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.

Rod Dreher Doesn’t Understand Integralism

Rod Dreher has been a tear the past week writing about integralism. The only problem is that he doesn’t seem to understand what integralism is. In his latest attempt to wade into waters which he has not properly scouted, Dreher declares that integralism “is a philosophy that would subjugate the state to the power of clerics.” This is a grossly misleading way to frame the integralist thesis, especially since just days earlier Dreher quotes from Pater Edmund Waldstein’s compact but thorough explanation of that thesis:

Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that rejects the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holding that political rule must order man to his final goal. Since, however, man has both a temporal and an eternal end, integralism holds that there are two powers that rule him: a temporal power and a spiritual power. And since man’s temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power.

Integralism, as can be seen from Waldstein’s definition, is not the clerical fascism that Dreher fears, and yet Dreher does nothing to correct his mishandling of the integralist thesis. Here is Dreher again:

I can easily imagine myself around 1998, as a younger Catholic, full of ardor and ideology, finding the clarity and logic of integralism appealing, but having spent years writing about the abuse scandal, and seeing how terribly clerics can screw things up—not because they’re clerics, but because they are human beings, and their ordination does not change that—there is no way on God’s green earth I would stand for an integralist regime. I say that mostly as someone who wants the Church to flourish. A church that has too much temporal power imperils itself in a different way from a church that it [sic] completely at the mercy of the secular state—but imperil itself it does.

No one denies that clerics “can screw things up,” but then again, so can secular politicians and the people who vote them into office. It happens all of the time. Still, this is beside the point. The real problem with Dreher’s panicky remarks is that they miss the point of integralism almost entirely. Integralism does not recommend that priests and bishops should be handed the reins of political power. Indeed, integralism keeps in clear view the distinction between the temporal and spiritual, recognizing in line with Church tradition that the spiritual only exercises indirect temporal authority while keeping the spiritual realm safe from temporal encroachment. This is not true in what appears to be Dreher’s preferred political model, Byzantine-style symphonia. Although symphonia contemplates a distinction between the temporal and the spiritual, the practical result in history is that the weaving of the two results in the spiritual becoming the handmaid of the temporal. Much of the history of the Byzantine Empire and, later, the Russian Empire attests to this lamentable problem.

Dreher’s scattered remarks implying that integralism would, among other things, give cover to clerics who sexually abuse children are beyond grotesque. Nowhere does Dreher point out how integralism provides cover to anyone—clerical, religious, or lay—who violates divine, natural, or rightly ordered civil law. Dreher’s casual juxtaposition of the sex-abuse crisis with his misguided remarks on integralism read as little more than a childish attempt to besmirch integralists in the mind of his audience. If anything, integralists, almost all of whom are conservative-to-traditional Catholics who routinely uphold classical moral teaching, would press for a legal and penal system that deals far more harshly with sex crimes than what we find under liberalism. Moreover, as staunch defenders of the priesthood’s dignity and the proper formation of seminarians, integralists are likely to champion strict screening procedures for candidates to the priesthood.

It is sad that Dreher, a man who frequently claims that he is misunderstood and read uncharitably by his critics, is content to treat integralism so thoughtlessly. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, it is understandable that Dreher might have some reservations concerning integralism, especially since his chosen confession—as I have argued before—lacks a genuine integralist tradition. However, having reservations is no excuse for calumny. Dreher admits that The Josias is a solid repository of integralist thought. Perhaps he should take some more time to read it and read it carefully. Until then, it would behoove Dreher, as a Christian, to cease making irresponsible claims about integralism while misleading his readers into thinking that an integralist state would necessarily be rife with abuse, scandal, and the covering up of unspeakable crimes. No integralist state will be perfect and no integralist is promising paradise on earth. Rather, the integralist state can help order man toward his final goal, which is Heaven.

One Irreligious Man

Uriel da Costa (born Gabriel) was a rather pious man, at least for a time. Born into a family of cristãos novos in 1585 who thought it better to convert than be thrown out of Portugal with the other Jews, he lived in the tension between his ancestral Judaism and his family’s new-found (but not altogether sincere) Catholicism. Costa tried to make a good run of it. After studying canon law in his teenage years, he came to hold an ecclesiastical office and later, when penning his brief autobiography, made a point to present his father in particularly as a devout Catholic. His father’s early death, coupled with other misfortunes, prompted the Costa family to flee Portugal for the Netherlands and Germany, respectively. Having already come to doubt the tenets of the Christian religion in favor of Judiasm based on his own independent study of Scripture in Portugal, Costa was in for an existential crisis when he finally came face-to-face with Rabbinic Judaism abroad. While Costa thought of himself as a faithful adherent to the Law of Moses, he saw little in Continental Judaism except for emptyheaded legalism and ritualism.

Now in his early 30s, Costa set out to disrupt the flawed but stable orthodoxy of his day through a series of publications which, inter alia, challenged the structure of Rabbinic Judaism; denied the immortality of the soul; and posited that that the Judaism of his day was devoid of the spiritual riches contained in Scripture. Prior to his critiques reaching their crescendo with the 1623 work An Examination of the Tradition of the Pharisees, Costa was excommunicated by the rabbis of Vienna—a mark that would follow him to his eventual settlement in Amsterdam. While Costa appears to have been able to maintain a decent standard of living through his business dealings during this period, his life became one of painful solitude. By 1633, he sought to reconcile himself with the local Jewish community, though it failed to take. Here is Michael Della Rocca’s account of the closing years of Costa’s life from his book, Spinoza.

Da Costa’s ban was harsher than most. When he was banned in 1633, the possibility of atonement was left open, but it was atonement by flagellation that was required. Da Costa refused, but by 1640, after enduring years of isolation, he agreed to go through with the punishment during which he was not only whipped in the synagogue, but, after the display, was forced to lie down at the threshold of the synagogue. Those who exited then stepped on his body on their way out. Unable to bear this humiliation, da Costa shot himself several days later.

Many years after his suicide, Costa’s autobiographical statement, Exemplar Humanae Vitae, made it to print. Later criticized by scholars for its inaccuracies and incompleteness, the document still stands as Costa’s last word on his beliefs—beliefs that had degenerated from a hopeful embrace of Biblical Judaism to religious skepticism. By the time he had reached the end, Costa could confidently declare that religion was little more than a human invention and that God (or, rather, his own conception of god) cared little for man-made rites and ceremonies. Even the Law of Moses, which Costa had once held up against the rules of the rabbis, lost its divine character. Lonely and humiliated, Costa left this world without the comfort of the religious outlook he once suffered to defend.

For those few who bother to pay Costa a bit of mind today, he is typically seen as the forerunner to Baruch Spinoza and an early progenitor of Biblical criticism. Some Jewish scholars, uncomfortable with the nature of Costa’s treatment during his lifetime, have attempted to rehabilitate him as a Jew whose conditions removed his culpability for heresy. Costa, after all, was born into an environment of coerced conversions where any sign of “Judaizing” could result in the loss of property, freedom, or life at the hands of the Inquisition. Having never been brought up in an authentic Jewish milieu (i.e. a Rabbinic Jewish milieu), Costa cannot be blamed for his errant understanding of Judaism generally and Holy Scripture particularly. Moreover, infused with non-Jewish ideas at an early age, Costa’s outlook—so the apologetic story goes—was forever marred; no matter how hard he might have struggled to reconcile himself with the faith of his fathers, it was never to be. As such, Costa must be held harmless for his heterodoxy while his life and legacy should be interpreted as a tragedy rather than a blemish on Jewish history.

That is, so-to-speak, a nice way of putting matters, though one wonders what Costa would think of this revisionist narrative. It’s hard not to imagine that Costa would see the biggest error of his life not in his rejection of Rabbinic Judaism, but in his attempt to reintegrate into the Jewish community of his time. Further, it is hard to shake the feeling the true tragedy of Costa’s life was not the confusion imposed upon him by his environment but rather his mental-spiritual instability, an instability that led him to expect far more from the religious culture of his times than it possibly had to offer. Of course, perhaps Costa wasn’t that unstable, mentally or spiritually. Maybe, like some now living, Costa believed that the lofty spiritual, philosophical, and theological teachings of the Bible warranted earthly representation which, though always inadequate to the task, could be far, far better than what’s available. Costa, tortured by this dashed hope, ultimately succumbed; most tortured similarly today walk away from the pain under the guise of becoming illumined.

Two Religious Men

On September 16, 1666, in the ancient city of Adrianople, Sabbatai Sevi, the reported Messiah of the Jewish people, converted to Islam. Although the event did not bring to a close the movement known as Sabbateanism, it did mark the decline of the last great messianic movement within Judaism. Scorned by Muslims and Christians alike, the Jewish populations of Europe and the Middle East, arguably, never quite recovered from the blow their “Mystical Messiah” dealt them. Meanwhile, over in the land of Russia, an archpriest named Avvakum was causing a bit of a stir himself. Steadfastly opposed to the liturgical reforms introduced by Patriarch Nikon of Moscow, Avvakum turned altering the Sign of the Cross and Slavonic orthography into an apocalyptic event. As the best known of those Russian Christians who would come to be known as “Old Believers,” Avvakum is credited with creating the first masterpiece of Russian literature: his frenzied, paranoid, and heterodox story of his life. Avvakum, unlike Sevi, had no pretense to being a messiah; he did, however, see himself as God’s agent in the world, the last of the saints who would hold fast to the spiritual, liturgical, and linguistic patrimony of the Russian Church in the face of torture and death. Having had enough of his antics, the Russian state burned Avvakum and three of his followers at the stake in 1682.

With the publication of Gershom Scholem’s monumental work on Sevi in the mid-20th century, a small but noticeable scholarly enterprise has been built up around this seminal figure in Jewish history. Scholem’s study, which eschewed a materialist explanation for Sevi’s popularity among the Jews of his day, has been met with equally compelling accounts that see, for instance, the origins of Sabbateanism in the plight of Eastern European Jewry in the 17th century. Others see in Sevi an opportunity for the Jews to abandon beliefs and practices which had made them stand apart for centuries. As a messianic figure, one of Sevi’s perceived tasks was to abolish the ritual law of the Jews before inaugurating a bloodless restoration of the Kingdom of Israel. Perhaps, some opine, Sevi’s appeal came about due to a general Jewish exhaustion of adhering to religious tenets that seemed to bring them nothing but misery for over 1,000 years. Whatever the reasons behind the growth and popularity of the Sabbatean movement, the final world has yet to be written about this delusional figure and the impact his life had on Jewish history.

And what about Avvakum? In the Anglophone world, Avvakum is typically only known by way of passing mention in Orthodox history books or the English-language translation of his autobiography. He is not, in the estimation of most Orthodox Christians, a figure to be revered. Yet there is an argument to be made that he is a figure who lurks behind any and all liturgical pedantry among the Orthodox, particularly the Russians. Avvakum’s great error, as many have pointed out, was to identify the Christian Faith with liturgical praxis. Avvakum, like almost all of his Russian contemporaries, did not realize that the Byzantine Rite, no less than any other approved rituals within the Universal Church, did not spring into being by way of a few strokes of a saint’s pen. The Byzantine Rite, as it was kept in Russia in the 17th century, was the byproduct of numerous revisions, redactions, and recensions—sprinkle on some scribal errors, obscure local practices, and a general ignorance of Church history and theology and what you have is a recipe for religious disaster. The Old Believer movement, though always a minority movement within the Orthodox Church, nevertheless caused a serious rupture within Russian Orthodoxy and arguably contributed to the eventual secularization of the Russian Orthodox Church by Tsar Peter the Great at the turn of the 18th century.

Today, the Jewish people are still waiting for a messiah while Russian Orthodox zealotry typically takes the form of militaristic nationalism rather than spiritually inspired apocalypticism. Might an argument be made that this tempering of what one might call the “religious spirit” is a sign that despite protestations to the contrary, secularism—with its inordinately positive appraisal of a certain type of rationalism—has, on some level, “won”? (Won what? I do not know.) The Jews, on the one hand, appear to have lost hope, or at least otherworldly hope, while the Christians of Russia, on the other, see their “mission” to the world materially rather than spiritually. Maybe this is for the best. After all, few good things, humanly speaking, befall those who get carried away by enthusiasms not easily measured empirically, and the sum total of the psychic and moral damaged caused by misplaced enthusiasms is likely incalculable. Still, their absence is decidedly felt, especially in a world where the surest cure for boredom is an iPhone.

Uplifting Year-End Thoughts – Part 3

Accompanied by Q, that immaculate collection of our Lord’s sayings that so many “Biblical Christians” routinely ignore, a man could find his way through this life with nary a worry. For this uncontroversial text, attested to by a great cloud of witnesses for nearly 2,000 years, forms the cornerstone of Christianity. In fact, it is such a powerful collection that it is said at pulpits across the world that it, along with the Gospel of St. Mark, shaped the formation of Ss. Matthew and Luke’s gospels. No doubt this is why children are taught from the earliest age to appreciate the sweet science that is textual criticism, for without it the careless scribal errors of ages past may very well shape the souls of those living today. The horror.

Facetiousness aside (well, not entirely), nobody today contends that Catholics and Orthodox alike are woefully ignorant of the Bible. While some schoolchildren are fortunate enough to be handed cute songs and rhymes to assist them in remembering the titles of the Biblical texts, a vast majority of them will never read a single verse of Scripture outside of what may be contained in either their hand Missals or quoted in a “spiritually uplifting” book. When I come across a Protestant at one of West Michigan’s numerous Christian-themed coffee shops, I have to confess off the bat that they have bells n’ smells Christianity beat when it comes to the Bible just before reminding them that the existence of the Bible presupposes the Church which canonized it. Most folks, particularly young folks, aren’t terribly impressed by that, and for good reason. For if I or any other Catholic/Orthodox take such pride in the production of the Bible, why don’t we make a firmer effort to read it? Woe to us, I suppose.

One common justification for not reading the Bible that circulates among Catholics and Orthodox is that it is up to the Church to determine what Holy Writ means; reading it “alone” will only lead us to commit the Protestant of error of imposing our own subjective meaning on the text. Maybe. Again, given how many Protestants I have met who are sure of what Scripture means and yet offer up wildly disparate readings of the same pericopes does affirm, at a certain level, the reality that Scripture can be manipulated along a number of mutually exclusive lines. A Protestant rebuttal to this line of thinking is that if it is for the Church and the Church alone to interpret the Bible, why bother reading it at all? Why not simply look to what the Church has to say and leave the text of Scripture to the side? While this line of questioning is often intended to instill shame, more often than not it seems to bolster Catholics and Orthodox in holding that “ignorance [of the Bible] is bliss.”

What, I wonder, would become of Christianity were the Bible to be read and read often. Would there be less sin? Would there be a greater thrust to remake the world and evangelize those lost to heathenry? Might streaming television and video games go the way of the dodo as people spent their well-earned hours of leisure in heated but charitable discussions over the meaning of Job or why God would allow his most obstinate prophet, Jonah, to become His most successful one? Perhaps the only magazines and books to be produced would be Biblical commentaries, each one invested not so much in scoring polemical points or advancing careers, but rather disclosing the meaning of the single most important book (or, rather, collection of books) in human history? Maybe, under the guidance of the Word of God, a real effort would be made across the nations to restore all things in Christ. Or perhaps people would just find more reasons to despise, vilify, and ultimately murder one another—just like in the good old days.

Integralism and Lefebvre

I have it on good authority that a new printing of They Have Uncrowned Him, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s masterful expose and critique of liberalism, is in the works. It is, if I recall corrective, the first Lefebvre book I picked up from the Society of Saint Pius X’s (SSPX) chapel in Oak Park on the border of Chicago in 2011. I went on to collect the rest of the Archbishop’s oeuvre in English, though nothing else resonated with me the way Uncrowned did. Not even Lefebvre’s dubia concerning religious liberty held such favor with me, perhaps because, by necessity, its presentation is dry and mechanical whereas, in reading, Uncrowned you can detect the moments when the Archbishop’s blood begins to boil. Never forget that Lefebvre was on hand during the Second Vatican Council and was instrumental in advancing, albeit unsuccessfully, conservative opposition to the novel doctrines being bandied about by periti and hierarchs who, only years earlier, were on the Holy Office’s radar.

Recently (as in today), my friends at The Josias released the second episode of their podcast with the primary subject being integralism. In the course of discussing the term and its background, nary a mention was made of Archbishop Lefebvre or the priestly society he founded nearly half-a-century ago. This strikes me as strange since giving an account of the history of integralism without mentioning either the Archbishop or the SSPX is like delivering a history of professional wrestling without mentioning the National Wrestling Alliance. Though Lefebvre and the priests and bishops of the Society have not always deployed the term “integrealism,” no other established forced within the Catholic Church has kept the spirit of integralism more alive than the SSPX. Indeed, without the Society, “integralism” would be a blanket epithet deployed by neo-Modernists and liberals to smear anyone and everyone they happen to disagree with. But to read Lefebvre, to listen to some of the sermons and talks of Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, and to take seriously the writings of many of the SSPX’s priests over the decades is to be inculcated with integralism at both a conceptual and practical level.

I make mention of this not to throw shade at The Josias, but to remind those persuaded by the integralist thesis to not ignore a reservoir of authentically integralist thought simply because—ironically—that thought came from a wellspring which, let’s be honest, is not exactly “politically correct.” Still, why should that matter? Integralism, which has been castigated recently as both reactionary and fascist, is hardly “politically correct” in a day and age where liberalism is not just considered normative, but inevitable. As one of The Josias podcast’s hosts points out, liberalism has this unsettling power to dissolve the imagination, rendering those living under it incapable of imagining a world without it. To be anti-liberal is not to be simply “backwards” or “simple,” but dangerous. For anything which opposes liberalism, regardless of whether or not it comes marching down the street with a jackboot, orchestrates famines, or preaches Christ crucified, is equally an enemy which must be eradicated in the name of “humanity.” Liberalism is not content to win an ostensibly neutral “battle of ideas” (for it cannot win it); it must instead demonize, degrade, and ultimately destroy that which calls liberal ideology into question. Conversion is out of the question.

For my part, I cannot conceive of seriously studying, and being persuaded by, integralism without taking a serious look at what Archbishop Lefebvre wrote and witnessed to over the course of his life. Integralism for the Archbishop, the priests he formed, their heirs, and the countless faithful who are attached to the SSPX is not an abstraction but a way of life. It is a way of life informed by the reality of Christ’s Social Kingship, a way of life which looks for the restoration of Chirstendom over an endless discussion over theological minutiae which rests on the peripheries of life.

While reasonable people can disagree over some of Archbishop Lefebvre’s words and decisions, and those of the SSPX as well, what cannot be denied is their indispensable role in keeping the integralist spirit alive during decades where liberalism appeared as the only horizon in both society and the Catholic Church. For that they deserve the gratitude of integralists everywhere.

It’s Wednesday (Lilla Will Return)

The desire to write, or more rather blog, has been in short supply as of late, the reasons for which are many. Since announcing that I planned to write on Mark Lilla’s recent work, The Last and Future Liberal, Islamic jihadists continue spreading terror in Europe, a lone nut job massacred over 50 people in Las Vegas, and the Major League Baseball Playoffs began. My personal life, which is undergoing more than a few upheavals, has, by necessity, been the center of my attention more than writing words or, sadly, reading books. My hope to make 2017 a “Year of 100 Books” jumped the rails a couple months back and at this point, I’m going to be happy if I hit 70 (though at this juncture, where I can’t seem to bring myself to finish one every two weeks, it’s going to be a struggle). The will right itself. It always does. Even now as I type I can see flashes of normalcy, even peace, in my life. How long that lasts remains to be seen; I am feeling uncharacteristically optimistic.

Distracted though I have been, it has not been an unproductive state of distraction. One of the glorious side effects of steering clear of blogging and, by extension, most social media (outside of pro-wrestling forums and news streams) is that you can mostly avoid things like the senseless and hyperbolic fallout over the recent “Filial Correction” of Pope Francis or which Eastern Orthodox jurisdiction has broken communion with another. (Truth be told, I don’t know if this has happened recently; I just assume it’s a semi-annual occurrence.) I saw that the irascible David Bentley Hart gave a lecture on “Orthodoxy in America.” My suspicion, without having yet seen it, is that it ticked more than a few people off.

So, without religious news to fill my brain and crush my heart, I took time to read two recent books by that most edifying of American jurists, Richard A. Posner. (I forgot to mention that in my time away, he managed to shock the legal world by retiring as Senior Judge for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.) In the span of a month, Posner released two books on the federal judiciary (one self-published), neither of which is particularly flattering toward the American legal system. And that’s fine. While I found a great deal to disagree with in both books, including Posner’s childish swipes at legal theorist and Catholic convert extraordinaire Adrian Vermeule, it occurred to me that Posner has no heir apparent on the bench or in the academy. Sure, there are more than a few rookie and veteran legal academics who seek to publish at a Posnerian pace, but arguably none are close to achieving Posner’s gadfly status. As for the judiciary, while Posner’s jurisprudence has been maddeningly inconsistent, flippant, and self-absorbed at times (some would argue “most of the time”), his lucid writing style and frank approach to the inadequacies of law to contemplate an increasingly complex world will be missed. His decisionmaking? Eh, not so much.

Posner today, as he was for me over a decade ago, is really just a gateway drug into the larger world of legal scholarship—a world I have largely ignored for the past five years. Having put one foot back into the legal world recently, I have felt strangely compelled to start catching up on all that I’ve missed even if, practically speaking, most legal scholarship is bereft of utility. Lawyers, many of whom haven’t read a law review article since it was assigned to them in school, perhaps need toolkits comprised of basic economic knowledge, empirical research methods, and a bit of theory for flash, often lack the time and/or inclination to read anything they can’t bill a client for. (In fact, as I discovered recently, there are lawyers who, despite graduating law school and passing the bar, can’t be bothered to read court rules closely enough to realize that you must serve a complaint on an opposing party. Perhaps he thought people just regularly pop their heads into the local district court to see if there is a pending suit against them.) For my part, I would be pleased if lawyers just spent a bit of time learning Roman law, if only because it might assist them in putting together a coherent argument. But I digress…

Thank you as always dear reader(s) for reading the byproduct of my mental wanderings. I know that I have pledged to “get back on track” more times than any soul need recall, but maybe, just maybe, this is where I turn the corner. Or maybe life, as it is wont to do, gets in the way of simple pleasures like reflecting on the world around me and offering up a thought or two which, whether you agree or not, at least keeps you coming back for more.

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?