Can the “Strong Gods” Breathe Life into the Barren West?

The West is losing credibility. China knows America’s most woke companies will kowtow as soon as profits are threatened; Russia is reverting to its ancient self-image as the Third Rome and moves against the West by flexing its military, commercial, and religious muscles into Asia Minor and the Middle East; the Brexit debacle confirmed for many the belief that the EU is anti-democratic and has near-shredded the legitimacy of Britain’s ancient Parliament; and in America the rule of law is eroding as both political parties employ scorch-the-earth tactics against each other.

Rusty Reno’s Return of the Strong Gods wants to expose the roots of this loss of credibility. It is self-inflicted. During the Cold War a totalitarian empire sought to subvert our democracies and failed. A combination of market innovation and bloody realism in politics defeated the Soviets. Percolating all the time, however, was a criticism internal to the West: leading theorists sought to undermine confidence in their own civilization, to puncture the belief that the West’s political, cultural, economic, and religious heritage was worthy of celebration and sacrifice.  The fruits of this subversion have now matured, contends Reno, but why were they ever seeded?

For the horrors of WWII, leftist and libertarian thinkers – Popper, Camus, Hayek, Derrida, and Friedman, to name a few – blamed not perverse singular ideologies, but the West’s establishment. Reno sums up their common front: “The smaller our worlds, the more vacant our metaphysical dreams, the more arid our moral vocabularies, the more peaceful, decent, and accepting we become.” A corrosive combination of progressivism and libertarianism, he claims, birthed a postwar consensus in which potent ideals – the “strong gods” of family, nation, noble sacrifice – were replaced by a neo-liberalism of open borders, markets, and currency flows, hitched to an educational ethos of skepticism and gentle hearts relishing diversity and multiculturalism.

Reno – editor of the important Catholic magazine, First Things – is surely right that our crisis is not how to forestall the return of fascism but how to shore up our dissolving society. Some celebrate the collapse of strong truths, but such celebration is also indifference to those who have lost most in the global economy, as many families and communities have fallen apart. Matters are not helped when populism, insisting, seemingly logically enough, that the economy work for the whole nation, is denounced by these same gentle hearts as a disease. Reno observes that the winners in neo-liberalism are “paradoxically totalitarian,” reducing political debate to an absurd “either us or Hitler!” He rails against this childishness but also its political irresponsibility, which allows the political class to ignore the very real economic, demographic, cultural, and political problems besetting the West. The indifference of our elites is also a recipe for political instability, for, believes Reno, “men always rally round the sacred. There’s nothing about modernity that changes this deep truth.”

Return of the Strong Gods includes many acute observations: “to be an educated person today means acquiring the virtue of disenchantment.” Disenchantment removes “love’s objects.” Psychoanalysis took away the ideal of the family, portraying the home as dysfunctional and opening a space for neo-liberalism to replace hearth and home with fluidity, blendedness, and self-creation. What the Austrian Freud did to the family, the Austrian Hayek did to the state. A marker of inheritance, community, and belonging, the state is reduced by Hayek to constraint, an encumbrance on the creativity of diverse individual wills. Taken up in the postwar consensus, the Austrian legacy robs us of belonging: “The ‘we’ arises out of love, a ferocious power that seeks to rest in something greater than oneself… Our hearts remain restless.  They seek to rest in loyalty to strong gods worthy of love’s devotion and sacrifice.” Hayek is allergic to the collectivism in this talk of “we.” He’s right to warn against mass psychology (think only of the pernicious character of a Twitter cascade) but surely underplays the critical role of solidarity in civilization. There is no ballet without the shared love and devotion of the corps de ballet.

The West needs transcendent purpose, a sense of home, not deflation. But how to re-populate this metaphysically barren world? The need is very real. As Reno deftly points out, the “little worlds” only model of the postwar consensus (multiculturalism) makes white nationalism a cogent idea. The postwar consensus has both itself provoked white nationalism and removed its antidote; thoughtful humane agency deferring to high objects and values is precluded where personal identity is fixed in the vitalism of race or sexuality. The Left is right, racism is disgusting, but its ideas are a stimulant to the problem, not its solution.

As you would expect from a well-known editor, the writing is excellent, the argument moving along elegantly and swiftly. Footnotes are kept to a minimum and detailed exegeses of thinkers left out. The goal of readability, however, hampers the book when it comes to solutions. Given the gravity of the problem, heavy lifting is required, and eschewing this, missteps are made. Martin Heidegger is merely said to be “enigmatic,” when a consensus is firming up that he was in spirit and thought a thoroughgoing Nazi. Since any talk of strong gods is, for leftists, evidence of philo-fascism, more care ought to have been taken. The ease of being misconstrued is compounded when few gestures towards combining strong gods with the benefits of modern liberty are made. Also not helping, some possible allies are quickly dismissed: psychoanalysis is thoroughly rejected, but the left’s extremely odd habit today of changing dissent into phobias and moral crimes calls out for psychoanalytic inquiry.

The book is not shy in declaring things substantively good and bad, but this assuredness leads to some simplifications. The postmodernism of Derrida is dismissed as subversion when he might best be characterized as a modern-day David Hume, a skeptic throwing down a challenge to the West’s belief in science, rational order, and Logos. Those of us holding this belief had best be able to answer and should welcome the challenge. Much the same can be said of the pages on Camus. Reno tags Camus as the great anti-Christian thinker of the twentieth century. Like Ivan Karamazov, Camus had a moral criticism of Christianity, arguing that its stock answers to the problem of evil were little better than complicity in evil.  Camus’s moral courage was something he exhibited in abundance. He invited the wrath of the leftist French establishment after the war when he accused it, including Sartre, of complicity in Soviet evil. His stance severed friendships, he was mocked, and never forgiven. Again, like a latter-day David Hume, he believed courage a natural virtue with a lustre peculiarly its own. The Fall, his best book, in my opinion, is a searing examination of what causes failures in courage. Camus was not a believer, but he was no nihilist. And it’s the moral courage of a Camus that has been sorely lacking in the Catholic Church (one of the strong gods) when it comes to that institution dealing with its own sexual and financial scandals that have led many to conclude that the weak gods, on balance, are the better choice.

Having mentioned David Hume, we might turn to the Scottish Enlightenment for a path forward out of our crisis. Reno assumes the alternative is between the weak loves of neo-liberalism and the strong loves of a revivified (European style) conservatism. There is another option: to further explore the resources of the ethics of sympathy. Thinkers like Hume and Smith wanted to find a mechanism to balance the liberty of the individual with the solidarity offered by establishment. They too worried about disenchantment but it is not only fierce love that can enchant. Shared fascinations with complex objects, like gardens, watches, handbags, cars, and airports – in a word, luxury – can cement communities, too. The Wealth of Nations is the demonstration that the division of labour delivers individual liberty and the refinement of the arts and sciences. This refinement is the glue of human community – civilization – which Smith’s ethics of sympathy traces in The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

One detects in Reno’s writing a certain, if not disdain for, then disinclination towards, commerce. Despite his own criticisms of business, it is a point made by Pope Francis that commercial civilization has done much to relieve the human condition, not least through the beauty of industrial design. And as the Catholic Hungarian conservative Aurel Kolnai points out, the deference we show to the craft and beauty of luxury is an obedience to high objects and values which are also on display in the ritual and pageant of religion.