The Ecclesiastical Politics of Inevitability and Eternity

In his latest book, The Road to Unfreedom, Timothy Snyder contrasts what he calls “the politics of inevitability” with “the politics of eternity.” In Snyder’s words, the former is “a sense that the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really to be done.” This form of politics is acutely known in both the United States and Europe, albeit with different nuances and emphases. The politics of eternity, which in Snyder’s opinion lie at the heart of Vladmir Putin’s Russia, “places one nation at the center of a cyclical story of victimhood. Time is no longer a line into the future, but a circle that endlessly returns the same threats from the past.”

Transplanted to an ecclesiastical context, I wonder if it isn’t too much to say that the Catholic Church, with its internalization of liberal premises during the last century embraces the politics of inevitability while the Eastern Orthodox Church, a large segment of which is beholden to Putinism, labors under the politics of eternity. Eastern Orthodoxy’s narrative of victimhood, which is often applied as readily against Muslims as it is Catholics, has become one of its distinguishing features in the last century or so. The Orthodox, and the nations in which they hold denominational control, have no particular responsibility for native corruption, material scarcity, and social disorder; “the Latins” in 1204, “the Turks” in 1453, the “Uniates” in [insert every year here] have entered into a pan-national, trans-historical conspiracy to erode the integrity of God’s one Holy and Apostolic Church and those secular powers duty-bound to protect it.

As for the politics of inevitability, it has been commonplace—at least up until the reign of Pope Francis—for Catholics to turn a blind eye to the problems in the Church and society on the belief that they will work themselves out. Because Christ promised to St. Peter that he was the rock upon which the Church was to be built and “the gates of hell will not prevail,” everything from a decades-long sex scandal to a banalized liturgy to a collapse in sound catechesis are interpreted as mere bumps on the road to a Church just as accustomed to speaking human rights-jargon as it is preaching the Gospel. The Catholic Church, now tasked with being the world’s largest NGO, is present to cheer on and support the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy, freedom of conscience, economic flourishing, and so on and so forth. Just as sure as Christians once believed Christ will come again, the Catholic Church instills an intramundane eschatology among its faithful where the light of liberalism will finally illumine all.

Francis’s pontificate has not overshadowed the Catholic politics of inevitability, at least not wholly. While certain conservatives in the Church may be having buyer’s remorse over Francis’s election and are starting to wonder if the new ultramontanism that swept the Church during John Paul II’s reign was a good idea or not, by and large they believe that better is around the corner. The next pope, perhaps a prelate from “Holy Africa,” shall come to power and correct the errors and the Franciscan papacy. It’s not that Francis is a “bad pope” (for there can be no such thing!) or a “heretic” (what’s that?); it’s just that his “style,” his “charisma,” and his “lack of sophistication” concerning theology and doctrine have sown confusion—the sort that can still be disposed of quite easily and without any significant harm being inflicted to the Mystical Body of Christ.

The politics of eternity, the only politics the Eastern Orthodox seem willing to embrace on a mass scale, may keep their communion ostensibly safe from theological, spiritual, or intellectual trends that could upset their comfortable calcification, but at what cost to the Great Commission? With the exception of some minor incursions into the geographic west (Europe and America), the vast expanses of the world constitute a hostile “other” that threatens Orthodoxy’s wellbeing. For Orthodoxy, now is the time for its particular churches to rally together under the protectorate of a single, state-backed ecclesiastical juggernaut (namely the Russian Orthodox Church) rather than tolerate new assertions of autocephaly. The Ukrainian question, for instance, is about more than the historic rights of the Ukrainian Church; it is about the soul of Orthodoxy itself, including its willingness to accept being true to itself while no longer denying its position as both an heir of and contributor to what may still be called “Western Civilization.”

Should the Orthodox ever break free of their politics of eternity, it is doubtful they will immediately submit to the politics of inevitability. Orthodox history, which is inextricably bound up with the history of Mediterranean, Slavic, and Arab peoples, harbors a harsh realism deep in its bosom; nothing is truly inevitable except the Second Coming and nothing is more impossible than the return of Byzantium. Can Orthodoxy overcome this tension in its character if it ever gets past the politics of eternity? Yes, it can, and the likelihood of it doing so appears, at least at this moment, equal to the chances of Catholicism shifting away from inevitability to what one Cistercian monk called “the politics of nostalgia.”

Metternich on Freedom of the Press

We are certainly not alone in questioning if society can exist with the liberty of the press, a scourge unknown to the world before the latter half of the seventeenth century, and restrained until the end of the eighteenth, with scarcely any exceptions but England–a part of Europe separated from the continent by the sea, as well as by her language and by her peculiar manners.

– Klemens von Matternich, “Confession of Political Faith” (1820), in Memoirs (1881).

Freedom of the press and its annoying sibling, freedom of speech, are today perceived to be cornerstones of a healthy liberal society (if any liberal society can, in fact, be deemed healthy). The idea, which has taken on new vitality in the digital age where every man with Internet access allegedly has “a voice,” is that people have an inherent right to express themselves regardless of talent, training, or temperament. While most who made it out of middle school should know that the right to one’s opinion does not mean a right to having it respected or even not laughed at, there are still far too many adults who accept, on faith more than anything else, that the unhindered expression of thought conveys a vaguely understood good for humanity. Even those who do not accept such nonsense still maintain that while it is no loss that Ben the Baker is restrained from pontificating on politics or Ernie the Economist ought to keep his mouth shut on art, who decides who speaks, when, and under what conditions? Censorship may not be evil per se, but men are evil and will use the power to silence others for their own personal advantage. Better, then, to have a very low signal-to-noise ratio in print, on blogs, and on television than dare allow any authority, spiritual or temporal, to police speech.

The great Austrian diplomat Klemens von Matternich didn’t see it this way, of course. He lived at a time when there was still a glimmer of hope that the revolutionary forces of liberalism, secularism, and nationalism could be thwarted. By 1848, the battle was all but lost and Matternich saw himself going from Austria’s top statesman to a political exile. The Holy Alliance of Austria, Prussia, and Russia, one of the chief accomplishments of Matternich’s storied career, had some success in quelling rebellion throughout Continental Europe, though rampant distrust of Russian actions in Western Europe coupled with inconsistent policies toward nationalistic movements (e.g. Greek independence), soon fractured the various alliances against liberalism that Matternich and others constructed throughout the first half of the 19th century.

In the hopes of stomping out the flames of revolution before they could spread, Matternich advocated for tighter strictures on the press. He knew all too well the dangers of the printing press–dangers that first manifested themselves in the lead-up to the Reformation centuries earlier. Pay no mind to Protestant polemics. It was not the printing of the Bible that undermined the “superstitions” and “heresy” of Catholicism; it was the dissemination of false interpretations of Holy Scripture, including the pernicious and untenable belief in sola scriptura, that poisoned the Corpus Mysticum. By the 19th century, the publication of religious heresy was matched in volume by the printing of what Matternich saw as political heresy, namely the overthrow of the natural order of monarchs, religious institutions, and the imperial system as a whole. Believing, with perhaps more empirical evidence than we recognize today, that some peoples were meant to rule while others had to be ruled, the nationalistic fervor that spread across Europe during Matternich’s lifetime was an abomination, one that Matternich and the imperial powers of his time were ultimately unable to put down.

Today, the liberty of the press and freedom of speech are less the agents of macro-level political revolution and more the pretty playthings of capitalists and other liberal ideologues who seek to dismantle the last vestiges of decency in morality in the name of power and profit. Liberalism, secularism, and, in a modified sense, nationalism are no longer seen as revolutionary but normative. If there is still a revolution to be had, it is against the possibility of restoration, and that will only be successful if truth is diluted with such a frightening volume of error that there will be little hope ever distilling the former from the latter. Matternich, during his time on earth, likely could not comprehend such a catastrophe, for despite his own personal shortcomings, he no doubt believed that the Church and the intellectual fruits of Christendom would continue to witness for the truth, empowering those with eyes to see and ears to hear to halt and eventually overcome the revolution. But since when does the Church bother to speak the truth? What remains of Christendom but some chapters in history books?

The Economist on Deneen on Liberalism

This week’s edition of The Economist contains a review of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, a work that hasn’t quite (temporarily) captured the public’s imagination in the way Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option did last year. (Perhaps too many people are reading Jordan Peterson.) The Economist, which has never shied away from its roots as a defender of classical liberalism, is surprisingly kind to Deneen’s book, even going so far as to acknowledge liberalism’s failures in recent years. Where The Economist takes umbrage with Deneen is with respect to his decision to lump many different iterations of liberalism under one roof. According to the anonymous reviewer, Deneen’s “lumping” leads him to conclude that liberalism “lies in freeing individuals from constraints.” On the contrary, “liberalism contains a wide range of intellectual traditions which provide different answers to the question of how to trade off the relative claims of rights and responsibilities, individual expression and social ties.”

The Economist then goes further. By “lumping” many different types of liberalism together, Deneen fails to acknowledge liberalism’s capacity for self-reform. Here the reviewer rattles off a short list of liberal crises, most of them economic, which were redressed by targeted legislation and political reform. However, The Economist does not take notice of how these reforms to “correct” or “temper” liberalism have given rise to a century-long quarrel among liberals over the defensibility of these reforms. Take, for instance, early 20th century progressive legislation which, among other things, targeted trusts that placed restraints on trade; unsavory labor conditions, including child labor; and urban degradation brought on by industrialization. Today, many of these reforms and the more radical reforms they inspired are challenged by libertarians as not only illicit encroachments by the state on free enterprise, but economically unsound. Moreover, social reform legislation, such as the civil-rights laws of the 1960s, have been used to push more radical agendas that leave many deeply worried that the triumph of liberalism is the triumph of ideology over religious and moral truth.

It is hard to imagine liberalism reforming itself at this late stage to meet the concerns of its more virulent critics, a population that is likely to expand in the coming years as wealth disparities continue to increase, social and communal ties break further down, and liberal ideology further displaces any and all competing interpretations of reality. The Economist takes it on faith more than anything else that liberalism can continue to reform itself and is silent on how any and all reforms may cause deeper rifts between various liberal camps over such touchy subjects as the role of government in the economy, the place of public regulation to enforce private values, and international relations.

At some point the harder point will need to be made by liberalism’s critics that the problem with liberalism is not merely its internal incoherencies, but the fact that it is plain wrong. However, to do so means taking a step most critics of liberalism are unwilling to make, and that is a step in favor of the truth of revealed religion over the novelties of Enlightenment thinking. That is far easier said than done. Look, for instance, at that great historic bulwark against liberalism, the Catholic Church. For over 50 years, it has become a matter of course in Church circles that liberalism is not only here to stay, but that it represents a positive good in human history. To return to the trenchant critiques of liberalism offered by numerous popes and churchmen from the 18th century onward is seen as nothing less than a giant leap backwards into the “kingdom of darkness” which Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau were said to have freed us from. And even if some soberminded Catholics are inclined to believe the Church has tilted too far in favor of liberalism since the Second Vatican Council, their hope remains for a gentle compromise between the Church and liberalism rather than what those with eyes to see know is coming, namely an irrevocable confrontation.

Lilla on Liberalism – Prologue

Mark Lilla, whose attitude and intellectual posture generate equal parts admiration and annoyance for more than a decade, is never short of things to say. Whether its dismantling the cult of Derrida and introducing Americans to the “European” Leo Strauss in the pages of The New York Review of Books or chronicling the deep theologico-political problem afoot in contemporary France, Lilla rarely fails to bring his erudition to bear. Unfortunately, he sometimes brings his obnoxious arrogance as well. For instance, his review of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation was an unfortunate blend of generalizations and dismissals even if Lilla’s observations on narratives of decline wasn’t entirely off the mark. And that’s the thing: Lilla is seldom off the mark entirely; he just sometimes overlooks (or omits) arguments and facts unhelpful to his positions. Consider, for example, his brief book The Stillborn God. Ostensibly a critical history of the intersection of religion and politics in modernity, the work is guilty of the “slight oversight” of leaving out the Catholic Church.

Now Lilla returns with a bit of political soul searching, The Once and Future Liberal. Lilla, who self-identifies as a liberal in the largely American sense, believes that liberalism has foregone a vision of the common good in favor of tethering itself to identity politics. At the same time, it is also a critique of the individualism of contemporary liberalism, specifically where politics is bound up with the self and what is good for the individual based on his preferences, whims, orientations, etc. The Once and Future Liberal is as pithy as it is powerful; it is a call to action, nay, repentance for American liberalism, one which will no doubt be difficult to hear at this juncture in history.

Not being a liberal in any sense whatsoever, I approached Lilla’s work with integralist, but not unsympathetic, eyes. It is rare that any political, social, or religious movement comes to terms honestly with its own failures in the hope of building itself back up. While portions of Lilla’s book contain obvious finger pointing, it is not unfair finger pointing. Liberal elites within the Democratic Party and society at large should be held accountable for the bad ideological bets made since the collapse of the New Deal-Great Society project in the 1970s. The question now is whether there are liberals with Lilla’s knack for self-criticism and imaginative rethinking who are willing to take up his call for a refreshed liberalism.

In the next four web-log posts, I will consider Lilla’s argument in The Once and Future Liberal on a chapter by chapter basis, including the Introduction. Are there important details Lilla omits from his work? What, if any, lessons can Catholics faithful to the Church’s social magisterium take away from Lilla’s observations? And, above all, is Lilla’s hope for liberalism renewed even desirable at this stage in history? Or does his critique ultimately point beyond itself to what comes after liberalism?

It’s Raining in Grand Rapids

The New York Review of Books has a new essay up by Sue Halpern reviewing a recent documentary on Julian Assange. Proactively titled “The Nihilism of Julian Assange,” Halpern—through frequent references to the film—isn’t a big fan of Mr. Assange. In fact, she appears to downright despise him, which only makes sense since Assange, much to the chagrin of the Left, helped cost Hillary Clinton the American Presidency through a series of calibrated leaks. When Assange was releasing documents that embarrassed conservatives and exposed American misdeeds at home and abroad, he was a hero, a man of principles that risked all for the greater good. Now Assange is an unprincipled monster, an opportunist who keeps company with toxic nationalists like Nigel Farage, neo-Nazis in Australia, and allies of Russian president Vladimir Putin. As her praise of Edward Snowden reveals, Halpern is all for leaking classified material, just as long as it helps the “right causes.”

This is not surprising. Over the years, (in)famous leakers like Assange and Snowden have been praised or demonized across the political spectrum. When their work shows how liberal democracy is being compromised, then praise be; but if their work—specifically the work of Assange—apparently undermines the democratic process, then there are not enough condemnatory phrases in the English language available. While sideline legalists have various opinions on what, if any, laws a leaker like Assange has violated, it’s doubtful that his work will stop anytime soon. What’s unclear at this point is if that work will continue to assist the political Right or provide some new cover for the Left. Maybe it will be a bit of both. Either way, democratic legitimacy will continue to be bruised as those holding the reins of power are shown to be the hypocrites, opportunists, and unscrupulous careerists many already suspect.

And why is this a bad thing? Only those still wedded to a belief that liberal democracy has been anything other than a manifest failure should want to see it stand; those with eyes to see are starting to anticipate its long overdue demise. The worry in the air is, “What comes next?” And this is something leakers like Assange cannot assist in answering. The gulf between providing shocking intelligence and proposing a way ahead is radically wide. Assange and other leakers can unsettle the foundations; it is up to those exhausted by the Enlightenment’s lies to start writing the next chapter of the West. And to do that in a manner which is detached from the tenets of liberalism will be an impossible task so long as people insist on keeping some vestiges of the liberal order. Such reformist impulses are understandable, but betrays an absence of nerve and a lack of vision.

This a point missed by secular anti-liberals who believe the imminent plane can be transformed without reference to the transcendent. Talentless to the core, they advocate for steady-to-progressive reform that will meet their personal needs rather than accord with any higher conception of right. Whether motivated by fear or some base desire, those committed to a secular worldview have nothing to propose but ideas that will fail under all circumstances. No commitment to change, no longing for what must come after liberalism, can be actualized if it is motivated by little more than what makes us anxious in this life. Indeed, that is a pathway back to liberalism, as Leo Strauss demonstrated in his review of Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political. Fear, specifically fear of a violent death, becomes the basis for liberalism—an order that makes no demands while providing living space for frivolity, distraction, and discussion. Death is the foreclosure of existence-as-entertainment, not the pathway to eternity.