Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A philosophical, theological, political ramble

It is something of an end-of-the-year tradition here on Καθολικός διάκονος to post an overarching philosophical-theological-political piece. This year's post was prompted by an article on The Atlantic's website: "Obama and the Wrong Side of History." I highly recommend reading the piece in its entirety. This post is not an effort to summarize the piece. I simply offer an inevitably incomplete and admittedly somewhat rambling reflection on the subject. What gave rise to my reflection is this from the article: "The problem with this kind of thinking [being on the right or wrong side of history] is that it imputes agency to history that doesn't exist." President Obama is not the only U.S. president who has believed in what is often termed "the Whig view of history," which is the belief that history=progress. That anyone, believer or unbeliever, could subscribe to such historical optimism in light of the twentieth century utterly baffles me.

As a Christian I don't believe history, understood as an impersonal, cosmic force, has any agency of its own. However, I do believe in God's providential involvement in the world. To attribute any deliberative agency to history as such strikes me as an echo of Marx's material dialectic, which arose from Hegel, and so is the result of the so-called Enlightenment. It seems to me that the Enlightenment is now bending back on itself, thus giving rise to a new dark age. Indicative of this new dark age is the rise of the superstitious fatalism so prevalent in the West today, which takes the form of materialistic determinism. The best example of this is the widespread belief in scientism, which belief requires a leap of faith utterly divorced from reason (stay tuned for my Christmas homily late tomorrow night for more on this). Because I believe God guides (for lack of a better term) history in a deeply mysterious, mostly unfathomable, and always unexpected way, I believe there is a right and wrong side. I think where the Church is at today in terms of worldly influence, which influence, I think, will further diminish, is providential and will actually further the reign of God in advance of the end of history.

Even though I have some philosophical qualms with his reliance on Jamesian pragmatism, I embrace Addison Hodges Hart's thesis, set forth in his very worthwhile book Strangers and Pilgrims Once More: More: Being Disciples of Jesus in a Post-Christendom World. To state my objection in an admittedly ham-fisted way, pragmatism as applied to religious belief by William James tends to avoid questions of true and false. This avoidance presents issues vis-à-vis Christianity; the most historical of the world's religions (I tend towards phenomenology with a Wittgenstinian twist). With Hart, I think that even if Christendom could be restored (a dubious proposition), it would not be for the best, as difficult and painful as witnessing its demise is for me. In the end, far from alarming us, the dismantling of Christendom should be an encouragement to Christians. Kierkegaard was right about this. In the words of REM, "It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine."

For those of us in the U.S., despite the woeful laments of the culture warriors and contra much of Western Europe, our country was deliberately conceived as not a Christian nation, but as precisely the antithesis of such, even if our founders maintained an ambiguous, deistic insistence on the transcendence of the human person. This led to the creation of a constitutional system that reflects this ambiguity, the implications of which are becoming clearer, especially after last summer's Obergefell ruling by SCOTUS. One could make a compelling argument that the majority's opinion in Obergefell, which many found so inspiring, is the predictable impact point of this (il)logical trajectory. All of this is a pretty big admission for someone like me, whose religious upbringing quite explicitly sought to imbue in me a belief that the U.S. constitution is divinely inspired. For what it's worth, from the age I cared about these things, I never believed that was true, but is self-evidently false, like the religion itself (Thought experiment: apply Jamesian pragmatism to Mormonism).

I also believe the "arc of history," to employ Obama's cherished phrase, which is largely determined by worldly powers, tends to arc towards the wrong side of history with very few exceptions. Even the exceptions tend become exaggerated over time, becoming unmoored from what is good and true, quite frequently leading to what I can only describe as illiberal liberalism. At least on my reading, a political study of the Hebrew Scriptures (i.e., the "Old Testament") reveals this. The books of Chronicles, which positively embraces temple cult and monarchy, is the exception to this, standing in contrast to the history presented in 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings, the latter of which prevails in the subsequent history of Israel, which culminated with the descendent of David appearing as the most unassuming king imaginable, leading to His rejection by His own (see John 1:11).

Perhaps the easiest way to determine if you're on the wrong side of history is to see if you're with the majority. Stated more succinctly, vox populi, far from being vox Dei, often (usually, if only eventually?) turns into vox diaboli. It bears noting that being in the minority in and of itself is no guarantee of being on the right side of history, which is far more difficult to discern than discerning whether you're on the wrong side. Not only in the end, but right now, neither history nor politics will save you. Political messiahs are ALWAYS false messiahs.

As he does so well because he does it with such charity, Rowan Williams, in his Christmas message for Christian Aid, as well as in his remarkable book, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel, makes the point that, ultimately, the winners are history's losers. He does it in a far more convincing manner than I ever could:


  1. Many thanks for posting these thoughts, Scott. Your musings are refreshing, to say the least. While abstaining from the facebook during Advent has been fruitful, I do miss your commentary (hint: don't EVER stop blogging).

    Blessings to you and yours from a fellow traveler in the Rocky Mountains!

  2. Thanks, John. Peace and blessings to you and yours as we prepare for the Lord's Nativity.

    I have no plans to stop, even as I am discerning whether to accept and invitation to take my blog to a more public forum in the new year.


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