Sunday, February 10, 2008

Not (Yet) in the Catacombs

I imagine that most readers of this web log would consider themselves conservatives in some sense of the word. (Bear in mind that it's critically important to distinguish conservatism from the policies of Mr Bush and the GOP in general; nearly everyone today would agree that Mr Bush is not representative of traditional American conservatism.) While it's necessary not to confuse Orthodoxy with any partisan political party or position, it is our responsibility to take seriously our commitments to the societies in which we live, which necessarily means having some guiding principles by which to make political judgment. To my mind, some variety of traditional conservatism provides the most prudent such guide. Since, however, those calling themselves conservatives – at least in the US – have generated an unbearable amount of tripe in recent years, it's well past time to get back to first principles. I can think of no better introduction to the underlying issues than Daniel Larison's brief essay "Imagining Conservatism in a New Light." (Please note Mr. Larison's new URL.) To whet your appetite I offer the first two paragraphs of this essay:
It has been one of the great, failed projects of conventional American conservatism to encourage the fiction that the Christian civilisation conservatives admire and the Enlightenment civilisation that destroyed it are part of a real continuity. For the purposes of this essay, I take it as a given that conservatism is, or at least ought to be, the persuasion and mentality that seeks good order and that in a Western society a conservative’s understanding of good order is unavoidably defined significantly and primarily by the Christian intellectual tradition in general and by the received teachings of the early Fathers of the Church in particular. This latter point may not seem obvious or ‘given’ to some, but when we consider that these Fathers were responsible for the formulation of most of the formal doctrines that created the latticework of all subsequent Christian thought and they were likewise the architects of the Christian synthesis of reason and faith that survived unimpaired in all of Europe at least until the Reformation, this claim should seem far more compelling. I also take it as a given that a conservative acknowledges the overwhelming and irreducible cultural significance of the claims of the Christian religion, including its claim to the be the True Faith, and I assume that many philosophical conservatives are confessing Christians who see their conservatism as a logical, if not strictly necessary, accompaniment to their confession of the Faith and their conviction that Christianity is true and that Christ is the Truth who was incarnate for our sake. Such Christian conservatives are, I suspect, committed, to one degree or another, to the preservation of what remains of Christian civilisation in Europe and North America, and they believe that the Western experiment of modernity has been, at best, deeply flawed and generally hostile to the Christian tradition.

That might be too much to assume, but I regard these points as the sine qua non of any effort to develop a philosophical conservatism of real significance. This essay is written in the conviction that it is in some real sense entirely vain to imagine that American conservatives may re-imagine a Christian civilisation and preserve its existing remnants, much less restore such a civilisation, so long as we persist in this fiction of the basic compatibility and agreement of the two traditions, the Christian and the Enlightenment. This is because we may either rely on the Faith’s understanding of human nature and the proper relationship of man to God and to his fellow men, or we can accept the understanding of one of a host of modern derivatives of the liberal tradition in the knowledge that the assumptions we embrace will define and determine what sort of society and way of life our posterity will have. If the former is true, we will have to act as if it were true. A beginning would be to reject the false assumptions of liberalism broadly defined.
A good essay to read next is Mark C. Henrie's "Understanding Traditionalist Conservatism." Those interested in going deeper could hardly find a more useful book than this. Students trying to get an education despite being in college should acquire as many books from this series as they can. Students and teachers should know that subscription to these excellent journals is free. Those who haven't yet begun their indoctrination should consult this book before choosing their ivory prison. Make sure, too, to revisit this post.

We are not (yet) in the catacombs, and it may well be that our form of martyrdom (that is, of witness) is to live as Christians not only in our "Church" lives, but in all aspects of our lives. This can't be done without an education – which today requires a hefty amount of self-education – that forms both mind and soul into the image of Christ.


Nomodiphas said...

I agree with you completely that ‘it is our responsibility to take seriously our commitments to the societies in which we live.’ In doing this we may be a witness, for indeed we are to live as Christians not only in our ‘Church’ lives but in all aspects of our lives. I have been in the process (through studies and discussion) of trying to discover what principles should guide our decision making.

But there seems to be a sizable minority of Christians that believe any involvement in politics (voting, serving on a jury, holding public office) is inherently wrong.

Is this line of thought present in Orthodoxy? If so, how do you answer it? Again, I agree with you, but I am interested to know where do you ground your notion that Christians should be involved politically.

Felix Culpa said...

That's an excellent and important question.

Yes, this line of though is certainly present among Orthodox. See the post on the Three Hierarchs for a few related points (though dealing more with attitudes towards education and culture than politics and society.

It's really quite interesting that the question of whether Christians should be involved in political and social life should arise at all; it strikes me as a very modern question.

The idea of civic responsibility has largely been forgotten in public discourse. Imagine, for instance, if a presidential candidate were to run on the slogan "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." The Left would denounce him as a fascist, while the Right called him a commie. Certainly there have always been Christian groups and movements that have withdrawn from the dominant society, but these have been few and far between, and they in fact set up there own little political societies based on their own theological foundations.

So there's the problem that the idea of civic responsibility has largely been lost. Another big problem, it seems to me, is what today it means to be "involved politically." The word "politics" has all sorts of nasty connotations -- and for good reason.

I think, though, if we go back to the roots of our civilization, to the Greeks -- and above all to Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Politics -- we can start over with a fresh approach. Politics is the life of the polis, the city. Put two people together in the same place, and you have politics. Think of Socrates' thought experiment in constructing an ideal society from the very beginning. So politics, really, is just the art of how to live together in a civilized manner. In this sense we are all, in Aristotle's words, political animals. This simply can't be escaped.

Needless to say, the relationship of the Christian to the polis, and to the civilizations that arose from it, has not been an easy one. But the basic pattern that I can discern is that Christians have, too, been political animals (in the Aristotelian sense), refusing to serve the state *only* when directly ordered to compromise their faith by, say, offering sacrifices to idols. Many of the great martyrs of the early Church were soldiers in the Roman army who served the Empire bravely, and were martyred not for civil resistance, but for refusing to betray their Christianity.

How exactly we, as Christians, should fit within contemporary society isn't an easy question to resolve. But our very humanity requires that we be political. The Christian ideal, of course, is a life of communion with both God and one's fellow man. Once one has accepted the premise that our civilization is, in a very broad sense, based on Christian ideals, then one can go on to Mr Larison's essay for the rest.

Nomodiphas said...

I'd never thought of it like that, but I think you hit the nail right on the head. Why wouldn’t we be involved in politics? The abandonment of our civic responsibility is a modern trend.

God has given us many tools with which we may display His truth and influence society. Why should we refuse to use some of these tools simply because there has been problematic use of them in the past?

This is something I’ve been thinking about: involvement in business exposes people to the temptation of greed and education exposes one to a whole host of falsehoods. But that does not mean that a Christian should not work in business or get an education. Rather it seems to point to the need for more Christians to be involved in these spheres of life so that they may demonstrate the things that God values, in this case generosity and selflessness, as well as a knowledge and commitment to the truth.

If this is so, why should government be any different? If there is injustice in the government, it seems there is a need for more involvement rather than less to correct this problem.

Of course one must be careful not to fall into falsehood and use the Gospel as a means to political ends, for the kingdom of God is of far more importance than any earthly kingdom. Yet this temptation is present in all aspects of life (to use God for wealth, happiness, a better marriage, etc). We must resist this, but not by fleeing the world. It is difficult, but we must be in the world, be the salt and light of the world, without becoming of the world.

Thanks again for your insight and the discussion.

Felix Culpa said...

I quite agree. You might compare your reflections of those of St Maximus, as cited in the post "The Utility of the Passions" (Feb 3).