefs. Over the past few centuries, Christianity has stripped itself of its pagan accretions. In the process, it has become as much a threat to ourselves and our loved ones as Marxism used to be, if not more so.
The commenter’s point is that without its pagan accretions, Christianity is dangerous. Mr. Coleman says that this misstates the problem. It is not getting rid of the pagan accretions in Christian practice that makes Christianity dangerously unworldly. It’s getting rid of the non-Christian sources of cultural and political order in Christian society that makes Christianity dangerously unworldly.
The commenter’s argument leads to the conclusion that all post-medieval Christianity is a threat and must be rejected, because it lacks the pagan accretions in Christian practice. The commenter is wrong. Whether or not there are pagan accretions in Christian practice, so long as a Christian society has viable non-Christian cultural and political sources, Christianity is conformable with the existence and survival of that society.