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The Coming Discontinuity: A Theological Reflection through the Sensibility of a Progressive Catholic

I realize that in this moment the idea of recovering a Catholic sensibility is so much spitting in the wind, but nevertheless, in the long run something like it is called for because without a restoration of a sense of the sacramental, the machines win. I'll come back to defend this assertion toward the end. 

I've been influenced enough by German Idealism--the Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel wing, not the desiccated, imaginatively impoverished Kantian wing--to see Protestantism and Modernity as the antithesis of Catholicism and pre-modernity, and so it follows quite possibly, if history is about the evolution of human consciousness, and if it proceeds dialectically, as I think it does, that the Postmodern era on whose cusp we sit will synthesize the Modern and the Premodern, the Protestant and the Catholic, the individual conscience and of a renewed sense of sacrament and communion. [But see comment 1]

I don't mean anything mystically metaphysical by dialectics here, just that as one energizing cultural impulse crowds out or represses others, the repressed always finds a way to make a return. The Postmodern future, if it is to be a time of human flourishing, will have to retrieve much of what modernity's dominant cultural impulse, Enlightenment rationality, repressed. We see it happening all around us already, but there is no going native in the past. We have to move forward; we have to progress. 

So I am a Catholic and a  progressive, but I reject the term ‘Liberal’ as a way of describing my politics because I think that the phrase "liberal Catholic" is an oxymoron, but I do believe that all Catholics  are called upon to be progressives if they believe, as they should, that the Spirit is active in history. This seems to be an assertion about Catholicism that goes against every stereotype about it, stereotypes that historically have been well justified. Catholicism, except for a few decades last century in Latin America, has rarely been associated with progressive cultural or political causes in the modern period. That is why I make a distinction between a Catholic intellectual/aesthetic sensibility and the institutional distortions of that sensibility. Those distortions can be traced back to Constantine, or perhaps more interestingly to the shift from the Romanesque to the Gothic as Simone Weil argues in her essay "The Romanesque Renaissance".

The point I want to make now is that the modern social imaginary does not give us the resources to push back against problems that derive uniquely from the modern suppression of the premodern, and so it's not unreasonable to assert that a part of the solution lies in retrieving suppressed aspects of the premodern, but in a postmodern key. I don't know if it's dialectically inevitable, but if real spiritual progress is a possibility, I think such a retrieval must play an essential role. And that's why the Catholic and Orthodox traditions are important, not for their institutional moral authority, which is close to nil, but because they have preserved pre-modern cultural forms and practices that need to play a role in a hoped-for cultural renaissance. 

Central to this evolutionary project is a retrieval of the idea that Christianity is about the redemption of time and space; it is not a religion of escape from either. We need a framing metaphor to work for us as the Great Chain of Being worked for our premodern ancestors. It can no longer work after Newton, Darwin, and Einstein, but the Great Chain of Being was a metaphor that pointed to something deeply true about the structure of Being, i.e., its metaphysics embraced an idea of chaos/entropy in tension with the Deep Real as density of actualized form.

This tension between Chaos and Logos is still a reality, even if we have no robust metaphor that helps us to imagine it in the late modern imaginary. It was a spatial metaphor, but it allowed for the movement of lower to higher, from a potentiality inherent in chaos to actualize in form when it participates in form, which is to say, the Logos or the Mind of God.

The history of the world, as I see it from my quasi-Hegelian, evolution-of-consciousness perspective, is the gradual interpenetration of Chaos by the Mind of God effected by humans in whom the Mind of God becomes gradually awakened. Science plays a role in this evolutionary awakening, but the more important evolution is moral. This would require a shift from outer to inner in human moral development, from humans being mostly directed by forces outside of them--extrinsic moral codes--to new possibilities for moral evolution that work from within the human soul and the awakened conscience. More on this below. 

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So here's a rough, preliminary attempt to explore mostly the post-Darwinian part of that. I accept Darwin’s description of the chaotic, blind, groping, often cruel, impersonal, random forces that drive biological evolution, but I see the randomness of natural selection as that into which fallen humanity has fallen. It was a fall into randomness, violence, and cruelty, and the human mission is to be submerged in that chaos and to find within it a path toward redemption. One way is to escape, to get off the planet, to leave time and space for what is imagined as its opposite--eternity. Another is to willingly accept one's submergence in the chaos and to gradually transform it--bring order and form to it-- subversively from within. 

This latter, I would argue, is the deeper Christian idea, although it's very similar to the Jewish idea of tikkun olam, or "world repair", especially as developed by Isaac Luria. Indeed, it's hard to understand the meaning of Christ's incarnation, death, and resurrection without it, even if in practice the Christian idea of salvation has been more Buddhistic. The Salve Regina, a beautiful medieval monastic Marian hymn, exemplifies this longing for escape. It depicts humans as the poor, banished children of Eve living in exile longing to return home off-planet in a better world in the timeless/spaceless beyond.

I'm arguing that the mission for individual human beings is to be infusion points through which the "beyond" incarnates in immanent human practice in the time/space dimension we call our life on earth. The goal is the renewal of the face of the earth, but this will not be accomplished by some external intervention, but rather by human beings inspired by grace working in the world to transform it from inside out. 

So the goal is not to escape earth, but gradually to transform it, to make a garden of the wilderness. And so in a very real sense it's biological evolution as that from which humans need to be redeemed, or more precisely,  it is the human mission to redeem biological evolution by the power of something higher, something outside mechanics of biological evolution as science accurately sees it. The human task is to redeem the earth from its subjection to the primitive, random, groping forces that we accept as "natural". Read Romans 8 in the light of that idea. But in order to do this, you need to believe there is something higher, something other-dimensional--which very few educated late moderns believe anymore (yet?)--at least in any robust way that has real stakes for the way they think about how they need to act in the world. 

So I'm suggesting that a way to think about the logic of biological evolution is to see it as the logic of Original Sin, if by Original Sin we mean the condition of Nature that is shaped by concerns dominated by survival and propagation. Original sin is, I want to argue, "evolution-without-grace", i.e., evolution without the influence of forces outside our space/time dimension. In such a condition it's natural for biological species to do whatever it takes to promote their biological flourishing. In humans we see this as the need to dominate and control (will to power), the need to accumulate and hoard material resources (greed), and the need to spread one's genes (promiscuous/predatory sexuality).

Genghis Khan, Caesar, Napoleon, etc., are all prodigies of evolution-without-grace. Their behavior is perfectly "natural", and there is really no coherent philosophy of history that can push back against this understanding of the "natural" drivers of human history unless you allow for the possibility of a counter story Christians call redemption history. I'm arguing that the deeper way to understand what salvation history means is as the story of 'evolution-with-grace'. Liberal ideas about pushing back against the Genghis Khans of the world--past and future--either draft on Christian ideas or derive from Hobbesian/Lockean contract theory. Both are weak tea that provide no real foundation to deal with the crisis of culture in which we are currently implicated. 

For Christians, redemption history starts with outside-in interventions through the great prophets and sages. This has played out in the West in such a way that it has led to the possibility of something different. The covenant made with Abraham culminates with Christ’s incarnation and death, and now continues with us humans post-Pentecost.  

For me this provides a compelling answer to the Cur Deus Homo question: Why was the Incarnation necessary in the first place? Christ's incarnation and death was his kenosis,  his emptying and submerging himself in the chaos of evolution-without-grace. This was the emptying of the unfallen into the fallen, the uncreated into the created, in order to effect a potential fusion of above with below so that after this event human and earth history might be infused with grace in an inside-out process that was not possible before. After Pentecost evolution-with-grace became a new possibility, but now as something effected inside out, from within the human being acting in a world otherwise dominated by the logic of evolution-without-grace. 

Before this event the transcendent dimension could work on evolution-without-grace only outside-in, from external interventions and the prophetic enunciation of codes or law effected through Axial Age prophets and philosophers. These codes could be experienced only as an external command to follow the law. After Pentecost, the law is something that is experienced from within--in the heart, the seat of conscience. The post-Pentecost release of the Holy Spirit into history has made transforming biological evolution from within a new possibility.

This transformation is effected to the degree that people--whether they are Christians or not--have supple hearts capable for responding to the movement of grace in their lives. The redemption of the world is the cumulative effect of a process that happens heart by heart in little and large ways progressively through the arc of history. For this reason MLK was right: the arc of the moral universe is long, and it does bend toward justice. Conservatives don't believe moral progress is a possibility; they believe that evolution without grace is the only possibility for the earth, and that's why salvation means for them getting off of it. Such pessimism, alas, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

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So what does this mean practically. How, for instance, does this impinge on how we should think about the political economy? Is there any purer expression in the political and economic sphere of evolution-without-grace than the market? Was there ever a more brutal expression of the energies of evolution without grace than market capitalism? Is there anything in our contemporary political and economic life in greater need of transformation? 

I would argue, therefore, that if you embrace the market as the main driving force in modern history, you are not a conservative in the traditionalist, principled sense—you are a Liberal. Liberalism was developed as a political-economic ideology in the 18th century to justify the “liberation” of market forces from traditional constraints, constraints that were grounded in Christian, i.e., redemptive concerns, to push back against, avant la lettre, evolution-without-grace.

Pre-Reformation Christian societies sought to restrain the logic of evolution-without-grace. They established the monasteries for those who were more serious about growing in holiness, and the bedrock of monastic life was founded in the evangelical counsels--poverty, chastity, and obedience. These were practices designed to push back against the logic of evolution-without-grace—greed, will to power, and indiscriminate spreading of one’s genes.

Holiness is measured by the degree to which one’s Deep Self, the part of us that was created in the image and likeness of God, has come to gradually subvert/transform the will of the Social Darwinian Self, i.e., the Self driven by greed, will to power, and the need to indiscriminately spread one’s genes. The idea that the goal of life is to become good as God is good, i.e,, to restore the human as image and likeness of God, the idea celebrated by the early Church Fathers as 'theosis' got lost in the broader culture.

To be good came to mean simply to follow an extrinsic code, to follow the rules, to do one's duty, as in Kant. But even earlier Christianity had become a point system where to accumulate enough points earned you a place in heaven. This is a spiritualized transposition of the survivalist mentality that derives from evolution without grace. It's what Luther rightly reacted agains, but it lives on in capitalism, where the basic measure of worth is wealth. It's the logic of the professional athlete and the corporate CEO who thinks he's the best only if he gets paid the most.

Post-Reformation societies in northern Europe tore down that redemptive social infrastructure—it got rid of the monasteries and with them the idea that the evangelical counsels provided a path of growth in theosis, i.e., a path for supplanting/transforming the Darwinian Self with the Deep Self. In doing so they substituted a new idea about morality that was more extrinsically legalistic than inwardly driven and Christian.

Modernity introduced a new emphasis on the individual and freedom, but freedom in the service of what? As traditional ideas about theosis were cast aside, what I'm calling here the Social Darwinian Self and its fulfillment emerges as the new "natural" norm. It's only natural to want to dominate others. It's only natural to want to make billions of dollars. It's only natural to have as many lovers as possible. This is the opposite of the idea of Christian freedom as articulated by St. Paul. (See Galations 5 and elsewhere. BTW, Paul's concept of the "flesh" and my use of the term "evolution-without-grace" are roughly synonymous.)

Protestantism at its best (imo embodied most fully by the Quakers) was a celebration of the individual conscience. But morality in Protestant societies--and to a degree in counter-Reformation Catholic societies--in practice became more about doing good according to an extrinsic moralistic code where the code became an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. It started, as all genuine spiritual movements do, as an interior impulse, but devolved into a rigid extrinsicism. And in doing so it threw out many of the older religious cultural forms that provided a framework for theosis, I.e., for people to grow in holiness, i.e., into a recovery of the their deepest identity as image and likeness of God.

Although Catholicism is rife with tis own kind of extrinsicism, this more interior transformative ideal was preserved in some of the orders and monasteries. But it cannot thrive in a world in which the broad cultural imaginary that flowed from Reformation presuppositions is so dominant. Most Catholics, especially American Catholics, are more Calvinist than they are Catholic in this older sense. 

Calvinism played a central role in effecting a shift in Western moral imaginary that created the conditions for Enlightenment rationality, Liberalism, and free-market capitalism--both the good and the bad that came with these. America is a profoundly Calvinist society, and all Americans--whether Catholics, Jews, Muslims or atheists--have to understand how their politics and cultural/political imaginaries are shaped by Calvinism.

On the left, American political imaginary is shaped by Yankee and Black Calvinism that led to the development of the social gospel in the late 19th century. And on the right, the American political imaginary is shaped by Southern Calvinism, mainly the Baptists and other evangelical sects that were inclined to rigid ideas regarding the inerrancy of Scripture and were ok with slavery and later segregation. Wokeness and political correctness are developments out of Left Calvinism. A stern, mean-spirited disdain for the poor are developments out of Right Calvinism. 

Catholics—on both the left and the right—have to own how their moral imaginaries have been Calvinized. It's not about doctrine; it's about how our moral imaginations are shaped. In that respect most Liberal Catholics have more in common with secular Liberals and most conservative Catholics have more in common with conservative Protestants than either conservative or liberal Catholics have with one another. 

And both liberal and conservative Catholics must accept that they have more in common with secular moderns than either has with their premodern Catholic ancestors, for whom a sense of the sacramental and the distinction between the sacred and the profane was a commonplace. The world is just as disenchanted for contemporary Catholics as it is for their secular contemporaries, and so their attempts to force the sacred into secular spaces fails in almost every instance. The old Catholic sensibility lingers where premodern cultural forms do as in some Latin American societies. People whose imaginaries are shaped by Calvinism think of those old premodern practices as at best naively quaint, and so they fail to understand how those forms genuinely mediate dimensions of the Real that the modern imaginary filters out. 

Disenchantment is a fact; re-enchantment is a possibility, but if it is to be effected, it will happen gradually from the inside out. That will require, I believe, retrieving much of what has been lost from premodern practice and imagination, but dialectically. As suggested above, Conservatives, particularly those with a Romantic bent, too often want to go native in the past, which never works. The challenge is to live through the modern secular as a kind of wandering in the wilderness with fidelity and by trusting that that such faithfulness will eventually lead to renewal. But this is a gradual, evolutionary, i.e,  evolution-with-grace, process. We do what is called for now in the hope that future generations will build on it. Perhaps all we can do now is plant seeds that will germinate in the future. We do that in our actions in all the ways small and large that are a response to the flow of grace in our lives. 

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Growing in Goodness/Holiness--theosis--for Catholics is (or should be) central to their practice, and the sacraments and the life of prayer don’t make any sense without it. That’s why the Calvinists essentially got rid of the sacraments. They no longer made sense since mainstream Calvinism didn’t think theosis was a thing. Either one was saved or he wasn’t. If you were lucky, you had a conversion experience, and you tried to live a righteous life, a life still mostly defined by extrinsic codes.

The Protestant reformers had a well-founded suspicion of spiritual elites, and so the idea was not to promote individual spiritual prodigies, but rather to insist that all the regenerated were equals. One's only moral responsibility after that was to follow the law as revealed in the scriptures, and there wasn't for most much sense of how the New Testament put the revelation of the old law in the Jewish scriptures into a new inside-out perspective.

If Calvinists behaved righteously, then they were righteous. In the meantime, the typical, not-particularly-spiritually-gifted Calvinists had no compunction about doing their Social Darwinian best to get rich and to increase their power and social status. Indeed their success in these endeavors became the measure and proof of their righteousness. Catholics are surely not immune here--especially Calvinized American Catholics--but to the degree that they have not been Calvinized, Catholics feel guilty about surrendering to their Social Darwinian selves in ways that Calvinists do not, especially with regard to the their attitudes to the poor. 

***

So the Reformation unwittingly set the stage for the removal of constraints that kept the Social Darwinian Self in check. That liberation from these constraints released enormous productive capacity and wealth, but it also released forces that in an unprecedented way led to the destruction of traditions, local communities, and customary personal and communal ways of life that most conservatives insist they want to preserve against the intrusive state. But it’s not the state that has destroyed these traditional and customary ways of life, it’s been capitalism.

The American state has been always a tool of capitalism, and both have evolved interdependently. Capitalism is the Sun; the modern state, the Moon. The bigger and more complex the capitalist economy became, the bigger and more complex the state. Without the one, you don’t get the other. The idea of limiting the state in a huge, complex capitalist economy is naively quixotic at best, and downright cynical at worst, insofar as a less intrusive state clears the field for pure Social Darwinians to do as they please with little or no constraints. If we’re to have a large, globalized capitalist economy, you need to have some mechanism for constraining and mitigating its worst excesses, and the only tool adequate for that is a strong state structured by the principle of subsidiarity and held accountable by a vigilant electorate. That's all we've got until there is some kind of new Axial alignment-(explained below)

Liberals—both Left Liberals and Right Liberals—are people who celebrate what the economist Joseph Schumpeter called the creative/destructive character of capitalism, in other words, the Darwinian impulses as they work in the political economy. You don’t get the creative/productive/innovative without the destructive/disruptive. That’s a truism, but it’s something most conservatives I know don’t appreciate the implications of. One is that in North Atlantic societies it’s mostly educated elites—both Republicans and Democrats—who get the benefits of the creative-productive side of capitalism, and uneducated, rural and rust-belt working stiffs who suffer its destructive/disruptive effects.

Both Democrats and Republicans are “Liberals” in the classic sense. The difference between them, from my pov, is that Democrat elites are Liberals who understand that we pay for the creative benefits of capitalism with a destruction and disruption that affects ordinary working people disproportionately, and they care enough (or feel guilty enough) to try to develop programs that mitigate the negative effects on non-elites. 

Republican elites are classical Liberals who either don’t understand or don’t care about the destructive effect capitalism has on traditions and local communities and the ordinary people who live in them, and so don’t try to do anything to mitigate it. I think that this mentality is rooted in a vestigial Calvinism that sees the poor as lazy reprobates deserving of their poverty and the rich as blessed by God. Double predestination still lives on in this perverse way.

Whatever. But Republican elites who say they stand for tradition and the integrity of local communities while at the same time embracing the creative destruction of capitalism are either cynical or naively incoherent. 

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Illiberalism is where we’re headed unless some alternative with a robust consensus that embraces the better (Whiggish/Transcendentalist) angels of the American Calvinist character reasserts itself. Trump is a bully and con man trading on the fears and resentments that work with everything that is primitive and ugly in the American Calvinist character. But let me be clear, Transcendentalism--and its New Age and Theosophist cousins--in the long run just doesn't cut it either. A new Axial alignment is the only thing that will have the heft to push back against the unprecedented threat posed now by Evolution-without-Grace

The real threat for the future of humanity doesn't come from right-wing politics, but rather from Silicon Valley, broadly speaking. That's where evolution-without-grace is at its cutting edge, and it's becoming clearer with each passing decade that evolution-without-grace doesn't need human beings. Machines serve its purposes quite nicely. But what resources do humans have to draw upon to constrain what seems at this point the inevitable dominance of the machines? From a purely Darwinian perspective humans are irrelevant, but from the Christian perspective that I'm trying here to articulate, humans are the whole point of evolution.

So what do I mean by a new Axial alignment? The Axial Age, a  term coined by Karl Jaspers, was a remarkable transcultural moment in the history of human spiritual evolution to provide an intervention against evolution-without-grace. It occurred in a huge geographical swath from China to Greece in the mid centuries of the first millennium BCE, from the emergence of Taoism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, prophetic monotheism in ancient Israel, and Greek philosophy. Charles Taylor makes the Axial Age and the subsequent "disembedding" of culture that follows from it a central theme in his monumental A Secular Age. Recently its implications are explored in The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong and in The Axial Age and Its Consequences, ed. by Robert Bellah and Hans Joas.

The Axial Age introduced into human thinking the idea of a distinction between transcendence and immanence, and that the transcendent world set a standard for behavior in the immanent world. The idea of the Platonic Good, the Mosaic law, the Tao were all manifestations of the transcendent world in the immanent, and the goal of human aspiration was to become aligned with the transcendent good as opposed to immanent goods, what I described above as goods defined by biological flourishing or evolution-without-grace. From my pov, the Axial Age was an external (other-dimensional) intervention of the higher into the lower through the inspired thinking of prophets and philosophers who advanced their respective civilizations. Christian civilization integrates the Axial traditions of ancient Greece and Israel. Islam made axiality available, at least at first, for the Arab peoples of the Middle East, and expanded into Asia and Africa from there. 

So is a New Axial moment a possibility? It seems clear that barring a complete civilizational collapse--one way or another there's going to be a radical discontinuity in human history in coming decades. Developments in machine learning, biotechnology, AR and VR virtually guarantee it. The question is whether humans as beings open to and responsive to grace will survive in such a  brave new world. It seems to me that they cannot unless some kind of Axial awakening occurs because the power of evolution-without-grace is too strong to be resisted otherwise.

So is history dialectical? Are we on the cusp of a cultural realignment that integrates the modern with the premodern. We'll see. For those for whom evolution-without-grace is accepted as the only legitimate historical narrative, humans are expendable. Some on the cultural Left even argue that the earth would be better off without humans. Or the other possibility as envisaged by transhumanists and poshumanists is a new eschatology as upload. Humans will become immortal machines, which is just another way for evolution-without-grace and the logic of the fall to win. And those on the Cultural Right don't believe that evolution without grace can be resisted because there is no collective moral progress, there is just the individual saving his own soul, and hopefully a few others so they can make it safely off planet after death. 

So what's at stake here? I don't exclude the possibility that developments in technology can be subordinated to the logic of evolution-with-grace, but unless there's some broad cultural awakening and with it the emergence of a new transcultural moment celebrating transcendence and its central influence in human affairs, it's hard to see how that might be possible. The forces of evolution-without-grace right now are too strong to be resisted otherwise.

So is such a broad awakening a possibility? Stranger things have happened. And so for those humans who are concerned about being evolutionarily obsoletized, it would seem that Christians and other heirs of the great Axial traditions need to play a role in formulating a counter-narrative that pushes back against the inevitability of the machines. But they can't unless they have a theology/philosophy of the evolution-with-grace that makes sense and resonates with the broader culture.

Christianity, as I've outlined it above, provides a robust mythos for a framework within which such an alternative evolutionary narrative could be developed, but I don't think that such an alternative narrative requires belief in Christian dogmatic assertions. What matters most is that the anthropos archetype be embraced in a non-Calvinist, transcultural idiom. Better Buddha and Lao-Tse than Calvin. I think there are resources within all the great post-Axial civilizations to embrace such an ideal. 

[This post is a revised version of a post of the same title that appeared in July 2019.]


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