Responding to First Things criticisms of Michael Novak.
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.