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The Inescapable Particularity of Strong Gods

In his new book, Return of the Strong Gods, First Things editor R.R. Reno sets out the case for his and the magazine’s populist turn. Western elites, he argues, overreacted to the nationalist horrors of World War II, and threw out salutary commitments to nation, family, and religion in an understandable desire to deter revival of the forces that led to that devastating conflict.

The main problem with Reno’s argument is that it lacks the very particularity for which he criticizes liberalism. In an age that, he argues, begs for the power of the particular, he treats the “strong god” of religion in terms more appropriate to the vapid religiosity of the 1950s than to the needs of the present.

In recoiling from the horrors of nationalism in the first half of the century, Reno argues, Western elites after the war led a philosophical war on all boundaries, all particular commitments: political boundaries, economic boundaries, social boundaries.

In the second half of the twentieth century, we came to regard the first half as a world-historical eruption of the evils inherent in the Western tradition, which can be corrected only by the relentless pursuit of openness, disenchantment, and weakening…. The pursuit was already implicit in liberalism…. But after 1945 it became paramount . . . .

This is absurd. It is not 1938. Our societies are not gathering themselves into masses marching in lockstep. . . .  Instead, our societies are dissolving. Economic globalization shreds the social contract. Identity politics disintegrates civic bonds. A uniquely Western anti-Western multiculturalism deprives people of their cultural inheritance. Mass migration reshapes the social landscape. Courtship, marriage, and family no longer form our moral imaginations. Borders are porous, even the one that separates men from women.

Recoiling from the horrors of World War II and the movements that led to it, Western elites embraced “the weak gods of openness.” Reno argues that human flourishing requires boundaries, and only the “strong gods” of family, nation, and religion will do.

A distinctive contribution of his argument, however, is that he does not mean “strong gods” in a merely metaphorical sense. In a subtle invocation of today’s neo-Romantic antiliberalism, these boundaries, he argues, tap into the human need for the “sacred.” A few examples:

The West needs to restore a sense of transcendent purpose to public (and private) life.

We are tempted to imagine our collective life as in some sense sacred, giving the community a rightful claim upon our loyalty.

The role of the sacred remained central in the West even as the authority of the Church was displaced.  . . . We can critique these modern gods [of Rights and Reason and empire and commerce]—and we should; they are often false idols—but the sacralizing impulse in public life is fundamental. Our social consensus always reaches for transcendent legitimacy.

To be human is to seek transcendent warrants and sacred source for our social existence.

The miracle of the ‘we’ infuses political solidarity with sacred significance.   . . . And, of course, religious communities manifest the sacred sources of ‘we’ as well, for they come from a sacred source.

The irony is Reno genuflects to the same weak god of openness and borderlessness in his invocation of a generic neo-Romantic religiosity and a free-floating sacredness. Whether it’s the aesthetic and abstract itch of the Romantic era that something amorphously “sacred” and “transcendent” is out there, or a 1950s, Eishenhower-style latitudinarianism that commends a “deeply felt religious faith, I don’t care what it is,” there is no particularity.

There are very practical reasons to eschew religious particularity in his argument. Reno goes shallow for exactly the same reason that the liberal theorists he criticizes commend openness: Particularity divides. And so Reno purchases his intellectual reach at a steep cost, because there is no power in the generic. The generic religiosity of the 19th century Romantics never took off, just as the generic commitments of 1950s religion led only to the collapse of the mainline churches that embraced it.

Reno recognizes this in writing the obvious—that he does not desire a return of the strong forces of the sort that led to World War II. Yet here, on this ground, might even Reno reasonably prefer to live under the weak gods rather than live under the wrong strong god?

The dualism of weak gods versus strong gods is insufficient to revive the West. The problem, though, is that strong gods can be in conflict with each other in ways Reno’s generically conservative argument papers over too easily. For example, Reno points us to the strong god of blood and family:

My parents, grandparents, and ancestors before them are in a real sense far more necessary to me than my generic humanity, so much so that I’m far more likely to sacrifice my life for my blood relations than for someone outside the family circle, however equal he may be in the eyes of God. This is at once an obvious point about human nature—blood is thicker than water . . .

And yet in one of the many “hard sayings” of Jesus, the distinctive Christian confession is that water is in fact thicker than blood, that Jesus redefines the family around himself rather than around blood.

Someone said to [Jesus], “Behold, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside seeking to speak to You.” But Jesus answered the one who was telling Him and said, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Behold My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother.”

Both blood and spirit are strong gods. And they can be in conflict, with Jesus arguing for the replacement of one strong god—blood—by another strong god, Yahweh. People cannot be indifferent between different strong gods. There’s not a generic argument to make along this line. Early in the book Reno commends Patrick Deneen’s argument in Why Liberalism Failed. Yet, later, Reno tells us that he accounts the philosophy of the American founding as one of those strong gods that can unite Americans. Deneen’s argument, in contrast, is that the liberal god of the American founding is the very same god that led to the problems that bedevil the nation today.

The generic in Reno’s argument can’t help but trip him up by papering over differences between the gods. For example, he argues that “We are tempted to imagine our collective life as in some sense sacred, giving the community a rightful claim upon our loyalty.”

Yet if “our collective life” is in any significant sense truly “sacred,” wouldn’t it be the Deity who has the first rightful claim upon our loyalty, rather than the community? In turn, the community might have a secondary claim on a person’s loyalty, but only if that claim is consistent with the Deity’s original claim.

The irony is that the problem with Reno’s argument is the problem that Reno identifies as liberalism’s fatal flaw, the absence of particularity. Yet just because we don’t like where we are doesn’t mean that we’d be better by returning to where we came from.

Reader Discussion

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on February 12, 2020 at 08:55:49 am

Dr. Rogers: I get the structure of your overall argument here, however, I don't think Reno's sense of the "sacred" is as amorphous as you think it is. Reno is applying Philip Rieff's analysis of the sacred (and he probably has a bit of Rene Girard in mind, too), which is anything but amorphous or trite. I've not read Reno's new book, but I haven't missed an issue of First Things in 20-plus years. Reno's editorials over the last 5 or 6 years give a pretty clear indication of his broad train of thought, and so I think taking issue with Reno's reliance on an argument about the "sacred" needs to take into account the strengths and weaknesses of some of the sources on which that analysis rests.

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Aaron
on February 12, 2020 at 11:23:34 am

Is Roger's arguing that the sacred and the particular are polar opposites and that the one may not exist along with the other?

Is it not possible that the particular may be simply one of many subsidiarities present under the sacred?

And what if, not unlike the DOI, the sacred assumes, no, indeed presumes, space for the particular.
Is this not the stated purpose of the American regime?

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gabe
on February 12, 2020 at 19:49:42 pm

It seems to me Rogers strains at Reno’s use of lower case “god.” I prefer whatever-God-is. Imagine the humble “we” in a pledge of allegiance to our precious flag “under whatever-God-is.”

After using Reno’s “god” for many years, I chose my late friend Doug Johnson’s policy of always capitalizing God, perhaps for different reasons. Doug was an avowed atheist. That is a leap of faith I cannot take. Consequently, I see no reason to question the personal inspiration and motivation, or God, by which a fellow citizen finds hope and comfort for his or her pursuit of happiness. I do not share hopes for a soul, because my person began as a viable ovum which was inseminated by a viable spermatozoon. The human that developed therefrom has no ineluctable evidence that his person is dominated by a soul. Like Mark Twain, I put my fickle “conscience” to rest years ago. But I do not object to the civic citizen who nourishes hopes for his or her soul.

Reno has the honesty to question love as sometimes the inspiration for harm and then write, “Our hearts remain restless. They seek to rest in loyalty to strong gods worthy of love’s devotion and sacrifice.” I don’t condone such poetry and would study to express his idea so as to conform to the U.S. Preamble’s proposition.

My interpretation of the U.S. Preamble, today, for my way of living is: We the People of the United States egocentrically (selfishly) consider, communicate, collaborate, and connect to establish and maintain 6 public disciplines of by and for each living fellow citizen: integrity, justice, peace, strength, prosperity, and responsible human independence. My interpretation accurately represents the U.S. Preamble’s inference by absence of standards for the disciplines that both intensity and extensiveness of responsible human independence may be used to monitor success of the proposition.

I hope the U.S. Preamble as one citizen views it lends some clarity to the “gabe” question “Is this not the stated purpose of the American [proposition]?” The U.S. Preamble begins with “We” yet allows the fellow citizen to be dissident to the proposition so long as he or she does not invite law enforcement.

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Phillip Beaver
on February 12, 2020 at 19:54:07 pm

A couple of commas might improve clarity of my sentence,

My interpretation accurately represents the U.S. Preamble’s inference, by absence of standards for the disciplines, that both intensity and extensiveness of responsible human independence may be used to monitor success of the proposition.

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Phillip Beaver
on February 12, 2020 at 23:24:52 pm

In reading this, I am reminded of three Christian authors.

One told a story about the need for unity. He talked of a leader who called for unity. Indeed, the leader forged a great and powerful ring by which to rule them all. Others rebelled against his leadership—and a coalition of various groups ultimately defeated Sauron, creating the opportunity to destroy the dictatorial ring. But one of rebel’s members betrayed the rest, and chose to keep the ring. For a time, relative peace prevailed. But when Sauron returned, a new coalition was formed to destroy the ring—and a new member of this coalition arose to betray them, claiming that the real way to fight back was to claim the ring’s power for themselves.

Another author told a story of people who, through great effort, overthrew the White Witch who held their land in ice for centuries. Yet when their ancestors found themselves under duress, they were tempted to revive her. She was evil, but powerful—and when threatened, people were willing to grasp for power.

A third spoke of tribalism—and the need to transcend it. He spoke about leaders who exemplify the pinnacle of their tribe— priests and Levites—yet exhorted people not to emulate such people, but instead to emulate those who do the most for those in need, even transcending tribal boundaries and taboos to do so.

I also have read First Things for years. I believe Reno is sincere and well-meaning—and profoundly wrong. As Rogers observes, appeals to the theme of “blood is thicker than water” is powerfully appealing. Why wouldn’t it be? Humans evolved in tribes. Yet Christ calls upon us to love the Lord, and to love our neighbor as ourselves—regardless of our neighbor’s tribe. In this context, the appeal of tribalism is the appeal we need to transcend. Yes, tribalism has powerful appeal—much like vodka has powerful appeal to an alcoholic. The fact that it has powerful appeal does not therefore make it good. And Reno is the Smirnoff distributor at the AA meeting.

Christianity was the cradle of the idea that people should be judged on their individual merits, not on their tribe—and that our status before God does not depend upon our parentage. For example, Gregory of Nyssa condemned the institution of slavery as early as 379 CE. From these ideas sprung the Enlightenment and classical liberalism. Does Reno really ask us to sacrifice all of this on the alter of Strong Gods?

And yes, classical liberalism, by promoting equality, and dethroned lots of old authorities—including the authority of the Christian church. All true. But that merely means that now, people will embrace Christianity simply due to the appeal of Christianity, not due to cultural expectation. Reno’s favorite pope, Benedict, predicted:

[T]he Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, it will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision.

So why hasn’t Reno embraced this?

As François de La Rochefoucauld remarked, hypocrisy is a tribute vice pays to virtue. People may not always live up to their ideals, but at least they would pretend to—and that pretense would reinforce the message about what appropriate behavior is, even in the breach. Yes, Christianity has lost some public support. But to abandon Christ’s teachings, and to reduce Christianity to merely one more tribe fighting for its own interests—can anyone think of a better way to undermine the faith than that? Today’s young people associate Christianity with hypocrisy and hate, and—unsurprisingly—they’re fleeing the faith in droves. With Christians like that, who needs atheists?

But to choosing to combat Christianity’s woes by turning to tribalism—basically we’re signing on with the White Witch.

We’re fishing the Ring of Power back out of Mount Doom.

We’re rebuilding the graven images and genuflecting before the Strong Gods.

Christ have mercy.

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nobody.really
on February 13, 2020 at 09:35:52 am

nobody:

I don't entirely disagree with you, but I'm also reminded of another Tolkein line, where Saruman (I think, I'm going from memory here) says "the hour is later than you think." I don't think the issue is whether or not to turn to tribalism--the issue is how to deal with the fact that tribalism is now a more or less accomplished fact. This is the sense in which I'm sympathetic to the point of view Reno has been sketching out in recent years.

However, perhaps my particular version of large scale pessimism/local optimism is to punt too soon. That would be the implication if you carry out the Tolkein analogy a bit further, but is also true that change happens: and Tolkein's time is not ours, even if he's got much wisdom for us to consider.

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Aaron
on February 13, 2020 at 10:01:26 am

nobody:

As always, a well "spoken" commentary. However, one wonders were you to substitute "ethnicity" for "tribalism" would you still draw the same conclusions.

Can it be said that as a nation forms itself, or more properly, as the *peoples* comprising that nation forms into a Nation, that the importance and / or influence of the "tribe" is substantially and substantively lessened? consequently, The Tribe no longer exerts the same directional impulse(s) as it may have exercised prior to the forming of a larger (Stronger God / Myth) overriding creed / practice.

Is it a matter of degree? Initially, this may be its limit. However, judging by history, and US history in particular (Yes, race is an exception - but even that distinction is diminishing) have not the various tribes transformed into loose ethnicities. Does a Pole really view himself only as a Pole? Does a (blonde-headed) Sicilian view himself, first and foremost as a Sicilian? Or do they not view themselves as Americans united under a Strong creedal doctrine and sharing certain life / historical experiences?
Indeed, (in my own case) does one Italian American dismiss another italian american (or Polish american) because one is Catholic and the other is Lutheran?

The problem, as I see it (and i admit to being disadvantaged here as I have only read Roger's take on Reno) is that we appear to be treating "particularity" and a Strong God (Myth / creed) as mutually exclusive. I don't believe that to be the case and it does not appear to my mind that Rogers has established that exclusivity.

And again, the use of the term "tribes" imports a certain pejorative connotation to the discussion.

Finally, one may make a rather credible case that in the ABSENCE of a Strong God, such as we observe in our present circumstances, the likelihood of a "tribal" resurgence is far more likely to arise than were there a Strong God which permits / encourages "ethnicities." Look only to our present politics where everything is measured in percentage of minority participation, etc, etc.
I submit that this IS tribalism and that it is a direct result of the ABSENCE of a Strong (but Loving) God (Myth) and NOT His (or its') presence.

But again, thank you for waxing (near) poetical in your above comments.
Where is Smeagol? and "My precious."

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gabe
on February 13, 2020 at 14:04:04 pm

You know for the life of me I can't understand what Rogers is writing and ranting about. By particularism does he mean:

1. (Sociology) exclusive attachment to the interests of one group, class, sect, etc, esp at the expense of the community as a whole
2. (Government, Politics & Diplomacy) the principle of permitting each state or minority in a federation the right to further its own interests or retain its own laws, traditions, etc
3. (Theology) the doctrine that divine grace is restricted to the elect

Or all three?

Moreover, Reno's book is apparently about the "return of strong" (meaning local, traditional, grumpy and grouchy) gods" not the universal, laissez-faire gods. So what is Rogers' beef?

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Wayne Lusvardi
on February 13, 2020 at 23:38:53 pm

In “The Miracle of ‘We’,” online at https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2019/10/the-miracle-of-we, Reno writes “. . . the particularity of the “we” is always a gift,” then argues that fellow humans, the “we,” are gifted with particular families and other distinctions that are precious to humankind.

I see no problem with this part of Reno’s ideas.

However, I think he could admit that love is not only questionable in some circumstances but that it is overrated in comparison with appreciation. Also, I prefer to admit that I do not know enough to represent God, so I refer to whatever-God-is. I do not think “strong gods” in juxtaposition to God is equivalent to “whatever-God-is”.

It is possible for humankind to appreciate the particularities of the “we.” I think we should, as long as the particularities do not discourage those people from participating in mutual, comprehensive safety and security.

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Phillip Beaver
on February 14, 2020 at 23:03:38 pm

This is a timely discussion despite the vagaries of "strong" God (s), particularity in regards to "tribe" and symbols of politico-social identification such as family. One observation that has yet to be made in the above discussions is that these concepts, though developing concurrently, may still erupt in crossing. Add Islam, and POW! The "male tribe" Still can and does exclude women. (See 2016 election results.) Yes, such statements are argueable but they do stand to reason, Ddon't they?

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Nancy Ritter Fridlind
on February 19, 2020 at 11:44:32 am

Apparently no one here, author and Reno included, knows what "blood is thicker than water" means. It means exactly the opposite of how it is typically misused. "The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb." I.e., you choose your friends—you don't choose your family. This is especially true for Christian religious communities; we are united in a supernatural covenant of blood—Christ's blood poured out for us—stronger than any merely natural familial bond. In Jesus's saying, "Who is my mother and who are my brothers?", he is not turning this expression on its head; he is fulfilling it.

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Colin O'Keefe
on February 19, 2020 at 13:15:01 pm

Your stand is no good to me and I doubt it's good for your citizenship. From my perspective, Christian religious communities are entitled to the hope and comfort they place in Jesus as long as they do not use it to abuse fellow citizens who practice civic integrity.

Some Greeks suggested 2400 years ago that humans may pursue equity under statutory justice; that no one knows whatever-God-is; and that an independently responsible human being neither initiates nor tolerates harm to or from any person or association.

In the U.S. the proposition that meets the above principles is the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, which must be interpreted by the individual human citizen. My cautionary interpretation today is: We the People of the United States intentionally discipline ourselves and encourage fellow citizens to both avoid and discourage deceit, injustice, disruption, weakness, and poverty in order to empower responsible human independence to living citizens.

The U.S. Preamble does not specify standards by which performance may be measured. Perhaps the proportion of citizens who practice responsible human independence is the implied measure.

From my view, the person who claims to be a member of We the People of the United States but tries to ignore the precautions he or she observes in the U.S. Preamble is a dissident if not an alien. The deception is especially egregious when a Christian community ignores the Holy Bible that the rest of us read.

The Apostle John's writings are especially egregious and divisive for humans who choose the humility to admit they trust-in and commit-to whatever-God-is. The most offensive passage addresses disciples of Jesus in John 15:18-23, CJB: "If the world hates you, understand that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would have loved its own. But because you do not belong to the world -- on the contrary, I have picked you out of the world -- therefore the world hates you. Remember what I told you, `A slave is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will persecute you too; if they kept my word, they will keep yours too. But they will do all this to you on my account, because they don't know the One who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they wouldn't be guilty of sin; but now, they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father also."

Hate is common to John's writing, but I reject his hate along with all the rest. I prefer to appreciate my fellow responsible citizens, without probing their private pursuits such as religion or spirituality.

A second egregious practice by some Christian individuals is to ignore precautions plainly stated in the Holy Bible perhaps 3700 years ago. For example, Genesis 1:26-28, CJB, "Then God said, 'Let us make humankind in our image, in the likeness of ourselves; and let them rule over the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the animals, and over all the earth, and over every crawling creature that crawls on the earth.' So God created humankind in his own image; in the image of God he created him: male and female he created them. God blessed them: God said to them, 'Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea, the birds in the air and every living creature that crawls on the earth.'”

I expect Christians and every special-interest association who practice civic integrity to accept that whatever-God-is assigned to humans the duty to discipline self and encourage fellow citizens to both avoid and discourage deceit, injustice, disruption, weakness, and poverty in order to empower responsible human independence to living citizens.

Citizens choose whether they are of We the People of the United States (or another nation's civic, civil, and legal proposition) or not. The Christian who uses pursuit of egocentrically favorable afterdeath as an excuse to refuse to "fill the earth and subdue it" along with fellow citizens (and more egregiously if he or she accuses non-believers of hatred), is an alien to the U.S. proposition, civic integrity, and human justice.

I urge readers to own a personal interpretation of the U.S. Preamble's proposition and publish it so as to thereby encourage fellow citizens.

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Phillip Beaver
on February 25, 2020 at 05:57:03 am

[…] curious feature of both right and left postliberals is their repeated claim that the governing philosophy of America’s elites […]

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America’s Governing Philosophy is Rawlsian, not Hayekian

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