“Seduced by scientism, distracted by materialism, insulated, like no humans before us, from the vicissitudes of sickness and the ubiquity of death, the post-Christian West believes in something we have called progress – a gradual ascent of mankind toward reason, peace, and prosperity – as a substitute in many ways for our previous monotheism. We have constructed a capitalist system that turns individual selfishness into a collective asset and showers us with earthly goods; we have leveraged science for our own health and comfort. Our ability to extend this bonanza to more and more people is how we define progress; and progress is what we call meaning.
“But none of this material progress beckons humans to a way of life beyond mere satisfaction of our wants and needs. And this matters. We are a meaning-seeking species.
“Our modern world tries extremely hard to protect us from … existential moments [when we really look at death as our own destiny and feel our emptiness]… Netflix, air-conditioning, sex apps, Alexa, kale, Pilates, Spotify, Twitter … they’re all designed to create at world in which we rarely get a second to confront ultimate meaning – until a tragedy occurs, a death happens, or a diagnosis strikes. Unlike any humans before us, we take those who are much closer to death than we are and sequester them in nursing homes, where they cannot remind us of our own fate in our daily lives. And if you pressed, say, the liberal elites to explain what they really believe in – and you have to look at what they do most fervently – you discover … – “an orthodoxy – the belief in improvement that is the unthinking faith of people who think they have no religion.
“But the banality of the god of progress … never quite slakes the thirst for something deeper. Liberalism is a set of procedures with an empty center, not a manifestation of truth, let alone a reconciliation with mortality.”
Andrew Sullivan, “America’s New Religions,” New York Magazine, December 7, 2018 (nymag.com)
Sullivan’s brilliant article can be found in its entirety in New York Magazine. I encourage those interested to visit the relevant site (see above).
Sullivan is not a religious fanatic but an insider among the “liberal elite” he takes to task, exposing the sheer banality and hollowness of what the Enlightenment ‘faith’ has left us in place of the West’s much-neglected Christian roots. His comments are among the most incisive and perceptive recent deconstructions of and insights into the parlous condition of US society and politics.
As severe as he is with the liberal progressives and their hypocrisy, he is equally devastating and perceptive in dealing with the mortal illness eating away at the “Right” in the US – its tendency to default to superficial religiosity and cultism. Nevertheless, he has very positive things to say about the influence of true Christian values and contributions to the US in the past. He recognizes that there is probably no real replacement for the ‘true spirit’ of the faith of Christianity to be found.
What Sullivan describes about the state of society, culture, and politics in the US is just as true across the rest of the West. No room for Canadian ‘smugness’ or European superiority here. As the leading state of the West, the US is the lightning rod which most poignantly illustrates what the West has become without Christ.
The last gasp of Constantinian-style ‘Christendom’, with all its contorted manifestations over the past 1700 years, was seen during the two World Wars. In World War 1 both sides (the Allies led by Great Britain, France, and, later, the US) appealed to God. The Allies looked to maintaining justice, liberty, and equality, invoking God’s endorsement for their crusade to tear down the godless, pagan, ‘Hun’ tyranny that threatened to destroy ‘Christian civilization’. It was a curious mixture of Christian and Enlightenment values. The Germans, Austro-Hungarians, Bulgarians, and Turks, the ‘Huns’ in question, invoked God as well. The mindless slaughter and misery of millions belied the sentiments of all, suggesting that God was not taking sides, and did not take sides in such wars. Many privately arrived at the conclusion that a God who permitted such senseless evil must not be just or good at all, or simply didn’t exist.
The Post-World-War 1 West slid farther away from any sense of attachment to God or the old Christendom paradigm. As Communism took hold in Russia and its empire millions more perished in the quest for the new egalitarian utopia. Western liberal progressives were at first bewitched by the apparent end of privilege and the leveling of classes and opportunities in the Soviet experiment. It took ten years before the truth began to set in, and even then during the thirties the illusion that Communism could create the society of the future died hard. One of its first acts had been to wipe the vestiges of Christendom out, but still paradise did not emerge.
The extent of the demise of Christendom was further highlighted by the emergence of Fascism, which replaced Christ and King with the new political-Messiah figure of the ‘Great Dictator’, as Charlie Chaplin aptly satirized it in his great film of that title. During the 1930s, Fascism adopted all the trappings of a religious cult, substituting the ‘Leader’ (Duce, Fuhrer, Caudillo, Emperor in Japan) as Messiah for Christ and the Nation for the Church. The Fascists denied the legacies of both Christianity and the Enlightenment and called for the ‘New World Order’, the ‘New Roman Empire’, and the ‘New Order in Asia’ based on the emergence of the Nietzschean Superman and Super Race.
Meanwhile, the democratic nations of the West were breathing the fumes of the old Christendom in order to recover enough courage and moral fibre to finally resist this neo-pagan onslaught. Their own new cult of maximum material comfort in the here and now along with progressive evolution into a new utopian society had betrayed them as well, their faith deeply shaken by the paroxysm of the Great Depression.
As this epic drama unfolded, the West found two voices to stir its memory and once more tap into the last reserves of Christendom – Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. Neither of these men were model Christians, but both still adhered to some core Biblical values and foundational concepts of a just society. Both saw the heritage of Christianity as having a key role to play in establishing ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’. In 1940, at the height of Britain’s lonely struggle for survival, Churchill openly called the war ‘a struggle to preserve Christian civilization’. He gave this as one reason Britain and its empire must ‘never surrender’ and carry on to the very end ‘if necessary alone, if necessary for years’.
Like all great people, Roosevelt was flawed, with deep personal secrets (but none as serious as what has come to light about some more recent presidents). But he had a strong faith in God throughout his life. In declaring the US’s resolve as it entered the war in December 1941, he appealed, with great and true conviction, that the US and its allies would fight ‘so help me God’ – echoing the Presidential Oath of Office – in ‘righteousness might’ to bring the tyrants crashing down and from the ashes create a better world.
However, since World War 2 it is almost impossible to trace any true operation of the old Christendom in action. A few remnants may stubbornly persist – as in taking oaths on the Bible ‘so help me God’. As Sullivan notes in his article, quoted above, the West has turned full-bore to the Progressive Religion. And, as we are now beginning to witness more and more clearly, it too is being ‘weighed in the balance and found wanting’.
The ‘true believers’ in the Progressive Vision, the ‘Left’, will doubtless continue to believe and push its agenda, just as, on ‘the Right’, the true believers in some sort of neo-Christendom will endorse the writhing severed tentacles of that moldering corpse.
For those of us not enamoured or captured by the Postmodern religious ideologies or the dying husks of the old ones, we are left with the task of finding ‘a Third Way’ to move forward and avoid existential despair. Perhaps the ‘Third Way’ is already with us, but we must wake up to see it and begin to act on it.
There are many voices ‘out there’ seeking this way. We may discuss some aspects of this quest in future posts.
Comments and responses to the ideas presented in this series are welcome.