The question of how things that were once inconceivable can become conventional and even majority viewpoints is one we far too infrequently ask ourselves. How is it possible, for instance, that the norm of marriage as a male-and-female institution is one of the nearest things there is to a cultural universal historically, yet support for same-sex marriage is majority opinion in most Western countries in our day? What are the peculiar cultural, historical, and social preconditions for such a position becoming thinkable, and to such an extent that resistance to it should now be widely dismissed as irrational and bigoted?
Our tendency is to focus on the surface phenomena of discourse, upon the development and movement of conversations, as certain positions wax in their popularity and others wane. Immediately beneath this surface movement, we may also attend to such things as the shifting of the Overton Window, recognizing where certain viewpoints fall relative to the acceptable realm of discourse within a given society. However, we need to recognize and observe something deeper still: the underlying forces that form our instincts of thought and establish the preconditions for things being thinkable or unthinkable in the first place.
The instincts of mind that prevail in any given society tend to be closely related to the material, technological, social, and political realities that it inhabits. Indeed, in many cases it would seem as if these realities powerfully form the habits of mind with which they are connected. The sources of our habits of mind are things of which we are seldom especially mindful.
Within this post, I want briefly to explore some dimensions of the habits of mind that are formed within us in modern liberal society. These habits of mind are not peculiar to any section of the population, but are shared, to some degree or other, by almost all of us. My hope is to make us just a little bit more aware of both the contingency and contestability of our habits of mind, so that we will better recognize why certain things appear persuasive or not to our society and how they could be otherwise. Our habits of mind are not universal to humanity, but depend in large measure upon historical and social factors that our peculiar to our societies.
As I am characterizing modern instincts of thought, I also want to pay close attention to the ways in which these instincts shape our reading of Scripture as Christians. I will argue that they train us to notice certain things and not to notice others, to distribute the weight of theological significance in an eccentric fashion, to come to scriptural texts with certain questions rather than others, and to construct our theologies in a peculiar way.
Universalism and Departicularization
One of the first and most important habits of mind in modern society is commitment to conceptions of universalism and departicularization. Universalism is the conviction that society should be founded upon universal principles and the minimalization of all differences of culture, nature, or locality. Departicularization is the devaluation, displacement, and diminishment of the particular, the local, and the unique.
While we may celebrate ‘diversity’ and ‘difference’, ultimately we hold that they are a matter of indifference. Indeed, we celebrate diversity precisely because diversity has been domesticated by the higher order of universalism. The ‘diversity’ we celebrate is akin to the colourful spectacle of a vast and variegated company of colonial subjects parading before their emperor, whatever differences they represent pacified by and subjected to the higher rule of the empire to which they belong. As a result of departicularization, such differences are increasingly treated as cosmetic and superficial in character, façades over a deeper sameness.
This universalism and departicularization need to be understood, not merely as aspects of a political or social ideology, but as one part of a larger configuration of a world order, knowledge, and value (perhaps akin to an épistème, to borrow Foucault’s term). We must recognize that the universalism that instinctively holds that society should be founded on universal principles is continuous with and usually an extension of the universalism that prevails in other aspects of our modern order, in our economies, our modes of production, our science, our technologies, our understanding of value, our mediated forms of sociality, along with many other dimensions of our modern world.
The modern scientific understanding of the world, for instance, presents the universe as a place governed by pure mathematical laws operating upon generic, fungible, mindless, and departicularized matter. In place of premodern visions of reality in which the creation was a vast, divinely choreographed site of meaning, within which humanity was significantly situated in relation to the wider creation, and to which reality human values genuinely corresponded, the world as we now conceive it works according to impersonal mathematical laws and the particularity of human values and attachments are essentially foreign to it. As E.A. Burtt writes of the effect of Galileo’s thought in The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science,
The features of the world now classed as secondary, unreal, ignoble, and regarded as dependent on the deceitfulness of sense, are just those features which are most intense to man in all but his purely theoretic activity, and even in that, except where he confines himself strictly to the mathematical method. It was inevitable that in these circumstances man should now appear to be outside of the real world; man is hardly more than a bundle of secondary qualities.
When perceiving creation in such a manner becomes natural to us, the sort of particularity to which premodern visions of creation gave weight will steadily lose their gravity. Man more nearly approaches the ultimate order of the universe as he more fully subjects society to universal impersonal laws.
Alongside the dominance of such a universalist scientific perspective and its steady displacement of other perspectives upon the creation, there has been a steady departicularization and growth of universalism through the operations of the economic realm of our lives. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the growing centrality of money in our society, the pure exchange it facilitates, and the measure of value it represents all serve to departicularize value, to alienate and dislodge it from the particularity of things and the world and to situate it within our medium of exchange. Money becomes the measure of all value in a way that entails the devaluation of that which is not subject to exchange, gradually effacing the particularity of the material order. David Bentley Hart describes the effect of this well:
The abstraction of the market, its lightness, is a fire that attempts to burn away the weight of glory as so much dross, as exchangeable tokens of wealth; unlike the fire of God, it does not transfigure but consumes. The market, then, is a particular optics, a particular order of vision. Its aesthetic of immateriality suspends all difference in the univocal formalism of the aleatory; all more refractory values—beauty, need, awe—are transformed into the universal value of price (the transvaluation of all values, endless evaluation). Within the world descried by such an optics, there is no theme to vary in the fabric of things, no distinct orders of beauty and grace, but only random series of simulacra whose unitive logic is uniform: exchange value.
The market also encourages and rewards businesses, services, and products that can departicularize themselves and function according to optimized abstract and universal principles of operation. The more that you can free your business from the bonds of the particular and operate according to principles that are easily and universally replicable, transplantable, and scalable, the more money you will make. The pursuit of universal and abstract principle has a process of departicularization as its corollary. This process of departicularization works on products, processes, and persons, as universal principle ensures predictability and uniformity. It means, for instance, that the particularity of character, skill, and the various forms of rootedness and belonging of employees will increasingly be removed from the processes of operation, and replaced by universal principles. As a flipside of this, those seeking to work in such an economy will increasingly be rewarded for their ability to conform themselves to abstract and universal processes and to suppress their own particularity.
Our sense of the value of the particular is also altered through our processes of production. Mass production and, more recently, digital replication replace the charged particularity of human creation with increasingly generalizable and abstract technique and the interchangeability of its products, objects conformable to the exchange value of the marketplace.
Our societal dependence upon fossil fuels and our enjoyment of electricity are further causes of universalism and departicularization. More than any other form of power, fossil fuels are conformable to the logic of the universal, founded upon a substance that is extremely portable, is extractable, and is fairly departicularized. It makes possible and encourages a society that operates according to a power that is detached from the particularity of the creation and exercised over against it. It enables us to think and act in terms of power as such, shorn of most of the limiting and particularizing qualities that are characteristic of other forms of power, whether human muscle, the harnessed strength of beasts, the power of water, or other such particular sources. The power we extract from the earth also enables us to free ourselves from its bonds, to move swiftly from location to location, and to subdue it to our will. Likewise, our enjoyment of electricity networks also exercises a sort of departicularizing effect in our society, further distancing us from the rule of particular and local conditions and communities.
Our media and the technology that underlie them also exert a departicularizing and universalizing influence. They replace the particularity of locality with the universality and abstraction of the spectacle. Guy Debord’s opening observation in his 1967 book, The Society of the Spectacle, has never seemed more accurate:
In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.
Social media propagates a universal order of self-identifying individuals, for whom natural bonds of deep belonging and locality are replaced by bonds of voluntary affiliation. In place of the situating particularity of local community, online society is ordered according to universal principles with members of such societies being essentially interchangeable. Digital technology abstracts society and creation from the particularity of our bodies, the material order, and our social situatedness, placing hypermodern selves within a thoroughly artificial environment of manipulated symbols and images.
We now mostly function in contexts that are highly artificial, substantially the same as contexts in which people can live on the other side of the planet. All of these factors and several others besides combine to form lifeworlds whose inhabitants are prone to denigrate the particular, the local, and the material and to elevate universal principles, values, measures, and reason over them. Persons who detach themselves from the particular and subject themselves to universal principles are also rewarded within a society.
A World of Abstraction
One of the things that should strike the reader of the Bible is how concentrated it is upon the particular and material order. The Bible is a book that says rather a lot about blood, sweat, bodily emissions, hair, hooves, chewing the cud, specific rivers, mountains, and other geographical features, wheat and barley, olive trees, cedars, and vines, entrails, wombs, foreskins, and the like. Even more significant is the fact that it is a book that focuses upon the particularity of a specific chosen people, distinguished from all others, and ultimately upon a first century Jewish son of a carpenter in whom the destiny of the whole of humanity is summed up. The world represented in the Scripture is one in which particularity has a peculiar salience, where distinctions between particular things really matters, and where the specific situatedness of a person or created object within the larger world order is a matter of definitive significance.
This is a huge stumbling block for most modern readers of the Bible, who have been culturally formed to denigrate particularity, to marginalize or downplay difference, and to pursue and cast truth in the form of universal principle. We look for truth in an abstract form, but the Bible is all about the truth of and in the particular. Many of our struggles with the Bible arise from the conflict of our instincts about what truth should look like with the truth that it actually gives us.
A society that is characterized by the departicularization and universalism I have described will also be driven by abstraction. It will seek truth in moving away from the particular, into an order of the universal and the abstract. Particularity and any difference that resists abstraction and the rule of the universal principle will be experienced as an unwelcome intrusion of a lower order to be resisted and overcome as essential to the process of conformity to rationality.
The abstract and universal principles by which our society thinks, acts, and measures and orders reality mean that we weigh the realm of the particular and the differences that characterize that realm very lightly. Our characteristic move is to weaken the hold that the realm of the particular and its differences have upon our concepts and our thinking. So, for instance, faced with the reality of mothers and fathers, the contemporary mind can easily efface it by an abstracting move, followed by the imposition of the abstraction back upon the realm of the particular. Mothers and fathers are both ‘parents’, the abstract concept that lies beyond their gendered particularity. The more abstract and departicularized concept of the parent will be weighted over the particular concepts of mother and father and then, in a second step, mothers and fathers will be reconceptualized in terms of the abstraction. Consequently, the mother comes to be seen as a parent who happens to be a woman and the father a parent who happens to be a man. A similar sleight of mind has been accomplished in our societies with our understanding of marriage, as a more abstract notion of its meaning has been privileged over the natural sense that is deeply tied up with the world of the particular.
Any attentive reader of the Bible should soon recognize, however, that it does not share our cultural prejudices about the character of truth. Instead of a logic of abstraction, it throws us more deeply into the world of the particular. In order to keep the particular its proper salience and weight, the Bible operates in terms of analogy and metaphor, which represents a radical contrast with the logic of abstraction. While abstraction seeks to wean us off the particular, analogy more deeply throws us into the world of the particular by binding particular things together in great networks of interconnected meaning.
The whole sacrificial system, for example, is an extensive system of metaphor, a poetic mapping of Israel’s life onto the animal and vegetable realm of creation, ordered around an architectural symbol that is a macrocosm of the human body and a microcosm of the creation, and practiced within the patterns set by celestial bodies and the earth’s seasons. Israel was to understand and articulate its existence and its fellowship with God in terms of this profoundly material and particular reality. The created cosmos was not for them merely a site for the operation of mathematical laws upon generic particles, nor a reservoir of raw material to be extracted and pressed into the service of humanity’s power, nor even primarily a realm of beautiful surface spectacles to gaze upon. It was a charged realm of meaning and communion, where the particular objects of the world bore divine truth.
Such a system of analogies casts the particular and its realm of differences into sharp relief. The animals of the sacrificial system and the dietary laws, for example, present Israel with a system by which to understand and be formed into its unique place in the world. Clean and unclean, sacrificial and non-sacrificial animals, and the many distinctions within each category are metaphorical frameworks for thought, a concrete framework designed to teach the art of discrimination in the realm of the particular that could not contrast more with our abstract structures of thought. The people relate to God through specific and symbolic sacrificial practices, in which the restoration of their relationship with and their new comportment of themselves towards God is symbolically enacted by them in the sacrificial rites.
Within this framework, particular differences assume great salience: male and female, Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised, priest, ruler, and people, firstborn and later born, cooked and raw, seedtime and harvest, within and without the camp, clean and unclean, feast, fast, and ordinary time, morning and evening, etc. These differences are highlighted through metaphorical and poetic frameworks of thought and practice that are designed both to bear considerable weight and to have authoritative and theological force. To sacrifice a donkey rather than a bull for the priest, for instance, would be a violation of truth, not merely the breaking of an arbitrary ritual command.
Modern Christians characteristically struggle with the sacrificial system. They also struggle to understand the sacraments well, as the logic of the sacraments is also one of analogy and situated in their material form. Seeing a practice such as baptism, the modern mind may be inclined to treat it as a generic initiation rite, or as a divinely given means of faith’s self-expression. The actual form that baptism takes will be downplayed and largely ignored. The meaning of baptism is discovered as we abstract from the concrete form of the practice. However, in Scripture itself, baptism draws us into a vast matrix of symbolism and meaning, poetically symbolizing our new status on several levels at once.
The meaning of baptism is better understood as we multiply the particular connections, rather than as we abstract from them. Baptism connects us to the creation of the world out of water. It draws upon the primal symbolism of water and of movements of the body taken relative to it (passing through, going down into and coming up out of, being poured upon or sprinkled). It connects us with Noah’s deliverance through the Flood. It connects us with the Red Sea Crossing and the crossing of the Jordan into the Promised Land. It connects us with Elisha as he received the firstborn portion of Elijah’s Spirit following Elijah’s ascension and then miraculously crossed the Jordan. It connects us with the priests who were baptized as part of their initiation. It connects us with Israel who went out to be baptized by John. It connects us with Christ in his baptism for ministry in the Jordan, in the baptism of his death, and his baptism of the Church at Pentecost. And each one of these particular connections opens out onto dozens of further connections and relations. As we explore these, it becomes clearer that baptism is not just a generic initiation rite, but that the particularity of its form is where its meaning is most fully revealed. Baptism means by moving us into a very specific position within the network of symbolism within which it operates.
Our mental habits that lead us to associate the process of coming to an understanding of the truth with the process of abstraction powerfully shape the way that we read our Bibles more generally. They lead us to gravitate towards the more seemingly abstract theological concepts and to downplay the weight of narrative genres. For instance, it leads us to focus our account of humanity and the sexes around concepts that appear to be more amenable to abstraction, such as ‘image of God’ or ‘helper comparable to him’, and largely to ignore the narrative surrounding them, which poetically situates humanity in relation to the wider cosmos and places the sexes in specific positions relative to each other and the creation. Narrative is too alloyed with the particular to be of much service to the modern theologian.
It is important to attend to the systematizing impulse of modern theology in relation to the modern mind’s instinct for abstraction. In contrast to premodern forms of theology, which tended to operate as temporally-situated pedagogies into the wise reading of Scripture, modern theologies can often function in a manner more akin to quasi-spatial edifices of thought, built out of principles abstracted from the text of Scripture and standing largely independent of it. These systems departicularize Scripture and present its truth to us in a more abstract form, less scandalous and more welcoming to the modern mind.
It should not surprise us that a society committed to universalism and departicularization, which operates in terms of the logic of abstraction, has an anthropology intensely ordered around the detached and autonomous individual. The individual is the departicularized, universal self. Everyone, no matter their background, their sex, their race, their locality, their nationality, their belief system, or their attachments, is ultimately an individual. Abstracted from all connections, systems, and secondary qualities, we are left with the individual. And this individual is what really matters. It is the universal principle of humanity, to which all particular and local principles must be subject.
The individual is the fundamental unit of measurement of humanity, the universal building block by which societies are formed. The notion of the individual is the means by which we can gain conceptual purchase upon human reality. It is the weighty reality around which all our analysis must orbit. It must also be the core of our ethics.
It is important to recognize that the centrality of the gender-neutral, ahistorical, deracinated, detached, and abstract individual is not merely a commonsensical notion to which all humanity instinctively ascribes. It is a notion with a genealogy of its own, which has risen to prominence in specific historical contexts and under peculiar social conditions. In most societies the person is heavily situated and cannot be abstracted from their attachments. They are regarded as generative beings, as those who come from and continue a lineage. Most human societies have also placed considerable weight upon the distinctions between male and female, as two different types of human persons, who aren’t interchangeable. Beyond these considerations, most societies have also regarded persons as closely bound up with the societies and communities to which they belong and not simply abstractable from them.
Now, it is important to notice variations in the ways the person is characterized from society to society. For instance, early Christianity could establish a sort of cosmopolitanism, as persons of all backgrounds and identities were brought into participation in the (particular) work of Christ in constituting a new humanity. This event traverses the boundaries operative in this present age and diminishes the weight that they would possess thereafter. However, it neither eliminated the distinctions nor, more importantly for our present considerations, overcame them through abstraction and departicularization. Rather, the distinctions were addressed through a process of traversal and ‘re-particularization’, as the work of Christ, necessarily acting from a unique point in the world of the particular, traversed the existing boundaries of the world, offered a new particular identity that relativized all others, and thereby reconstituted and redistributed the weight of meaning within the realm of the particular. The outcome was not the abstract and autonomous individual, but the person in Christ, a person who was more profoundly implicated in realities beyond themselves, in Christ, the Church, and the cosmos. The ‘universal’ achieved by Christ is the traversal of the entirety of the realm of particular in an event of grace, not the abstraction from it into a departicularized realm of the detached individual. Through Christ’s work we become ‘universal’ persons, not as abstract and detached from particularity, but as those connected to it in its fulness.
The concept of the individual makes the particular person conformable to universal principle. It enables us to found society upon the principle of self-evident human rights, for instance, in a way that downplays or effaces the particularity of historical peoplehood. It provides a principle by which we can conceptualize and develop social order and relations without having to navigate the complex particularities of gender differences, differences in peoplehood, locality, custom, and the like.
The modern reader of the Scriptures reads as an individual and in terms of the governing concept of the individual. They are generally reading or hearing without a sense of their profound implication in a people beyond themselves. While they may feel a sense of spiritual kinship with other Christians, they are much less likely to perceive themselves and act as members of one body with them. In approaching the text, they are generally focusing upon their personal spiritual life and unmindful of the fact that the text might largely be concerned with the formation of a people.
The sense of the individual as the basic unit of analysis and social order will lead the modern person to approach the text with particular questions, concerns, and assumptions on account of which they can miss or mistake its import. For instance, it might not occur to them to wonder whether references to ‘the elect’ might often refer to a people, rather than to a set of individuals.
Another good example can be seen in people’s readings of texts such as Genesis 1:27: ‘So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.’ The modern reader will instinctively read such a text in terms of the universal concept of the individual: ‘So God created the human individual in His own image; in the image of God He created him; and he created multiple individuals who were male and female.’ The obvious message of this text to the modern reader is that each individual is created in the image of God, whether male or female. Maleness or femaleness is a secondary characteristic or quality of individuals, here affirmed to make no difference at the deepest level. Humanity is fundamentally conceived of as a kind of being—the human individual—who comes in diverse forms. Many will see maleness and femaleness here primarily as illustrative of the diversity of human individuals more generally.
However, read in dialogue with the chapter that follows, and in terms of a non-abstracting logic, a very different picture could emerge. For a non-abstracting logic, humanity is here presented as a structured whole, rather than as a set of assorted, yet fundamentally interchangeable, units. God creates the human kind in his image; he creates a specific human male—Adam—in his image who sums up humanity in himself and is the source and most prominent member of the race; finally, he creates a disjunction in humanity between male and female, so that humanity should be defined and formed by the interplay on various levels of the two parties to that significant difference in relation. ‘Male and female’, in this picture, is not two sets of detached human individuals, but a disjunction in the race that is definitive of its identity and character. To be a male or female is not merely to be an individual who just happens to be a male or a female, but it is to be situated in a very particular position within the great choreography of God’s creation. Sometimes this disjunction plays out in relations between individual persons, but sometimes it plays out between groups.
This approach gives great salience to the difference between men and women: it is not just an example of difference and diversity as such, but a very specific polarity that God establishes to be formative and creative of human existence and meaning, much as the divisions he creates between day and night, the waters above and beneath the firmament, or the sea and the land. This way of reading the text violates many modern instincts, as it threatens the ultimacy of the detached individual and presents the difference between male and female as having fundamental and definitive significance for humanity. It presents the human person as inescapably situated within a particular order, relative to Adam and as either male or female, rather than as an essentially abstract individual, who just happens to have particular qualities, identities, and relations.
Commensurability and Equality
If we are all ultimately individuals, we are all ultimately commensurable and will naturally measure ourselves relative to each other using univocal categories such as money or power. While every society will recognize some senses in which persons are commensurable, our heavy weighting of the abstract and universal means that persons are considerably more commensurable in our society than they are in almost any other. As any differentiating characteristics between persons are treated as secondary and given little or any weight, differences in the degree to which we enjoy the univocal power, status, and autonomy that is deemed proper to our individuality will become a matter of acute concern.
The standard according to which equality is asserted is seldom carefully and consistently articulated, yet ‘equality’ is much more likely to assume axiomatic force in a society such as ours: we know that individuals are ultimately ‘equal’ and everything must operate in terms of this. All further differences must be consigned to the level of indifference, differences that cannot (be allowed to) make a difference. Two things can, of course, be ‘equal’ in some important respects and different and not suitable for comparison in a great many other respects that matter greatly. Apples and oranges are ‘equal’ in the respect that they are equally pieces of fruit and that one of either of them could count as one of your ‘five a day’. The rest of the time, however, they are, well, apples and oranges. The more we insist upon their ‘equality’, the more we are in danger of being unmindful of or erasing their particularity.
In a society of universalism and departicularization, ‘equality’ tends to be the manner in which people’s value is affirmed. If people are not ‘equal’ in a society based upon radical abstraction and commensurability, one party must be less than the other. Affirming and pursuing equality can easily become a consuming preoccupation in such a society and its absence is regarded as glaring proof of injustice.
The axiomatic force that the abstract term ‘equality’ assumes drives many attempts to reform society, so that it is more congruent with our abstractions. Yet the empirical reality continually betrays the incommensurability of different people and social realities, that we are profoundly different in ways that make big differences, and for which the abstractions cannot account. For people committed to a society built around abstract technique and measurement, to admit the inequality of men and women would be to hold that women are less than men, while to admit their deep incommensurability would be to undermine or reject the fundamental principles upon which our abstract society is grounded. Here it is also important to appreciate that the common framing of the question of whether women are ‘equal to men’ implicitly genders the standard by which women are judged, implying that men are the measure. Here, as in many other places, we can see some of the cracks in the supposed order of universal principle, betraying the fact that it is ordered primarily around Western males.
Same-sex marriage is a good example of the way that the concept of equality and the logic of universalism functions within our society. The same-sex marriage case has advanced under the banner of ‘marriage equality’. To its critics, this slogan is begging of the question: surely the debate is about whether in fact the sexual union of two men or two women are equivalent in their significance to that union which has traditionally been recognized in marriage. Yet to the supporters of same-sex marriage, no question is being begged, because no discussion is admissible: equality is axiomatic and beyond question.
The logic of the same-sex marriage position rests upon the equality of detached individuals and their rights: to make such rights contingent upon secondary characteristics such as the gender of their preferred partner is an intolerable compromise of the autonomy of the individual and a violation of their rights. The problem is that the logic of marriage as a natural institution is in direct opposition with the logic of abstract and departicularizing society. As a natural institution, marriage recognizes, protects, and honours the specific generative ‘grammar’ of humanity, a ‘grammar’ for which human beings aren’t interchangeable individuals, but in which their individuality is exceeded in the union of a pair bound together in their complementary difference, a difference that is recognized to lie at the heart of society. Of course, an institution that so maintains the non-interchangeableness of persons, a bond that eclipses individuality, and the fact that society has a proper form and a grammar, rather than being essentially amorphous and composed of fungible individuals and ordered by their autonomous choices, is increasingly incompatible and at odds with the values of abstract and universal society.
Once again, equality concerns also shape the way that we read our Bibles. The concern of the average reader of Genesis 1-3, for instance, is to affirm, in some manner or other, the ‘equality’ of men and women. This overriding concern eclipses most that those texts have to teach us regarding gender. However, to the modern mind, this is the question that really counts, the question that comes before and above all others. According to the abstract and universal measure of the individual, it is impossible for us to value men and women each in their own way, recognizing those respects in which they are comparable, yet placing more weight upon their differences. To do this would be to suggest that women are less than men.
Equality is also a problem for readers of a verse such as Galatians 3:28, the locus classicus for an egalitarian Christian position: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Such a text will generally be read as an unqualified affirmation of the axiomatic equality of detached individuals with varying characteristics, when it is really a contextual declaration of the unity of formerly opposed or alienated groups in a new solidarity. While there are clear senses in which a form of equality follows from this—we are all recipients of the promised Holy Spirit, for instance—it isn’t an axiomatic equality, a radically generalizable equality, nor yet an equality that renders people interchangeable. And the result of it all is not a lot of detached and equal individuals, but various and differing members of a single and undivided family.
Technique and Efficiency
A society based upon universalism, departicularization, and abstraction will tend to elevate technique and efficiency above all else. Our society is founded upon a radical trust and dependence upon technique and the rule of abstract principle over the realm of the particular. This rule is seen throughout our society: in our technologies, in our modes of production, in our forms of government, and the general ordering of our society and societal relations.
The realm of the particular is perceived to be essentially amorphous and order is provided by abstract law acting upon it. There is no inherent form to which law must answer, nor natural grain with which it must cut. The substance of the world is raw material, which we can form and reform as we will.
Our faith in science and technology and in the prevailing logic of production and replication encourages the development of a society in which we are ruled by universal techniques, techniques that are deemed to be endlessly scalable, universally replicable, and transplantable to any situation. Where technique seems to fail we come to believe that it just needs to be better optimized. Turn certain dials a few increments in various directions and it will work. Society itself is ‘engineered’, subject to the logic of production and technique.
As society starts to be ruled by technique, the machinery of the system can start to eclipse those within it. Society can become subject to the logic of technique that it has established. Scott Alexander’s ‘Meditations on Moloch’ helps to explain some of the process in which systems can take on a seeming life of their own, trapping their creators within them. Optimizing such systems can often and perhaps increasingly involve the shedding of human limitations, in ways that can lead to the systems becoming antagonistic to our humanity. The need to maximize the growth of the economy, for instance, pushes us almost inexorably towards extreme automation and extensive use of artificial intelligence. However, this outcome could well lead to the increased redundancy of an ever-growing number of human workers, reducing us to burdensome dependents upon technocratic governments who could do without the deadweight and consumers of resources who leave no mark upon or take no weighty responsibility in the world of their own, but are increasingly infantilized and engineered. Yet the idea that the optimization of technique and efficiency might need to be abandoned for the sake of the preservation and growth of our humanity is anathema to a society that is built upon faith in rule by technique. The economy must grow!
Measurement is an important part of this picture. Technique requires standardized measurement and commensurability. That which cannot be measured does not count. Money, power, and productive output tend to be exalted as measures over everything else. The focus upon the growth of the economy as the measure of society’s well-being, for example, leads us to marginalize and devalue all work that does not contribute to and prove its worth within the money economy. Domestic work, communal economies of interdependence and non-monetary charity, and practices of subsistence are all demeaned as a result. The maximization of the (money) economy requires that we push people out of such realms of activity into paid employment and get them to hire other paid workers to perform the work that once was their own. As I’ve pointed out here, the wrongheadedness of this way of approaching society is profound. Faith in technique almost unavoidably leads us to such irrationalism, however.
Universal rationality is not something that is just exercised by human beings upon the world, but is something that is exercised upon us. Society itself must be ‘rationalized’, as local customs, conventions, traditions, values, and bonds must cede their former control to technical systems, procedures, logics, bureaucracies, and rule-governed processes, all geared towards the optimization of social order and outcomes assessed according to the quantifying measures of the social sciences.
Universal reason requires and propels such a universal rationalization of society, as social order must adapt itself to and facilitate the rule of technique. The subjects of the society of universal reason are themselves ‘rationalized’, catechized, framed, and formed into beings conformable with universal technique. They are fashioned as optimized raw material suited to the use of such a social order. They are professionals, acting according to the rational rules and techniques of their employers, rather than as a public expression of their proper moral character. They are ideally gender neutral, tolerant, adaptable, footloose, and otherwise unalloyed by the sort of identities, commitments, convictions, and attachments that resist the pure logic of the society of universal reason and the fungibility of the ‘human capital’ within it. They privatize all their religious, relational, and cultural commitments, abandoning the public realm to the rule of reason and technique.
It is important to appreciate the way that an emphasis upon technique performed upon loosely formed reality encourages a movement away from substantial accounts of reality to increasingly functional ones. For instance, we increasingly tend to think about being a parent in terms of ‘parenting’. Parenthood is the function of parenting performed by an adult upon children. We then measure the conformity of the grown child to social norms to determine whether the exercise of the function was effective or not. Yet a natural parent is always already related to their child, and their work of raising the child is first and foremost a matter of being present to the child as the person that they are—that child’s mother or father—and of acting towards them within that relationship. Parenting can’t be reduced to a function, as what the parent does is inseparably bound up with the natural connection that they have with their child. No other party can truly take their place.
Once again, this all shapes contemporary debates in the Church. The way that we approach ecclesiology has increasingly been characterized by the logic of technique. For instance, debates about women in ministry routinely proceed on the assumption that the pastor of a church is merely a person who performs certain functions to a certain level of proficiency. The question of whether women can be pastors is presumed to be settled by demonstration that women can perform certain functions well, the alternative being the demeaning of their abilities. However, this is akin to defining being a mother as the performance of certain functions defined as ‘mothering’ and then arguing that many men can ‘mother’ just as well as women. Once we have denied the significance of inherent differences in the realm of the particular and think instead of functions performed by essentially interchangeable individuals, a great deal follows. The rationale of exclusively male pastors becomes incredibly tendentious and questionable in a society that operates in terms of abstraction and technique, with many unattractive implications.
As John Gray has argued in his quadrilateral taxonomy (individualist, egalitarian, meliorist, and universalist), the liberal tradition, in its various guises (classical, progressive, libertarian, neoliberal, etc.), is distinguished by a commitment to the primacy of the individual as the unit of social analysis and order, as the centre of gravity of ethics and meaning in society, and to the maintenance of the primacy and integrity of the individual against external forces that would compromise it. It upholds the equality of all individuals in their moral worth. It believes in the possibility of and is committed to the continual improvement of our societal arrangements. It also endeavours to base society on the foundation of universal principles, such as reason and human rights.
The universalism of liberalism is perhaps its most fundamental dimension and that which gives rise to its other features. Liberalism is confident that society can be founded upon self-evident principles of reason that apply universally, to every society and person, a confidence well-illustrated in documents such as the American Declaration of Independence. Unshackled by tradition, history, and the parochial customs and institutions of a particular society, liberalism holds that society is best structured according to principles arrived at through reason, typically articulated in terms of universal human rights, democratic government, free markets, and the panoply of freedoms and protections of liberal order. This requires a revolutionary break with what has preceded, and a commitment to principles that stand above every particular society.
The individualism, egalitarianism, and meliorism are concomitant beliefs of the universalism. The confidence that society can be based upon universal reason tends to involve the belief that human beings are essentially deracinated and fungible individuals, who can function as social raw material. The ‘autonomy’ of these beings is asserted against all local obligations or attachments, rendering them the subjects and agents of universal rational society. The liberal subject is the person who has ascended above the plane of local attachments to become a pure cosmopolitan, a rootless ‘citizen of the world’, enjoying the benefits of any and every locality yet bound to none. It also entails a belief in a process of optimization by which a steady tightening of our grasp upon universal rationality will yield an asymptotic approach to the ideal society.
Liberalism’s confidence in universal and abstract principles of government is also connected to a commitment to the departicularization and fungibility of members of its polities. Contemporary liberal approaches to immigration policies are a great example of this. They proceed on the assumption that individuals are all interchangeable, that whatever our cultures, beliefs, or backgrounds, we can be treated as effective raw material for the formation of society. When it comes to the formation of society, our differences and cultural characteristics are irrelevant. Government ultimately operates according to universal reason and technique, not according to character or culture.
Conservatism, as Ofir Haivry and Yoram Hazony powerfully argue in this essay, is firmly opposed to liberalism, even though classical liberals are often mistakenly identified as conservatives. Conservativism is committed to attention to the realm of the particular, to the cultivation, inhabiting, continuation, and transmission of specific traditions. It is committed to the virtue of prudence, rather than universal reason. It recognizes the importance of culture and religion in the constitution of a society, and is deeply attentive to history.
In a society that has been ravaged by the rule of universal principle and abstraction, it is very difficult to sustain an effective conservative tradition. Within such a society, conservatives are at risk of retreating into a sort of ‘meta-conservativism’, a sort of conservatism as technique. We can laud the virtues of tradition, culture, and family, as such, without standing for and continuing any culture in particular. This is especially tempting in a society where the maintenance of one’s culture and resistance to the spread of universal culture is deemed to be sectarian. Unfortunately, in our societies of mass immigration and individualism the social solvent is really the universal acid of atomizing liberalism and the market.
Liberal society’s essential hostility to tradition is another factor to attend to. Liberalism’s privileging of technique and its distrust of cultural particularity poses particular problems for the humanities, which historically held forth a specific literary, religious, historical, and cultural tradition as demanding of our attention and commitment. The spread of liberal values within the humanities has led to a crisis, where either the particular Western tradition is attacked and relativized, or is reduced to the level of fodder for techniques such as deconstruction and foils for the affirmation of the individual’s identity (as James Hankins recently put it: ‘The more politically minded professors use old books as a corpus vile for the exercise of what Paul Ricoeur called “the hermeneutics of suspicion”’).
Choice and the Pristine Self
At the heart of the social order of universalism and abstraction lies the inviolable self. This self is beholden to no one and under no one’s authority. Ultimately, it stands alone. While the liberalism of past ages, forged as it was around privileged and robust males, upheld the inviolability of the individual chiefly by protecting restrictions upon its agency by greater powers such as the state, the liberalism of today is increasingly a liberalism of the vulnerable victim, where the individual is protected, not from the stifling of its agency, but from exposure to any unwelcome contrary agency or viewpoint.
The affirmation of the individual increasingly takes the form of a vast socially-enforced non-aggression pact between people of different convictions, ensuring the continuation of a regime of niceness. The sacred value is the ‘pristine self’, the self that must be affirmed and protected from attack or challenge. Ideologies are attached to the self as forms of private self-articulation. The ideology of transgenderism, for example, may be both incoherent and intellectually inconsistent with various forms of feminism, but both can be affirmed in the very strongest of terms and treated as beyond challenge. This is because they aren’t ultimately about objective reality, but are the affirmation and expression of the pristine self. Even if we disagree, we must affirm its validity, provided it doesn’t break the non-aggression pact. The inviolability of the individual must be upheld.
Modern society creates such vulnerable and hypersensitive selves through its uprooting of us from deep structures of belonging, through high levels of divorce and weak family structure, through high levels of migration within and between countries, through the radical integration of the sexes, through precarious employment, through the fracturing and atomization of communities and traditional ways of life, through its establishment of highly diverse societies, through its association of the self with its choices and a performative identity, and through its pandering to the self as consumer. The result is the ‘fragilization’ of the self, the formation of a vulnerable self that cannot sustain challenge. In a highly pluralistic society, we have lost faith in the effectiveness of the contestation of ideas or the robustness of the individual to sustain challenge, and are coming to regard such contestation as a form of assault or violence upon people of different convictions.
In highly pluralistic societies, social etiquette can increasingly close down or curtail discussion of differing ultimate commitments. The important thing is to be ‘tolerant’, not threatening or challenging others, but affirming them as equal members of society. The power of values such as ‘tolerance’, ‘equality’, ‘diversity’, and ‘inclusion’ in pluralistic Western societies such as ours is immense. Yet, although it is often underwritten by ideology, it seems to me that the rise of these values has much more to do with the need to make relationships and social order in highly pluralistic societies workable.
These values are also inculcated in modern forms of permissive parenting, which resist the imposition of authority upon children in any form, which would violate their autonomy (and the violation of a child’s bodily autonomy with spanking or physical force is regarded as particularly egregious). The child must be affirmed and catered to, their selves coddled. Instead of authoritative discipline, there is more likely to be endless negotiation, subtle conditioning, and psychological manipulation.
The inviolable self is also maintained through the elevation of individual choice. A society based upon the abstract and universal individual tends to regard societal demands placed upon such individuals as violations of their integrity. Instead, everything must be presented as choice and individual self-expression. The different forms this takes don’t really matter, provided that ultimately it is the individual that is being expressed, not something greater than them. A growing number of Christians are falling prey to this as they reframe our faith as a subjective choice and form of religious self-expression, rather than speaking about it as an objective truth that demands our adherence. Slavoj Žižek insightfully highlights the transmutation that occurs in such cases:
[T]he moment a woman wears a veil as the result of her free individual choice, the meaning of her act changes completely: it is no longer a sign of her direct substantial belongingness to the Muslim community, but an expression of her idiosyncratic individuality, of her spiritual quest and her protest against the vulgarity of the commodification of sexuality, or else a political gesture of protest against the West. A choice is always a meta-choice, a choice of the modality of the choice itself: it is one thing to wear a veil because of one’s immediate immersion in a tradition; it is quite another to refuse to wear a veil; and yet another to wear one not out of a sense of belonging, but as an ethico-political choice. This is why, in our secular societies based on “choice,” people who maintain a substantial religious belonging are in a subordinate position: even if they are allowed to practice their beliefs, these beliefs are “tolerated” as their idiosyncratic personal choice or opinion; the moment they present them publicly as what they really are for them, they are accused of “fundamentalism.” What this means is that the “subject of free choice” (in the Western “tolerant” multicultural sense) can only emerge as the result of an extremely violent process of being torn away from one’s particular lifeworld, of being cut off from one’s roots.
Power versus Nature
For universalism, departicularization, and abstraction to be effective, reality has to be fungible and malleable. Those who have faith in these forces can often treat empirical reality with suspicion, attributing its appearances to the operation of malign social forces that have ‘socialized’ us to do this, that, or the other. In some respects, there is a Gnostic flavour to this: an evil Demiurge establishes empirical reality as a vast illusion, presenting us with an appearance of ‘nature’ as some stable, secure, and ordered realm. In actual fact, this ‘nature’ is socially constructed and needs to be reformed in line with our universal principles. Those privileged persons that have obtained enlightenment can see through and fight against the illusion that prevents everyone else from seeing the truth.
Within this struggle, the ‘social construction’ of reality is often presented as the power that both enslaves, and that which might release us. Men and women, for instance, have been socialized into patriarchal and sexist ways of thinking and acting and they can potentially be socialized out of them. The ‘true’ reality, beyond the deceptive empirical realm of appearances, is that men and women are ‘equal’, yet this truth is veiled by social construction.
Of course, if human beings are so malleable by society, the notion of some deeper reality being ‘suppressed’ by socialization is a difficult one to sustain in any strong form. Plasticine doesn’t have some natural form that is being suppressed by the person modelling with it; the most we can say is that the plasticine’s modelled form is an arbitrary and artificial one, which could have been fashioned quite differently. Asserting this deeper equality of men and women invites some extreme claims about their malleability, along with a commitment to refashion concrete reality in terms of the abstract ideal.
Faith in the tractability of nature to social construction encourages a foregrounding of power. If nature is so malleable, those who assert the objective truth and naturalness of certain social relations are actually constructing the ‘nature’ that they are appealing to, thereby naturalizing their illegitimate imposition of power upon others. A deep hermeneutic of suspicion tends to go hand in hand with a lack of faith in a genuine and robust common natural order that we share with others.
Where nature does not seem to be responsive to our social construction, it must yield to our technological power. For some feminists such as Shulamith Firestone, this means pursuing the technologization of human reproduction, so that biology’s violation of women’s autonomous individuality can be addressed with things such as artificial wombs. Nature is an enemy to be fought against in the cause of justice, so that we can become the true universal individuals that we ought to be.
The logic of the modern mind is totalizing. The universal culture it advances is not merely an abstraction from particularity in a bounded location, but a claim to a universal logic to which all localities must yield, bound up with epistemological, economic, technological, and technical means by which they can be pressured to do so. Its pretensions are totalizing, not merely in extensity but in intensity: every society and person must, in every increasing respects, subject themselves to rationalization. Liberalism and other attendant positions of universal reason, believe themselves to be endlessly scalable, transplantable, and replicable. They are at home everywhere and nowhere. Before the power of universal reason and its optimized techniques, all places, persons, customs, values, identities, traditions, and societies are rendered plastic and fungible, fired bricks for its Babel.
In contrast to other socio-political orders, universal culture’s characteristic immodesty and self-absolutization is seen in its conviction that its structures and values are not merely the most fitting and effective for specific twenty-first century Western societies, but that they represent a universally just and rational order, which it is morally incumbent on all human societies to adopt. Its liberalism typically functions as a totalizing doctrine, even as it firmly opposes all other doctrines’ pretensions to ultimacy.
This totalizing and the abstracting force of universal culture yields an increasing emphasis upon ideological conflict. As society is to be subjected to totalizing and axiomatic rational commitments, the question of which commitments these are to be becomes an extremely acute one. Whatever universal logic we settle upon will insatiably chew its way through the existing social order. In more conservative societies, by contrast, universal and abstract axiomatic commitment hold much less power. The focus is more upon the particularity of prudence, which must be highly attentive to context and situation and does not presume to order everything in terms of universal principle.
The paradoxical reality of the society of universal reason is that it is both ‘universal culture’ and an outgrowth of Western culture more particularly. Historic Western cultures are assimilated into ‘universal culture’, which, as the society of universal reason, is founded upon a revolutionary and principled break with the past it arose from, tainted as its ways are with the provincial particularities of historic Western customs and traditions. However, universal culture never loses its Western flavour. The values of universal culture are particular values, values with a history and an origin, values that arise from within peculiar social conditions. The individual at the heart of Western society’s universalism is also generally implicitly male, a being inherently privileging of male strengths and values. The universal individual could never have a womb, for instance. The playing field is not a level one.
Western society perceives itself as the vanguard of the entirety of humanity and, as it approaches more nearly to the ideals of universal culture, believes itself to be establishing the pattern that all others are expected to follow. Because it understands itself as universal culture, however, the West is singularly dulled to the fact of its own particularity. The universalism of Western culture enables us to sustain a cultural chauvinism, while disavowing its possibility. We see the contrast between our culture and others, less as the contrast between one particular culture and another particular culture, but as the contrast between the culture of universal reason and the irrationalism of a particular culture.
Scott Alexander discusses some of the dynamic here. However, he fails to do justice to the degree to which ‘universal culture’ isn’t merely the development of products, beliefs, and practices that are optimized for universal human preferences, but is the inexorable spread of a specific historical culture’s social logic that is itself productive of the values, tastes, preferences, and, indeed, the human subjects that it claims to serve. ‘What works’ in so-called universal culture is largely what works for universal culture. The virulence of the West’s universal culture is less a matter of its superior products (although a great many of its products are arguably superior, regarded purely in their own right) than of its radical logic, which tends to function as a sort of universal acid for the coordination mechanisms and structures of traditional societies and is the only force that can survive their destruction. Anyone who resists being rationalized and assimilated into the society of universal reason will generally find themselves steamrollered or marginalized by it.
Unless we have some sense of the way that our minds are shaped and informed by our material, economic, technological, social, and political conditions, we will struggle to understand not only the Bible, but also the world that we have created. As Christians these are the instincts with which we often come to our faith. Left unquestioned and unchecked, they will compound our problems. Our first task must be to recognize their existence and take inventory of them. We will never escape them, but we can learn to be suspicious and critical of them, to perceive their presence within us and to begin to recognize both their contingency and their inherent strangeness.