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.
Hi Alastair, This is one of the most helpful and insightful articles I’ve read in a long time. Thank you!
Do you know of any resources that speak to some of this stuff at a more popular level? My context is city centre ministry with 18-30s within the Church of England – trying to think about how I can engage some of them with this type of dialogue, but this article was quite a stretch for myself at times.
I’m glad to hear that you found it helpful! Unfortunately, however, I don’t really know of any book that I could recommend on the subject. It really is underaddressed, and especially at a popular level.
It would seem to me that the rot began when an Aristotelian approach to physics was jettisoned and accelerated by Hume’s attack on causation. A return to the coherence of act potency and substance would re-solidify the external world and provide logical basis for the physical constraints of reality.
Part of my point in the post above is that metaphysical ideas are probably not the root cause of our ills. Our issues seem to exist more at the level of tacit belief.
Problematic metaphysical ideas neither arise in a vacuum, nor do they randomly catch on. The question is, why did the rejection of the old metaphysics find such traction when it did? And why do people who have never and will never come in firsthand contact with real philosophical thought have such pronounced instinctive views of reality that push them in very specific directions? Philosophical positions are often sophisticated articulations of possible positions within a given culture. But something else has to make them thinkable. Why is it that practicing a sacrificial system is completely unthinkable and unimaginable to most modern minds, for instance? What changed there? It seems to me that ideas are generally a little downstream from the key changes in these areas.
What really needs to be answered is what is in general the major cause of societal changes which is far from obvious. My general view is similar to Schaeffer- the ideas of the philosophers work themselves down into society such that the fabric of society represents their ideas so the concepts become second nature to regular people. People need not to have any contact with abstract ideas to effectively assimilate them.
As to the rejection of Aristotelian physics was probably largely due to the predictive power of the new mathematised sciences and the increases in wealth and health it could achieve, although you could argue the problem starts earlier with Occam. If you make the assumption that people generally want a higher standard of living anything that achieves that will be readily incorporated. The problem is what people believe constitutes a higher standard of living changes. So the market is only departicularising to the extent that the consumer wants a departiculrised good. If the consumer wants local products produced by people they know then that is what the market will provide not just cheaper products made by faceless individuals.
I think the conclusion needs more circumspection about how this modern reality, with its unusual phenomena, came about, and, as I think is the truth, it is from Christianity that it emerges. It didn’t come from nowhere, and it is certainly not merely a return to paganism. While I think a lot of his interpretations are too peculiar and are flat wrong, Agamben’s philosophical project is to show how modernity was a distinctly Christian phenomenon, all for the worst. From a more sympathetic stance, this is a similar paradigm to Ivan Illich who grasped the adage: corruptio optimi pessima.
While not wrong with any of the data in your account per se, but I think the sense that the problems of modernity are not exterior to the Christian faith; rather, they’re mutations from within. Otherwise, we will fall into the same trap again and again. The abomination of desolation is seated within the Holy Place, and anti-Christ is not so much an opposite as it is a counterfeit (666 vs. 777). The problem emerges from within the Biblical text, as Jerusalem can become, in a flash, Babylon the Great. It’s not so much as making sure we don’t bring alien modern elements to our faith, but appreciating how mutation can spring up among us, of how the devil appears as an angel of light.
For we ought to appreciate that modern notions of universalism and departicularization are mutant forms of the gospel’s universalism. And that’s the real danger; Christendom can be (or is) far more dangerous than the Dar al Islam. The modern notion of universalism came from the churches of Europe. Even gay marriage is itself a mutant form of Christian notions of marriage.
food for thought,
As a postscript: Rejecting the modern has no value in it because the only direct opposite to it is a form of paganism. Universalism is opposed to particularity and tribalism, equality is opposed to caste system or nobility. Power over nature is opposed to nature over power, or power under nature. And so on. All of these things are a return to the flesh. What modernity does, in its own neo-Gnostic way, is vaunt the spirit, but in such a way where it is demonic.
I might to make an appeal to all/any readers that modernity is the Church’s problem, contrary to the nonsense espoused by Milbank, Hart, et al. about modernity as a return to paganistic agonism. However one wants to account for the mutation, and the specific narrative of development, the NT confrontation with what has been sometimes labelled proto-gnostics ought to be paradigmatic. We should appreciate how someone like Marcion was not merely controlled from non-Christian concerns, but that he was a deeply Christian thinker, and that’s what made his heresy all the more dangerous. The Scripture is not only a positive account of the faith, but contains, within itself, its own shadow.
Most of the key developments here occurred well over a millennium and a half after the rise of the Christian faith. I don’t think that the Christian faith is a particularly strong explanatory factor. Not least because the acceptance of the Christian faith is always already conditioned by factors such as those I mentioned. Characteristic ideas and systems of Christendom can easily be co-opted by certain developments in our mental instincts, but that doesn’t mean that they gave rise to the forces that co-opted them. They were just vulnerable to them. They hadn’t developed the antibodies for certain novel errors.
And these issues aren’t unique to the Western formerly Christian world. Other countries experience similar mutations in values and practices when they industrialize, for instance. We got there first for various historical reasons (some of them ideological, but most more accidental than that), but the forces that are shaping us now have their own autonomous logic, largely independent of us.
The devil appearing as an angel of light is not a mutation from within, but it can lead to the possession of a culture by forces beyond it that it mis-recognized as friendly to it. And the forces that I am describing here often arose in forms relatively antagonistic to the Christian tradition, so the devil sometimes wasn’t even disguised. We just didn’t have the resources to resist him.
I don’t believe that the modern should be rejected, tout court. Nor do I believe that we should return to some idealized premodern society. I’m not with Milbank et al here, not least because I don’t think ideas explain much. We do need to recognize the particularity of the values of our supposed universal culture and to take account of them.
And the universal of departicularization and abstraction, it is crucial to notice, really doesn’t start life in the form of carefully considered metaphysics. Rather, it is the implied metaphysics of early modern scientists, the systemic logic of the marketplace, the logic of forms of mass production, the system of value encouraged by the growth of the money economy, and other such factors. These developments create contexts within which philosophies of universal reason can really gain traction, but Christianity really doesn’t explain much here. Indeed, I suspect that it can only come to be seen as such when it has been subject to considerable abstraction itself.
While I’m cautious about the use of genealogy, and Foucault’s notion of signature, I think it’s a fair concept to deploy in these questions. Again, being cautious, I think it’s fair to talk about puctualized equilibrium for social change. Change can be rapid after a build up. I guess at some level we have a radical disagreement over the history of Western civilization and development. An example of what I’m talking about is seeing how Christendom shifted into the ius publicum europaeum, which morphed into the ius gentium, and then the global framework for today’s talk of human rights and global arbitration. There’s a universalism at work that changed over time.
Many of these contemporary modern distortions are very western and depend upon the existence of the west. Industrialism in Japan and China was very different to its western counterpart, and even that is a category mistake in analysis, because both were locked into a relationship with the West to even begin to translate these ideas, techniques, and practices.
No ideas in a nutshell don’t explain much. But it’s worth considering frameworks which direct certain forces, things autonomous and otherwise. So, the reference to early modern developments in metaphysics, economic structures, etc. depend upon the Christian framework they developed within. To ignore the fact that secularism was, in many ways, a reactionary move in light of the Wars of Religion, 30 Years War, and English Civil Wars, is to miss how even what became the laicite of the philosophes began among Christian statesmen and clergy seeking to clamp down on violence and retain a place for the Church within a pluralist social context. A secularist context of an autonomous zone for reason became the groundwork for the form of scientific inquiry. This isn’t just ideas, it’s how social contexts were formed and formatted; England being so crucial because it’s mode of doing things impacted the 25% of the world it colonized, spreading models of action and inquiry. And, of course, much of this gave birth to the sort of trends we see today. Enlightenment universalism depended upon Christendom for its shape and content, even as it hollowed it out.
I fear that your account has failed to appreciate subtle corruption from within, and will only repeat the same confusion that plagues the Church. But to make such a case is beyond the comment box, and I’ll leave it be. I hope the comments to be a circumspect warning to readers.
I think it’d be worth your time (and anyone else too) reading Agamben’s “Homo Sacer”, “The Kingdom and the Glory”, and “The Time that Remains”, Carl Schmitt’s “Political Theology I & II”, along with Ivan Illich’s book length interview “River North of the Future”, Stringfellow’s “An Ethic for Christians”, Ellul’s “The Politics of God and the Politics of Man”, Ephraim Radner’s “A Brutal Unity”, and, the classic, Ticonius’ “Book of Rules”.
I’ve read a number of those books. And, yes, shifts in institutions and the rule of particular ideas within them does matter. However, this is a very different things from the evolution of Christian ideas in a more abstract sense. We’re in complete agreement there. As I point out in my post, our ‘universalism’ is distinctively Western in its character, bearing many traces of its historical origins. However, these origins are not in pure ideas, so much as in historical conditions, institutions, forms of society, familial structure, geographical location, etc. All of these things are themselves shaped and mobilized by ideas, but always in complicated and messy ways. The way that ideas play out is not straightforwardly predictable, being affected by a great many contingent factors such as powerful personalities, institutional rivalries, ascendant social groups, social tensions, wars, natural disasters, dramatic historical events (the discovery of the Americas was hugely significant, for instance), etc.
However, there are certain logics that are harder to contain than ideas and which tend to prepare the ground for certain ideas to arise themselves. Advanced technology provides these logics with much greater scope in which to play themselves out. The logic of money as value, for instance, does not begin life as an idea—though it produces many ideas and ways of viewing the world over time—but as a sort of principle whose outworking is nearly impossible to resist when enough facilitating factors are in place. These principles are hard to resist because they offer a sort of power to those who follow them, albeit at a cost. We tend accidentally to stumble across such principles. Ideas can strengthen certain principles, or provide us with antibodies against them, but the principles or logics don’t derive their power chiefly from ideas. The right antibodies can prevent logics from gaining the initial momentum that they require, but, once they have gained momentum, there is little that can stop them. Universalist principles reward their servants with power, which is why they are so difficult to oppose.
And the sort of ‘universalism’ that I am referring to in this post is a very different sort of thing from the sort of particular ‘universalisms’ that one encounters in various shared religious or imperial contexts, even though they co-opted their forms and structures.
Normal service resumed.
Some atheist philosophy denies human free will and choice and with it absolves humans from responsibility and morals, traced from Western sources and imperialistically seeks universal domination from within a closed material world, the only world and life there is. From that position, I think espoused by Foucault, we can live lives to suit ourselves and we can use that position to propund and promote any change,to serve any purpose of their own which, after all, is merely determined and not free and a universal absolute. Pragmatism becomes the only weaning ethic.
None of that corresponds with the day to day reality of lives lived around the world, not only in the west.
Recognising the reality of your conclusion and applying it to the preaching and teaching within the Church is a challenge all preachers and teachers face. That said, I’ve recently listened to some marvellous teaching by Sinclair Ferguson based on his book “The Whole Christ” which looks into the Marrow Controversy and the universal and doxological offer of Christ and union with Him without the legalism encountered both in nomism and antinomisn, that liberalism within the church, counter intuitively, is a form of legalism. Consideration of your conculsion can be an aide memoire in deciding how to offer Christ and union with Him to all, even to those who believe there is only a closed material world and to those of us within the church who, through a process akin to osmosis have absorbed to a greater or lesser degree the culture norms as we pass through.
Cal, doesn’t the counterfeit, presuppose the genuine, so that discernment becomes crucial, though wolves, hirelings, and goats do not always easily come into focus, or are in disguise. Somewhere on Alastair’s blog he has written about the style and content of Rob Bell’s talks and influence he exerts and how. He is not the only one who can communicate effectively, or rather as Alastair pointed out, sell, in this sometimes post christian, or sub christian christianity, which has abandoned the two natures of Christ, particularly, incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension in both the supernatural and physical realm.
The counterfeit absolutely presupposes the genuine, but it’s being wary of how we tread in seeking the marks of the genuine as opposed to the counterfeit. Many times the two are so intertwined, like Esau and Jacob in the womb, that they are hard to tell apart.
Had to smile at “ideas don’t explain much” when it came as part of a lengthy post. Ideas have to be explained and readily? understandable to gain traction, much less do they have to have irrefutable logic to irresistably appeal. In fact rigorous and vigorous application of fragmented fallacies can win the day, if not the argument. So far tracing the genesis of both ideas and explanation is concerned are they not pre, post and contemporaneous to theism and in favour or opposition thereto. Doesn’t even Dawkins trace pre-science ideas and societies to their superstitous belief in gods as an explanation for the development of atheism as part of atheist apologetics? What came first explanation of idea or logic of a sun god? I don’t agree with Alastair in this statement, “These developments create contexts within which philosophies of universal reason can really gain traction, but Christianity really doesn’t explain much here.” There is a presupposition in that statement that the philosophies , ideas, preceeded the developments, whether as a conscious cause, factor, or not, The genesis of explanation is Genesis, if not the how, mechanics. And does not the word becoming flesh reverberate with explanation and physical manifestation of Greek philosophy?
Surely, money having a value was first an idea, “give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. Tim Harford has traced the beginnings of money in economics. It is when Christianity surrendered explanation and it’s “theory/theology ” of reality of everything, ex nihilo, that it surrendered the logic and explanation of the Good News of Christ. And in the surrender of the Good News of Christ, it surrendered everything, it’s unique and only true university, unity in diversity and telos.
I read your article with interest and though I was out of my depth with some of it, what I could follow has given me food for thought.
The word ‘strangeness’ is on my mind, and also ‘estrangement’. In contexts where I feel estranged, my first task is usually to search my own heart and to consider ways in which I might be contributing to the problem. Given that I am a very fallible human being, this task can be very time-consuming! However, there are occasions when it seems to me that I have contributed very little to the problem, but I am there in the midst of it, anyway, and dealing with it as best I can.
One such occasion was on a train journey earlier this week. A young man in a seat near me was talking loudly and gesticulating wildly. My first impression was that he was talking to himself, but then I realised that he must have a hands-free moby tucked away somewhere. I have used a moby for a long time, but I still find it strange to be alongside a person who is talking to someone I can’t see. If it happens as I pass someone on the street, this is of course a short-lived experience, but we were in a packed train compartment, and we were all a captive audience to this young man’s loud pronouncements for quite a long time . What struck me was that he carried on as if the rest of us were not there – his mind was elsewhere. Unfortunately, we could not carry on as if he wasn’t there!
I wondered if I might be getting a bit crotchety, but I also realised that I felt alienated by this young man’s self-centredness and his apparent lack of awareness of and lack of consideration for other people in the compartment. Maybe a little concern for others can lessen to some extent estrangement and ‘strangeness of mind’?
Yes, the sense that the physical space that you are inhabiting with another person is not merely being vacated by their personal presence, but also assaulted by their behaviour in their abstraction from it, is annoying and illustrative of some of the strangeness of the world we have created for ourselves.
Thank you, Alastair! I am still reflecting on ‘the strangeness of the world we have created for ourselves’ (and how we might have created it 🙂 )
This is fantastic, Alastair. It scratches about 10 itches that have been building in the back of my mind. I will pass it along to everyone I know (who I think can make any sense of it).
I know that application is the hard part, but if you could write a bit about how to achieve some rootedness, some “particularity” in our western context that would be helpful. I am pretty countercultural, I have a very large family, I live within a few miles of my ancestors (back several generations), I attend a conservative church, the sort that people raise their eyebrows at, regularly, I pretty much abstain from mass entertainment. However, because of the aqua regia that is the universal culture, it can feel like I’m play acting at being a traditionalist. There are no stable folkways to be a part of, to be subsumed by. I am still a pristine individual making choices from an array of options, I just happen I select the package labeled troglodyte patriarchical conservative.
Thanks for your time.
The challenge you highlight is a very real one. In some respects, the presence of new choices and structures artificializes natural reality. The fact that I can easily move around the world means that my staying in a particular location is now a choice, where once it would simply have been a matter of the givenness of belonging there. Likewise, if I were to wear a suit and cap now, I wouldn’t merely be wearing the typical clothes of my class, but would be engaging in a form of self-expression. The rules have changed and so even the same actions have changed in their meaning and effect. We can’t recover the past under such conditions. Especially as individuals. You really would require a whole community to bind itself to a particular way of life, to provide the gravity binding us to particular ways of life.
And we should be wary of wanting to return to the past. The past wasn’t ideal at all and a lot of what we have gained is good. What we need to do is to find ways of weighing that which is new, truthfully naming the reality of our situations, developing defenses against key dangers that come with it, resisting some of the possibilities that have been opened to us, taking stock of our strengths and working to increase them, throwing our weight into considered ways of living around our core values, and trying to form deep enough communal habits to afford friction and inertia against the forces we face. We will also probably need to explore technological options that mitigate the dangers or are more conducive to healthy lives and communities. We need to be really smart in developing defense mechanisms, not least in establishing collective coordination structures so that we can resist perverse and imprisoning logics. But there are no easy solutions in our immediate contexts, often only ways of retarding the inexorable development of the disease.
Yes Cal, in it’s gestation, counterfeit (particularly teaching and possibly faith – though that is not within our remit) is difficult to identify, but when fully formed and tested (sometimes over time) is not so difficult, when measured against the fully formed canon of scripture. Not that true revival is easy to spot, as witnessed by Jonathan Edwards and his Religious Affections assessment.
This is going off on a tangent, I know. Is it not how we finish as much as how we start as well as walk, the whole Christian life that matters?Not that I’m suggesting in any way that we can merit, contributeone iota towards our salvaltion. Does not the whole of the OT with all its flawed leaders, and mixture of faith, disobedience, unbelief (Abraham, Moses: King David, for instance, even though he was God’s choice of King, as opposed to the people’s choice on outward appearance) point to the need for God Himself to show up, to form a new humanity in the last Adam, in Christ Jesus. Yet we remain a mixture, simul justus et peccator, as righteous as Christ in our union with Him, ONly in our union with Him.
What seems to be greatly overlooked, today, are the dire warnings against false teaching which the modern mind appears to be wont to do. And that brings us back to Alastair’s post, even if there is disagreement over how we’ve reached this point in history.
(His is essay is wide in scope, as he is wont to do, and in my view, seeks to make a pointilist painting from only a small number of main points and, to overstretch the metphor, pours water over the points to smudge them. But and this is a big but, he is the theologian and I am not, and I get somewhat frustrated with the academy and their seeming bubble. As a former lawyer, I’ve been taught both the law and to speak up without “fear of favour.” I was also taught that to learn a subject that held little or no interest was part of intellectual development. Now, I’ve reached a stage where I realise you can’t smell all the roses and as a late age convert my desire is to know more of God through great, faithful, teaching and preaching. Non of this is to gainsay Alastair’s great learning and talent, which very clearly inhabits more rarified circles, atmospheres. So much so, that this may come across as a troll, which its not meant to be. Alastair, kindly permits me to exercise some mental gymnastics after some stroke induced mental sclerosis. Thanks for your indulgence Alastair.)
As you will know, Cal. CS Lewis described the strangenes of the modern mind as, “chronological snobbery”, or superiority, arrogance. Strangeness indeed, but foreseeably and scripturally so, a strangeness that bring estrangement from our triune God.
Just a very small comment;
I read your words:’ Now I’ve reached a stage where I realise you can’t smell all the roses’, and then thought of these words of Goethe: ‘You don’t have to travel around the world to understand that the sky is blue everywhere.’ I’m passing these words of Goethe on to you without prejudice and without explanation – mainly because I don’t have an explanation!
An insightful essay! Thank you for putting so much time, thought, and effort into addressing such weighty matters.
I’m hoping you will comment more on how you see some or all of these tendencies or habits (all these -isms) exerting an influence (if any) on contemporary Christianity in the West.
Do you think Baptistic ecclesiology and related distinct features of generally Baptistic culture and practice are at all reflective of any of these tendencies?
And how about contemporary Evangelicalism in general? For instance, I remember back in Lent your talk of how Evangelicals who engage in detached rites and voluntary, self-selected deprivations aren’t practicing historical Lent but engaging in identity curation akin to going to the thrift shop (like Macklemore) to develop a personal brand. That seems related here.
Would you expound a bit?
These dynamics exert a huge impact upon contemporary Christianity in the West. Baptistic theology definitely reflects a number of these influences, but they are there for all of us. We are all religious consumers of some variety or other nowadays, whether we want to be or not.
I’ve discussed some of these things in my essay in Our Secular Age, pointing out that, even if we are practicing historic liturgies, we will generally bring a thoroughly modern imagination to their performance. Everything will be inflected by and refracted through this modern consciousness.
An additional observation and question.
When you discuss Galatians 3:28 as the locus classicus of contemporary egalitarianism in the Western church, you cite it as:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female”
Yet I’m intrigued that the underlying text says:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, no male and female”
It’s postulated that last couplet is a quotation of Genesis 1:27 (and is how Septuagint reads in that text in Genesis 1).
I think it would be fair to Paul’s use of “natural” language to say these pairing are all “natural” differences of the old creation or present world, though not for all the same reasons.
Could you comment on some appropriate ways of understanding and applying Galatians 3:28 and how Christ is ‘undermining’ or relativizing these structures of the old creation/world in the new creation (world to come) and how it’s presently manifesting itself in limited ways as the church makes the future present?
For instance, I don’t think we cease to be male and female in the resurrection, but we do stop marrying and presumably procreating. Isn’t our existence as male and female deeply tied up in those activities? What is the new creation in Christ ‘canceling’ or ‘unseparating’ about male and female? And when I read Matthew 19, I see male and female, and I see the eunuch called out as something different than male and female with a different purpose of kingdom service. Does this all relate somehow?
These (important) questions are tackled in my forthcoming book. It is important to recognize that the identities mentioned were all operative polarities of value relative to the covenant. Paul’s point is that these no longer operate in the same sense. The fact that we are ‘heirs together’, all enjoying the privileged portion of the firstborn Son, conditions all of our other relations in which differences continue to be operative.
With regard to the coming eschatological order, sometimes I find it helpful to consider the penultimate order of marriage. We tend to focus our theologies of marriage upon the couple who are in the child-bearing or child-rearing stages of their lives and marriages. However, marriages and couples grow beyond this point and enter into the maturity of age, when children leave home and fertility is no longer a reality. I think this stage merits reflection as an anticipation of what is to come in some respects. There is still very much a male and female reality, but it is softened in its polarity and is entering into a sort of rest in its former labours.
Thank you Alastair for that. I will need time to digest it fully.
I do have one question though. I have a few issues with how Systematic Theology is practiced within the contemporary church and academy, and your thesis would under-gird my hesitations. If we were to adopt a particularist reading of Scripture, what future would there be for ST?
Thanks, Ciarán! I would suggest we return to something more like the models of such as Thomas Aquinas or Calvin, whose theologies were rigorous, carefully structured, and philosophically attentive, without being systematic in the modern sense of the term.
Pingback: For the Sake of the Church, Don’t use Transgender Pronouns - Kuyperian Commentary
Really excellent. Lots to digest. The modern approach to beauty (or lack thereof, or total redefining of beauty to mean “what i like”) comes to mind. Our souls are shriveled in large part, I think, because of the architectural spaces we inhabit, for example – cement boxes that one could find in London as well as Tokyo. I think Christians can do much to nourish families and communities by pursuing the beautiful.
Yes, the modern approach to beauty is a great example. So much modern architecture is devoid of beauty and is at odds with the organic patterns and realities of human life, being a ‘machine for living’ as Le Corbusier put it (you might enjoy this article). Modernist architecture is shaped by universalism and a revolt against locality. It is highly functionalist. The only admitted justification for beauty might be that beauty makes things more functional in some regards (e.g. people prefer working in beautiful contexts). However, if you look at much historic architecture, you will see profound beauty in the details, an extravagance of beauty, because beauty is seen to be some that matters in itself.
Looking forward to that article! Extravagance of beauty is a great way of putting it – God himself is nothing if not extravagant. I’m reminded of the carvings and weaving in the tabernacle – things like flowers and pomegranates. So unnecessary! In his kindness he demanded beauty.
Pingback: 2017 Retrospective | Alastair's Adversaria
Pingback: Rough Thoughts on ‘Wokeness and Myth on Campus’ | Alastair's Adversaria
Pingback: Questions and Answers on my ‘Strong Female Character’ Trope Article | Alastair's Adversaria
I happened upon this article via Facebook, and I must say it was an incredibly well-written and erudite piece. Thank you for the enlightenment. Unfortunately, while I am somewhat able to comprehend the language you speak so well, I have not attained to the level of conversation in it, much less fluency. I will be returning to this essay many times in the future, and I am most happy to have been introduced to you and your work.
Hmm…by “language” here, I mean the language of philosophy, of course. That was poorly thought out.
Pingback: Is Modernity a Success? | Alastair's Adversaria
Pingback: Spotting Unicorns at the Recent THINK Conference | Alastair's Adversaria
Pingback: 2018 Retrospective | Alastair's Adversaria
Thinks for the insightful article Alistair.
I would like to take issue with one thing though. Speaking of “male” and “female” is also to speak in broad abstractions. Yes, maleness and femaleness is grounded in biological and social reality, but the particular male and female individual never completely fits the archetype.
The same thing can be said about natural law. There are general principles that govern human behaviour and general consequences for sinful behaviour. But at the level of the experience of the particular individual, natural law is obstructed by the particularities of society, behaviour, technology and so fourth.
It seems to me that the individual is the ultimate anti-abstraction because the individual is the specific combination of particulars. The individual is not isolated from society, community, culture, race, gender, ect. Because it is precisely those particulars that make the individual. To speak of the individual without the particulars would be meaningless.
An archetype isn’t the same as an abstraction, nor are male and female necessarily abstractions in the same way. They are empirical realities, although they exceed the individual person. Grounding everything in the individual can risk atomising reality, blinding us to a great deal of the non-abstract reality that we have before us. It should be observed that the modern world involves both abstraction and atomization, whereas traditional and biblical cosmologies are alert to reality as a densely interwoven realm, its particularity and its analogical and archetypal characteristics inseparable.
That is an interesting distinction, are you saying one is grounded in empirical reality, while the other is not?
I think another tendency of the modern world/mind (I’m not sure if you mention this in your wonderful piece of not) is to turn particular individuals into statistical data, and then to assume that the ideal society can be created through the employment of those statistics.This is where we get conversations about race and IQ, eugenics and other horrors. The problem with this statistical approach, is, of course, that it ignores the particular individual for the statistical average. It is however, grounded in empirical reality.
So how does the traditional/biblical cosmology help us find a middle way between atomization (ignoring the empirical reality) and statistical totalitarianism (ignoring the particular)?
Pingback: Why Does The Modern World Care So Much About Equality (and what does Scripture say about it)? – Adversaria Videos and Podcasts
Pingback: Thinking About My Thinking – Adversaria Videos and Podcasts
Great article. I wonder how much of an impact being born again has on our influences? Surely someone being born again in the middle of their life will have some strong influences fade and some new ones begin to grow. Isn’t that what being born again means? And completion or perfection of the new birth might include recognizing our influences, as you say, and pruning them.
Becoming a Christian certainly transforms the way that we experience many of these realities and attunes us to things that we might previously have failed to see.