The Politics of Faith, part II

Joseph Minich
Tuesday, August 18th 2020

Central in late modern society, I previously claimed, is bonding over ideology. Especially in an age of social media, we are habituated to code persons as totems of a friendly or opposing force – an accuser or an affirmer. The gradual evaporation of traditional embodied networks of trust renders the center of human identity virtual and abstract. And precisely when reduced to spectres, as previously noted, we cast about to and fro through this strange new social world, looking for a place to rest. That is to say, we begin to agitate for embodiment in a virtual community (which come, let it be noted, pre-packaged with virtual enemies). Crucially, this is only the most mature expression of a trajectory in American civilization that has its more remote pedigree in our era of mobility.

Long before the internet, American communities were unusually transient. Even by the late eighteenth century, one already witnesses the fragility of many ethnic and old-world boundaries such that subsequent American “nationalisms” can only be about “blood” symbolically (“blood” is, ironically, an idea). And while these trends were parodied (in some ways) in Europe, America possessed what Europe lacked – a frontier – a canvas upon which to perform an enormous variety of social projects “from scratch” (though native-Americans might recall the tale a bit differently).

And in a way, we might say that the frontier functioned precisely to defer the resolution of social tension. It was not entirely successful in doing this, of course, but our history would perhaps have been far more violent without it. The problem with such a strategy is that indigenous frontiers cease, subsequent imperialism turns out to be both unsavory and unsustainable, and we’re still infants in the horizon of space. The frontierless world (our world) inevitably renders the globe a “smaller place” – one that is civilizationally claustrophobic. Increasingly, decisions here matter for persons over there, and vice versa. Moreover, there increasingly is here – a statement which speaks both to the McDonaldization of the world, but also the cosmopolizing of whatever we want to identify as “the West.” The evaporation of the local corresponds to the presence of the global. The local, the national, the global are an increasingly interconnected web, some pieces of which are (in all probability) relatively stable, and some of which are liable to be a delicate house of cards. Which piece is which isn’t always easy to tell.

All modern political visions are universal ones. Both the right and the left speak in cosmic tales. Moreover, one’s “allies” and “enemies” are increasingly global. The cancers of both “Communism” and “the oppressor” metastasize throughout the earth. Add nuclear weapons, social engineering, state propaganda, and the Wild West of the internet into the mix, and you have the makings of a tense situation in which projection is both very difficult to avoid (for reasons spelled out in the previous essay) and inevitably catastrophic. Our situation combines an unprecedented technological capacity to devour one another, and an unprecedented lack of concrete mutual dependence.

Lewis claimed that our situation demands that we become a civilization of sages. And indeed, one might read Lewis’ work as an attempt to train ordinary men in the art of becoming wise. Lewis’ work was urgent. This is often missed because he is such a jolly writer, and yet his fearless and child-like jolly was a weapon. What makes Lewis stand apart is that, like all of us, he was driven to grasp the world in his mind and to discover the solution to our problems through discourse – however – Lewis never reduced persons to their ideology. In my judgment, he shows us the way in this.

When you read Lewis, he rarely treats the objections and concerns of others trivially. He is almost never dismissive. And yet he also manages not to take his interlocutors too seriously. Severely tempted as we are to reduce the neighbor to an ideological totem, Lewis knew that each man and woman was more fundamentally just as he – a hungry soul agitating for the Father. And Lewis clearly felt the burden that we are either helping or hindering each soul when we encounter them. That’s the real battle.

We cannot help our neighbor if we are too busy instrumentalizing them into those who are for or against us (as though the whole show were about us). While there are those who are “ideologically possessed” in a way, most LARPers have feet of clay, and are insatiably hungry for true food. More to the point, so are we. And exactly this turns out to be our most natural bond with our fellows, that we are all “his offspring” as Paul agreed with the Athenian philosophers. While often invoked in a merely sentimental way, this is the most concrete of realities. Man both hates and by nature longs to have his Father. Likewise, we are all sufferers of the same war, even if our race’s trauma is self-imposed.

Perhaps, then, the chief gestalt shift required for modern persons is precisely one that sees persons. The “abolition of man” is not just a matter of having the wrong ideas, but the wrong relationship to actual human faces. We are likely numb to how much we imaginatively instrumentalize our neighbors. Being ideological is not merely a tendency, but a trained habit for us. It is the application of the mental habits of our technocultural age to the world of mind. One might even call this this de-personalization of thought. Modern man is especially tempted to make a “system” the implicit object of trust (as God is reduced to its confines). We seek to possess and seize the beatific vantage point, rather than – as pilgrims – to open ourselves to being possessed by the Logos. In short, we trade the heavenly manna of internalized truth (freely grasped by a whole person) for the perishing food of memorized formulae.

Precisely because hungry, precisely because “cut off,” precisely because agitating, late modern man is starving, and therefore especially liable to feign existential settlement rather than endure a holy discomfort in a state of providential disorientation. Whether “converting to” Eastern Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, Roman Catholicism, wokedom, New Age, Atheism, QAnon, or various sorts of “Confessionalism,” we are more often than not pretending to gain more stability and orientation than we actually possess. We would do well to suppose that even the most performatively confident leave many stones unturned, and often (despite themselves) worry they are wrong.

And it only takes a glance at most of our virtual lives to bring the point all the way home. Most of us know well that slight dopamine rush that attends one of “our guys” owning someone on the other team. And most of us know that sudden rush of anxiety or anger (even if calm is quickly restored) that arises when we are forced to stare at a statement with which we disagree (the cleverer, the more frustrating). Crucially, those who claim to be beyond such sensitivities are liable to be just as much the proverbial “snowflake” as the next person, albeit taking up the self-protective strategy of numbing one’s self to the exposing light of others. And the danger of this is obvious. If one numbs themselves to the pain of critique, they are likely to reject the good along with their rejection of the bad. Not a few self-proclaimed prophets are immune to unmanicured rebuke, which is exactly what it means to be constitutionally unopen.

The old way of repentance is “the way” through our era. When we come to full grips with the spiritual battle that wages in our hearts, and when we come to grips with our utter dependence upon the patient friendship of our Father toward us, so we come to the sober recognition of how little of the Logos we possess, and how much civilization (now imaginatively re-grasped as our extended family) requires divine aid. To be an agent of this aid is not to instrumentalize one’s fellow. Rather, the mature man recognizes that one’s neighbor is a co-sovereign, that they have a rightful claim to the collective as “part theirs,” and that I owe them my own self-limiting in principled and profound respects. For those strongest in grace, the neighbor’s welfare (in all respects) is a matter of weighty self-concern (love your neighbor as yourself). The Christian man is committed to having a civilization with just this person in the name of the Prince of Peace – refusing to reduce any man to some projected incarnation of their Facebook feed.

This “refusal to reduce” is especially crucial in respect of one of our King’s more peculiar marching orders. The one healed through faith is to move into the world, “believing all things.” Only through deep rest in the heart of God for one’s self can one finally and fully endure the inevitable pain that attends withholding final judgment. But precisely in this endurance, the Christian (like a moving temple) brings the light of Christ into the world. The more a Christian is open to love (which manifests faith), the more a Christian can endure and move deeper into service toward one’s neighbor (where really being “alive” is found). And the teaching of the New Testament is that precisely where the temple (the Christian) goes, so goes the Spirit – who works specially through Christian love. “They will know you by your love.” We perhaps chiefly accomplish this by seeing our fellows as starving, such that we can offer them the same food that feeds us. Men are not ultimately our enemies, and we come in peace toward them. And as what brought us repentance is God’s kindness, so we become His agents when we minister reconciliation to others. This in no way implies the circumvention of truth. Indeed, Truth aims to win our brother through us, but also aims to win us through our brother.

In this essay, I have claimed that we tend to ideologically instrumentalize others, and that we fail to see real persons with needs like unto our own. I have also claimed that the old “way of repentance” is the way for us. But it is crucial to distinguish this from the rhetoric of drive-by-pastoring so prevalent in an age of social media. The way of repentance is not the way of Facebook posting prophetic denunciations within sixty seconds of being aware of a situation. Jesus shows us the way In Matthew 21:32, “For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.” The Pharisees considered the tax collectors and prostitutes to be their “domestic” enemies. And not surprisingly, the latter never repented. But then John preaches the way of repentance, and they do. And yet, the Pharisees doubled down rather than asking themselves what John offered that they did not. Their “writing off” of their brethren reflected their “writing off” of God and His image. Christ exposed their unbelief. They misrepresented God and they misunderstood man (especially themselves).

In one way, what I have said is profoundly unpolitical. There are plenty of particular prudential arrangements with which it is consistent. On the other hand, what I have written is the kernel of a whole politics. A repenting civilization is a pilgrim civilization, and possibly the claustrophobia of modern global civilization makes it urgent. For our King has said that those who live by the sword shall die by it. By contrast, Christ trains a people (sprinkled like leaven in the earth) to die. And it is Christian politics precisely to bring this to bear in the temporal realm. It is precisely this way in which Christ rules over the nations through the church – not understood as any particular earthly institution, but as the collection of temples whose bringing truth and love to bear (in whatever station) precisely is the reign of Christ among man.

Joseph Minich (Ph.D, The University of Texas at Dallas), is a Teaching Fellow at The Davenant Institute. He is the author of Enduring Divine Absence.

Tuesday, August 18th 2020

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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