View from
The Center

The Land of Lost Content

“As we move forward in the present struggle, where the question of race and religion becomes an endemic part of our theaters of division, we must strive to reject the retributive impulse and embrace what Martha Nussbaum keenly called the ‘rational faith.’”

“What are those blue remembered hills, what spires, what farms are those?”

– A.E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad

Introduction

The American Protestant religion is undergoing an identity crisis akin to its post-World War I travails and what it experienced during the commandeering of the political process by the Religious Right in the 1970’s and 1980’s. In one sense, churches have become what Yuval Levin called performative institutions: Instead of forming the character of their members, they create forums exclusive for therapeutic contemplations and broadband enthusiasm. On the other hand, the public image of the church has lost its credulity in the marketplace of ideas, and those who seek the welfare of their neighbors are largely ignored by the mainstream press for lacking scandal and pizzazz. As Reinhold Niebuhr would lament regarding the dual trends of liberals and fundamentalists, one develops a religion so devoid of faith as to render it meaningless, while the other returns to a religion so out of touch with present realities as to be irrelevant.

It is to this end that we need an intellectual awakening to combat this period of “cultural distortion and grave personal stress.” This is a period, to borrow from William McLoughlin, where the public has lost faith “in the legitimacy of our norms, the viability of our institutions, and the authority of our leaders in church and state.” What we need is a “restructuring of our institutions and redefinition of our social goals”—a new phase built on the foundations of moderation-as-virtue and dialectics.

Moderation vs. Virtue

What this new phase will look like is difficult to predict. My fear is that it will take on the form of a resigned embrace of a type of Benedict Option approach that focuses primarily on the well-being of local enclaves and largely refuses to engage in the intellectual movements of secular life. My hope is that the church will resist this notion, instead leaning toward the construction of a new type of public leadership that studies the norms of moderate life with the emphasis on finding sober, theological innovations that help to engender solidarity and service.

This means untethering the public image of the “evangelical church” from White House politics and becoming an ally for the poor and disenfranchised. It would mean creating a new balance between the Cultural Christian appeals made popular by the whims of progressive elites and the Christian Right’s ignorance of the optics of their discontent—a balance between the rigidity of early Puritans and the “intellectually uncritical and doctrinally amorphous” spirit of the Second Great Awakening’s revivalism. The former would be driven by its strenuous, idealistic, moralistic character, as opposed to the latter’s bent on an active, pragmatic, and promotional spirit that is no longer weaponized in the service of Christ. This would be a balance described by Martin Marty between liberal assimilationism and Evangelical isolationism. The former is so blended with the environment that it loses its particularity or distinctiveness and is, thus, rendered unable to tap into the faith’s prophetic or saving power; the latter is defined by “self-enclosed movements” that resist “the pluralism and dialogue without which a republic could not survive.” We seek a balance between radical individualism and what William H. Kirkland noted in 1957 as the advancement of “excessive groupism and togetherness, in which the inevitable aloneness of man in his radical freedom and personal responsibility is slowly absorbed and dissolved.”

In a world defined by an increasing polarized politics and culture, those who “seek the welfare of the city” must begin to occupy the ideological middle ground between distant neighbors. And, it starts with dialogue.

Dialectics

The modern attempt to hew out simple solutions within the field of human activity and divine revelation neglects what Walter Ong described as the “more arduous dialectic of change and changelessness” within an ever-evolving human society. The Christian public witness must embrace this endless dynamic between change and changelessness through a theological mirror of mystery and sacrifice. They must be grounded in the concerns and demands of the world, while leaving room for the miraculous hand of God to move the course of history towards revival. Both human freedom and true community must be nourished in order to better serve our neighbors and provide the necessary fabric to spread the Gospel unfiltered. As Martin Marty explains, “[t]he shape of evangelical Christianity and its quality in human lives depends upon men’s sharing the form of a servant.”

The “moderate religious middle is shrinking,” wrote Robert Putnam, and we must find it again by repairing the undeveloped state of our communication through channels of mutual affection. We do this by reprogramming our intellectual capacity towards a willingness to bend (tropism) our mind to the viewpoints of others.  This is to cultivate what Richard Hofstadter referred to as a “playfulness of mind” as the antidote to rigid piety.

Walter Ong wrote that “[m]an is made to deal with other men, not with only a certain group of men; and human society as a whole is cohesive.” Our condition as social creatures cannot long survive in the confines of our plausible isolationism: “the simple expedient of sealing off the frontier can never again be serviceable in solving human problems to the extent to which it was in an earlier age.” As Jared Diamond recently noted, our political animosity is being driven by our lack of face- to-face interaction: our low social glue to overcome the corrosive effects of partisanship. Edmund Burke knew this well. So did Roger Scruton, who mentioned the value of civic institutions as places “where people learn to interact as free beings, taking responsibility for their actions and accounting to their neighbors.”

Through dialogue, the faith community is able to seek understanding and alleviate their anxiety—providing an escape from the intellectual standstill rooted in a yearning for the return of some mythical golden age of evangelical triumph that systematically ignores the complicated norms embedded after years of immigration, secularization, and urbanization. Already seeing the writing on the wall, Martin Marty wrote this in 1958 as a lesson for the faith community today:

“Participating in a dialogue should not have to be nudged repeatedly to be awakened out of a dream world. In this new quadri-conspiratorial constellation, Protestantism, in the interests of truth and strategy, should begin to learn to enjoy the luxury and to work with the reality of its minority status in a pluralistic post-Protestant culture.”

Through dialogue, the equality community is, likewise, able to reconcile their fears of an incumbent force of religious nationalism and teach them about the historical plight of broken promises marked by the 20th century’s denial of equal benefits through Jim Crow laws and the Lavender Scare. They can seek to understand better the mutual concerns of Christian citizens, rooted in dignity and an appeal to religious liberty as a product of their own historical struggle for authenticity.

Both communities must work together to restore a truly bipartisan movement of cooperation, mutual criticism, and mutual support. As John Stuart Mill wrote: “[h]uman beings owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter.”

Conclusion

Today’s anti-intellectual engagement with the other side seems to be a product of an almost clerical spirit of zealotry—content on “frozen ideas” and burning tunnel vision advocacy without any semblance of a desire to refine one’s values through the process of cognitive renewal. John Courtney Murray was correct when he wrote that the American consensus must constantly be argued. In our communication and in the life of thought, our values and the values of others are constantly being subject to a process of refinement, reassertion, and (hopefully) realization that goes to the essence of our human condition and our capacity to change our minds. “Dialogue is thus moving, and lends motion to other things,” Walter Ong wrote; “[b]y dialogue a person seeks not to grasp but to commune, to open himself to another and to enter into the other who has reciprocally opened his mind and heart to him.” It serves as a way to achieve unity while preserving differences—a form of peace therapy that requires the heart and mind to work together in order to fully embrace our conditions as social animals. It is a form of dissolving wars and forming friendships: an endeavor towards the simplicity of being a brother’s keeper.

As we move forward in the present struggle, where the question of race and religion becomes an endemic part of our theaters of division, we must strive to reject the retributive impulse and embrace what Martha Nussbaum keenly called the “rational faith.” We must seek an impulse bending towards finding a common cause with our enemies through sober reflection and dialectics. Let us “[l]ull to repose the bitter force of []our black wave of anger.” Let us find a place to sit together in this land of lost content.

Anton Sorkin is a writer and lawyer in Atlanta. 

 

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