27 February 2016
The Renewal of Metaphysics and the Rebirth of Christian Society
Today we are facing what seems to be the total collapse of Christianity’s role in the political life of our country. There are many signs of this collapse, including the rise of the “Nones”, the increasingly irreligious secularity of popular entertainment, and major defeats in the legal sphere. Perhaps most telling, though, is the growing unintelligibility of hard religious claims and commitments to Americans, especially young Americans. Young people can, to a large extent, no longer conceive of religion as something with a claim on their beliefs and behavior. Instead they embrace what is popularly referred to as “spirituality”—a combination of therapeutic activities and positive thinking which provide a reprieve from the anxious nihilism of our secular culture. Spirituality is replacing religion. Individually conceived and chosen ideas about morality and the transcendent are replacing objective, public views on the moral law, the truth, and public order.
To some extent all conservatives in America—or at least all conservatives engaged in thinking about the role of religion in public life—are aware of this phenomenon. We talk about it constantly. Conservatism itself has become an endless litany of laments over what has been lost: morality, culture, education, a sense of the objectivity of the law. And, as conservatives, we are all engaged to some extent in the perplexing problem of combating this shift in our society.
Because of our religious makeup and history, one of the most prominent strategies in recent decades has been a shift toward the “Evangelical” as a way of reviving public Christianity. What I mean by Evangelicism is a re-framing of Christianity in minimal terms—a mere Christianity, to borrow Lewis’s phrase. This mere Christianity is stripped of most of the larger social and cultural elements of traditional Christianity, and consists instead of the bare minimum: a recognition of sin and fallenness, the disclosure of the good news of redemption in Christ, and a life of moral reform in the midst of a community of support. Because Evangelical Christianity lacks many of the more ornate elements of traditional Christianity, it is much easier to inculcate. Catechesis takes less time, and the demands on the convert or neophyte are less taxing, in terms of the transformation of their worldview and their participation in public life. Evangelical Christianity is a quick cure, and in many ways an effective one—it offers the salve of redemption and the support of community without an unwieldy intellectual or cultural apparatus.
But the strengths of the Evangelical approach to Christian renewal are also its weaknesses. This is difficult to appreciate because “culture” is such an abstract term, and because the average person in our post-metaphysical society has little sense of the importance of an underlying intellectual apparatus as stabilizing ballast for a community of faith. Because Evangelical Christianity is essentially a personal faith, lacking external authority (aside from Scripture, for which it lacks an interpretive authority), there is little to prevent the larger cultural drift from drawing sincere Evangelicals into a Spiritualistic Christianity which is individualistic, divorced from larger cultural commitments and the kind of social robustness necessary for an enduring Christian community. Evangelical Christians can easily become “Nones”—not in that they have rejected Christ or the hope of salvation, but in that their faith, like the spiritualism of yoga practitioners or American Buddhists, is individually conceived and chosen, and has little authority with which to bind their moral commitments or public behavior.
Among members of more traditional Christian sects, a kind of renewal parallel to American Evangelical Christianity has appeared in the form of personalism. Important truths about the dignity and ontological primacy of individual persons and experiences are emphasized, and transformed into the basis of Christian practice. The evangelicization of American Catholicism is widespread—the public and moral aspects of the faith are downplayed, the cultural elements discarded, in favor of a Catholicism centered on the therapeutic care of the individual person and the cultivation of a robust Christian experience.
To be sure, many good things have emerged from the Evangelical renewal of Christianity in American life, including many good things for the Catholic Church. Evangelical Catholicism points people toward legitimate truths. The problem we face, though, is that the intelligibility of these solutions and their ease of implementation comes at the cost of their effectiveness in fighting the larger cultural drift toward individualism and secularism.
Faith is personal and individually chosen. But a faith which transforms the society in which it takes root can never be primarily a personal and individually chosen faith. It must also be a public faith, a faith which enters not just into the silence of spiritual experience, but into the language and fundamental assumptions which undergird our description of the ordinary world. Metaphysics, i.e. an understanding of the nature and order of reality, is necessary for the survival of a cultural Christianity. And if we want to stop losing the struggle for civilization and preserve the monuments of culture, law, and morality, we need to pursue a strategy based not on the appeal to individual experience or the therapy of sentiments, but on the transformation of discourse and the common vision of the world at large.
I am not suggesting that individual salvation hinges on the transformation of the public sphere, or that human effort in itself conveys grace to those who believe. But, as St. Thomas Aquinas famously writes, “grace perfects nature and does not destroy it.” The efficacy of gospel proclamation and the very right of Christians to exercise our faith in the public sphere—the right of Christ to receive worship from all people—is aided or hindered by the strategies of evangelization we choose to pursue. For someone to whom sin is an unintelligible notion, the good news of a redeemer makes no sense. To someone for whom the concepts of natural order or moral law are foreign, sin itself will seem bizarre.
We have progressed as a civilization to the point at which these basic human concepts—concepts like nature, truth, being, and perfection—have fallen away. The average person experiences the world as a series of technological conveniences organized according to chance desires and experiences. Being itself is lost to them. Truth is lost to them. At the same time, the metaphysical impulse is inextricable from human nature. People want to know the truth. Children, no matter how well-indoctrinated they have been into secular relativism, want to understand why things are they way they are. The concept of right, though confused and distorted, remains a force in the public and private lives of our fellow citizens and neighbors.
The strength of Christianity, and its natural desirability, lies in its (at this point nearly unique) ability to present answers to these question which we have trained ourselves, culturally, not to ask. “What is the meaning of life?” “What is the purpose of existence?” “What is the origin of the universe?” “What is the nature of the cosmos?” The common man no longer thinks to ask these questions, because he has been taught from a young age to despair of their answerability. Or he settles for cheap answers that make no difference for his engagement with existence or his personal choices. The meaning of life is what you make it. The origin of the universe is the Big Bang. The nature of the cosmos is “whatever science says”, though we know not what. A metaphysical Christianity supplies answers (and struggles for answers) that are not cheap truisms or therapeutic salves, but which enrich our personal engagement with the world, and call us into definite types of behavior, definite strategies of education and political organization. The metaphysical Christian raises his finger toward the still point in the moving world.
So, what would a metaphysical renewal of Christianity look like? How would this kind of evangelism work? It would begin by asking, and asking seriously, certain audacious questions: What is being? What is causation? What is order? Is there such a thing as real perfection? And, asking these questions, it would begin to answer them: that being is the act of what exists. That “causation” is a notion that helps us answer the question “why” in various ways for an individual being or event. Etc. These questions and answers seem prosaic—unbelievably, perhaps unbearably prosaic. But if we return to them as the foundation of our way of speaking, and we emphasize them as the basis of education and public discourse, we will gain a double advantage.
First, we will have a certain supremacy of intelligibility over the slippery relativism of the present age. Not that we should polemicize against relativism (this is a battle which, taking place outside the bounds of reason, can never be won by reason), but that by simply asserting what is sensible and reasonable, we will possess a truth which is inherently desirable and otherwise unavailable.
Second, insofar as we achieve a renewal of metaphysical discourse in common culture, we will bring people to a place at which the basic notions prerequisite to the intelligibility of Christianity and Christian social and moral order are available to people. With the notion of truth at their disposal, the question of first truth can once again arise for them. With the notion of nature and natural order, they will be able to understand both the primitive meaning of God’s existence, and the reality of sin and moral failure.
But the greatest advantage offered by a metaphysical Christianity is its ability to lay claim not just to the internal forum of spiritual experience, but to the external forum of law and social order. A metaphysical Christianity is capable, unlike a personalist Christianity, of asserting itself as a rational position within the public sphere, and creating a common culture and tradition within which Christianity is once again understood and accepted—if not personally, then at least as a strong contender in disputes over the truth. Metaphysics and the metaphysical concepts constitutive of our understanding of reality, play a major role in the formation of political culture and education. It is to metaphysics first, then, that we need to turn, if we want to reclaim our society and not merely retreat to shrinking enclaves amidst the dissolution of Western civilization.